This week Gavin Brown will be presenting a paper from the Non-Stop Against Apartheid research at the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) in London. His paper is called “The Young Ones: adolescence, political engagement, and the anti-apartheid movement” and explores the experiences of teenagers who participated in the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London. It is part of a double session on ‘Children, young people, and critical geopolitics’ organised by Matt Benwell and Peter Hopkins.
The abstract for the paper asks:
What can youthful engagement with geopolitical concerns reveal about adolescence? Children and young people were central to sustaining the anti-apartheid Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London from April 1986 to February 1990. The children and young people who protested there came from diverse social backgrounds and many nationalities. While students and unemployed (sometimes, homeless) youth participated there, day and night; at weekends and during school holidays, younger teenagers and children played a prominent role. Through their shared commitment to anti-apartheid solidarity, these diverse young people grew up together and learnt to cope with the everyday pressures of adolescence. The anti-apartheid movement was not a backdrop to these young people’s adolescence; they grew up through their political engagement. Drawing on the author’s autoethnographic reflections on his own participation in the Non-Stop Picket, alongside archival material and interviews with other former participants, this paper argues that young activists’ political commitments are always entangled with the everyday politics of adolescence. It questions accepted understandings of who young activists are and what it meant to grow up in Britain in the 1980s.
Here is a short extract from the paper, as a taster of what is to come. We plan that this paper will form the backbone of one of the chapters of our forthcoming book about the experience of being ‘non-stop against apartheid’:
Their youth gave them energy, certainty and determination to maintain a non-stop protest over a four year period. That youthful lack of doubt was certainly sometime expressed with an earnestness that our participants cringe at as they reflect on it from the vantage point of early middle-age. In that respect, they might conform to popular stereotypes of young activists (and particularly those stereotypes that circulated at the time – exemplified by Rik, with the silent ‘p’, in The Young Ones)
Former picketers also remember the fun and the strength that came from taking collective action about something that mattered (to them and to the world). The act of standing together outside the embassy regularly, often for hours at a time over an extended period, fostered strong social solidarity amongst the group. This had many implications for picketers’ lives, but this close familiarity also generated levels of trust between them that enabled them to be more effective when taking action together. …
But [these] young activists’ political commitments were always entangled with the everyday politics of adolescence. The comradeship that developed amongst them enabled them to help each other overcome social isolation, depression, unrequited love, arguments with their parents and problems at work or school. While none of the participants could escape the dominant individualised aspirations of the Thatcher era, the experience of the solidarity, collectivity and comradeship that they found and sustained on the Non-Stop Picket gave each a practical understanding that there were other ways of being, and other values that most have carried into their adult lives since.
If you are attending the conference, the session takes place in room 307 in the Skempton Building at Imperial College at 4.50 p.m. on Friday 30th August. Expect many archive photos of young people on the Non-Stop Picket and a few unexpected references to Cliff Richards’ lyrics.