Two reviews of “Youth Activism and Solidarity”

This week the first two reviews of our book Youth Activism and Solidarityabout the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London during the 1980s, have been published. One is aimed at an academic readership and the other for activists and campaigners.

The first review was written by Diarmaid Kelliher, an academic geographer from the University of Glasgow, and was published on the website of Antipode: a radical journal of Geography. Diarmaid is a well-placed to comment on our work as his own research examines the historical geographies of London’s connections to the British coalfields before and during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike. As a result, he is familiar with working class and radical activist networks in London at the time and has contributed much to debates about the geographical aspects of solidarity. You can read his review here (pdf).

Diarmaid’s review is a positive and sympathetic engagement with our work, but (as you would expect) he also offers some thoughtful and perceptive critiques of aspects of it too. Early on he describes the book as,

a thoughtful reflection on the nature of solidarity, perhaps most notably how for many of the youthful picketers this political activism shaped their experiences of “growing up”

He engages with our reflection that some of the key infrastructures of left-wing politics in London at the time – such as radical bookshops and a network of community centres – through which the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and many other campaigns organised – have now seriously been depleted. For Diarmaid,

This is a suggestive point, and a more developed picture of those infrastructures of solidarity, and also their decline, would be productive in understanding the construction of networks of solidarity

One of his other critiques is that, given the central role of members of the Revolutionary Communist Group in founding and sustaining City Group and the Non-Stop Picket, we could have offered “a little more on the RCG’s particular version of Marxism, and how this shaped political perspectives and organisational forms”. I think it is fair to say that Helen and I had some lengthy discussions about how much depth to go into about the RCG’s politics (particularly given the book was being published in a book series focused on ‘childhood and youth’). However, as Diarmaid acknowledges, I have written elsewhere about how the RCG’s political perspectives, and experience of Irish solidarity work from the 1970s onwards, shaped how they understood and approached national liberation struggles in general and anti-apartheid solidarity specifically. More than this, somewhere in the region of a quarter of the picketers we interviewed had a close political relationship with the RCG (for at least a period of time) and several of their long-term, and founding members are quoted at length in the book. Those perspective are there, but possibly we could have analysed them out further.

Diarmaid ends his review with the following lines, which please us enormously:

Part of the importance of Youth Activism and Solidarity is that the care and detail with which the non-stop picket is recounted gives those of us who were not there a real sense of what it was like, allowing us to learn some of the lessons of that campaign and, hopefully, to more effectively and equitably organise solidarity in new contexts.

FRFI review headline.jpg

In the context of Diarmaid’s criticism that we could have done more to discuss the political influence of the RCG on the solidarity practiced through the Non-Stop Picket, the other review that was published this week is significant. That review was published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! the paper of the Revolutionary Communist Group and was written by Susan Davidson, a long-term supporter of the group who participated in the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group from its foundation. It is a measure of the importance placed on their role in the Non-Stop Picket that the entire centre page spread of the paper is dedicated to her review.

For the most part, Susan’s review recounts and summarises the history of the City Group and the Non-Stop Picket. In the process she recalls some of my favourite stories from the book and quotes a range of our interview material to illustrate these memories. Although she highlights the leading role of members of the RCG in the picket, she also acknowledges that,

The Picket is notable not only for its longevity, organisational structure, legal challenges and success, but also for its mobilisation of hundreds of young people who agreed to its discipline and invented its forms. That is the essential subject of this book: the commitment and creativity of youth in the struggle against the state.

Our book ends with some reflections on the lessons from the Non-Stop Picket for campaigning today. For Susan, this attempt to articulate ‘usable pasts’ from City Group’s anti-apartheid campaigning and experiences of solidarity is one of the strengths of the book, and the layout of her review draws particular attention to this.

FRFI review highlight.jpg

We are pleased to read these reviews of the book and look forward to seeing more (which we know have been commissioned) as they come out over the next few months. If you are interested in reviewing the book for a newspaper, magazine, blog, or academic journal, review copies can be ordered here (at the publisher’s discretion).

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Youth Activism & Solidarity: a dedication

Now that Youth Activism and Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid has been published and had its launch, we wanted to share the book’s dedication.


