Surveying the Anti-Apartheid Movement digital archives

This week the digital archives of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement have gone live online.  The websiteForward to Freedom, charts the history of the AAM from 1959 until 1994. It provides a rich resource of photos, interviews, video clips and scanned documents from the movement’s history; but, no attempt has (yet) been made to digitize the full AAM archive held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I’ve taken a quick tour of the site to see what I could find of relevance to our research on the Non-Stop Picket.

Searching for the ‘City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’ (who organised the Non-Stop Picket) reveals only three archival entries of relevance.  The first is a City Group leaflet advertising a 24-hour picket of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square on 7-8 June 1985 and mobilizing support for the City Group contingent on the AAM’s national demonstration on 16 June that year.  The summary that accompanies this item on the website states:

City of London Anti-Apartheid Group was formed in 1982. Its first activity was a non-stop 24-hour picket to demand the transfer of political prisoner David Kitson from Pretoria Central Prison. This 24-hour vigil to demand the release of Nelson Mandela was a precursor of the four-year non-stop picket of the South African Embassy organised by the group from 1986 to 1990. The picket attracted hundreds of enthusiastic young activists.

The second entry is a photograph from a year earlier, June 1984.

In June 1984 the police banned anti-apartheid protesters from the pavement in front of South Africa House. City of London AA Group supporters demonstrated against the ban on the steps of St Martin’s in the Fields, 22 June 1984.

The final, earliest, entry is a photograph of City Group’s 86-day picket of the embassy calling for the release of David Kitson and all South African political prisoners:

Members of City of London Anti-Apartheid Group call for the release of South African political prisoner David Kitson. The Group launched a non-stop picket of South Africa House in August 1982. Kitson served 20 years imprisonment in South Africa and was released in 1984. In the picture on the right are David Kitson’s wife Norma Kitson and son Steve.

David Kitson speaks on the Non-Stop picket, 19 April 1987 (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

David Kitson speaks on the Non-Stop picket, 19 April 1987 (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

On the face of it, using ‘Kitson’ as a search term reveals more material – 14 items are returned (some overlapping with the material above).  There are leaflets for marches from Oxford to London called by the Ruskin College Kitson Committee in May 1969 and May 1970 demanding David’s release from gaol:

In the early 1970s the Ruskin College Kitson Committee organised an annual march from Oxford to London over the Whitsun holiday. The group campaigned for the release of political prisoner David Kitson, a member of the trade union DATA, who was serving a 20-year sentence in South Africa. This leaflet publicising the march was printed just before the cancellation of the 1970 Springbok cricket tour.

A photo from the 1970 march from Oxford is also contained in the archive. There is an interview with John Sheldon, a young trade unionist, who became the founding Treasurer of the Ruskin Kitson Committee while studying at Ruskin College in the late 1960s:

Yes, it was basically a small group of people, two of them members of TASS. You’ve got to remember it was 1968 and there was lots of other political activity going on at the time. Ruskin was in fact a hive of political activity and we changed the constitution of the Ruskin Students Committee, we got students elected to the governing body and all that sort of activity was going on at the time, an interesting time for people. I volunteered to become the Treasurer of the Kitson Committee and since we had no money, we had to raise some and so I suspect I was on the – what did we call them – we’d call them task groups or working parties now, we called them committees then, but certainly that was the three or four people who were the force behind it. I have to say it was extraordinarily well supported by the student body as a whole and by the college authorities who themselves could see that it was an issue that Ruskin as an institution needed to play a part in. (Interview with John Sheldon, by Christabel Gurney, 28 March 2000).

He continues, describing the march from Oxford in more detail:

It took four days, we had a public meeting in every town. So we had a public meeting in High Wycombe, which was hardly a hot-bed of … but nevertheless had the beginnings of an immigrant population. It was there that we first met the National Front in force. They wrecked the meeting, or tried to wreck the meeting, so from then on the police, of course,
helped us even more with the march. We stopped in High Wycombe … There would have been about a hundred of us on the march. …  The vast majority of them were Ruskin students, so the vast majority of people on that march were between 25 and 45 and were trade union shop stewards. (Interview with John Sheldon, by Christabel Gurney, 28 March 2000).

Also of interest here is a short extract from an interview with the veteran trade union leader, Jack Jones, where he describes a trip to South Africa to visit David Kitson in gaol in Pretoria.

