Soundscapes of the Non-Stop Picket

As former Non-Stop Picketers gather in London for the funeral of Ken Bodden, who was so central to the musical culture of the picket, it seems appropriate to share some of the sounds of their anti-apartheid protest.

From its earliest days, song formed an important part of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s approach to protest.  Initially, Steve Kitson played a key role in teaching British activists songs from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and Namibia.  Later, other activists like Charine, Ken and Richard (among others) also took on this responsibility.  Songs were taught, often phonetically, line by line, on the picket and at the group’s rallies.  This entailed a certain degree of trust, as picketers learnt to sing songs in Southern African languages they mostly did not understand.  In this way, singing became central to City Group’s style of anti-apartheid protest.

City Group Singers perform on the Non-Stop Picket (Source: City Group)

City Group Singers perform on the Non-Stop Picket (Source: City Group)

In addition to the singing that occurred on everyday protests outside the South African embassy, the Group also developed a choir – City Group Singers – who performed at rallies and political meetings, and went busking to raise much-needed funds for the group’s campaigning.  The membership of the Singers changed from performance to performance, and people like Ken were patient in training the voices of singers who were frequently more enthusiastic than skilled.

In 1987, City Group Singers recorded a collection of songs and chants that were released as a cassette, called Freedom Songs, to raise funds for the group and spread word of the anti-apartheid struggle.  We have now digitized these recordings and present a selection of them here to give a taste of the Non-Stop Picket’s soundscape [more will be posted at a later date].

The cassette opens with the sound of anti-apartheid chanting.  The first song in the collection is ‘Senzenina‘, a beautiful haunting song that was frequently sung at political funerals in South Africa at the time.  On the Non-Stop Picket, this song was often sung to accompany the laying of flowers on the gates of the embassy to remember acts of state violence in South Africa. Other South(ern) African songs on the cassette include ‘Basopa Baleka‘ and ‘Izwelam Ngizwelam‘ (both led by Ken Bodden in these recordings).  One of the easier songs for new picketers to learn was ‘Bayangena‘, which had some simple dance steps that accompanied it.  As they sang, picketers would often edge forward, verse by verse, getting closer to the edifice of the embassy building, testing how close they could get before the police on duty ordered them back.  This is a good illustration of how song became integrated into other aspects of the picket: song was used to energize picketers, keep them warm, and keep them focused as a group (when under threat or temporarily demotivated); when amplified, it was part of the picket’s noisy attempts to disrupt the working of the embassy; and, it was used to aid the picket’s assertion of its right to protest on that pavement.  As well as songs from the South African anti-apartheid struggle, the Picket developed its own repertoire of songs.  Freedom Songs ends with one of these, ‘We’re here ’til Mandela’s Free‘ (which, of course, they were).

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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