A suitable anniversary: youth and student action to close apartheid’s embassy

It is a joyful coincidence that our book Youth Activism and Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid has been published on 19 October 2017. On this day, thirty-two years ago, hundreds of students and other young people took mass direct action outside the South African Embassy in London to try to close down apartheid’s diplomatic mission. Here’s how we describe those event, and their significance, in our book:

“Exactly six months to the day before the Non-Stop Picket started, [the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group] led a spectacular protest outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square. On 19 October 1985, 322 people were arrested for blocking the road directly in front of the Embassy.

In the weeks preceding the demonstration, City Group had circulated a call to surround the South African Embassy. On the day, City Group’s numbers were swollen by students participating in a National Union of Students (NUS) demonstration against apartheid in Trafalgar Square. Over the course of the afternoon, hundreds of students relocated from the centre of Trafalgar Square to protest directly outside the South African Embassy and eventually blocked the road in front of it.

Raw footage of the protest held on the Independent Television News (ITN) Archive shows hundreds of young people blocking the road. Both the pavement outside the Embassy and the roadway itself were packed full of people. At the start of the clip, some are standing in the road, and some are sitting. Two buses are caught in the crowd, prevented from moving. A familiar City Group chant is heard coming from the crowd – “Close down the nest of spies! Stop the murder! Stop the lies!” As the police move in to make arrests and clear the road, student protesters make their bodies limp and are carried away. More seasoned City Group activists continue chanting for the release of Nelson Mandela as they are arrested, and a legal observer busily weaves between the police trying to record the names of arrestees. …

The sit down protest on 19 October 1985 demonstrated that hundreds of young people were prepared to take direct action and risk arrest in pursuit of the closure of the South African Embassy. Although City Group probably did not mobilise the majority of participants in the 19 October protest, it is clear that City Group’s vision of what the anti-apartheid protest could be (and their practical intervention amongst the demonstrators) was decisive on the day. The events that afternoon helped consolidate City Group’s reputation for direct action against apartheid in a way that, and six months later, would make the launch of the Non-Stop Picket viable. (Brown and Yaffe 2017: 31-32).


Students block Trafalgar Square, 19 October 1987 (Photo: Gavin Brown)

This anniversary has particular significance for Gavin as this was the first time he came into contact with City Group and, as a fifteen year old, was excited by the vibrancy and daring of their protest style. If he had not stumbled across their protest on that day, he might never have written this blog or our book.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research, Dissemination, Gavin Brown, Popular & Informal Education, Project staff and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A suitable anniversary: youth and student action to close apartheid’s embassy

  1. Charine John says:

    Congratulations on the publication. Happy to have been involved. The Campaign occupied most of the years of my youth. Sadly, I for one cannot afford £105 for this book especially as I do not need to study this for my career 🙂 – and I am sure that I am not alone in being interested to see it in whatever format. Is this going to made possible?  I dare say I am not the only person who would like to know! Do you know if the newsreel clip you refer to here is available? Thanks very much Charine

    • Gavin Brown says:

      Charine, there will be a cheaper paperback version out next year. Ideally, we would have liked to have had the book published in a more affordable paperback from the start, but none of the publishers we approached who could have delivered that were interested in publishing the book. In the end, we took the decision that going with a mainstream academic publisher (with all the problems that entails) was better than no book at all.

      Earlier in the summer, as we were finalising the book, that newreel clip was still accessible. Since then, Getty seem to have taken control of the ITN Archive and it is no longer one of the free to view clips easily available online.

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