Mandela Memories: connecting through protest

Recently, I retold some of the stories about the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy that people had shared with me, through this blog, in the days following Nelson Mandela’s death.  Most of the stories I recounted in the earlier piece were of people whose involvement with the Picket’s anti-apartheid campaigning was either very occasional, or quite short-lived.  Their stories illustrated the multiple ways people encountered the Picket through their different engagements with the West End of London.  There were, however, others who contacted me after Mandela’s death who got drawn more deeply into the life of the Picket.  In this piece, I want to tell their stories.

Sally was in her early twenties when she heard about the Non-Stop Picket in 1986.

I was 22 years old and doing a degree foundation course at Thames Poly.  I was not politically active but was politically aware.  […]  I had been given a leaflet about the Picket whilst in a queue for a gig.  In the beginning I went to the Picket on Saturdays with my sister Jane and some friends and their children.  Every week all of us really looked forward to going and on the train up we would get really excited.  As we got off the train and walked to the embassy out pace quickened especially if we heard singing or chanting.  We were always made to feel really welcome (Email interview with Sally, 2 January 2014)

For Sally, going to the picket was a collective, social event she shared with members of her family and friends. Her interview captures a sense of excitement that has been noticeable in many of the interviews we have conducted. The excitement of attending the Picket and the excitement of going to the West End seem entwined in her recollections. From this regular attendance on a Saturday, Sally took on a weekly overnight shift and a day-time shift during the week too.  She also, for a time, served on the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s committee as its Mobilizing Secretary, responsible for phoning members and supporters of the group to encourage their attendance at meetings and protests.

Sally offered the following reflections on what she gained from her time on the Non-Stop Picket.

The Picket gave me a lot of confidence.  From being involved in the Friday meetings to leading chants and even songs (although I am a hopeless singer); dealing with the police on numerous occasions as chief steward.  I felt capable of doing these things because of the encouragement I was given. That confidence stayed with me.  After I finished my degree I stood for a Sabbatical post on the Student Union and became Women’s/Welfare Officer. (Email interview with Sally, 2 January 2014).

Break the Chains action, 11 October 1986 (Source: Sally O'Donnell)

Break the Chains action, 11 October 1986 (Source: Sally O’Donnell)

Like many regulars on the Non-Stop Picket, Sally was prepared to risk arrest in pursuit of the anti-apartheid cause. It seems likely that this strength of belief both came from the confidence generated by time around the picket and helped to boost that confidence too.

Myself, my sister Jane and Andy Higginbottom chained ourselves to the gates of the Embassy on Break the Chains Day in 1986.  (I have some photos of this).  I was involved in a number of protests, including when the Picket was moved to the Church and I with others raided Lords cricket pitch when Mike Gatting was playing. (Personal communication with Sally, 15 December 2013)

As regular readers of this blog will know, 0n 6 May 1987, following an action in which three supporters of the picket threw a large volume of red paint over the front of the embassy, the Non-Stop Picket was moved by the police to the steps of St Martin-in-the-fields church on the other side of Duncannon Street.  For the next two months, City Group supporters crossed Duncannon Street to break the police ban and attempted to protest outside the embassy.  Like Sally, several of the people who contacted us after Mandela’s death also remembered that campaign of civil disobedience to win back the right to protest directly in front of South Africa House.

Break the Chains action, 11 October 1986 (Source: Sally O'Donnell)

Break the Chains action, 11 October 1986 (Source: Sally O’Donnell)

Rebecca participated in the picket as a child. Her mother, Debby Hall, was a regular picketer who died following a road traffic accident in 1992. For Rebecca, some of her clearest memories of the picket were around the period of the police ban.

I was ten at the time, I remember the red paint action and also forming a chain so we wouldn’t get moved. I also remember chants and meetings. There was music too. (Personal communication with Rebecca, 8 December 2013).

Sylvia participated in the campaign to break the ban and contacted us having found a photo of herself ‘in action‘ on this website:

That’s me! Third from the left… I have never seen these photos before but remember the day; the Routemaster and the arrest. Thanks for archiving these. It was great to be able to show my kids. Amandla! (Personal communication with Sylvia, 7 December 2013).

Lorna W was involved in picketing the South African embassy over a three-year period, mostly on Saturday afternoons. She often brought along her sons, who are both now in their early thirties. Lorna recalled what the picket was like on ‘ordinary’ Saturdays, but also remembered some specific larger protests:

The picket was an important part of my life then, and remains so today. I recently found lots of photos that I had taken on those days at the picket and memories came flooding back, like the night the South African flag was set on fire and we sat in the road outside the embassy, stopped the traffic and were on the Ten o’clock News. My (ex) husband hadn’t known where I had taken the children that night but he soon found out! (Personal communication with Lorna W, 6 December 2012).

Several picketers particularly remembered occasions when famous or well-known people unexpectedly visited the picket. Liz M asked,

Who remembers the most wonderful Bhundu Boys coming to perform and then regularly joining the picket? Though sadly I think most of them are now dead. (Personal communication with Liz M, 6 December 2013)

For Sally, it was an overnight shift when Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) turned up (personal communication with Sally, 15 December 2013). Mark B remembered this occasion:

Late one Saturday (?) evening when I was stewarding, with perhaps three other people there, none regular members of the picket, two large black cars suddenly screeched to a halt on the pavement and several powerfully built men got out and semi-surrounded the picket.  I remember feeling extremely intimidated, when suddenly Jesse Jackson strode into our midst, beaming and shaking hands.  It was my first contact with a politician – the strong clench, the 1000W smile – and I can still hear him saying “you guys are doing an incredible job” before jumping back in the car with his bodyguards/entourage and speeding off.  I felt that he’d been a little disappointed that the crowd was so slim and the picket so meagre at the time of his arrival. (Email from Mark B, 11 December 2013)

If these unusual, special occasions particularly stick in the memories of some picketers, many also remembered everyday and habitual aspects of picketing the embassy.  Indeed, it was often this that made them feel as if they belonged on the Picket.  As Mark B remembered,

I began coming whenever I had time out of school, and soon felt like I recognised or was recognised by most people there.  … I  was happiest holding out leaflets to passing members of the public and trying to engage them in conversation and support, and in taking part in the day-to-day organisation of the picket.(Email from Mark B, 11 December 2013)

The repetitive processes of a long-term, continuous protest left traces in the memories of another picketer, Mark M.  He “was 21 about to become 22” during his “just less than a year stint on the picket” which “was brief and very intense – I was there in all the spare time I could muster”. He said,

to this day [I] remember a lot of the freedom songs and slogans. Shosholoza, Nants indood enyama Botha, Basopa Baleka, I loved the call-response thing and often when it got low in energy it was the best thing to do, just bellow Sho-sho-loza and it would lift everyone there. “Warrell, Thatcher, CIA, how many kids have you killed today!!” ” Warrell, Thatcher, ya wanted for murder!!” Yes it left a deep impression on me. (Personal communication with Mark M., 6 December 2013)

Whatever form their involvement took – whether they sustained one regular shift or many; whether they joined the committee, or not; whether they risked arrest for their beliefs, or were happiest handing out leaflets to the public – for all those people who had a long-term involvement in the Non-Stop Picket, that experience of protesting against apartheid has left a deep impression in their lives. Mandela’s death brought back many memories of those protests and the sense of belonging that a diverse group of campaigners found together on the pavement outside South Africa House.

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Interview material and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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