Former British ambassador praises the Non-Stop Picket

A work email account can often bring pain, as new, unanticipated tasks make unexpected and competing demands on one’s time, derailing the best laid plans.  This week, however, an email arrived that had quite the opposite effect – we received an unsolicited email from a well-known politician and former diplomat remembering his connections with the Non-Stop Picket and celebrating the contribution of this blog.  That email came from The Rt Hon The Lord Boateng of Akyem and Wembley (better known to many as Paul Boateng).

Paul Boateng was elected to the British Parliament, at the 1987 election, as the MP for Brent South.  Along with Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant, he was one of the first three black MPs elected in Britain.  In his acceptance speech he declared, “We can never be free in Brent until South Africa is free too. Today Brent South. Tomorow Soweto!”  Prior to his election to Parliament, Boateng had served on the Greater London Council since 1981, representing Walthamstow.  It was during his time on the GLC that Paul Boateng first offered his political support to the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group.  In February 1986, when preparations were being made for the launch of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy, he added him name to the list of sponsors of the Picket. His wife, Janet, was also an active anti-racist and anti-apartheid activist, as well as a supporter of the Picket.

When the Blair government was elected in 1997, Paul Boateng became the first black minister in a British government.  In 2002 he was promoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury and became the UK’s first black Cabinet minister.  He did not seek re-election at the 2005 General Election; but after the election was appointed as the British High Commissioner to South Africa for a four-year term.  He was appointed to the House of Lords in May 2010.

City Group protest against racism, 1987 (Source: City Group)

City Group protest against racism, 1987 (Source: City Group)

He has given us permission to quote from his email (and we hope to conduct an interview with him in the autumn).  He began by remembering the time he spoke at a rally addressed by Zephania Mothopeng, the former President of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, while he was in London receiving medical treatment in 1989:

I well remember the Rally to welcome Zephaniah Mothopeng at the Conway Hall in July 1989. …  I was Vice Moderator of the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism which recognised the PAC as a legitimate partner in the liberation struggle. This despite my own membership of the AAM and well-known links with the ANC (which remain to this day) overcame any possible ideological obstacles to my support for the event and indeed of City AAM. This was one of the few areas of disagreement between myself and an old dear friend sadly now gone Mike Terry who was City AAM’s nemesis.

Officially, on paper (at least), the national Anti-Apartheid Movement did support both the ANC and the PAC; but, in practice, by the 1980s they never provided a platform for PAC speakers and seldom campaigned directly for PAC prisoners.  In this respect, the AAM largely took their lead from the ANC who continued to argue that they were the ‘sole legitimate representatives’ of the South African people.  As Paul Boateng makes clear, despite the ANC’s diplomatic offensive, there were international organisations such as the World Council of Churches and the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid that continued to recognise the PAC as a legitimate liberation movement.

Although City Group’s support for the PAC (and Black Consciousness organisations) caused much tension with the national Anti-Apartheid Movement, City Group was not the only British-based organisation to support the PAC.  As Elizabeth Williams has shown in her research on support for the anti-apartheid struggle amongst black people in Britain, many progressive black organisations were sympathetic towards the pan-Africanists and suspicious of the AAM for distancing themselves from this tradition.  With varying degrees of success, City Group and the Non-Stop Picket were able to garner support from these groups, through their stronger commitment to linking opposition to apartheid with anti-racism in Britain.  As Paul Boateng observes, City Group were able to muster more diverse support than the (far larger) AAM often could:

City AAM were a mixed bunch in every conceivable sense of that word.  This seemed to me to be one of their strengths.  They reached parts of the community that the mainstream AAM sometimes failed to reach.  I admired the spirit ,the joyfulness and resilience of the picketers. Carol Brickley was ubiquitous and indefatigable. And I had huge respect and affection for the Kitson family.

Paul Boateng ended his email with these words, celebrating the work of City Group and the role of this blog in recording its history.  We thank him for his support.

I celebrate the role of City AAM in the struggle and this blog for the account it gives of passionate activism,before opposition to racism was fashionable, and ultimate victory against an unspeakable evil.

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research, Interview material and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Former British ambassador praises the Non-Stop Picket

  1. Simon Murray says:

    I remember Paul walking passed the picket once, wearing a rather fetching Armani double breasted suit. I think Patrick called out to him and he put his head down, quickened his pace and looked a bit like a rabbit in some full beam headlights.

    Mebbes he felt mildly ashamed of us at the time – he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury after all, whatever that means… Or perhaps, like many Labour MPs, he used us as a nice little bunk-up on his way to “the top” and then dropped the picket like the proverbial hot potato.

    Just saying…

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