Working with anti-apartheid memories

By researching the historical geographies of the Non-Stop Picket, we are constantly confronting the multiple ways in which memory operates. The very act of remembering the Non-Stop Picket is an intervention into the ways in which the struggle against apartheid is remembered. Remembering the Non-Stop Picket complicates narratives about the anti-apartheid movement in Britain. By delving into the archives of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (and other organisations) we confront the ways in which organizations preserve memories of their work. By interviewing former picketers (and other interested parties) we expose all the frailties and quirks of the ways in which human memory functions (and occasionally fails).

Despite engaging with memory, remembering and commemoration in these multiple ways throughout the research, I am not sure I have stopped to think too much about how memory works, or the methodological ways in which I approach memory. This week I am participating in a workshop organised by the newly constituted Leicester Memory Studies Network. As this event approaches, I have been forced to think a bit more about how I approach memory in my work. I want to explore a few of those ideas in this post, and to explore those through a practical example from the last couple of weeks.

Policing the South African Embassy Picket Campaign, June 1984 (Photographer: Rob Scott)

Policing the South African Embassy Picket Campaign, June 1984 (Photographer: Rob Scott)

Last week, I received an email from Graem Peters. He had read a recent post on this site and was inspired to get in touch. As he said in his initial email,

I have been recently piecing together my memories of an event that took place back in the 1980s.

Graem recognised that his memory of the event was partial and incomplete and was trying to make sense of it in relation to the various material published here. He continued,

I was one of three protesters who took part in a planned red paint throwing incident at South Africa House sometime in the ’80s. I was something of a tag-along as it was the other two who planned it. One of them was  a Young Liberal friend of mine called Clive [B], the other was someone I did not know who was connected with the AAM or City AAM. He was tall, white and blonde haired and I think South African. Our attack involved filling 6 balloons with red paint and carrying them in our hands to throw at the walls of the building. The attack took place during the day when there was no protesters. We threw the paint bombs and ran off in separate directions. I gather that the guy I did not know was arrested when he returned to AAM offices. Nothing happened to Clive or myself.  My recollection was that this attack resulted in the police moving the Non-stop Picket, but that doesn’t match the recollections in the link.

I would be interested to know if you had any knowledge of this incident. It is clearly a different incident and the visual impact was not so great.  It occurs to me that the balloon throwing attack that I was involved with may have preceded the paint tin attack. (Email from Graem Peters, 1 July 2014)

I checked our records to see if Graem or his friend, Clive B, were mentioned in any documents amongst the City Group archive. They did not appear to be and the archival records offered me no leads that could help pin down these events for Graem. Nevertheless, his email suggested that the paint-throwing action that he was involved with predated the Non-Stop Picket – especially because, although the action took place during the day, there were no protesters present. Once the Non-Stop Picket started on 19 April 1986, picketers were present all day everyday. I suspected, given the mention of the Anti-Apartheid Movement office in Graem’s email, that he was referring to the 1984 paint-throwing that contributed to the first attempt to ban pickets from outside the embassy and led to the creation of the South African Embassy Picket Campaign (all the records I have read in connection with that incident suggest that on that occasion, the principal paint-thrower was  a volunteer from the AAM office). I told Graem this and sent him a link to my recent post about those events. Here’s his reply:

The background story in this page matches my recollections in all but possibly one respect. 1984 sounds more like the time I was involved, rather than 1987. By 1987 I was involved exclusively with Simon Hughes’s election campaign and was not involved in any of the protests that year. In 1984 I was actively involved with London Young Liberals who gave support to City AAM as we supported the use of direct action. I think there were a number of other groups  involved, but I know that it was particularly important for City AAM to show to the AAM that they had the active support of the Young Liberals. 1984 also sounds right as I remember that before the paint bombing, the three of us met up at the Young Liberal Office located within Liberal Party headquarters inside the National Liberal Club in Whitehall Place which is just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. That was where we made the paint bombs and we carried them to Trafalgar Square with our hands in our coat pockets.

