Carol Brickley, the Convenor of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group throughout the 12 years of its existence, died in September. Carol was central to the formation of City Group and her revolutionary communist politics played a key role in shaping City Group’s anti-imperialist approach to anti-apartheid solidarity, as well as the group’s organisational culture and direct action tactics. She leaves a lasting impact on the political lives of many people who campaigned alongside her, even many of those who did not share all of her politics.
Carol was born in a working class family in Staffordshire, the daughter of coal miner. She was part of the post-war generation of working class young people who benefited from the expansion of higher education in the 1960s and studied Fine Art in Newcastle. In 1971, in the wake of the post-1968 upsurge of radical politics and rapid social change, she moved to Brighton, as a youth worker.
In Brighton, Carol became politically active in the International Socialists (IS), the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party. However, she rapidly became disillusioned by what she saw as the inadequacy of IS’s politics to respond to the political circumstances of the world in the early 1970s. She joined the discussion group within the Brighton IS branch, which had been established partly under the influence of the veteran British Trotskyist, Roy Tearse. This drew her into the faction fight within IS which led, first to the expulsion of the Revolutionary Opposition faction, and then to her helping to found the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) with David Yaffe and others. Over the next few years, the RCG developed a distinctive anti-imperialist politics which saw solidarity with the national liberation struggles in Ireland and South Africa, and active anti-racist organising, as being key tasks for revolutionary communists in Britain. Carol remained in the political leadership of the RCG and centrally involved in the production of its paper, Fight Racism Fight Imperialism, for more than another four decades.
In 1976, Carol moved to London to become an artworker at Red Lion Setters, a typesetting and design company which had been set up by the exiled South African communist, Norma Kitson. Carol quickly became a Director of the company. Norma’s husband, David, was still in gaol in South Africa at the time, for his part in the leadership of Umkhonto we Siswe, the armed organisation formed by the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s. When, in early 1982, Norma’s son Steven was detained in South Africa whilst visiting his father, Carol and other workers at Red Lion Setters leapt into action to campaign for his release. This intense period of campaigning secured Steven’s release in less than a week. The political alliance between Norma Kitson, Carol and, through her, the RCG was consolidated during the Free Steven Kitson Campaign and, in order not to lose momentum, they formed the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group together.
Over the next twelve years, City Group developed a distinctive approach to anti-apartheid campaigning and solidarity under Carol’s leadership, which included offering ‘non-sectarian’ support for all political tendencies within the liberation movement, and linking the struggle against apartheid to the fight against racism in Britain. City Group held two ‘non-stop pickets’ of the South African Embassy in London. The first, in 1982, lasted for 86 days. The second, which began on 19 April 1986 lasted for nearly four years until just after Nelson Mandela had been released from gaol. Even outside these periods of continuous protests City Group sustained weekly protests outside South Africa House and regularly took direct action to confront apartheid’s supporters in Britain and disrupt the political, economic and cultural links between Britain and apartheid South Africa. In the process, City Group defeated two attempts by the Metropolitan Police to ban protests outside the embassy through a combination of civil disobedience in defiance of these bans and strategic use the resulting court cases.
The idea for the second Non-Stop Picket was Norma Kitson’s. In an interview for our Non-Stop Against Apartheid research project Carol reflected on why she supported the proposal:
I thought it was something that you take on, but you don’t project yourself to the end of it. You don’t say I am doing this because it’s possible, because frankly it didn’t seem altogether possible. But the value of it was in the doing of it rather than in the end of it. Especially given what was going on in South Africa. I mean, it’s not that you decide that sort of thing in isolation. There was an enormous build-up of militancy in the townships in South Africa from 1985 onwards which was extraordinary and very different from what had gone before. So that was the background to us making any decisions. … The Non-Stop Picket was a response to that, it wasn’t that we suddenly decided that Nelson Mandela and all the political prisoners needed to be free. It was a way of bringing people’s attention to what was going on in South Africa. Not only the prisoners but also the share brutality of the regime. They were murdering people.
When City Group held demonstrations, or larger rallies on the Non-Stop Picket, it was usually Carol who liaised with the police in advance and acted as ‘chief steward’ on the day, providing political and tactical leadership to protests, and coordinating their security. She explained her approach to this role in the following terms:
I had always done the negotiations for it with the police. So I knew what the deal was. Although we didn’t do deals, we always really obstructed what the police wanted. Usually they wanted us not to have it or to tone it down or whatever. I was quite good at handling those situations where we wanted to do something that the police didn’t want us to do, and we would go ahead and do it.
Carol was a thorn in the side of the Metropolitan Police and the South African Embassy. So much so, that in the mid-80s she exposed the security service’s surveillance of her home. Whenever the police sought to restrict City Group’s activities, Carol’s instinct was to make political capital out of it – unambiguously presenting their actions as evidence of the British state’s collaboration with apartheid. Sometimes, however, City Group responded with humour, drawing attention to the absurdity of the police’s actions, and making them the butt of the joke. For example,
I remember at one point the police decided that they would allow us to put down on the pavement only a box the size of A4. If we put anything else down they would take it away. So what we did is we arranged for a lot of rubbish on the picket, I mean large quantities of rubble effectively, which we then refused to move, which they then had to take to Cannon Row police station and store as our property. They used to send me letters about this rubbish, saying they were storing it and what did we want to do with it. We wrote back saying we hoped that they were keeping it carefully.
Carol’s determination in refusing to be cowed by the police, nor to make concessions to their attempts to restrict the effectiveness of City Group’s protests was something that rubbed off on many who worked alongside her during that period.
If Carol left her mark on the politics and campaigning practices of many former City Group activists, she also felt she had developed politically through her interactions with them. When we held a launch event for the paperback edition of Youth Activism and Solidarity: the non-stop picket against apartheid this August on the pavement in Trafalgar Square where the Non-Stop Picket had stood, Carol was too ill to attend. She did, however, ask for a short extract from the book’s conclusion, in which she reflected on the experience of the Non-Stop Picket to be read out on her behalf. She said.
It was the most important formative political experience of my life and I see it as a political experience, not as a personal one. I learnt a lot. And I had the opportunity to mix with some amazing people who had given their all, their lives, to the struggle. That’s a privilege to see that. Those things that happen are important for the consciousness of any movement; they become part of its history and its future. They aren’t lost. Those victories aren’t lost. The City Group experience is a starting point, rather than the end point. The next movement will incorporate that knowledge and that experience. It’s important to pass it on and I’m glad that it’s being passed on.
On that occasion, former picketers responded to her words by chanting a rhyme developed on City Group pickets in her honour. The words celebrate her uncompromising politics, inspiring leadership and her unwavering commitment to defend City Group members (as well as capturing a certain ruthlessness in pursuing her perspective). It seems fitting to end this obituary (as we started it) with those words:
Viva Carol, our convenor, no-one tougher, no-one meaner. Have you ever been to see her? Viva! Viva Carol!
We have been informed that the RCG will be holding an event in celebration of Carol Brickley’s life on Saturday 26 October, 2-5pm, at the London Irish Centre, 50-52 Camden Square, London NW1 9XB. Everyone who knew Carol, including former City Group activists, is welcome to attend and to contribute their thoughts and memories; those who cannot make it but would like to send a message should write to the RCG address BCM Box 5909, London WC1N 3XX or email email@example.com .