A parcel from Cape Town (and a letter from Robben Island)

A thick envelope covered in South African stamps arrived in my office just before Easter. It contained copies of correspondence relating to the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group from the Mayibuye Archive at the University of Western Cape. We have to thank Evan Smith from Flinders University in Australia for looking them out during his own research there. In this post I offer an overview of the material Evan sent us, and focus on three letters in particular for what they reveal about networks of anti-apartheid solidarity.

When Helen and I started work on the Non-Stop Against Apartheid project, back in July 2011, we always intended to visit South Africa to look for material about the Non-Stop Picket in archives over there. For a variety of reasons we never made it. Once we discovered that the entire contents of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s office had been preserved and stored privately since 1994, our priority was making sense of the material that was there. It now appears that much of the material deposited in the Mayibuye Archive by Norma and David Kitson (such as copies of Non-Stop News and fliers for particular protests) is duplicated in the City Group papers we are working with in London.

The letters that Evan sent to me are a different matter – I had only seen one of them before. The first set of papers in the package are from late October and early November 1984. They report on the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s Annual General Meeting at which tensions between the national movement and City Group had come to a head. Another batch of correspondence date from the early summer of 1986 and relate to the early days of the second Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy. They include letters from Norma Kitson and another correspondent rebutting claims made about City Group by Sarah Benton in an article published in the New Statesman. Finally, there is an annotated draft of an account written my Mary Barnett, a “grandmother aged 71” about her arrest for defying the ban on protests outside the South African Embassy in June 1987. All these items deserve to be examined in length and I will return to them over the coming weeks. For now, though, I concentrate on three letters that illustrate the ways in which City Group’s anti-apartheid solidarity wove material connections between London and South Africa.

Norma Kitson protesting against apartheid, June 1987

Norma Kitson protesting against apartheid, June 1987 (Source: City Group)

The first of these letters was sent to Norma Kitson, in June 1986, from Robben Island Prison. Its author was Wilton Mkwayi who had been part of the second national High Command of Umkhonto weSiswe with David Kitson and one of his co-defendants in the 1964 ‘Little Rivonia Trial’.

Dearest Norma,

1964. It’s only like yesterday since we last met. Well in a place like this one whose things appear stationary it is really only like yesterday. It is interesting and heartening how much you still think of me. I wonder if you’ll ever recognize me in a crowd the day I come out  – even if I’m without my collar as Mfundisi [while underground, Mkwayi has disguised himself as a priest]. I have touches of grey and one or two wrinkles but I haven’t changed much, Talk about changing? My back has changed a little after an operation which resulted in a slight limp on the left foot. Therefore with that change I don’t think I’ll still be the same BRI-BRI you used to know. But you try me in a game of tennis… I mean you not Navratilova. Anyway, I’m still the same old self.

Irene told me about your help. I’m so grateful. It has dawned on me that Ian could not help remembering me – although the other trade unionists seem to have forgotten about me. Could it be that Maggie’s iron blows have disorientated them? Could be – who knows. Your assistance has made it much easy for me to obtain a few items around here: toiletries, newspapers, magazines and monthly groceries. Your help came at a time of crisis in that Irene, who is my sole help has retired two years ago from work due to a persistent pain in the leg which was broken through a car accident.

Thank you very much Norma and Dave.

Well, there’s not much I can say about my small world here on the Island which you don’t know. As for news about your islands (Britain) I am a bit informed about them due to the Guardian which arrives periodically.

Please Norma if you can try to collect for me all books written by Jack Woddis. I did meet him in 1961 in Prague. If he is willing to donate them you can send them to Irene. Thank you.

How much ‘little’ Steve has grown! As for Amandla – I left her when she was as tall as my tea flask! Ha! Ha!! Ha!!! But now she’s like a skyscraper and much taller than you! This is my impression after seeing her picture the last time she visited us.

I hope you will reply to my letter.

Pass greetings to all of them and everybody. (MCH95 Folder 7 5.5)

Written with an eye to the prison censors, this letter is chatty and affectionate. It speaks of two families entwined by the struggle against apartheid, but separated by two decades of imprisonment (and, then, exile). It is clear from the letter that Norma had previously arranged for some material assistance to be sent to Mkwayi via his partner, Irene. But, useful as these funds were, for the purchase of ‘toiletries, newspapers, magazines and monthly groceries, Mkwayi makes a request for books by a British communist theoretician famous for his writings on colonialism. There is also an implication that promised assistance from the (international) trade union movement had not been forthcoming. While Norma’s letter sustains connections between South Africa and London, the suggestion is that other connections have been disrupted or left untended.

