Last week I gave a paper about the Non-Stop Picket at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society in London. The paper was called “The Young Ones: adolescence, political engagement, and the anti-apartheid movement” and was presented in a double session themed around “Children, Young People and Critical Geopolitics”. This provided a great opportunity to discuss our research in front of a different audience – too often, at such conferences, I talk primarily to researchers interested in activism and social movements – last week I interacted with a group of scholars interested either in children’s geographies and/or geopolitics. The discussions at the conference were very productive and I’ve been thinking them through all week.
Before I outline some of the questions raised for our own research on the Non-Stop Picket, it seems only fair to summarize the range of other research presented in the session. Nicola Ansell (Brunel) attempted a theoretical reframing of children’s geographies, suggesting that the subdiscipline’s standard concerns with young people’s rights and agency might be productively reworked through attention to social justice (after Iris Marion Young) and a Foucauldian concern for technologies of power. Kathrin Hörschelmann (Durham) outlined her current research on military recruitment advertising aimed at young people and the increasing involvement of the armed forces in the delivery of education and citizenship programmes for young people in Germany, the UK and the USA. Peter Hopkins (Newcastle), one of the co-convenors of the session, discussed research he has undertaken with young Sikh men in Scotland exploring how they deal with being the mistaken targets of Islamophobia. In doing so, Peter explored the impacts of contemporary geopolitics on these young men’s everyday lives and subjectivities. The other co-convenor of the session, Matt Benwell (Keele) discussed how young Falkland Islanders, especially those born after the Malvinas War of 1982, are increasingly being enrolled by the Islands’ Legislative Assembly to play an active role in diplomatic engagements in Latin America and creative online geopolitical advocacy. Tracey Skelton (National University of Singapore) explored the extent to which young Singaporeans might be beginning to question the limits to democracy within the city-state. Finally, Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway) identified some common concerns running across the papers, and posed some very pertinent questions, in his role as discussant.
Engaging with this set of thoughtful papers, positioned at the intersections of children’s geographies, youth studies and critical geopolitics, provoked three linked and overlapping questions for me:
- How can we think more geopolitically about young people’s engagement with the anti-apartheid cause and the practices of the Non-Stop Picket? To date, our research has largely explored questions of social movement organizing and the spatialities of (international) solidarity. However, the struggle against apartheid was, of course, entirely entangled with the geopolitics of decolonization in Africa, and the proxy battles of the late Cold War. The Non-Stop Picket, positioned directly outside the gates of the South African Embassy, attempted to disrupt British diplomatic relations with apartheid South Africa. It called for the closure of the embassy while apartheid continued. Although the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group did not facilitate diplomatic contact and negotiations between the South African liberation movements and the British Government (in the way that the national Anti-Apartheid Movement did); the Non-Stop Picket was nonetheless in a constant (disruptive) relationship with apartheid’s diplomatic mission in the United Kingdom. Indeed, this week we have received further evidence of how the continued presence of the Picket soured diplomatic relations between Britain and South Africa at the time.
- How can we deepen further our analysis of the role of children and young people on the Non-Stop Picket? Throughout our research we have frequently alluded to the fact that young people were central to maintaining the Non-Stop Picket as a continuous process and took on crucial roles in both the day-to-day organizational leadership of the Picket and the more strategic political leadership of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. This is important, but there is more to be said. I’ve spent much of the week reading interview transcripts and it is clear from the material we have collected that we have some rich data on the localised youth culture that developed on and through the Non-Stop Picket. Indeed, the whole focus of my paper at the Royal Geographical Society conference last week was the argument that the youth people who participated long-term in the Non-Stop Picket grew up together there and that their commitment to opposing apartheid cannot be disentangled from the more everyday politics of adolescence.
- Finally (and provoked by one of Klaus Dodds’ questions), I think it is time to clarify what we mean by the criticality of our engagement with ‘critical geopolitics’. It is perhaps too easy to argue that the Non-Stop Picket promoted and articulated a politics that was critical of apartheid South Africa’s geopolitical role in Southern Africa and critical of Britain’s geopolitical support for the apartheid regime. That’s important, but it is not enough. I have written previously about the impossibility of writing impartially about a social movement that I was both involved in and which has had a profound effect on my life and sense of self ever since. Now that we have conducted almost all of our interviews, I think it is time to be a lot more reflexive and to explore more critically some of the limits, tensions and taboos of the Non-Stop Picket (as well as its joys, successes and achievements). Certainly many of our research participants have not held back from offering balanced reflections on their experiences on the Non-Stop Picket and it is now time for Helen and myself to add an extra dose of criticality to our analysis. With the interviews (mostly) completed, we need no longer fear that we will skew the interview data as a result.