We have told the stories of Norma, David and Steve Kitson on this blog a number of times over the years. But we want to remind readers about the lives of the other former picketers to whom we dedicated the book. I think it is fair to say that when Helen Yaffe and I started work on the ‘non-stop against apartheid’ research project, and began writing this blog, we did not anticipate that we would end up writing so many obituaries for people that we had known on the Non-Stop Picket in the 1980s – especially of people who were, in some cases, our near-peers.

Two of the people we dedicated the book to unfortunately died before we had an opportunity to record their memories about the Non-Stop Picket. Solomon Odeleye came to Britain from Nigeria in the late 1960s to study at a boarding school for blind students. He trained as a teacher and taught English for many years. He was involved in many anti-racist campaigns over the decades. One of our favourite stories about him involves his involvement in invading a cricket pitch with Richard (who told us the story), in a protest against Mike Gatting’s rebel cricket tour to South Africa, :

My abiding memory of running on to a cricket pitch was with Solomon who is blind. I hated it because you had to sit for hours waiting to run on and I felt sick with fear. When we did run I was holding hands with Solomon. I realized I could get to the cricket stumps so I shouted to Solomon, `can I let go?’ `Yes!’ he shouted and he let go of my hand and he kept running on his own. I was amazed at how brave he was especially as a policeman then rugby tackled him (that’s not cricket) and he had no idea it was coming. I got to the stumps and pulled them up.

Zolile Keke, or Comrade Keke, as he was universally known to non-stop picketers, was the Chief Representative in the UK of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in the mid-1980s. He was a former Robben Island prisoner and a defendant in the Bethal treason trial after the Soweto Uprising by school students in 1976. When City Group launched its Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy in London, on 19 April 1986, Comrade Keke was there at the rally that started the Picket to speak on behalf of the PAC.  Excerpts from his speech can be seen here (at about 9 minutes into the film). Amongst his many visits to the Non-Stop Picket, he appeared there on Christmas Day 1988 as ‘Father Freedom’. Zolile Keke helped educate a generation of British solidarity activists that it was not enough  to achieve a ‘democratic South Africa’, Azania had to be fully decolonized.

Andrew Privett (who used the name Gardner at the time of the Non-Stop Picket) was one of the first people we interviewed for our research. He died unexpectedly in October 2012. Andy stumbled across the Non-Stop Picket in June 1986, just a couple of months after it started. He played an active role in the Non-Stop Picket for most of its duration, and contributed to key City Group campaigns in the years after it ended. Like many City Group activists, Andy spent more than his fair share of time in the cells at Cannon Row and other police stations.  He calculated that he had probably been arrested around a dozen times on the Picket – twice for police obstruction, four times for noise pollution (which was not technically an arrestable offence), and twice for threatening behaviour.  When City Group was banned from protesting directly outside the Embassy in May 1987, and the Picket was forced to relocate to the steps of St. Martin-in-the-fields Church for two months, Andy was one of the activists who defied the ban, crossed the road, and attempted to re-establish the Picket’s right to protest where it chose.  He was arrested six times for ‘disregarding Commissioner’s Directions’.  As Andy said,

It was very daunting being arrested the first time – but I was carried through it by the empowering experience (I was seldom arrested alone) of singing in the cells, and people waiting outside for my release.

Ken Bodden, who during the time of the Non-Stop Picket worked politically under the name Ken Hughes, died on 20 October 2013 following a heart attack. Ken was born in Panama in 1950 and lost his sight at a very early age as a result of retinoblastoma. Like Solomon, he came to the UK to attend a specialist boarding school for blind people and that is where he first became politicized. Initially, the main outlet for his politics came through his love of sport. Ken was passionate about creating opportunities for blind and partially sighted children to participate in organised sports – becoming a Paraolympic cross-country skier.  As the 1970s progressed, he also became increasingly involved in anti-racist campaigning.  It was in that context that he first met members of the Revolutionary Communist Group, which he would later join and remain a supporter of for many years. Ken was a fine singer and played a key role in the development of City Group Singers – a task that he understood as a political contribution to the group’s campaigning and the vitality of the Picket. He also regular sang a wider repertoire of protest songs at City Group’s social events – few socials were over until Ken had been persuaded to sing The Ballad of Joe McDonnell. Here he is singing at a party more recently:

The final person we dedicated the book to was Jacky Sutton. We have not previously written about her death on this blog. In the years after the Non-Stop Picket, Jacky became a journalist, and worked for the BBC World Service in the late 1990s. She went on to work for the United Nations in various conflict and post-conflict locations. At the time of her death, she was working as the acting director in Iraq for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). When her body was found in a toilet at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in October 2015, while she was in transit back to Iraq, there was widespread concern that it appeared suspicious (especially as her predecessor at IWPR Iraq had been murdered a short while previously). Her family have since accepted a coroner’s verdict that she took her own life.

