A (guerrilla) ‘geography project’ for South African Women’s Day

A few years ago a group of geography educators came up with the concept of ‘guerrilla geography‘ which they defined as:

daring people to challenge preconceptions about places; engage in social and environmental justice; and form deeper, more active community connections.

Here I want to describe an anti-apartheid action, undertaken by women from the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group in August 1988, that could be thought of as a piece of ‘guerrilla geography’ (for reasons that will become apparent shortly).

Throughout the early part of 1988, City Group ran a campaign to close down the South African Airways offices in central London.  The campaign was a response to the imposition of a new State of Emergency in South Africa and was carried out under the slogan “No Rights? No Flights!”  The primary tactic of the campaign was a series of frequent occupations of the South African Airways offices, sometimes more than once in a day, designed to cost them business.

The more City Group activists occupied the Airways’ offices, the more inventive they had to be in order to outwit the company’s security and gain access to the premises.  On South African Women’s Day, 9 August 1988, a group of women activists decided to occupy South African Airways.  They entered the offices in two separate groups.  Here’s how they reported their action in that week’s issue of Picketers News:

At about 12.25 pm the first group, Penny, Nicki and Sue, went in.  We outsiders weren’t at all surprised that the security guard didn’t recognise them, we hardly did ourselves, the way they were dressed.  After about two minutes Penny was thrown out very brutally but the other two managed to protest a little inside until they went the same way. Outside they chanted peacefully until the police arrived and arrested the three heroines and Patrick who had been identified as ‘the ringleader’ by a security guard. (Picketers News, 12 August 1988)

South African Women's Day occupation of South African Airways, 9 August 1988 (Source: City Group)

South African Women’s Day occupation of South African Airways, 9 August 1988 (Source: City Group)

The second group was even more inventive in their disguise (and this is where the ‘guerrilla geography’ comes in):

The second group, Nathly, Addie and Mackerel dressed as school girls and Pam representing their Geography teacher also made a huge impact.  Passers-by stopped to watch the ‘school girls’ being roughly ejected from the lobby – they never made it into the main area.  When they came to the second door the security guard thought it was better to fetch them the material they needed for their ‘geography project’ than letting them go in and get it for themselves.  They didn’t go away happy with their glossy propaganda, like school girls are expected to do, but started chanting outside.  Later they moved into the lobby and put up their posters but were soon thrown out.  So then a big crowd were treated to chanting and singing until the police arrested [the school girls]. (Picketers News, 12 August 1988).

Perhaps the only flaw in the plan for this action was that it took place during the school summer holidays and it is not surprising that the security guard was suspicious about the arrival of a group of ‘school girls’ in full uniform.  In other ways, though, this was a successful piece of direct action that satisfies the criteria for an act of ‘guerrilla geography’. It drew attention to the South African Airways offices and its complicity, as a state-run company, with the functioning of apartheid in South Africa.  In that way, it must have challenged the preconceptions that place held by those members of the public who witnessed the action – it was no longer just another travel agency, but a symbol of apartheid.  The action challenged preconceptions of how ‘school girls’ and young women are supposed to behave in public space, as they took action in pursuit of social justice in South Africa.  Their action created new imagined connections across spatial distance, between central London and South Africa.  By taking action together, they forged a new sense of ‘active community engagement’, that for a brief period encompassed not only the young activists, but also those passers-by who stopped to engage with the spectacle.  As a geographer studying the spaces of solidarity created by the actions of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, I am proud that they chose to do this ‘geography project’.

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research. Bookmark the permalink.

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