When the personal is political: care in social movements

Earlier this week a comment was posted elsewhere on this blog by a South African who participated in the Non-Stop Picket.  We have chosen to reproduce it here so that it is seen by a wider audience, rather than remaining tucked away, largely unseen, at the bottom of another article.

A while ago I was contacted by a researcher working on this project. Since then she’s interviewed me. That interview, and reading through your blogs about the non-stop picket has brought back such memories – not just political, but personal as well. Allow me to tell my tale.

I left South Africa in 1986, having been active in local community organizations, youth organizations, SACOS and trade unions. In some of the mass organizations we belonged to, we worked with ANC affiliated groups, though constantly waging battle with them, for example in the Disorderly Bill Action Committee and CAHAC. In many we were obliged to follow different paths in separate organizations such as the Western Cape Youth League and the Cape Action League. Needless to say, I and several others attracted unwelcome attention from the apartheid state, endangering not just ourselves, but all those we were connected to personally and politically. Decisions were taken almost overnight that we should leave South Africa for the safety of those others, the organizations and the work that had to be done.

When I arrived in London with a handful of people who had, like me, belonged to what the ANC-acolytes called “The Partyites” of course we had no political home in mainstream anti-apartheid. There was a lot of support from left organizations, but whilst the intricate theoretical debates in smoke-filled little rooms were interesting and important, what I missed was the on-the-ground activism which I had been involved in so heavily since my teens.

City Group provided a natural home for those amongst us who were more activist than theorist, to put it crudely. I needed that more than anything – the big meetings, the open and robust arguments, the picket line, protests, the appeals to the public.
What I also missed was the warm community and close-knit family I’d left behind with barely a good-bye. I felt that most when I fell pregnant – my first child, no family, no neighbours, no friends to provide the practical and moral support which women in my community usually had. And of course, no money to provide the things women in my family were usually given by the extended family and community. I feared for our future and that of our child.

I mentioned all this to a comrade in City Group. Embarrassingly, he announced in a meeting one Friday night that people should stop smoking because there was a pregnant woman in the meeting. One minute the smoke was like a curtain you could cut through. The next I had fresh air. No objections were raised, though this was years before smoking bans in public places.
Next Friday I arrived back at our flat to find our bedroom almost impossible to get into. The bed was piled high with black bags full of baby clothes. Baby equipment stood everywhere. I had about 3 walking rings for a baby who was as yet unborn. Several baby carriers, two prams, a bath, a crib and all the linen. I sat down and cried. When my family called and my worried mother asked how I would cope and what I needed to be sent, I could answer honestly that I had dozens of friends supporting me and that they had already provided all I would need and so much more.

And then, when she was born, Norma presented her with a crib quilt, embroidered with a Marxist/Revolutionary alphabet. Norma, Amandla and Ire were such stalwart supports in those first years of my baby’s life. What would I have done without City Group? I really don’t know. Yes, it was important politically to the masses of South Africa. But please permit me to say that I learnt then, up close, the truth of the maxim that the personal is also political. The personal was so very, very important for me back then.

And in tribute as much to City Group as anyone who had a hand in raising her, she’s turned out to be a young woman with a social conscience, a loud mouth in speaking up for causes she believes in (Palestinian liberation being one) and a total commitment to revolutionary politics.

City Group activists occupy South African Airways in solidarity with diverse organisations (Source: City Group)

City Group activists occupy South African Airways in solidarity with diverse organisations (Source: City Group)

In many ways, this testimony speaks for itself, and requires very little commentary.  However, there are three themes here that deserve teasing out.  First, it highlights how City Group provided a home for South African exiles from political tendencies that were not welcomed within the ANC-dominated, mainstream Anti-Apartheid Movement. Second, it emphasizes that for those South Africans, as much as for young Britons coming into anti-apartheid activity, part of the attraction of City Group and the Non-Stop Picket was its commitment to taking street-based action against apartheid. Finally, close interpersonal bonds were forged out of this ‘non-stop’ action. City Group’s commitment to solidarity was not an abstract humanitarian ideal.  In addition to taking action in political solidarity with those resisting apartheid in South Africa, the Non-Stop Picket created a culture of practical, material support and care for those close at hand.  In this case, that solidarity was manifested both in the many practical gifts presented to the author and her unborn child, but also in the care taken to clear the air in a smoke-filled meeting.

This narrative also presents a different aspect of Norma Kitson.  In place of the ‘difficult woman‘ presented by her political enemies (and, if we are honest, some of her allies), or the dynamic, creative force bringing innovative techniques to anti-apartheid campaigning in Britain, here we get a glimpse of Norma the quilter who was fiercely loyal and caring to those she took under her wing.  To understand Norma Kitson’s role in City Group (and wider anti-apartheid networks) it is important to acknowledge these complex, competing and/or complementary aspects of her personality.  Without wishing to over-emphasize the influence of a single individual, her stubbornness, creativity and care were all manifested in the collective culture of City Group too. What is important when recording the history of a social movement is not to focus on one of these aspects over the others, but to consider how they worked together (or in tension) to shape organizational culture and practice.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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