Anti-Apartheid: The Black British Response

Elizabeth Williams. South African Historical Journal. Volume 64, Issue 3. September 2012.

Although histories have been written about the transnational character of the anti-apartheid solidarity movement, thus far little has been written about the black voices raised in solidarity in Europe or in Britain, arguably the centre of the international anti-apartheid movement. There is a long history of pan-African sentiment from the late nineteenth century among Africans of the diaspora settled and transient in Britain. The deteriorating racial situation in South Africa throughout the twentieth century therefore attracted the concern of black communities living in Britain. People of African descent in Britain felt the insult of apartheid most keenly because of past and contemporary manifestations of racism in Britain. This empathy was transformed into acts of solidarity and material support. Black Britons viewed the African liberation struggle in Southern Africa with more than casual detachment. There was a willingness to identify with the liberation struggle whether through supporting the ANC or the PAC. However, there were ambivalent feelings in some quarters about the former. The following article will focus on aspects of black British anti-apartheid solidarity during the nearly 45 years of apartheid.


During the 1980s, the fight against apartheid reached an international crescendo of opprobrium, perhaps not seen since the anti-slavery campaign of the late eighteenth century. Although histories have been written about the transnational character of the solidarity movement, thus far little has been written about the black voices raised in solidarity in Europe for the anti-apartheid struggle. For black communities in Europe, apartheid was to coin Cobley’s phrase ‘never far from home’. Indeed it could be argued that the brutality and dehumanisation of the system of apartheid was just a harsher form of the racism black communities faced on a daily basis in Western Europe.

The following article will focus on aspects of black British anti-apartheid solidarity during the nearly 45 years of apartheid. It will examine the ambivalent sentiments that some held towards the African National Congress (ANC) in comparison to its rival the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). The figure of Nelson Mandela, and his elevation as the acceptable face of African demands for political restitution, not only worked to unite the colour divide in South Africa but also to ameliorate the misgivings of radical black activists in Britain. Many were suspicious of the ANC’s vision of a multi-racial future with its accommodation of former white supremacists and those whom benefited from apartheid because of the colour of their skin. However, Nelson Mandela was the latter-day Martin Luther King, and like his esteemed American predecessor he exhibited similar qualities of reconciliation that spoke of a potential happy ending to a cruel past history. Furthermore his unquestioned loyalty to the African National Congress and qualities of statesmanship radiated a reflected glory towards the ANC boosting its popularity for a time, as the answer to South Africa’s political multiracial future.

Setting the Scene

In Britain the champion of anti-apartheid action was the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). It advocated for the ANC at a time when it was seen as a dangerous terrorist organisation and was described in such terms by the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her parliamentary colleagues. British government policy was determinedly one of keeping the dialogue open with the Nationalist Government which had entrenched apartheid. But the AAM’s insistence on remaining a single-issue movement, that of building international opposition to apartheid, rather than pursuing domestic struggles against racism in Britain, did little to enamour the organisation to black anti-racists. Furthermore the white-led AAM’s preference for the ANC over the PAC with its more strident views on the role of whites in the liberation movement again left some black activists suspicious of the ANC. For a number of reasons this perspective changed. What follows provides insight into the factors that led to the ANC’s acceptance among black anti-racists in Britain, as the prime liberating force in South Africa.

Once in exile, and competing to attract supporters, neither the ANC nor PAC could ignore the black community in Britain, a vital constituency of potential support with a unique understanding and affinity for their struggle. The ideological split between the ANC and the PAC travelled with their representatives as they went into exile and set up external missions in London in the early 1960s. Despite being cold-shouldered by European governments, the ANC experienced a better reception in Europe than the PAC among anti-apartheid supporters. This was mainly due to the ANC’s superior organisation, particularly in international forums such as the United Nations, and its strong and capable leadership figures, with fewer of the splits and divisions that weakened the PAC. The ANC managed to attract funding and support from a broader spectrum of people in Britain and Europe. Crucially those who resisted apartheid in South Africa kept its name alive during their protests against the state. The ANC was therefore able to present a persuasive argument before international observers that it was the main representative of African aspirations fighting for liberty in South Africa.

