Solidarity action: Organising non-stop against apartheid - book review

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

Gavin Brown and Helen Yaffe

Routledge Spaces of Childhood and Youth Series, 2017,

ISBN 978-1-138-82886-5, 244pp, £105

This publication is timely and important for those who want to struggle against political and economic power today. The bulk of the book is made up of contributions from participants of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African (SA) Embassy in London in the 1980s and is a record of the picket through interviews with 90 of the individuals involved, including regular supporters, solicitors, members of parliament and retired police officers. The authors also had access to the privately held archives of City AA and thank Carol Brickley and her comrades who helped look after the papers over the last two decades and the Revolutionary Communist Group for providing access to them.

The four-year Non-Stop Picket of the SA Embassy in London’s Trafalgar Square was an unsurpassed event in British politics. From April 1986 until February 1990, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (City AA) pledged to sustain a continuous protest until Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. This they did.

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 struggle against the state.

How and why the Non-Stop Picket (NSP) evolved is explained in the context of Thatcher’s Britain, the post-industrial 1980s which saw a massive rise in youth unemployment, homelessness and dereliction in British cities. The Conservative government supported the Apartheid regime in South Africa. A dithering Labour Party was slowly moving towards New Labour ‘realism’ but some of its sections sponsored ‘respectable’ solidarity movements for Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile and the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). The defeat of the Miners’ Strike 1984-85 which was a consequence of a divided Labour movement, led to an atmosphere of political stalemate and unfinished business. It was in this context that the impact of the Kitson family from South Africa in combination with members of the Revolutionary Communist Group became an electrifying and polarising force in the anti-apartheid struggle.

British-born David Kitson was one of the longest serving white political prisoners in Apartheid’s jails from 1964 until his release in 1984. He was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and played a crucial role in the early days of the armed struggle in the 1960s, acting as a bomb instructor for Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Like her husband, Norma was a member of the SACP working in its underground cell structure in the ANC. She was also arrested, detained and harassed by the police. In 1966, following David’s arrest and imprisonment, she moved to exile in London with her children, Steven and Amandla Kitson and continued to campaign for David’s release.

Steven visited his father in prison as often as possible but on 6 January 1982 during a visit he was accused of being an ANC courier, arrested and tortured. The Free Steven Kitson Campaign was immediately launched in London by Norma, Carol Brickley and David Yaffe of the Revolutionary Communist Group, lobbying everyone they could think of for Steven’s release and calling protests outside the SA Embassy in Trafalgar Square. After six days Steven was released. Within hours Norma’s sister, Joan, who had been the main link with David in prison, was murdered in Johannesburg.

The Free Steven Kitson Campaign mobilised hundreds of young people into anti-apartheid activity and in order not to lose this momentum it was decided to transform the campaign into City AA as a local group of the national AAM. The next mobilisation was launched in August 1982 on David Kitson’s 63rd birthday. His health was deteriorating rapidly in a cell on death row in Pretoria Central prison and City AA began a round-the clock picket outside the Embassy demanding that the British Foreign Office intervene on behalf of David and his fellow political prisoners. On 8 November 1982 they were moved to less harsh prison conditions. City AA claimed this as a victory for the 86-day non-stop picket and held a celebration on the pavement outside the Embassy.

Factionalism in the British Anti-Apartheid movement had inevitably kicked in. The London ANC and the AAM said that they could not support a campaign for a particular group of prisoners and would only support campaigns for all political prisoners. There were many hundreds of political prisoners in South African jails. City AA soon made it clear that its protests were on behalf of all South African political prisoners, not only those of the ANC but also of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA) and the Namibian liberation movements (SWAPO and SWANU).

On his release from prison in 1984 David returned to London only to be met by hostility and sectarianism. When he refused to condemn Norma’s activities in City AA, both he and Norma were suspended from the ANC by Solly Smith and Francis Meli who were then based in London and who were later exposed as agents of the Apartheid regime. Both Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu called for the suspensions to be lifted in the 1990s, which happened, but David and Norma were never incorporated back again into ANC structures and politics.

Norma and David always maintained that there were deeper politics underlying their treatment. David also had long-standing differences with SACP theoretician Joe Slovo and others over revolutionary strategy. These political differences were real but they were also manipulated by South African Military Intelligence (BOSS).

