Forthcoming in Antipode 46(1)*, and available online now, ‘Practices of Solidarity: Opposing Apartheid in the Centre of London‘ by University of Leicester geographers Gavin Brown and Helen Yaffe examines the “complex, entangled and reciprocal flows of solidarity that serve to enact social change in more than one place simultaneously”, focusing on the spatial practices of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London (1986–1990). Here, Gavin and Helen discuss their paper, reflecting on its implications for radical geographical theory and practice…
Nelson Mandela’s critical health over recent months has once again drawn attention to the histories of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the international movement that supported it. As Håkan Thörn (2006) has suggested, the international anti-apartheid movement was one of the first truly global social movements of the twentieth century. And yet, geographers have thought very little about the geographies of that international solidarity movement and how it produced solidarity with those resisting apartheid in Southern Africa. Our new paper in Antipode studies the practices of a particular British anti-apartheid protest from the late 1980s to deepen a geographical understanding of solidarity.
For nearly four years, from April 1986 until just after Nelson Mandela was released from gaol in February 1990, supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group held a continuous protest outside the South African Embassy in London. The ‘Non-Stop Picket’ of the South African Embassy called for the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners in South Africa. It also called for the closure of the embassy and the severing of diplomatic relations between Britain and South Africa while apartheid remained in place.
Our research (funded by the Leverhulme Trust) seeks to record the history of the Non-Stop Picket and examine the spaces of solidarity that it created. Over the last two years, we have traced and interviewed more than 60 former picketers. Most were teenagers or in their early twenties at the time of the Non-Stop Picket, but we have interviewed participants across a five-decade age span. We have also interviewed some of their high profile political supporters, along with a number of the lawyers who defended them when the protest came into conflict with the Metropolitan Police. Unusually for a study of a contentious social movement, we have also succeeded in interviewing several of the police officers who policed the Non-Stop Picket. The project has benefited from privileged access to a unique, privately-held, archive of papers recording the Non-Stop Picket’s campaigning over the four years of its existence. Taken together, these sources offer a rich insight into how the Non-Stop Picket framed and enacted its solidarity with South Africa’s anti-apartheid opposition.
When the Non-Stop Picket was launched, in the mid-1980s, the crisis of white rule in South Africa was coming to a head, under increasing pressure from its opponents both inside and outside the country. The boycott of the new Tricameral Parliament by South Africa’s Indian and Coloured populations in August 1984 was a powerful blow to President Botha’s attempts to reform apartheid. The use of the army to suppress the revolt in the townships which began in September 1984 provoked political action by the country’s Black trade unions and attracted international condemnation. Around the world, anti-apartheid campaigners sought ways to increase their pressure on the South African government and its supporters.
In a situation where diverse groups were challenging apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) sought to consolidate its international position as the ‘sole legitimate representative’ of the South African people (Thomas 1996). This makes the study of the Non-Stop Picket all the more interesting. Although it called for the release of Nelson Mandela as its primary demand, the Non-Stop Picket did not restrict its solidarity to members of the ANC. Despite being one of the most visible expressions of British-based anti-apartheid solidarity in that period, the Non-Stop Picket was organised without the support of the mainstream British Anti-Apartheid Movement or the exiled leadership of the ANC in London. Among their motivations for withholding support were that the Non-Stop Picket offered solidarity and material support to Pan-Africanist and Black Consciousness movements in South Africa (in addition to the ANC), and refused to separate opposition to apartheid in South Africa from anti-racism in Britain. As Elizabeth Williams (2012) has demonstrated, many Black British groups shared this framing of anti-apartheid solidarity work; but, in the case of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, this ‘non-sectarian’ approach proved to be particularly controversial. And yet the support the Picket received from exiled members of the Pan-Africanist Congress and Black Consciousness movements also served to give it legitimacy in certain quarters – often amongst those who felt excluded from more mainstream anti-apartheid campaigning.
Through the Non-Stop Picket, the supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group produced solidarity in many different ways. These included, but were not limited to: practices of educating the British public about apartheid; mobilising support for action against apartheid (itself a bundle of various campaigning practices); collecting material aid for those resisting apartheid; and fostering cultures of resistance (to apartheid in South Africa and racism in Britain). These practices operated at multiple spatial scales and were orientated towards disrupting or reconfiguring spatial relationships between Britain and South Africa. They also developed rigorous procedures to ensure effective legal support and solidarity for the protesters themselves when they found themselves in conflict with the police. Together the performance of these acts generated affinity and solidarity amongst the members of the picket, as well as generating solidarity with those resisting apartheid in South Africa and Namibia. These practices not only sought to embody the group’s political understanding of the role of a solidarity organisation, they also served to sustain the Non-Stop Picket as a highly visible expression of opposition to apartheid in the centre of London.
The individual practices pursued by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group may not have been unique to that group, but they were assembled in the context of the Non-Stop Picket to enact a specific understanding of international solidarity. In examining how this played out, in context, our work contributes to recent geographical debates about the spatialities of solidarity (Koopman 2008; Featherstone 2012; Routledge 2012). Too often, in the broader social sciences, discussions of political solidarity overlook the range of practices through which solidarity is mobilised and enacted. International solidarity is frequently presented as an asymmetrical flow of assistance travelling from one place to another. In contrast, we argue that relations of solidarity can travel in more than one direction simultaneously, building complex webs of reciprocity.
For more stories from the Non-Stop Picket, take a look at our project blog – http://nonstopagainstapartheid.wordpress.com/
Featherstone D (2012) Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism. London: Zed Books
Koopman S (2008) Imperialism within: Can the master’s tools bring down empire? ACME 7(2):283-307
Routledge P (2012) Sensuous solidarities: Emotion, politics, and performance in the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. Antipode 44(2):428-452
Thomas S (1996) The Diplomacy of Liberation: The Foreign Relations of the ANC Since 1960. London: Tauris
Thörn H (2006) Anti-Apartheid and the Emergence of a Global Civil Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Williams E (2012) Anti-apartheid: The Black British response. South African Historical Journal 64(3):685-706
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*Antipode 46(1) will be available in print late this/early next year, and will include Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Antipode AAG Lecture, ‘Scattered Speculations on Geography‘, and papers on the Occupy movement and ‘the 1%’ in Canada, performative research and a climate politics of hope, and urban movements in Turkey, among many others.