On 17 July 2018, to celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, a free exhibition opens at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s Southbank Centre, in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The exhibition mostly charts Mandela’s life and his political legacy, but it also includes one cabinet recording the history of British anti-apartheid campaigning. That cabinet is due to include the flier for the launch of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy that demanded Mandela’s release.
The inclusion of this flier from the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group in the exhibition is significant and welcomed. The display of British anti-apartheid memorabilia was curated with the assistance of the Anti-Apartheid Movement Archives Committee. They included it despite the fact that City Group was ‘disaffiliated’ from the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1985, and hence was outside the ‘official’ anti-apartheid movement at the time it organised the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy.
This is not the first time that the AAM Archives Committee has chosen to remember the campaigning of City Group and the Non-Stop Picket, but it is perhaps the most significant. In 2014, when they launched their digital archive, we recorded how they had incorporated a variety of material about City Group and the Kitson family. More recently, Christabel Gurney from the AAM Archives Committee helped ensure that City Group and the Kitsons were remembered in the Islington Against Apartheid exhibition, and David Kenvyn spoke at the seminar to discuss Youth Activism and Solidarity at the University of Glasgow. We thank them for their generosity in putting aside past tactical and political differences to remember the Non-Stop Picket as a significant episode in British anti-apartheid history. But, we are also uneasy that those difference tend to get erased in the process too.
We have no doubt that the inclusion of City Group, the Kitson family and the Non-Stop Picket into the history of British anti-apartheid campaigning is a direct result of our work to record and tell those histories. When we launched the Non-Stop Against Apartheid blog in 2011 there were very few mentions of City Group or the Non-Stop Picket in the history of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Roger Fieldhouse, in his (2005) official history of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement discussed the tensions between City Group and the AAM at length and, whilst going to some lengths to explain and understand why the leadership of the AAM felt they had to exclude City Group, did ultimately reflect that it might have been unjust and unnecessary. But that was about it. Since we started this blog and the wider research project that underpinned it, that has changed. Material from this blog has been reposted on the SA History Online website; in a community history exhibition in Alexandra township; in a South African politics textbook; and has touched the lives of the families and friends of South Africans that the group campaigned for, such as the Sharpeville Six and the Upington 14. We are pleased that City Group’s contribution to anti-apartheid solidarity campaigning is now being remembered, but we still believe that it is important for historians of the anti-apartheid struggle to understand and remember the ways in which some sections of the ANC, the SACP, and their allies in international solidarity groups attempted to discredit and sideline anti-apartheid activists from other political traditions, as well as dissident voices within their own organisations. The struggle against apartheid was complex and multifaceted. To understand it, we need to engage with that complexity and not simplify or sanitize it too much.