The Beginnings

The formation of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) in 1959, came out of the boycott movement of the late 1950s. This had the strong support and backing of the Committee of African Organisations (CAO), an amalgam of African and West Indian anti-colonial groups interested in political independence for all colonial territories as well as in championing the cause of African rights in South Africa. From the 1960s there was a growing level of consciousness among the post-war community of black Britons regarding anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles abroad. The growing awareness of Southern African affairs was aided by press coverage of the atrocities unfolding in South Africa throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The influence of the CAO in the early years of the AAM soon waned as members returned to their countries. Individuals such as Kwame Nkrumah took up positions in government and public life as their countries gained independence from colonial powers such as Britain and France. At the same time the small black community in Britain was augmented by a steady stream of migrants who entered Britain from the West Indian Islands, Africa and Asia from the early 1960s onwards. During the 1970s the majority of ordinary black citizens concentrated their energies on settling in Britain. The immediate priority for most black families was not to join pressure groups like the AAM but to try and integrate into British society as unobtrusively as possible. In terms of their detachment from anti-apartheid activism, they were no different from the rest of the population. Despite the high media coverage of anti-apartheid protests in the early 1970s, the majority of the population were slow to become active members of the AAM. According to Robert Hughes,

Thirty years ago by and large the British press was very insular; they didn’t really follow foreign affairs. People used to say to me in the seventies, never mind all that South Africa stuff we need to concentrate more on what’s happening at home! Looking back it took a long time to get off the ground, when I became chairman at the AGM’s there was only about 50 to 60 people in 1975.

However, it was not long before black communities throughout the country began to encounter the challenges of racial discrimination, from the legal restrictions for visiting family members to unfair treatment in employment, housing, education, and the law. These experiences caused many to empathise with people of colour elsewhere and to redouble their efforts to fight everyday challenges to their humanity. Although there was an absence of black faces at AAM-sponsored events or in local AAM groups, there were occasions when the presence of black engagement and support was notable, for example during the run-up to the Springbok rugby tour and the cricket tour in the early 1970s. The game of cricket was a passion for many people from the West-Indies, a positive legacy of colonial rule. South Africa’s extension of apartheid into its sporting activities with divisions between white teams and coloured teams had not gone unnoticed, especially, the practice of its cricketing authorities to arrange matches only between their all-white teams and the white teams of Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, while avoiding India, Pakistan and West Indian cricket teams.

In 1970, in the cricketing world South Africa was barred from the International Cricket Council, and several Commonwealth countries, India, Pakistan, Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica and the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa threatened to boycott the forthcoming Commonwealth games in Edinburgh if the proposed cricket tour of Britain was not cancelled. Members of the black community in Britain were equally keen to express their dissatisfaction against the white sporting authorities of South Africa. The issue of racial equality and fairness in sport where the colour of one’s skin should not matter, only the sporting talent of the individual, many identified with and considered an ideal to strive towards. Many were willing to oppose the manifestation of racial discrimination in sporting life. Therefore Jeff Crawford, secretary of the West Indian Standing Conference (WISC), contacted Peter Hain, organiser of the ‘Stop-the-Seventies-Tour’ to discuss the contribution black Britons could make to the planned demonstrations against the South African team. Crawford went on to form the ‘West Indian Campaign Against Apartheid in Cricket’. This was an umbrella group that included a range of church and left-wing black groups which helped to make their presence felt alongside other protesters disturbing the ‘business as usual’ attitude of the South African teams as they tried to play with the backing of their British sponsors. Significantly this stance gave visibility to the strength of West Indian support in Britain against collaboration with apartheid practices in sport. The late Ethel de Keyser, veteran campaigner of the AAM during this period, acknowledged that although at this time the AAM did not manage to make a strong connection with the black community, members of the community were very visible during the ‘Stop-the-Seventies-Tour’ sport boycott in the early 1970s. Furthermore De Keyser argued the strong black presence, ‘tipped the balance at Lords’ in favour of the protestors.

Undoubtedly, the involvement of the West Indian Standing Conference in galvanizing black communities in London and around the country enabled a strong show of support. A few years later, in June 1976, the Soweto massacre prompted a march of protest from members of the community. In October local black groups led by WISC marched from Notting Hill in West London, an area with a significant number of West Indian residents, to the South Africa Embassy, South Africa House in central London. They marched in protest at the South African government’s brutal response towards African children rebelling against enforced educational disadvantage. But such public displays of support were rare largely due to the fact that black activists in the community concentrated upon campaigning against domestic manifestations of racism.

Domestic Challenges

Groups such as WISC did combine local and national campaigns for racial justice with activities that highlighted similar struggles abroad. However, when blacks did express any form of public protest, the police used strong-arm tactics in order to quell what they saw as a threat to public order. Clashes between the police and black youths at the annual Notting Hill Carnival during the 1970s and 1980s, were a clear example of this. Undoubtedly black youths used these occasions to vent their anger and protest at the way they felt the police treated them. The style of policing was confrontational and interpreted by black communities as unduly hostile and violent. The Special Patrol Groups seemed to specialise in aggressive policing techniques; roaming the streets of London they stopped, searched and arrested young black men. For example, in 1981, a report was published which detailed cases of confrontation between police and members of the black community. The report detailed six attacks on black people in the Lambeth (Brixton) area by the Special Patrol Group (SPG) between 1975 and 1979. According to the report over 1,000 people were stopped on the streets, 430 arrested; 40 percent of those arrested were black, more than double the estimated black proportion of the local community.