When President PW Botha was expected in Britain for talks with Prime Minister Thatcher in June 1984, the AAM planned various protests. City AA held a week-long picket from 26 May until 1 June outside the Embassy. Paint was thrown at the Embassy gates by a national AAM member and striking miners piled coal on the Embassy doorstep to protest against the import of South African coal during the strike. Given the heightened security concerns, the Metropolitan Police decided this was an opportunity to ban all protests outside the Embassy. Superintendent Dark of Cannon Row Police Station informed Carol Brickley that a banquet for President Reagan, Thatcher, et al, was being held at the National Portrait Gallery on 8 June and as a result a City AA picket outside the Embassy would be banned. It became clear that the intention was a permanent ban on all demonstrations at the Embassy and a meeting between Carol Brickley, Richard Balfe MEP and Commander Hewlett confirmed this. Carol reported that, ‘Commander Hewlett informed us that this was his decision based on his own personal interpretation of the Vienna Convention catering for the “peace and dignity” of embassies’. City AA was prepared to resist this attack. On 8 June over 200 people assembled on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Duncannon Street, across the road from South Africa House. Among the demonstrators were MPs Ernie Roberts and Jeremy Corbyn, and Rodney Bickerstaffe of NUPE.

At approximately 6pm 18 demonstrators crossed the road and assembled in front of the Embassy. They began to sing, chant slogans, distribute leaflets and collect signatures. Within five or six minutes they were all arrested without being told why and bundled into waiting police vans. Half an hour later another six protesters crossed the road and were also arrested. They were all released without charge after being held for only a couple of hours.

In response to the ban, City AA convened the South African Embassy Picket Campaign (SAEPC) to win back the right to protest directly in front of South Africa House. Defiance of the ban continued with people risking arrest each Friday evening.

At this point Commander Hewlett summoned the AAM leadership to a meeting. Hewlett’s notes of 6 July 1984 record Mike Terry, Executive Secretary of the AAM, saying that while he opposed the ban, steps to alter the new policy would be taken by his organisation but these would be legal as ‘his movement did not seek confrontation’.

Later that same day Hewlett met with the Convenors of the SAEPC. They were advised to follow the lead of the AAM in avoiding confrontation. The SAEPC did not take that advice. That evening 26 protesters crossed Duncannon Street to break the ban and this time they were charged with obstructing the police in the course of their duty. From then on, every Friday a protest was held at the time of the regular picket of the Embassy. By 16 July at least 137 people had been arrested including three MPs – Tony Banks, Stuart Holland and Jeremy Corbyn – and five Camden councillors. Five demonstrators were imprisoned for breaching bail conditions which forbade them from taking part in the protests. Legal opinion by Stephen Sedley QC suggested that the police ‘were not executing any duty known to the law when they cleared the pavement and arrested persons who remained there’. City AA defendant Richard Roques stood as a test case on 1 August 1984 at Bow Street Magistrates Court. The Chief Stipendiary Magistrate for Central London, Mr Hopkins, dismissed the charges against Richard. A week later, in the light of this decision, the police dropped the charges against the other 136 protesters.

The victory for the SAEPC was an embarrassment for the national AAM which had advised its members not to participate in the SAEPC and not to demonstrate directly in front of South Africa House. One of the consequences was that City AA was characterised as a ‘hooligan element’ and on 23 February 1985 it was disaffiliated as a local group of the AAM. The AAM leadership invented rules that required City AA members to live in the City of London and to stop distributing leaflets and literature other than those of the AAM on events. These rules did not apply to any other AAM local group. The enmity of certain leading personalities on the left, like Seumas Milne (now Corbyn’s press adviser) and Bob Hughes, Labour MP, was to be enduring.

Of course, City AA was not alone in protesting against apartheid. The AAM headed a national demonstration of 50,000 through the centre of London on which City AA had a vibrant contingent. But many marchers felt that marching and going home was an institutionalised format that was not proportionate to the anger and demands they felt. On 19 October 1985 City AA led a spectacular protest outside the SA Embassy which was reinforced by students who crossed the road from a National Union of Students (NUS) rally in the centre of Trafalgar Square to join the action. The sit-in led to the arrests of 322 people for blocking the road directly in front of South Africa House.

When City AA decided to launch the Non-Stop Picket (NSP) calling for the release of all political prisoners in Apartheid gaols in April 1986, it was partly because it had become urgent to give visible support to the increasing militancy in South Africa against the regime. In the words of Carol Brickley: ‘There was an enormous community uprising, effectively. In Alexandra Township they had workers councils, they were talking about making South Africa ungovernable at one point. So, 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 sheer brutality of the regime.’

