Youth Activism and Solidarity: The Non-Stop Picket Against Apartheid book manuscript submitted

Today we have finally submitted the manuscript of Youth Activism and Solidarity, our book about the anti-apartheid Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy, to our publishers. The book will now go through a process of peer review. All being well, after some further edits this summer, the book will go into production and be published by Routledge, as part of their Spaces of Childhood and Youth book series, in early 2018.

Our book is the result of research Gavin Brown and Helen Yaffe have been conducting since 2011, which was funded by a research project grant [RPG-072] from the Leverhulme Trust. It draws on interviews with former participants in the Non-Stop Picket and a range of archival material from that time. In the end, we interviewed 85 people who had been regular participants in the Non-Stop Picket. They were involved for varying lengths of time and with different levels of intensity and commitment. We also interviewed eight people who were close supporters of the picket – not necessarily people who spent a lot of time there, but high profile politicians and public figures who attended periodically and could be relied on for vocal support at key times. They include some of the solicitors who helped defend arrested picketers in court. Although it had not been part of our initial plan, we also managed to track down and interview eight retired officers, of various ranks, who had been involved in policing City Group’s protests in the mid-1980s.

When City Group ceased to operate at the end of apartheid, some of the remaining members of the group made plans to preserve the group’s archive with a view to publishing their story. That publication never happened, but we benefited from the decision to preserve a historic record of their anti-apartheid campaigning. For nearly 20 years, all of City Group’s accumulated paperwork from their office – an archive spanning twelve years of activity (1982 – 1994) – had been in storage. We were lucky enough to be granted privileged access to this material. In addition to the Group’s correspondence, minutes of their meetings, membership records, and publicity material, there were witness statements from court cases, banners, and hundreds of photographs. Some of these photos were copies of images taken by sympathetic photojournalists, but many were photos taken by picketers outside the South African Embassy to record their protests, or witness arrests. We supplemented our analysis of City Group’s archive with material from the AAM Archives at Oxford University; Norma Kitson’s papers deposited in the Mayibuye Archives at the University of Western Cape; Steven Kitson’s personal papers (which were loaned to us by his sister, Amandla); and a number of news media archives.


Placard announces the Non-Stop Picket (Source: City Group)

Although some of this will undoubtedly change a little, as we revise the manuscript in the light of comments from our commissioning editor, the book series editors, and reviewers, here is a flavour of the structure of the book and its contents (in the form of the working abstracts for each chapter):

Chapter 1: South Africa and Britain in the 1980s

The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group organised a continuous non-stop protest outside the South African Embassy in London to demand the release of Nelson Mandela. It began in April 1986 and ended following Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990. This introductory chapter contextualizes the Non-Stop Picket in relation to the history of apartheid in South Africa; the resistance to apartheid in South Africa by the African National Congress, Pan African Congress and other organisations and communities; and anti-apartheid solidarity campaigning in Britain since the 1950s. It also locates it in relation to the social, cultural and political events in Britain and South Africa in the 1980s, especially the heightened level of civil disobedience and insurrectionary uprisings on the streets of South Africa. In particular, it considers how the Non-Stop Picket fitted into the changing geographies of young people’s lives in London in the mid-1980s. The chapter also provides an overview of the scope of the research underpinning the book, which draws on interviews with over 80 participants in the Non-Stop Picket and some of the police officers involved, as well as an archive of previously unstudied primary documents.

Chapter 2: A non-stop protest in a non-stop world

The story of David and Norma Kitson – two white South African communists – and their family is central to understanding the history of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the Kitson family’s involvement in anti-apartheid activity in South Africa and Britain. David was imprisoned in South Africa for his role in the second High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress and South African Communist Party. In exile in London, David’s wife, Norma, and their children Steven and Amandla were centrally involved in forming the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (City Group, for short) in 1982. The chapter examines how, by 1986, City Group had developed the capacity to launch and sustain a four-year long Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy in London. Finally, the chapter articulates a theoretical framework for thinking geographically about solidarity and considering being in solidarity as a social practice.

Chapter 3: Becoming non-stop

Compared to the imposing edifice of South Africa House, the infrastructure of the Non-Stop Picket was flimsy and ephemeral – a banner and a few boxes – yet picketers succeeded in making their protest highly visible and audible, day and night. Positioned on the pavement directly in front of the South African Embassy, the Non-Stop Picket was strategically placed to draw attention to apartheid’s representatives in Britain. Chapter 3 does two things: first, it examines how the Non-Stop Picket inserted itself into the geography of central London to quickly become a (seemingly) permanent feature of the city; and, second, it examines how its non-stop presence enabled a diverse group of young people to become involved in its cause. The Non-Stop Picket benefitted from the South African embassy’s location in Trafalgar Square. The square’s multiple functions as a tourist destination, gateway into the West End, and a public transport hub helped to make the Non-Stop Picket visible and accessible. The picket developed a set of practices to amplify its message and present itself as interesting, enticing and welcoming. The chapter surveys the range of participants who were attracted to the Non-Stop Picket, as well as how, and why they got involved.

Chapter 4: Being non-stop against apartheid

To spend time on the Non-Stop Picket was to experience time in a very particular way. For nearly four years, it was non-stop. It worked with (and sometimes against) the rhythms of urban life to practice its solidarity with the people of South Africa. Although the Picket was a constant presence (and was structured around a core set of activities), how it looked, how it functioned and what it was like to be there changed throughout the day and across the week. Maintaining a ‘non-stop’ protest around an ‘urgent’ global issue required non-stop commitment from core activists that was frequently hard to sustain. In addition to considering the temporalities of life on the Non-Stop Picket, Chapter 4 considers how that pace of activity fits with the experience of youth and the transition to adulthood. To maintain momentum the Picket was structured around particular weekly rituals and an annual calendar of events. The Picket found ways of celebrating its longevity that served to recognise the commitment of existing activists and recruit new participants. In considering the way time passed and was marked on the Picket, Chapter 4 examines the different rhythms of the protest – its daily, weekly and annual cycles.

