Today in London radical history: entire non-stop picket of S. African embassy arrested, 1989.

Racism and White Supremacism are currently fashionable again, after a few decades when even rightwing politicians felt it politically unacceptable to express toxic garbage about one ‘race’ deserving to rule over others or loot their resources, or spout pseudo-scientific bunkum about racial intelligence and criminality. Not that these ideas weren’t bubbling away under the surface, but many who kept them under their hats are now crawling out from under stones. What with political developments in the USA, Britain, France Holland racist idealogues are undergoing a renaissance.

Its instructive to remember that it’s less than twenty-five years since the end of Apartheid in South Africa, one of the most infamous white supremacist regimes, an inspiration to Nazis, swivel-eyed nationalists and master races everywhere.

Apartheid became so notorious a relic of 19th century colonialism and racial attitudes that it aroused not only mass opposition from the black majority population in South Africa, but international campaigns to support change there.

London was an important centre of the movement to end apartheid, on many levels. Not only was the exiled African National Congress based here, as were hundreds of S. African activists unable or unwilling to live under the apartheid regime… mass demos calling for the end of apartheid were held here, as well as long-standing boycott campaigns and actions against S. African economic and political targets.

Londoners also became involved in the armed resistance to apartheid.

Another visible and longstanding expression of solidarity with black South Africans was the Non-Stop picket of the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square, maintained by the supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group from 1986 – 1990, calling for the release of imprisoned black African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, jailed in 1963 for organising armed struggle against the South African regime.

City AA Group had been formed by Norma Kitson (an exiled ANC member), her children, friends and supporters in 1982. The Revolutionary Communist Group formed a crucial core of the picket, but the politics of regular attenders varied widely. City Group’s unconditional solidarity with all liberation movements in South Africa and Namibia (not just the ANC and SWAPO, but also the Pan-Africanist Congress and AZAPO amongst others) and its principled linking of the struggle against apartheid with anti-racism in Britain led to group’s eventual expulsion from the national Anti-Apartheid Movement. City Group deployed diverse tactics, including direct action, to express its solidarity with those opposed to apartheid. Its support for those sidelined by the exiled leadership of the ANC was valued by activists in South Africa.

The picket was kept up 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for four years. Members of the picket would leaflet and petition passers-by, whilst others made impromptu speeches on a megaphone or sang South African freedom songs. Larger themed rallies were held on Friday evenings, and on Thursdays the Picket’s numbers swelled as supporters danced to the music of a group of street musicians, the Horns of Jericho.

“Materially, it consisted of little more than a hand-sewn banner held up on two lengths of sturdy doweling; and, it occupied only a few square metres of the pavement in front of the embassy’s gates… The few supplies that the protestors were allowed to keep ‘on site’ were stored under a tarpaulin beneath a nearby tree. Those supplies were mostly things that were integral to the their campaigning – boxes of fliers advertising their next large protest; copies of their petition; and, spare batteries for their megaphone. Practices relating to all of these objects were contested by the police in the first few months of the Picket. The picketers fought hard – on the streets and in the courts – to defend their right to protest on their own terms… The Picket’s banner was useful in proclaiming its cause. It could arrest the attention of passing pedestrians just long enough for a picketer to engage them in conversation. Picketers often wore hand-drawn placards adorned with anti-apartheid slogans, or the names of political prisoners, on strings round their necks. These added to the visual impact of the protest. Whenever there were more than two people on the Picket, some protestors would form a line in front of the banner, distributing leaflets and soliciting signatures on the petition for the release of Mandela. The Picket always had a large stock of clipboards for this purpose. In fact, to most picketers, they became known as ‘petition boards’. With a petition pro forma clipped to it, the board could rest comfortably on the forearm and be presented, expectantly, to people passing by. Conversations initiated over a petition board were central to spreading news of the Non-Stop Picket, raising essential funds, and recruiting new people to its anti-apartheid cause. The act of petitioning brought conflict with the police who, in the name of preventing highway obstruction, tried to contain the picketers to the smallest possible space on the (very wide) pavement. They also used local bylaws against ‘illegal street trading’ to try and prevent the Picket from collecting donations.

The group’s megaphone was also a major source of conflict. The Non-Stop Picket had a distinct soundscape. Picketers taught each other and sang songs from the South African anti-apartheid struggle. Most picketers learnt the songs phonetically and the process involved a degree of trust to sing lyrics in languages (Zulu and Xhosa) that most could not understand. These songs could help re-energise the picket and cohere it as a collective when spirits were flagging. In addition to singing these ‘freedom songs’, picketers chanted and used the megaphone to amplify their chanting. This always served more than one end – it was another way of publicising the protest; but, just as importantly, picketers hoped their noise would disturb the work of apartheid’s diplomats inside the embassy. It clearly did, as embassy officials pressed the Metropolitan police to curb the picketer’s use of amplified sound during their office hours. The police tried many tactics to quieten the Non-Stop Picket, including charging them with noise pollution. The picketers stood their ground, refused to be intimidated and won, eventually.” 

Positioned on the pavement directly outside South Africa House, the picket was strategically placed to draw attention to apartheid and bring pressure to bear on the regime’s representatives and allies in the UK.

“From its very beginning in April 1986, the form and presence of the Non-Stop Picket was contested by the Metropolitan Police, under pressure from the South African Embassy. In the early days, the police would not allow the protestors to place any of their belongings on the pavement. At all times, two picketers had to hold their banner in place.”

The Embassy repeatedly brought pressure on the British Government to ban the protest, and for nearly two months in 1987 (6th May – 2nd July), the Picket was removed from outside the Embassy by the Metropolitan Police (following an action in which three City Group activists threw several gallons of red paint over the entrance to the Embassy). During this period, the Picket relocated to the steps of nearby St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church and activists repeatedly risked arrest to break the police ban on their protest and defend the right to protest outside the Embassy. The police used an arcane Victorian bylaw, “Commissioner’s Directions”, which allowed the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to curtail public gatherings within a mile of Parliament, to allow MPs free movement to go about their business, to ban the Picket during this period. Eventually, the ban was broken when four MPs protested outside the Embassy alongside other picketers and the police were unable to justify the ban any longer. In total 173 people were arrested during City Group’s campaign to break the police ban and defend the right to protest. All charges were eventually thrown out of court.

One on occasion, March 11th 1989, the entire picket was arrested; all of the Picket’s infrastructure and equipment was removed by the police.

It appears that on this occasion in 1989, a lone picketer had been arrested for ‘littering’ (after dropping a cigarette butt on the pavement).  This, of course, is not an arrestable offence.  But the police took the opportunity to arrest the entire picket and remove all of its equipment.  City Group’s Picket Organiser arrived a short time later, turned the corner into Trafalgar Square and found the Picket gone.  He asked the police on duty where the Picket was and received a cheeky “what picket?” in reply.  The arrested picketer(s) and equipment were traced to Bow Street police station and the equipment was ferried back to Trafalgar Square in a taxi within an hour, so that the Picket was firmly re-established.

The police were on a particular offensive against the Picket around that time – the following day, the Picket was moved from outside the Embassy gates for seven hours when the police invoked Commissioner’s Directions.

This and many more first hand accounts of the non-stop picket can be found here

… and another account here

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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