In the days and weeks after Nelson Mandela’s death many people around the world reflected on their involvement with anti-apartheid campaigning. Some of those people remembered the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London. Some of them searched online for details of the Picket, found this site, and shared their memories with us in one form or another. This post compiles some of those stories and reflects on how they reveal the multiple ways in which people connected with the Non-Stop Picket.
Liz M. was a regular picketer for several years. She had a regular four-hour slot on a Thursday evening which, she remembered, was called ‘the women’s picket‘ and “was always memorable because of the presence of the marvelous Plume and the Horns of Jericho amongst many other splendid stalwarts” (Liz M. personal communication, 6 December 2013). Reflecting on her time on the Non-Stop Picket, Liz stated,
I feel proud that I was part of this political action and personally enriched for the hundreds of fascinating, eccentric, funny, brave, brilliant people I met and picketed with, especially so many wonderful musicians and singers. (Personal communication from Liz M., 6 December 2013).
City Group had developed a political culture and methods of organising that sought to be welcoming and inclusive. However, the Picket’s location helped attract the diversity of people who ultimately helped shape that unique space of protest. Many of the memories that people shared with us after Mandela’s death emphasized how the Picket fitted into the wider geography and rhythms of life in Central London at the time. For example, Liz remembered how staff from a local vegetarian restaurant would donate unsold food to the Picket at the end of business each day.
I wonder who remembers looking forward to the left overs from Cranks in Covent Garden coming down? Cheers if it was almost-warm pizzas – groans if it was cheese scones. Eventually this was stopped by the oh-so-green and progressive Cranks management and their staff were threatened with dismissal if they brought it to us. (Personal communication from Liz M., 6 December 2013).
On weekend overnight shifts, the Picket was provided with a hot drink and sustaining food by the Simon Community and the ‘soup runs’ of other charities supporting the street homeless in Central London. Julie initially came into contact with the Picket as a volunteer with one of these charitable soup runs. She remembers that she spent a lot of time on the Picket during its first year:
I was homeless at the time so [it] was a great support and also worked on the soup run initially which used to stop there. I’ve got lots of tales to tell, but I was more a supporter than a hardcore activist, but I did my bit (including trouble with the police and not getting on with some of the members who saw me as a bit of a drunk lol). (Email from Julie, 7 December 2013).
For Mark B, a school student who joined the Picket in 1988 (and who we’ll hear more from shortly) the Simon Community soup runs stuck in his mind for a different reason:
Only one episode of name-calling [by the police] sticks in my mind – at a change in shift the new policeman very aggressively arrived behind the picket and walked almost through it, spitting “vegetable soup for the vegetables” as he saw us drinking something from the Simon Community. (Email from Mark B., 11 December 2013)
Another person who found the Picket through the experience of being homeless on the streets of the West End was Chris:
I was a teenage runaway back in 1986. When I arrived in London, like many I headed up to the west end of London and found St Martin’s church. With nowhere to sleep I learnt about the demonstrations and stayed a while. For a naive 17-year-old from the Midlands it strangely gave a safe environment. This despite the snatch squad from the police who were taking demonstrators when they left to get food or go toilet. I think I stayed nearly a week, learning about London, where to get a safe sleep, and ironically learning about Mandela. … After moving to a hostel nearby, I used to come down and sit on the steps of St Martin’s. (Personal communication with Chris, 10 December 2013)
Through its constant presence in Trafalgar Square, the Non-Stop Picket provided nearby homeless youth with a place to hangout and engage with people, where they were not necessarily defined by their homelessness. The lives of the area’s homeless people had their own specific rhythms; but the Non-Stop Picket connected with the daily and weekly cycles of the city in other ways too. Debbie told us,
I used to visit the NSP from time to time, mainly accompanying a friend who did a regular early morning slot before she went to work! It’s all pretty vague, but I do remember having a sense of belonging to a family. I recall, as has been previously mentioned, the police ‘snatch squads’ who would just pinch people when they strayed from the picket. I remember the wonderful singing, the chants, but most of all the camaraderie between people of all walks of life with a common purpose. (Personal communication with Debbie, 7 December 2013)
If Debbie and her friend attended the Picket in the early mornings on the way to work, other people fitted their attendance around work in other ways. Sandi described herself as “a recent immigrant from the Caribbean, a teenage girl, of mixed race” who was working in Top Shop at Oxford Circus. She attended the picket whenever she could, but often “just [on] Wednesday afternoons after early closing” (personal communication, 6 December 2013). In 1989, Fiona was 19 and working as a nanny in London:
