For nearly four years in the late 1980s the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (or, City Group, as they were known) kept a constant vigil outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. The Non-Stop Picket for Nelson Mandela became a feature of London’s landscape and an iconic image of global, grassroots opposition to apartheid. As a teenager, I participated in the Non-Stop Picket. Nearly a quarter of a century later, as an academic, I am researching its history.
The Non-Stop Picket began on 19 April 1986. It kept going, day and night, until Nelson Mandela was released from jail in February 1990. The main demand of the Picket was Mandela’s unconditional release, but it was always about more than this. Although the Picket recognized the symbolic importance of Nelson Mandela as a leader of the struggle against apartheid, it also called for the release of all political prisoners in South Africa, for the implementation of full sanctions against South Africa, and the closing of the South African Embassy in London.
The proposal to launch a Non-Stop Picket for the release of Nelson Mandela was made by the exiled South African activist Norma Kitson in early 1986. City Group had been regularly picketing the South African Embassy since 1982. Building on that experience, it had the organisational capacity to consider the daunting task of committing to maintain a constant presence outside the embassy until Mandela was free. Although international pressure was building at the time calling for Mandela’s release, the decision to launch the Non-Stop Picket was not purely based on the case of just one man. It was a response to the increased anti-apartheid militancy inside South Africa that threatened to make the country ungovernable. In 1986, the end of apartheid appeared to be in sight.
Day and night, the supporters of the Non-Stop Picket stood on the pavement directly in front of the embassy’s gates. A key task for picketers was asking passers-by to sign the petition calling for Mandela’s unconditional release. By the time the Non-Stop Picket celebrated its 1000th in January 1989, over half a million signatures had been collected.
There were other activities and protests too. On 6 May 1987, there were parliamentary elections in South Africa. With apartheid still in place, and anti-apartheid leaders like Nelson Mandela still imprisoned, the Black majority were denied a vote in these elections. In response and protest, City Group organised an alternative, just election – an opportunity to ‘vote for Mandela’. In preparation for this campaign, the group produced ‘voting cards’ in the form of a postcard. ‘Voters’ were encouraged to put their name to the demand “We call for the immediate release of Nelson Mandela and all South African political prisoners and detainees”. They were instructed to post their vote back directly to the Non-Stop Picket on the pavement outside the South African Embassy. The Post Office, obligingly, delivered them.
On Mandela’s 71st birthday in July 1989, the words “Happy Birthday Mandela” were spray-painted in the black, green and gold colours of the ANC on the wall of the South African Embassy. By painting those birthday greetings on the fabric of the Embassy, its legitimacy was challenged, with Mandela and the ANC, as representatives of the Black majority in South Africa, symbolically displacing the representatives of apartheid.
When Nelson Mandela finally walked free from on Sunday 11 February 1990, thousands of people converged in Trafalgar Square to celebrate. After nearly four years of their constant presence outside South Africa House calling for his release, the Non-Stop Picket had captured the imagination of Londoners and become the obvious place to mark that historic occasion. For those who had been a regular part of the Non-Stop Picket, this was a day of celebration. It was the culmination of what they had been campaigning for and provided a genuine sense of victory.
The former non-stop picketers that we have interviewed over the last two years are proud of what they did in the late 1980s. They recognize that their protest played only the smallest part in securing Mandela’s release, but they value the role they played in keeping Mandela and the broader issue of apartheid in the public eye during that period. They celebrate the end of apartheid and the fact that the Black majority in South Africa now have the vote and can participate in democratically determining their future. Nevertheless, many former picketers have expressed disappointment with what the ANC government has achieved since 1994.
Although the release of Nelson Mandela was the headline demand of the Non-Stop Picket, for many who participated in that four-year protest, Mandela was only the symbol of something bigger. They not only wanted to see an end to apartheid as a human rights abuse, they hoped for the end of apartheid as an economic system based on the exploitation of cheap African labour. Since the end of apartheid, the ANC have promoted a myth that both their resistance to apartheid and the solidarity of the global anti-apartheid movement was always directed towards the kind of negotiated transition that eventually took place in South Africa. The history of the Non-Stop Picket reminds us that many opponents of apartheid hoped for more radical social transformation and redistribution of wealth in South Africa. Former participants in the Non-Stop Picket celebrate Nelson Mandela’s leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle; recognize his importance as a symbol of resistance during his long imprisonment; but, question his legacy as post-apartheid South Africa’s first President.
Dr Gavin Brown, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Leicester.