Today is the 25th anniversary of the end of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London. The Non-Stop Picket had lasted 1408 days and nights, calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid demands. In the end, the Picket continued for thirteen days after Mandela’s release. The group argued that this extra time was a buffer to ensure that Mandela’s freedom was genuine. However, it also allowed them time to decide their future and to organize a celebration of their own success, ending the Picket on their own terms.
I have written previously about the last day of the Non-Stop Picket, charting how the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group produced a special issue of their newsletter, Non-Stop Against Apartheid, celebrating the key achievements of the Picket over the four years of its existence. When I first wrote about the end of the Non-Stop Picket (back in 2012) we had interviewed relatively few former picketers for our research project. What was apparent in those early interviews was that while people remembered the celebrations of Mandela’s release, very few people could recall the details of the Picket’s closing rally (or even if they had been there). For many the day was clouded in a confusing mix of emotions. In this post, I draw on the full set of interviews to draw out two themes that were entwined in people’s memories about the decision to end the Non-Stop Picket. The first theme captures a sense of exhaustion with maintaining a continuous protest on the streets of London for four years. The second theme responds to the first, but recounts the group’s debates about how best to continue campaigning against apartheid in the wake of Mandela’s release. For many people, the end of the Non-Stop Picket continues to be an event that they have ambiguous feelings about.
Nicole, who had participated in the Picket for most of its existence, remembered the final day of the Picket as a positive and celebratory event after a tiring final few months of the protest.
The day the picket ended, I don’t recall exactly what we did, but everyone was extremely happy. I know the last few months were tough with people not showing up and not as much interest, so it could have been quite a damp ending with no real celebration of success. But it wasn’t, it was a real positive occasion. (Nicole)
Hannah made a pertinent observation that how people reacted to the prospect of ending the Non-Stop Picket was in part a reflection on the length (and intensity) of their involvement. Having joined the Picket in 1988, she placed herself near the middle of a spectrum of emotional responses.
It was very complicated. Because for some people it was like the end of an entire period of their life where they had given everything day and night, and it was quite weird. And for some people it was clearly the end of their contribution because they didn’t know what they were going to do next. And for people who had come more lately, I suppose it was just the beginning of something as well. For me it was sort of half-half. I didn’t have the whole thing about being there at the beginning, but I did have something about how significant it had been for a couple of years. (Hannah)
Even so, some people who joined the Picket after Hannah still felt unsettled at the prospect of their circle of friends dispersing.
And I suppose there was some level of concern personally, what was going to happen next, what was going to happen and what was going to happen to all of us? (Deirdre)
Other picketers acknowledged that this may well have been inevitable, as it was the Picket that had brought this ‘motley crew‘ together in the first place.
I felt that it was the cause that gave us meaning – and that is why the final meeting (with the vote on whether to continue the picket), and the final day of protest, seemed so confused and awkward. Our reason for being together was slipping away. (Mark B).
For Cat, who had been involved with the Picket since its first day, it was important to claim Mandela’s release as a victory, and be realistic about how the group should continue to operate. She gives a real sense of the mix of emotions and political commitments which were entangled in these debates.
I think his release had come out of the struggle, I think I remember a certain wariness of what will happen next, and I think also that although it was the Non-Stop Picket for the release of Nelson Mandela it was never just about Mandela, it was about all the political prisoners and it was about far wider issues. And I think there was an argument in fact about whether we should stop the picket or not, because people said apartheid’s not over yet, [and] we should [continue] non-stop until everyone has the vote. We said no, you have to claim your victories. We said we’d be here until Mandela was released, and Mandela was released and, you know, the picket was struggling a bit by that point as well. And I think it was absolutely right to say well done us, we said we’d do this and we did. (Cat).
Shereen, a South African who came into contact with the Picket when she arrived in London in 1986, reflected in her interview on the political importance of claiming Mandela’s release as a victory, and ending the Picket (as a non-stop protest) on that positive and victorious note. However, she also recognized that, having made Mandela the focus of their campaigning over the previous four years, the group faced a challenge in conveying to the public that Mandela’s release did not equate to the end of apartheid.
Yeah, and that was another debate, as to whether we should continue or not. Because we were arguing that Mandela’s freedom wasn’t… [that] he wasn’t the only political prisoner, and that it was symbolic, picketing until Mandela is free is symbolic, and that what we really mean is now we’ll get a picket until all of the political [prisoners are free], and so on and so forth, you know. But it should be, but we were on a hiding to nothing because people did want… they were getting tired, and they did want to end it, and end it on a high note. So those were the choices. Rather than fizzling out, because of a commitment, which at the time, despite Mandela’s release, it did seem as though it would be an ongoing thing, you know, and people weren’t prepared to be picketing for the whole of the rest of their lives, you know, until South Africa was free kind of thing. And so maybe they were right to end it on a high note, to end it with a victory. (Shereen)
In Shereen’s interview, as in many others, there is a real sense that there was a danger that the Picket could just ‘fizzle out’ if the group attempted to press on with a continuous, 24-hour protest. For other key activists, like Andre, even though they acknowledged that the Picket was unsustainable in its existing form, the decision to end it still felt awkward.
It was a bit strange, it just didn’t feel real. I remember the decision was made and I agreed with it, because it wouldn’t be sustainable beyond Mandela’s release. It was just a bit, yeah, you didn’t want to let go in a way. But apart from that I can’t remember, I remember marching away with lots of flags and banners. (Andre)
Several picketers, including Mark F, who had been one of the Picket’s key organizers over its final year, were more blunt about their feelings.
Relief. … Really I wanted it to stop. After Mandela was released, I wanted it to stop. Sometimes I changed my mind but generally I think it had to, and it just dragged on with that weekend picket and I know people were saying the weekend picket had to happen because that’s where all the funds came from and if we didn’t have the weekend picket we wouldn’t have the money to carry on doing other stuff. But I think it just, it’s always that thing with NGOs and, you know, they never want to stop doing what they’re doing or shut themselves down. … So I think it would have been better just to have stopped right there than sort of struggle on with that. I’m not sure what we really achieved after the Mandela release and the weekend picket. I’m not sure that there were any successes you could point to by carrying on. We were still raising money but I don’t know what we were doing with it. (Mark F).
When the Non-Stop Picket ended on 24 February 1990 it ended ‘victorious’. The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group had started the Picket in April 1986 claiming that they would stay outside the South African Embassy until Nelson Mandela was released from gaol. It took nearly four years, but they managed to stay there, as a continuous anti-apartheid protest until (just after) his release. As many of the voices quoted here remember, although that was a major achievement, it was also an exhausting one. The final few months of the Picket had been difficult and many core activists felt relief when they no longer had to keep it going on a daily basis. City Group did continue to protest outside South Africa House for another four years, until apartheid ended, but (as many predicted in February 1990) their numbers dwindled. People had made a commitment to picket the embassy until Mandela was free and saw that commitment out. Even as they felt a sense of grief when the Picket ended, and its tight social bonds began to unravel, many picketers also took it as an opportunity to move on with their lives and to new political commitments. While maintaining a non-stop protest for 1408 days and nights was a major achievement for City Group, and marks out the Non-Stop Picket as a significant moment in British protest history, it is also possible that one of the group’s distinctive achievements was knowing when to stop.