When I could I visited the National Gallery as much as possible and the protest that was always outside South Africa House made me curious. Once I knew what it was about, I had to be involved. … For eighteen months I was part of the picket in 1989/90. I picketed during the day on my days off and would stay until the last tube home mostly. (Personal communication with Fiona, 5 December 2013)
For Graham, who then worked “as motorcycle courier, or on market stalls”, visits to the Picket were fitted in more around the rhythms of his social life than work commitments. He offers a fascinating insight into how the Non-Stop Picket served multiple functions for its different constituencies and fitted into many different circuits of the West End:
I live at the Elephant, and often walked home from clubbing in the West End. I knew about the picket, and was happy to join it, especially in the small hours when I could get some fresh air before walking home. I never questioned why there were so many gay men there, until someone told me years later it was a cruising site. I had naively assumed that the gay community was merely in solidarity with the South Africans, and never thought it further. I spent many hours chatting away, not realising what was going on, happy to be supporting the struggle, before leaving for home. (Personal communication with Graham, 6 December 2013).
In a very different way, Mark B (the school student introduced earlier) also first came into contact with the Picket as a result of an evening out in the West End. Having attended school nearby, he was aware of the Picket’s existence. Family connections with South Africa made him aware of the issue of apartheid and want to do something about it.
I had wanted to become involved for some time but finally plucked up courage after watching A World Apart in Leicester Square. I do not remember any City Group activists outside [the cinema], but I did go straight down and stand outside the embassy on the fringes of the picket – wanting in some vague way to contribute. It was a Friday night and as usual rather kaleidoscopic – both in terms of the makeup of the picket and the passing Trafalgar Square crowds. Someone […] chatted to me and encouraged me to come back.
I was a 15-year-old schoolboy at Westminster School just down the road at the time. […] Two nights after the World Apart visit, I slipped out of the house while my mother was asleep and spent the whole night (a Sunday) on the picket, talking to people there and quietly sitting. I went home about 6am and got changed for school. (Email from Mark B, 11 December 2013).
As should be apparent from many of the quotes presented here, the Non-Stop Picket attracted a very diverse range of people to its cause. Some people got drawn into the protest and made regular commitments to the Picket’s rota. In some cases these commitments lasted for years. Other people were regular supporters, but never formally pledged their time in that way – they came when they could. Yet other participants had a short, intense engagement with the Picket and then moved on to other places and other interests. Whatever their level of commitment, many people’s first contact with the Picket was incidental to their presence in the West End of London for other purposes. They found ways to incorporate time on the Non-Stop Picket into the specific rhythms of their time in central London. It was in this way that disparate individuals felt they could make a useful contribution:
I was not part of any of the political parties who were significant in starting and organising the picket so I sometimes felt a bit of an outsider when it came to the formal meetings but on the street it was much easier to feel part of the team because every individual was so vital in keeping the picket going. Great times. (Personal communication with Liz M, 6 December 2013).
Reflecting on his time on the Picket during its final two years, Mark B offered some fascinating observation about the political effects of the casual and habitual mixing of people with a purpose on the Non-Stop Picket. He recognized that, for many participants, however deep their political commitment to the anti-apartheid cause was, their connection to the Picket also fulfilled other personal and social needs. The Non-Stop Picket connected with many different strands of everyday life in London simultaneously; but it also transformed how its participants experienced life in the city.
Like most others I found a solidarity in the picket I have rarely found since. The eclecticism of the membership, and the diversity of encounters one had with members of the public and casual visitors, was a political education in itself. Any prejudices I might have had about age, gender, sexuality, personality, politics, crumbled pretty swiftly – I have never felt such a sense of unity. Unity that was all the more effective for being casual and everyday at times. Obviously many people involved – no doubt including me – had motives that were selfish in some way: I was often struck by how many people seemed to be there for friendship, community, even love. Yet the fact that we were there in support of a cause that benefited very few of us personally, that we supported for moral and ethical reasons as much as political ones, seemed to me a noble thing in the end. (Email from Mark B., 11 December 2013).