Jacky joined the Non-Stop Picket mid-way through its existence, after returning from two years living in Canada. Her older sister, Jenny, was already heavily involved in the Non-Stop Picket. For much of the time, Jacky juggled her commitment to the Non-Stop Picket with part-time studying and a secretarial job at the Angolan embassy. She was a committed member of the picket, regularly doing the Saturday over-night shift, as well as contributing to City Group’s committee and many of its key campaigns, especially the one for the Upington 26 (14). The following extract from her interview captures something of the energy and enthusiasm by which many picketers remember her:

I am not a good singer but I have good lungs and a loud voice. That was great – I found the cassette a couple of years back and I often find myself singing [along] at odd moments. The rallies were exhilarating and I remember losing my voice for three days.

Between them, these five people embodied so much of the spirit of the Non-Stop Picket. We are proud to be able to dedicate Youth Activism and Apartheid to all of them.

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Book launch event (27 November, Leicester)

Youth Activism & Solidarity Leicester Book Launch

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Mementos of Steve Kitson

Sunday 12 November 2017 marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Steven Kitson. Steve was born in 1957 as the eldest child of the South African communists and anti-apartheid activists David and Norma Kitson. In the 1980s, he became a leading member of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (after it grew out of the Free Steve Kitson Campaign which had been formed to protest his own brief detention by the apartheid regime in January 1982).

We told much of Steve’s biography in a blog post written on the 15th anniversary of his death from cancer in 1997:

Steve was born in London; but, as an infant, returned to South Africa with his parents in 1959, when they decided to deepen their involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle.  His father, a member of the second High Command of Umkhonto we Siswe (the armed wing of the ANC), was arrested in 1963 and sentenced to twenty years in gaol the following year.  Along with his mother and sister, Amandla, Steve endured two years of constant police harassment in South Africa following his father’s imprisonment before Norma moved her young family to London.  Each December, from the age of sixteen, he used the holiday period to return to South Africa to visit David.

On 6 January 1982, while visiting his father in gaol in Pretoria, Steve was detained by the South African authorities, accused of being an ANC courier and breaching prison security by sketching the institution.  Steve was violently interrogated – tortured – during his detention.  Norma and her colleague at Red Lion Setters, Carol Brickley (a member of the Revolutionary Communist Group), quickly mobilised everyone they could think of to demand Steve’s freedom.  The Free Steven Kitson Campaign was a success and he was released after six days.  Within hours of phoning London with news of his release, Steve’s aunt, Joan Weinberg (Norma’s older sister), was murdered in her flat in Johannesburg.  With Norma and the children in London, Joan had been David’s most frequent visitor throughout his imprisonment.  Her killers were never found; indeed, they were never sought.

During its brief existence, the Free Steven Kitson Campaign drew scores of new people into anti-apartheid campaigning for the first time.  In order not to lose this momentum, it was decided to transform the campaign into the City Of London Anti-Apartheid Group.  Steve played an active role in City Group over the years.  On both the 86-day picket of the South African Embassy in 1982 and the Non-Stop Picket four years later, as well as many protests in between, Steve taught picketers South African liberation songs. He frequently performed with City Group Singers. For many years he was a member of City Group’s committee, often working tirelessly in the office on the group’s financial and membership records, as well as contributing to its political leadership.  He used his software skills to develop a membership database for the group at a time when few comparable organisations could invest in such technology.