This additional information not only helps to add detail to the events of late May 1984, but it also offers a fresh perspective on the network of support that the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group enjoyed (at the moment that its relationship with the leadership of the national Anti-Apartheid Movement was really beginning to deteriorate). This serves as a reminder that City Group’s direct action approach to anti-apartheid campaigning appealed to a wider layer of activists that just those inclined towards the far Left.

A day or so after my exchange with Graem, I was re-reading the transcript of our interview with Nikki. I was not specifically looking for material relating to the protests against Botha’s visit to London in 1984, but I came across this excerpt from her interview which really resonated with Graem’s description of the paint-throwing action:

Paul Annegarn was the white guy who worked in that AAM’s office, he was a war resistor and he come to Britain in the ‘80s having refused to go in the army in South Africa and he was the person who got the picket banned in 1984, because he threw paint all over the Embassy, well before we threw paint all over the Embassy. He threw paint all over the Embassy and then legged it and ran back to the AAM’s headquarters, and he was, and then we got banned because of him, which was kind of ironic but there you go. (Interview with Nicki, 27 March 2013).

This chance find is illustrative of how our research involves piecing together fragments of memories from multiple sources and paying attention to the points where they overlap convincingly. In this case, both Nicki and Graem identified a white South African volunteer from the Anti-Apartheid Movement offices as the person who was arrested (at those offices) for throwing paint over the South African Embassy. Graem was unsure of the date, but could connect it with a ban on protests; Nicki was clearer that this event happened in 1984. But after thirty years, individual’s memories are seldom perfect: Nicki primarily remembers that paint was thrown and pickets were banned as a result; leaflets and reports from the time suggest that the first day the ban took effect was 8 June 1984 (two weeks after the paint was thrown); but Graem remembers the sequence of events differently:

My recollection diverts from this account in one respect. After the paint attack that I was involved in, the first Friday I remember turning up to join the protest I found that  the protest was re-located to the steps of St Martins in the Field, which is not specifically stated in the account. I also remember the police informing the protesters towards the end of the protest that evening that they would not allow us to disperse along in front of South Africa House and they told us that anyone who dispersed in this direction would be arrested. That day I attended the protest with my dog and friends of mine suggested it would be interesting to see if the police would arrest me and my dog. I did not think of joining the protesters getting arrested in front of the embassy but when the police told us about their dispersement plans I made up my mind that I would disperse by walking with my dog along in front of the embassy in defiance. Even though I and my dog had been identified as part of the protest, the police did not challenge my dispersement route.
Those friends of mine who knew I had also taken part in the paint bombing took the piss out of me for my inability to get myself arrested twice in succession. (Email from Graem Peters, 2 July 2014)

For Graem, the primary memory seems to be his embarrassment at failing to be arrested twice in a row. In Nicki’s case, it is the political significant of the subsequent South African Embassy Picket Campaign that is most important (and the finer chronological details have faded from memory). As for myself, it is entirely possible that I have misinterpreted the papers from the time that we found in the archive and imposed a sequence on the events that is inaccurate. In researching anti-apartheid activism from the 1980s, we are frequently faced with such challenges. Different individuals remember the same events very differently, depending (frequently) on how significant those events were to them at the time, and what aspects of the events particularly affected them. Some people have very good, detailed and seemingly accurate memories of protests and meetings from that period (others are merely convinced that they do). For others, those events are mostly only remembered in broad brushstrokes and subsequent campaigns have superseded them in their memories. Some others remember specific events in great detail but struggle to contextualize them or place them in a sequence of other events from the time. The challenge for me as a researcher is to look for the patterns, the overlapping details and attempt to piece together plausible narratives and analysis from the memories of many individuals and the records that were kept at the time. Looking for those connections and patterns can, in turn, reveal exciting new details that had previously been forgotten.


About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research, Gavin Brown, Interview material, Project staff and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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