The rest of the material revealed by a search for ‘Kitson’ is interesting in other ways. First, there are a set of papers relating to the early work of SATIS – South Africa the Imprisoned Society, which campaigned for political prisoners in South Africa.  The catalogue entries for these petitions and leaflets serve as a reminder that the Ruskin and TASS/AEUW Kitson Committees were central to the formation of this campaign:

Southern Africa the Imprisoned Society (SATIS) was a coalition that worked for the release of political prisoners in Southern Africa. Two hundred people attended its founding conference on 8 December 1973. They set up a campaign that brought together the AAM, IDAF, National Union of Students and the Ruskin and AUEW (TASS) Kitson Committees.

Second, there is a leaflet for (and a photo from) the AAM’s 25th Anniversary Convention in June 1984 (just after David Kitson returned to London, having been released from gaol in South Africa). The catalogue descriptions for these two items remember that David Kitson was among the speakers at this event; however, he is neither listed as a speaker on the leaflet, nor shown in the photograph of the speakers.

All this material is valuable and fascinating. However, the selection and presentation of the archival material on the website overlooks two crucial facts – by the time the Non-Stop Picket began, in April 1986, David Kitson was out of favour with the ANC (and, consequently, the leadership of his union); and, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group had been ‘disaffiliated‘ by the national movement. The only indication of this, that I can find, on the Forward to Freedom website is in the pages of the AAM’s Annual Report 1984-1985It contains the following statement:

The meeting [of the AAM National Committee on 23 February] also overwhelmingly decided that it would no longer recognise the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group as an organisation in membership under clause 7(c) of the constitution since it failed to provide assurances sought by the executive and national committees that it would function as a normal local anti-apartheid group. The matter had been considered at the previous national committee when a report was presented on the relations between the City of London AA group and the AAM. That meeting of the national committee endorsed the action of the executive committee in seeking a number of assurances from the group. A further effort was made to secure these assurances but without success. Explaining this action AAM chairperson Bob Hughes stated that the Movement was ‘not expelling any individual or organisation. We are not seeking to prevent any form of anti-apartheid activity, least of all picketing at South Africa House, which we have been organising for 25 years; nor are we pursuing any political vendettas. What we cannot have is an organisation in membership as a local group if it is not one. It is as simple as that. We regret that this has happened but the national committee has to consider the interests of the Movement as a whole.’

The assurances sought from the City of London AA group were that the membership of the group should consist of those living or working in the City of London; that the group should cease organising activities outside the City of London; and that it should not organise campaigns at a national level or approach national organisations without consultation with the AAM headquarters or executive committee. (AAM Annual Report 1984 -1985, pg 35).

The same report notes that,

The national committee approves all membership applications under clause 7 of the constitution; only one application was rejected – that of the South African Embassy Picket Campaign 1984. (AAM Annual Report 1984 -1985, pg 35).

This was the campaign set up by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and its supporters to defend the right to protest outside the South African Embassy, following the police ban on demonstrations there in June 1984. The same campaign that appears to be commemorated elsewhere on the Forward to Freedom website (as noted earlier in this article). It also means that the 24-hour picket of the embassy advertised by the City Group leaflet (mentioned at the start of this article) occurred after the group had been disaffiliated by the AAM.

It is unsurprising that the official online archive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement should want to celebrate its work and achievements over its 35-year history. In that context, the 12-year history of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group is only a small part of the story. Nevertheless, the way in which material about City Group and the Kitson family is presented on the website seems a little disingenuous. While the purpose of this educational website is to celebrate British anti-apartheid campaigning, it seems to avoid directly addressing one of the most tense political debates of the AAM’s final decade. Charitably, it appears that the AAM Archive Committee may be attempting some kind of rapprochement, but this is unlikely to be well-received by many former City Group activists. They are likely to interpret the site as celebrating precisely those aspects of City Group’s campaigning that brought it into conflict with the AAM National Committee in the early 1980s. The dispute generated much correspondence on both sides, most of which is contained in the AAM Archive at the Bodleian Library. It would be interesting to see more of this material digitized for the web archive in due course, so that students of British anti-apartheid campaigning can draw their own conclusions on this conflict over the tactics of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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4 Responses to Surveying the Anti-Apartheid Movement digital archives

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