City AA launched the 24-hour, seven days a week picket because it felt it could. It had grown to be one of the largest anti-apartheid groups in Britain and could draw on the experience of the 86-day non-stop picket and the weekly pickets of the Embassy over four years. Nevertheless, it was a daunting prospect to hold a small, physically fragile presence in front of that mighty building in the centre of London. The Metropolitan Police tried many ways of stopping the picket over the 46 months of its existence. These had to be dealt with firmly but flexibly. At one point the police decided that nothing bigger than an A4 box could be placed on the pavement. So it was arranged for a pile of rubble to be deposited there, which the police duly confiscated and took away to Cannon Row Police Station. Convenor Carol remembers: ‘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 they are keeping it carefully.’

Bullying from the police was a continual threat to picketers with unending attempts to stop the use of megaphones on the grounds of ‘noise pollution’. On Remembrance Sundays, the Picket was always fearful of attack by reactionaries and calls for support were put out. ‘We had to have enough people to defend ourselves’ remembers one picketer.

City AA also challenged the police over sexual assault in the course of arrest and a writ was issued against the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and civil action was taken in the courts to challenge the treatment of women protesters. Racist insults were common from the police and the public. In June 1988 1,500 protestors rallied outside the Embassy for the Soweto commemoration rally and 600 black balloons were released. When the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group was brought in to forcibly clear protesters away from the Embassy gates they targeted black people with particular brutality. This was the racist British state defending its support for the racist regime in South Africa.

The closure of the SA Embassy was one of the intentions of the NSP. The aim was to expose, target and disrupt British economic, political and diplomatic links with apartheid South Africa. In the words of Carol Brickley at the launch of the Non-Stop Picket: ‘Britain is up to its neck in apartheid and that’s why we are here today, that’s why we are making our protest and that’s why we are going to stay here’. One of the rituals the picketers were to develop over the years was to point at South Africa House and chant, ‘Britain out of apartheid, apartheid out of Britain’.

On 6 May 1987 three City AA members threw red paint on the Embassy doors to protest against the whites-only election taking place in South Africa that day. The Embassy was being used as a polling booth for white South Africans in London and the protesters’ defence was that they had taken action to prevent the crime of apartheid. The police, once again, banned protests outside the Embassy and City AA picketers, now exiled on the north side of Duncannon Street once more, launched a civil disobedience campaign, crossing the road to protest. Over the next two months 172 arrests were made, but as before, City AA went on to win in the courts. All the charges were dropped.

Over the years of activity, discussion, meetings, writing leaflets and newsletters, the picket built a politics of solidarity of not just words, but deeds. It was to be a solidarity not just in form, but in practice. Everyone was welcomed and included in the picketing. All sorts of political and religious groupings supported the picket over the years including the RCG which played a large role in the leadership of City AA, but there was little sectarian hostility and no censorship of contributors. The Picket made common cause with visitors from other anti-imperialist struggles and campaigns against British state racism like the anti-deportation Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign and the Defend the Broadwater Farm Three anti-police harassment campaign.

At the same time the challenge of maintaining the picket day and night meant that there had to be structures in place and the rules, once decided, had to be obeyed. Picket rules included no talking to the police but directing them to the picket steward. No exchanges with hostile South Africans or fascists were allowed, no drugs or drinking on the picket and agreement to follow steward’s instructions. There was a picket book that had to be signed on arrival, rotas to relieve picketers had to be observed, and money donated by the public to be handed in.

There were other, more intangible yet more exciting disciplines to be observed. Many of those who became the core of the picket were young and new to politics. They had to learn and mostly were eager to learn. For some it was a challenge to revise their pacifist inclinations when they learned about ANC military organisation. But they educated themselves and each other, sometimes by listening to political speakers like David Yaffe and Trevor Rayne, sometimes by preparing talks and speeches themselves. It became necessary to keep up with the news from South Africa and current affairs in Britain to carry out the task of daily response to public, media and state criticism. A series of talks was given on ‘the picket university’ and in City AA meetings with subjects like the importance of gold in the capitalist economy, and the history of British colonialism.

