The great cause of the 1980s. PA

Boycotts, rallies and Free Mandela: UK anti-apartheid movement created a blueprint for activists today

A star-studded line-up including Sting, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder and Miriam Makeba performed at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute at Wembley Stadium in London on June 11 1988. Whitney Houston summed up the mood as she caught her breath and told the crowd:

We could have been anywhere in the world we wanted to be today, but we are here to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday. What a courageous man.

She was watched by 600 million-plus viewers in 67 countries, even if no South African TV station would have dared to show footage. Later described as the “biggest and most spectacular pop political event of all time”, this was the zenith of the campaign to bring apartheid to international public consciousness.

The momentum for change in South Africa had become all but unstoppable. After 26 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela was the world’s most famous prisoner. He was embedded in popular culture and the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement. Within 18 months he would walk free, destined to become the first president of the “new” democratic South Africa.

This struggle is often represented as being driven entirely by Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC). Yet many other organisations and activists also contributed, and none more than the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), which co-organised the 1988 celebration. Established 60 years ago, today’s activists could learn much from its dedicated campaigning.

Freedom fighters

Britain and South Africa share a long history shaped by colonialism, war, migration and racial segregation. By the late 1950s, colonised African nations were gaining their independence from Britain, but the UK remained a firm ally of the white minority regime at the base of the continent.

Yet these same historic connections ensured that the British public was sufficiently aware about South Africa to allow opposition to apartheid to take root. It first emerged in the form of the Boycott Movement in 1959, growing out of the mounting opposition to colonialism.

Graves to Sharpeville’s 69 fallen. Wikimedia

Founded by the likes of exiled South African activists Tennyson Makiwane and Abdul Minty, the Boycott Movement soon attracted backing from Labour MP Hugh Gaitskell and Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe. It aimed to persuade British people to avoid South African products, particularly fruit.

The group morphed into the Anti-Apartheid Movement in April 1960 amid the international outrage over the Sharpeville Massacre, in which South African police fired into a protesting crowd, killing 69 people and injuring several hundred more.

Let battle commence

The movement has not been without its critics. Some academics point out that it failed to directly influence British government policy towards South Africa. It is certainly true that its many attempts to lobby government ministers directly were largely unsuccessful, but this was a reflection of the era in which it was operating.

Particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, many British politicians tolerated South Africa because it was an important anti-communist ally in the cold war. There were also substantial trade links between the two countries that would have hurt British business if they were unwound.

Yet the AAM kept apartheid on the British political agenda throughout the cold war years and during major UK crises such as the miners’ strike of 1984-85. The movement constantly innovated and adapted campaign methods to raise public awareness.

Thousands of activists from Plymouth to Inverness devoted enormous time and energy to building a mass social movement. Besides lobbying politicians, they held public rallies and vigils, petitioned to have political prisoners released, disrupted sporting events, and pushed boycotts of everything from rock concerts in South Africa to oranges in supermarkets.

Activists regularly picketed stores selling South African products and distributed leaflets and stickers to passing shoppers encouraging them to “look at the label”. By 1986, an estimated 15 million in Britain were boycotting South Africans goods.

Even so, Margaret Thatcher was reluctant to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. She was heavily criticised by many Commonwealth leaders and of course the AAM, which began targeting major corporations like Barclays Bank and Shell to withdraw from South Africa.

Activists picketed company headquarters and disrupted shareholder meetings. They also campaigned for students not to bank with Barclays. In 1986, the bank duly withdrew from South Africa, citing global opinion as a key reason.

Yet the most well-known AAM campaign of all was Free Nelson Mandela. It began in the late 1970s, when the ANC and AAM decided to promote Mandela’s reputation, presenting him as the symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle.

One AAM strategy was to campaign for British streets to be renamed after Mandela. Maybe the earliest example was the north London suburb of Brent, which unveiled a Mandela Close in 1981. Today, the UK has more streets named after Mandela than anywhere outside South Africa.

As the 1980s wore on, liberating Mandela became the article of faith that tied together the many AAM campaigns. Jerry Dammers of The Specials organised a massive Free Mandela festival in London in 1986, having released a dedicated single several years earlier. Then came the monumental birthday celebration at Wembley in 1988. Freeing Mandela had become perhaps the greatest cause célèbre of the era.

Lessons from the movement

The AAM was a perfect example of how a movement unified behind a single objective could succeed with innovative campaigning, despite opposition from across class, generational and ideological divides. The AAM was sufficiently decentralised that individuals could campaign at a grassroots level in ways they saw fit, while contributing to the wider cause. It shows the importance of thinking globally while acting locally.

The AAM has influenced many movements confronting the big challenges of our time. Perhaps the best example is the global disinvestment campaign against the fossil fuel industry. Pro-Palestine campaigners have used similar tactics over Israel, while also pushing boycotts of Israeli goods.

Looking back at the 1980s, it is easy to take for granted the AAM’s influence, reach and success. In reality, it provided a blueprint for how to win a cause with patience and creativity – and dogged determination.

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