Norma Kitson continued her efforts in London to arrange material support for Irene and Wilton Mkwayi, as the next letter testifies. It is clear that she sought out and cajoled allies who she thought could offer practical assistance. This letter (from 1 August 1986) was sent to Irene’s home in Soweto by Keith Veness, the Branch Secretary of the Hackney Officers branch of the National Union of Public Employees:

We saw a copy of your letter to our close friend Norma Kitson about the problems you are having at the moment.

Can we first of all send our best wishes to you, and all the people of Azania, struggling for freedom and justice.

The trades unions in Britain have not forgotten the debt we owe to you in Southern Africa and our struggle against Thatcher is intimately linked with your struggle in Soweto and it is in both of our interests that you and we win our respective battles.

If it is agreeable to you, our union in Hackney would like to do something positive to assist you in this fight. Our shop stewards have met and we have agreed to raise a money levy between us to send to you monthly. This will probably be between £30 and £40 each month – not a lot but Norma tells us that this money goes a lot further in Soweto than it does in London and at least it is something PRACTICAL we can do.

You should receive the first money in the next month or so if this is acceptable to you. We will write and tell you more about us all over the next few months, but you will find we are a pretty average group of working class Londoners – young and old, black and white, men and women. What we have in common is the belief in our union and a wish to fight for justice for our members – something we share with you.

Best wishes in your fight – Amandla! (MCH95 Folder 7 5.6)

The relationship between Wilton and Irene Mkwayi is particularly poignant. They were not married at the time Wilton was sentenced to life imprisonment. Each year he petitioned the authorities to allow them to marry; but each year his request was denied.  They were eventually allowed to marry, in prison, in 1987. Six months later, Irene died of cancer. Wilton Mkwayi was released from gaol in October 1989 – part of the group of ANC and PAC leaders whose release tested the political waters for the release of Mandela a few months later. In a situation where Irene had retired and her health was already declining, the practical solidarity that Norma Kitson mobilized for her was particularly important.

The final letter was sent to Andy Higginbottom, City Group’s Secretary, “and all my comrades at City AA and its associates” by Sam (Shafeeq Meer) on 16 May 1988. Sam was a South African supporter of the United Democratic Front who had spent nearly a year on and around the Non-Stop Picket during an extended ‘holiday’ in London. He wrote,

It is now the period which sadly make it inevitable that I must leave your country. … Your hospitality afforded towards me will be remembered, your comradeship is greatly appreciated … My thanks to you for allowing me to be with you, but I shall now slip out of your lives here but I will try and retain a close relationship with you personally and your organisation by phone and mail depending on the restrictions in my country. (MCH95 Folder 6 8.2.2)

Shafeeq (Sam) on the Non-Stop Picket, 1987 (Source: Gavin Brown)

In his letter from May 1988, Shafeeq alludes to the tensions between City Group and the broader Anti-Apartheid Movement. He pledged to try to challenge and dispel some of the rumours spread about City Group:

I myself will try and promote City AA in my country as much as it is possible within the restrictions that exist. The antagonists against your body exist in Azania only because of the misinformation received from the London groups as such, and it will mainly be through these people that I will try my hardest to change their attitude.

The fruits of my struggle then may have a direct effect with the controlling body’s [sic] here in London that hinder your rapid progress. My person stay here was a memorable one, hectic, tiring, but never the less a period in my life that will not be erased.  (MCH95 Folder 6 8.2.2)

In the last year or so, Shafeeq reestablished contact with former City Group activists. Following Mandela’s death, he and his family delivered a tribute from former picketers to Mandela’s Houghton home. They helped rekindle networks of solidarity from two decades earlier.

Solidarity is not an abstract political concept; it is practiced through the building of particular types of relationships. Mutual support and solidarity between people can be built through shared experiences and time spent together, as Wilton Mkwayi’s letter to Norma Kitson, and Shafeeq’s letter to his friends in City Group demonstrate. Bonds of solidarity can also be forged across physical difference too – through the offer of the NUPE shop stewards not only to pay a levy for Irene Mkwayi, but to tell her about themselves. However, relationships of solidarity need to be sustained through repeated contact – making the difference, for Wilton Mkwayi, between the Kitson family’s support and that of the unnamed trade unionists who “seem to have forgotten about me”.  Protests and symbolic acts of solidarity are important, but the delivery of practical assistance (whether in the form of money for groceries or books on colonialism) really helps to materialize relationships of solidarity. The letters requesting, accompanying, and acknowledging this solidarity allow us to retrace those connections decades later.


About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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3 Responses to A parcel from Cape Town (and a letter from Robben Island)

  1. Pingback: “I’m only doing my job”: a grandmother’s protest | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  2. Michael Kaplan says:

    Not sure if anyone is still monitoring this page, but Mike Kaplan would love to hear from long-lost friend Amandla.

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