In our research, several people remembered the time and patience that Steve would invest during his picket shifts, explaining the history of South Africa, apartheid, and resistance to it. He was central to the political education of many picketers. Like other members of the Kitson family, Steve was sometimes targeted by the police, but was also prepared to risk arrest to defend the right to protest against apartheid. In that context, one of the other voices that attested to Steve’s caring personality came from a (now retired) police officer. She told the following story:

Weirdly one of my most abiding memories was of being on the picket one evening and a call for assistance from a colleague coming over the radio. There was a fight happening around the corner in the Strand. I remember leaving my post and running round to help out, having a bit of a roll around on the floor helping to arrest a drunken yob and then having to trot back to the picket as by right I shouldn’t have left it in the first place but some things would always take precedence. I was obviously out of breath, a bit pale and the after effects of the adrenaline had kicked in and my hands were shaking. Steven Kitson was on the picket that evening and after looking at me in a concerned fashion for a minute or two he came over and asked me if I was alright. I was really rather touched. You have to appreciate there was very little contact with the pickets, they didn’t talk to us and we didn’t to them unless it was to raise an issue. It was a very nice gesture.

To mark this anniversary, I wanted to post something new, that might help enrich this picture of Steve. So, I dipped once again into the two crates of his papers that still sit in my office. Two items from the files for 1984 intrigued me. They both serve as a reminder that, prior to his parents’ suspension from membership of the ANC and SACP, and City Group’s ‘disaffiliation’ from the national Anti-Apartheid Movement, there were high profile members of the ANC and SACP in London who were prepared to work closely with them.

The first item is a facsimile of a Passbook that was produced for an exhibition about apartheid, The Signs of Apartheid, that was organised by the Greater London Council’s London Against Racism campaign in 1984.

Passbook 1

What is perhaps most significant about this small brown booklet, that mimicked the internal passports used to control black workers (but, instead, contained information about apartheid), is the annotation inside it in Steve’s handwriting.

Passbook 2

In Steve’s small, precise, script it states “given to me by Adelaide Tambo”. I take this both as a personal aide memoire of a small gift from a leading anti-apartheid campaigner who remained close to the Kitson family throughout; but also as political act – archiving evidence of Adelaide Tambo’s friendship against accusations that the Kitson family were ill-disciplined and outside the ANC fold.

The second item from Steve’s papers speaks to the centrality of music to his life and his political work. It is a photocopy of an image of Steve, the City Group Choir, and the South African cultural activist James Madhlope-Phillips. Having arrived in London from South Africa in the 1960s, Madhlope-Phillips’ home was be a key site of comfort and welcome for new exiles as they arrived in England; it was also a crucial early meeting place for ANC members in London before a formal office was established there. In the 1970s, he was central to the formation of the ANC’s cultural arm Mayibuye. Out of that contribution, he dedicated himself to teaching the freedom songs of Southern African liberation movements to progressive choirs around the world.

James Madhlope Phillips with City Group Choir

James Madhlope-Phillips (centre) with City Group Choir. Steve Kitson is third from left. (Source: Steve Kitson papers)

The card thanks Madhlope-Phillips for his ‘guidance’ and for leading the choir in song at a conference (as part of City Group’s contribution to month of action against apartheid in March of that year). Once again, Steve’s decision to keep a photocopy of the thank you card they sent to Madhlope-Phillips suggests a double motivation. It is, of course, a memento of a fun and energizing day of singing. But, it was also an insurance policy, recording a day of cooperation with a leading member of the ANC’s cultural wing, at a time when the relationship between City Group and the AAM (as well as between Norma Kitson and the ANC) was heavily under strain. Even so, that a high profile member of the ANC/SACP did cooperate with City Group at this time suggests that the strain on those relationships was not shared universally.

Many of the songs that were central to Madhlope-Phillips’ repertoire became favourites for City Group members – frequently led by Steve Kitson, both as part of the choir, but also more spontaneously on shifts on the Non-Stop Picket. So here, then is a wonderful recording of James Madhlope-Phillips leading Shosholoza. Sing along and remember Steve Kitson.






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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.

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“Youth Activism & Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid” published

We are pleased to announce that our book Youth Activism and Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid is published, by Routledge, today. From April 1986 until just after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990, supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group maintained a continuous protest, day and night, outside the South African Embassy in central London. This book tells the story of the Non-Stop Picket and the experiences and motivations of the (mostly) young people from London and across the world who were inspired to build a direct action-based anti-apartheid solidarity movement in Britain. This book is simultaneously a history of a particular moment in British anti-apartheid activism; a study in the spatiality of solidarity and contentious protest; and a study of the place of young people in those social movements and in the urban landscape of London in the 1980s. Our book offers new insights to the study of social movements and young people’s lives. It theorises solidarity and the processes of adolescent development as social practices to provide a theoretically-informed, argument-led analysis of how young activists build and practice solidarity. A full outline of the book can be found here.