Chapter 5: Defending the right to protest

The Non-Stop Picket actively sought to disrupt the business of the South African Embassy. In response, the Embassy applied diplomatic pressure on the British Government and the Metropolitan Police to curtail their protest. In this context, Chapter 5 examines the Picket’s relationship with the police. Key points of contention between the Picket, the police, and the embassy are examined in this chapter (drawing on our interviews with retired police officers, as well as picketers). Consequently, Chapter 5 charts the various ways in which City Group defended their right to protest against apartheid in the location and manner of their choice. In particular, this chapter examines how, through a two-month campaign of civil disobedience, picketers regained the right to protest directly outside the embassy gates after the Metropolitan Police forcibly moved them in May 1987. Through their non-violent, but confrontational political stance, the young picketers learned to think and act against the (British) state, using their bodies in unruly ways.

Chapter 6: Being unruly

City Group fostered a culture of direct action against the representatives of the apartheid regime (and their supporters) in Britain that was expressed both on and off the Non-Stop Picket. Chapter 6 examines how picketers learned to be unruly in various ways, through the direct actions they took in support of the economic and sporting boycotts of South Africa. In particular, this chapter recalls the group’s ‘No Rights? No Flights!’ campaign, which attempted to shut down the offices of the (state-owned) South African Airways offices in London through repeated occupations. The chapter also examines a series of demonstrations on cricket pitches around Britain protesting against a British rebel cricket tour of South Africa captained by Mike Gatting. In these contexts, we examine the practices through which City Group offered political and legal support to those arrested on its protests. These practices were particularly effective – of the more than 700 arrests associated with the Non-Stop Picket, over 90% of cases were (eventually) won by the defendants.

Chapter 7: Growing up through protest

Children and young people were central to sustaining the Non-Stop Picket. Through their shared commitment to anti-apartheid solidarity, young people from diverse backgrounds grew up together and learned to cope with the everyday pressures of youth. The anti-apartheid cause was not a backdrop to these young people’s lives; they grew up through their political engagement. Chapter 7 argues that young activists’ political commitments are always entangled with the everyday politics of youth; that (in the context of the Non-Stop Picket) to practice solidarity was also to develop competences and resources that contributed to the process of growing-up. Although this chapter focuses on the experiences of teenagers and young adults, it also argues that ‘youthfulness’ and practices of ‘growing-up’ are relational and not age-specific. Several picketers who joined their protest in their thirties describe how their involvement with the social and political life of the Non-Stop Picket gave them opportunities to ‘grow-up’ anew. There were also a small number of very committed elderly picketers, but few of them were still alive by the time we conducted our research.

Chapter 8: ‘Until Mandela is free…’

The release of Mandela from prison after 27 years was a moment of elation and celebration for those who had maintained a Non-Stop Picket outside the South African embassy for so long. They felt a sense of achievement and vindication. The primary demand of the Non-Stop Picket was the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela. When Mandela was released in February 1990 the Non-Stop Picket had achieved its main goal and had to come to an end. Mandela’s release was celebrated as a ‘victory’; but, for many participants the abrupt end of the Picket also felt like a loss. The protest that had become the focus of their lives for (up to) four years was gone, and the close bond of comradeship they had developed there were threatened. Chapter 8 analyses activists’ ambivalent experiences of victory. It also sets out some of the ways in which former picketers have reflected on the post-apartheid settlement in South Africa.

Chapter 9: Lessons and reflections

The concluding chapter examines the impact that participating in the Non-Stop Picket has had on the personal and political lives of former picketers (now that most have reached early middle-age). We explore how both the comradely relations of care that developed on the Picket and many of the constituent practices of non-stop picketing endure in their lives. Consistent with our earlier argument that young activists’ political commitments are always entangled with the everyday politics of growing-up, we suggest that youthful activism can be a valuable resource for socially-engaged adulthood. The chapter makes a strong case for a social practices approach to activism that offers new possibilities for understanding the dynamic ways in which activist practices become bundled with other aspects of life and lifecourse transitions. In doing so, it extends the reach of recent debates about the transformative effects of practising solidarity. The book concludes by examining what lessons can be learnt from the Non-Stop Picket for academics and activists interested in urban social movements, protest camps, young people’s activism, and the history of the international movement against apartheid.

About Gavin Brown

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

3 Responses to Youth Activism and Solidarity: The Non-Stop Picket Against Apartheid book manuscript submitted

  1. Pingback: “Youth Activism & Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid” published | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  2. burrobert says:

    Your book has recently been used as a source in the British media for articles on Jeremy Corbyn. As far as I can tell (some of the articles require subscriptions) the points picked up from your book are that CLAAG was not supported by the AAM and Nelson Mandela did not reply to a letter from CLAAG requesting a meeting after his release. I have not read your book but have read your earlier paper as well as this summary and it seems obvious that a lot of good material has been overlooked in another attempt to attack Corbyn’s reputation. The media’s coverage of Corbyn would make a good subject for academic study and hopefully you or some of your colleagues are working on this. I have enjoyed your writings and learned quite a lot about an interesting decade.

  3. Pingback: “Youth Activism and Solidarity” now out in paperback | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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