Twenty five years ago, on 19 April 1986, the Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy in London, in which the RCG played a leading role, was launched by City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (City Group).
It was against a background of escalating repression in South Africa – and escalating resistance – that the Picket, which called for the release of Nelson Mandela and all South African political prisoners, began. Despite the murder, detention and torture of thousands in South Africa, the struggle of the black masses against apartheid intensified. In response, solidarity movements across the world forced their governments to impose sanctions against South Africa. In the United States, the broad and militant Free South Africa Movement, led by black organisations, forced even the Reagan Administration to distance itself from the apartheid regime. Only in Britain, South Africa’s foremost backer, was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher able to remain apartheid’s staunchest ally, famously conceding only ‘a tiny little bit’ in the face of Commonwealth pressure for sanctions. That she was able to do so was testament to the political weakness of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement.
The Picket was to remain on the pavement outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square for nearly four years, 24 hours a day, despite the combined attempts of the British police, the British government and the South African embassy representatives to remove us, despite hundreds of arrests and court cases as well as the sectarian attempts of the AAM to undermine us – despite the 1987 hurricane and the coldest winter in 40 years –until the release of Mandela in April 1990, a defiant, highly visible and constant protest against the racist apartheid state and British collaboration with it.
This remarkable protest did not come out of nowhere. City of London Anti-Apartheid Group had already established itself as a principled, anti-imperialist, democratic and active organisation that had rehearsed many of the battles of the Non-Stop Picket over the previous four years. At the end of 1981, ANC member Norma Kitson, whose husband David Kitson, a leading member of the South African Communist Party wing, was serving a 20-year prison sentence in South Africa, had organised alongside members of the RCG and others for the release of her son, Steven, arrested while visiting his father. Out of the success of that campaign, which secured Steven’s release within days, City Group was born, and affiliated to the official British AAM. That August, City Group organised a major campaign to highlight the appalling conditions in which South African political prisoners, including David Kitson, were being held in Pretoria Central Jail. This first non-stop picket of the South African Embassy lasted 86 days until these prisoners were moved to better conditions. Hundreds of young people, many of them black, rallied in solidarity with those fighting racism in South Africa. The picked united broad forces, from Irish prisoners of war to trade unionists and politicians – including, initially – the AAM.
City Group was founded on basic principles of solidarity: non-sectarian – giving support to all those fighting apartheid and understanding that the fight against the racism of the British state went hand-in-hand with the fight against apartheid in South Africa; it was open and democratic, allowing all who participated to state their views and distribute their literature. In contrast, the AAM came out of the rotten sectarian tradition of the British Labour and trade union movement, tied to the apron strings of British capitalism. One particularly shameful example was in 1986, when the chair of the AAM, Labour MP Bob Hughes, openly sought to undermine a mass boycott of the Commonwealth Games, due to be held in Edinburgh – a protest against Thatcher’s support for apartheid – on the basis it would threaten ‘Scottish jobs’.
The AAM sought to dictate the leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle, recognising only the ANC and its allies and denying a platform to other organisations such as the Pan African Congress, AZAPO and the Black Consciousness Movement; most of all, it was terrified of any confrontation with the British state, while City Group always understood that any real mobilisation against the South African Embassy would bring you up against its defenders, the racist British police. The AAM began to organise against City Group – and particularly the RCG – with more vigour than it had ever done against the British government’s collaboration with apartheid, culminating in the carefully orchestrated expulsion of City Group from the movement in February 1985.
However, despite the machinations of the AAM – which warned trade unions and local anti-apartheid groups not to support us and asked Westminster Council to have us removed, the Non-Stop Picket thrived. It garnered support and admiration internationally and nationally, and made alliances with black organisations such as the Broadwater Three Defence Campaign, striking miners, Greenham women and political groups. Always believing that the best way to defend a democratic right is to exercise it, we faced down the harassment and brutality of the police, which saw nearly a thousand picketers arrested, winning 96% of our court cases. When, in protest at the white-only elections of May 1987, three protesters threw red paint at the doors of the Embassy, closing it for the day, the police seized on the opportunity to ban us from outside the Embassy. For weeks, protesters gathered on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields on the opposite side of the road, regularly crossing the road to stand in front of the Embassy and face arrest. Through this principled campaign, which drew in four Labour left MPs to join us in practical solidarity, we eventually won the
right to protest directly outside South Africa House.
The Non-Stop picket held rallies for the Sharpeville 6 and others who faced the death penalty, drew thousands into a march for Nelson Mandela in 1987 and another for Moses Mayekiso and the Alexandra Five in 1988. We went into schools, colleges and workplaces and made common cause with the Dunnes Stores strikers in Ireland, sacked for refusing to handle South African goods. Picketers occupied South African airways and organised trolley pushes at supermarkets that stocked South African goods; we demonstrated against South African Zola Budd running under a British passport of convenience and other South African sportspeople. The broad anti-imperialist nature of City Group was reflected in the Irish and Palestinian flags that frequently flew on the picket, and speakers from liberation movements who spoke at our events. Many picketers were young people, many unemployed or even homeless, as well as communists, anarchists, members of the WRP and the Humanist Party, Quakers, musicians and even a few principled Labour councillors. A whole generation was educated in the principles of anti-imperialist solidarity, of active campaigning – and in understanding the role of the racist British state and its henchmen, the police.
The Non-Stop Picket ended after the release of Nelson Mandela, although City Group continued to campaign until the first full, free elections were held in South Africa in May 1994. But its lessons of how to build a vibrant and democratic campaign should not be lost. For any campaign to be effective it must be anti-imperialist, it must be non-sectarian and democratic, based on the working class and prepared to fight on the streets, through its propaganda and through the courts to defend the right to protest. Most of all, it must make common cause with all those fighting to bring down British imperialism.