In the annals of late 20th century protest in Britain, the Non-Stop Picket stands out as one of the truly inspirational protests.  To think that people maintained a picket of the embassy night and day through freezing winters and pouring rain, for nearly four years, that’s truly extraordinary and heroic.  I feel in total awe of the people who were there around the clock, 24/7.  They made sure that the anti-apartheid struggle and in particular the demand for the freedom of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, was kept constantly in the public eye.  It was an incredibly effective form of protest by a relatively small, but highly motivated, passionate, idealistic people.” (Peter Tatchell, 19 December 2013)

This book 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 managed to track down and interview eight retired police officers, of various ranks, who had been involved in policing City Group’s protests in the mid-1980s.

Image generated by GPL Ghostscript (device=pnmraw)

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 record of their anti-apartheid campaigning. We were lucky enough to be granted privileged access to this privately held archive. 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.

We believe Youth Activism and Solidarity: The Non-Stop Picket Against Apartheid will be of interest to geographers, historians and a wide range of other social scientists concerned with the historical geography of the international anti-apartheid movement, social movement studies, contemporary British history, and young people’s activism and geopolitical agency.

The book is currently only published in hardback and retails for £105 (academic publishers tend to target the institutional library market first). However, if you order it through the Routledge website, you can use the discount code FLR40 to obtain a 20% discount. A more affordable paperback edition will be published next year (at which point, the price of the e-book will reduce too). In the meantime, if you are in a position to order or request a copy for your school, university, or local community library, we would really appreciate your help in bringing the book to a wider audience.

If you are interested in reviewing the book for a newspaper, magazine, blog, or academic journal, review copies can be ordered here (at the publisher’s discretion).

We would like to thank everyone how shared their memories and archives with us, and helped support and encourage our research and writing in multiple other ways.

We hope you enjoy the book and look forward to hearing your feedback on it.




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“It was a dark and stormy night” (against apartheid)

This weekend England is remembering the 30th anniversary of “The Great Storm” of 1987. On the night of 15 October, the South of England and France’s Atlantic coast were hit by one of the most powerful storms in living memory. The strength of the hurricane force winds were said at the time to be a 1 in 200 years event (but, then, those seem to be getting more common, these days!).

Station_closed_October_1987 (2)

David Wright [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

For many people, as with much of the media coverage currently surrounding the anniversary, the event is mostly remembered for (the television weather forecaster) Michael Fish’s infamous and inaccurate reassurance the evening beforehand that there was no hurricane on the way (watch it here). But, for anyone who was associated with the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy at the time, that night is remembered because the Picket remained continually throughout the storm. While the winds caused huge damage and disruption, not even a hurricane, they remember, could disrupt stop the Non-Stop Picket.

Here is the report that City Group published in the first issue of Non-Stop Against Apartheid after the hurricane. Mike Burgess’s report began with humorous and knowing nod to the much-mocked writing of the 19th century English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (and, we hope, Snoopy). We reproduce the story in full here:


Business as usual!


It was a dark and stormy night… Penny and I were due on the picket at 4am. She drove us through a hail of tree timber to arrive at 4.20. “Hold your hands in front of you, Mike, in case the windscreen shatters!” In strong winds it is not uncommon for the odd country road to be closed due to fallen trees, but Northumberland Avenue? … Chelsea Embankment?

The picket was three strong: Patrick, Martin, and Steve Kitson who was holding the furled banner against his shoulder and looking to all the world like something blown inland from the Cromer lifeboat. They had seen scaffold planks and twenty foot hoardings blown down from the front of the National Gallery. The police of course were tucked up snugly in their white van with the headlights on and the engine running – winter hibernation. Penny let Martin have her car keys so that he could doss down in shelter for an hour or so.

So when Steve went, there were three of us. At 4.30 the lights went out. I mean all the lights. Ten minutes later the Embassy lights came on again. They have their own generator. We had brought two flasks of coffee, which was useful until the cups blew away. And we stood holding the soggy banner and trying to stay upright in the wind.