The interviewees in this book remember that the hard work and tedium of sustaining the picket day and night in all weathers was relieved by the special events that shaped the time. A weekly women’s picket ‘Viva the Women’ was held on Thursday evenings. Special anniversary events were organised each year for particular occasions like the Sharpeville Massacre and the Soweto Uprising.

The openness of the picket, placed as it was in the centre of London, attracted a far wider range of individuals than many picketers had ever met before. The authors of this book explore the implications of the geographical space of the picket as a meeting place of office workers, theatre fans, late night revellers and early morning cleaners. Homeless people came for the relative safety of the picket and lonely people came for company. It became a daily task to protect each other from the homophobic, misogynist, racist police and public. To believe in the slogan of solidarity meant to act in solidarity. Whether distant struggles or the person standing next to you, picketers lived in solidarity.

The picket also transformed the notion of the public performance of protest. Norma Kitson introduced picketers to the singing that was so prominent in the South African struggle and The City Group Singers was established with an ever-growing repertoire of liberation songs. Banners and placards were regularly made and replaced as they wore out in the weather or to publicise new prisoners and news. Mothers and children were often prominent on the picket making a link with their counterparts living under apartheid. John Carlisle, Conservative MP for Luton North and stalwart supporter of apartheid, described the NSP in Parliament as ‘more than a nuisance … a motley crew’. And indeed, it was, and the picketers chanted ‘We are a motley crew’ with enthusiasm.

The question of how to confront the state and the police was a central part of the picket experience. The precedent was established early on that anyone arrested would get a legal defence but, more than this, they would get moral and physical support. As soon as arrests occurred the police station where they were being detained was picketed with chanting, placards and noise until they were released. This guarantee built trust between picketers and gave people the confidence to defend the right to protest. In the words of one young woman: ‘Norma explained it so well, communicating white-hot indignation and absolutely no anxiety, and gave us assurances about the legal and peaceful nature of this prime piece of civil disobedience’.

On 2 February 1990, at the opening of the new (whites-only) Parliament in South Africa, President FW De Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC, the PAC and the South African Communist Party. On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The previous year other veteran prisoners had been released including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada of the ANC and Jafta Masemola and President Zephaniah Mothopeng of the PAC.

Picketers prepared for the final day of the Non-Stop Picket with turbulent feelings of joy and fear. Joy that apartheid in South Africa was coming to an end, fear about the loss of the comradeship of non-stop picketing.

City AA continued to be active throughout the early 1990s with high profile solidarity campaigns for the Upington 14 on trial in South Africa, support for striking fruit farmers in Zebediela. City AA and AZAPO members occupied the offices of The Guardian newspaper for refusing to report the strike.

The transition period until the first general election where black people could vote and the election of Nelson Mandela as President was difficult. The ANC sent out confused messages about the Sports Boycott and the AAM sent contradictory guidance to its groups about joining in the 1992 campaign against the all-white rugby tour, the Springbok Reception Committee which was organised by City AA and others.

During its four-year existence the Non-Stop Picket had become so much part of the fabric of London’s centre that postcards from all round the world arrived with the directive, ‘Non-Stop Picket, London’. Yet when Mandela visited London in April 1990 he made no reference to the picket or City AA, and despite letters from many of the activists asking that he meet them, he did not. There is no evidence outside the Embassy today that the picket ever existed. This book puts right the historical record which is one reason why it is so welcome.

Another reason to welcome this book is that this history provides lessons for success in campaigning today. The first of these is, do what works, don’t limit yourself to what is respectable or acceptable to establishment norms. The next is, respect the value of being highly organised and the function of a hierarchy. The leadership must be accountable and elected, and rules and decision-making should be respected. Tasks should be given to new activists and they should take responsibility for contributing. Keeping the focus on the political and oppositional tasks reduces the influence of sectarianism and can resist the power of the state to undermine solidarity by divide and rule. City AA was able to neutralise the influence of the undercover agents sent in over time and was able to resist the forces which have dismantled so many social movements over recent years. It is a shame that this highly recommended hard-back book is so expensive. We hope that the publishers will consider a paperback at a more reasonable price. Meanwhile we urge readers to order it from their libraries.

South Africa today is not the South Africa dreamed of. The 2012 Marikana massacre of 34 striking miners with, allegedly, the collusion of the National Union of Mineworkers, indicates a state which puts the interests of multinational companies before those of the working class. So, for the vast majority of South Africans, as for the rest of the world, the struggle goes on.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 262 February/March 2018

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