At ten to six Penny had to go to work. She’s a bus driver. But the buses didn’t run, the cafes and the banks didn’t open. Brixton tube station didn’t open but Theo walked to the picket to relieve me at 6.45am. Only on the Non-Stop Picket was it business as usual.

It’s a story of determination, told with humour. Published as it was, in the public-facing newsletter of a protest that had been running continuously for almost exactly 18 months at that point, the story was used to demonstrate the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s worthiness and commitment to the anti-apartheid cause. When the rest of London ground to a halt, their activists were so determined that they battled through the winds to ensure the protest remained ‘non-stop against apartheid’. Over the next 28 months, whenever numbers dwindled, energy flagged, or tempers flared, the story of that ‘dark and stormy night’ was often retold to remind picketers of their collective commitment.

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Lost Legends: Leicester’s Black History

Lost Legends is a project celebrating thirty years of Black History Month in Leicester. At the heart of the project is a current exhibition at Newarke Houses museum in the city. The exhibition aims to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African and African Caribbean heritage people in the city. But it does a great job of contextualizing those achievements in wider social, cultural and political changes in Britain and beyond.

Earlier in the year, Gavin was approached to advise the Lost Legends project on the history of anti-apartheid campaigning in Leicester. He was happy to share with them stories about a number of key events and campaigns within the city and to signpost their researcher team to people and places who could give more detailed information.

The Lost Legends exhibition contains a number of stories about anti-apartheid campaigning in the city – from the renaming of Welford Road Recreation Ground as Nelson Mandela Park in the 1980s; the campaign to make the Highfields area of the city an ‘apartheid free zone’; and recurring controversies about the Leicester Tigers Rugby Club’s links with South African rugby teams in contravention of the international sports boycott of apartheid-era South Africa. In this context, it was great to see details in the exhibition of a couple of stories that came directly from our Non-Stop Against Apartheid research.

The exhibition remembers how striking SARMCOL workers from South Africa, on a speaking tour of Britain in early 1990, participated in a demonstration in Leicester’s Town Hall Square against the Poll Tax.

BHM Sarmcol text.jpg

Here are a couple photos of them at that demonstration :



While it was interesting to see this story included in the exhibition, it was a shame that (as far as we could see), the exhibition didn’t acknowledge the stories of the many more South African and Namibian anti-apartheid campaigners who spent time in exile in the UK and passed through either of Leicester’s two universities (often using British Council scholarships as a means of legitimately leaving their home countries). Several future parliamentarians and senior diplomats from both South Africa and Namibia spent time studying in Leicester before the end of apartheid. For a while, in the late 1980s, the UK offices of the South West African National Union (SWANU) – a Namibian national liberation movement – were based in Leicester’s West End (although, sadly, this too seems to have been overlooked in the Lost Legends exhibition). While I think it is important to examine the role of anti-apartheid campaigning within Black British history, as Elizabeth Williams has shown, sometimes telling the story of the Black British contribution to anti-apartheid solidarity can mean challenging the ANC’s dominant retelling of anti-apartheid history, and recognizing the resonance that Black Consciousness and Pan-African liberation movements had with many Afrocentric activists in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. There are other Lost Legends still to be remembered here.


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Youth Activism and Solidarity: A step closer to publication

Yesterday the copy editor’s comments and queries on the manuscript for our book Youth Activism and Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid arrived. I’ve spent the last day attentively working through every bit of changed formatting, spelling, and punctuation, to ensure the manuscript is in a good state.


This book has been a long-time coming – Helen Yaffe and I started our research about the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in 2011, and it has taken nearly three years from start to finish to produce the book. We are expecting to carry out a final, detailed check of the page proofs at the end of August. All being well, the book is due for publication early in 2018.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the former activists that we interviewed for the research, who had officially been part of our project advisory group, asked to see a copy of the manuscript. There’s always a moment of trepidation whenever you handover a piece of writing to someone who is potentially heavily invested in what it does (or doesn’t) say. That’s further exaggerated when sharing academic writing with non-academic audiences. Luckily, I needn’t have worried – a few hours later a message arrived on Facebook to say “I read a few pages and it’s all readable, not academic speak!” Given that our ambition was to write an academically rigorous book that was interesting and engaging for those who participated in the Non-Stop Picket, that’s a great endorsement to receive!

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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.

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