Confrontations between black youth and the police reflected the growing tension between the police and sections of the black youth population. They were angry at continual police harassment and frustrated over their decaying inner city environment and poor job prospects and services that bore the brunt of the government’s cut-backs. Among sections of black youth who came of age from the mid-1970s and early 1980s, there was a growing self-awareness and cultural consciousness which looked for inspiration in struggles elsewhere. Many were attracted to Rastafarianism with its emphasis on Africa, and its redemption from white oppression. In Britain, white policemen were viewed as part of a broader system of white oppression. Recalling this period, the journalist Onyekachi Wambu said,

I was angry about a lot of things and wanted to solve a lot of problems. The discourse around southern Africa was one of those … we had that discourse through music. All these resonances were going on in how we saw ourselves in a concrete jungle, Bob Marley was singing about Soweto. It was very clear that we were part of a wider kind of rebellion of young African youth, and the words used to describe that was ‘African’.

Wambu’s growing consciousness of Southern African affairs did not arise from direct contact with the AAM or the ANC for that matter, but through music, and he was not alone. In the wider culture of popular black music, reggae artists were Afrocentric in their world-view and conscious of anti-imperial struggles in Africa, so they began to incorporate the themes of black liberation struggles in their work during the 1970s and 1980s. The messages of these songs penetrated deeper into the black community. For example the lyrics to the British reggae band, Steel Pulse’s ‘Biko’s Kindred Lament’ released in 1976 from the album, ‘Tribute to the Martyrs’, reinforced in song the outrage felt at Steve Biko’s untimely death. Similarly the song ‘Gimme Hope Joanna’, a top 10 UK hit for reggae artist Eddy Grant from the album ‘File Under Rock’, which was banned in South Africa and released at the height of international anti-apartheid protest, presented a message of hope that change must and would come.

The social and cultural impact of these artists and their music in politicizing sections of the black community was significant, and much like calypso in the Caribbean, provided a commentary on the salient matters of the day. For instance, the song, ‘MPLA’ by artist Tapper Zukie, spoke quite clearly about the wars in Southern Africa and European interference. Most notable were Bob Marley’s songs, laden with the theme of black pride and struggle. Marley’s music and its message had arguably a profound impact on black youth in Britain as did Steve Biko and his ideology of Black Consciousness on the generation of African youth growing up in South Africa during the late 1970s. After Biko’s death, his ideas of African pride and cultural affirmation spread across the black diaspora. Furthermore, recognition of the impact of Marley’s music and the cultural bridge it had formed with Africans in their struggle was demonstrated by the invitation he received to perform at Zimbabwe’s Independence celebrations in 1980, which he did to great acclaim.

It appears that the home-grown reggae artists with anti-apartheid messages in their music had a greater impact on black Britons than any ANC cultural groups touring the country with anti-apartheid themes as part of their act. Why this was the case is hard to ascertain; the musical output of South African artists who had become internationally well known such as Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Lucky Dube, were certainly appreciated. However, reggae, soca, calypso and other forms of black British and West Indian musical acts had a firmly established fan base among music lovers in the black community. Their commercially produced music would have been easier to access than touring anti-apartheid musicians and cultural acts. Trips to Britain by ANC cultural groups were usually sponsored by the AAM, which did not have established contacts within black communities to showcase these acts widely. From the late 1970s and during the 1980s, despite the cultural boycott, individual black artists did manage to travel to South Africa to work with African artists or received African artists who visitedBritain. As well as calling for solidarity, some musicians made direct comparisons between the struggle of Africans in South Africa and the black community’s fight against racism in Britain. Moreover within the black music underground in London and around the country with sizable black populations, there was a well-established tradition where deejays functioned as cultural historians or in Grant Farred’s words ‘vernacular intellectuals’. These individuals were often the interpreters of social and political affairs and expressed critiques of the societies where black communities found their civil rights denied. The politics of race in Britain and South Africa was a constant theme. The broader anti-apartheid movement during the mid-1980s used the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday to raise awareness of the struggle against apartheid. Tapping into the emerging public spectacle concert culture, the Mandela concert in 1983, and the Jerry Dammers and Dali Tambo organised Mandela tribute concert in 1988, was a breakthrough for the AAM in reaching a national and global audience. Black as well as white artists were prominent during the performances of these events.

Perspectives Towards the ANC and PAC

In Britain, the black activist response towards the ANC and PAC shifted between coolness towards the former, and a greater level of appreciation towards the latter which rejected the multi-racialism of the ANC and advocated an African-focused nationalism. The PAC’s emphasis on African agency and self-determination in leading the liberation struggle without white involvement was a perspective shared by Pan-Africanist groups in Britain such as the Afro-Caribbean Self Help group, Black Action for the Liberation of South Africa and others that organised the annual African Liberation Day (ALD) events. These groups were more receptive to the PAC’s ideology of racial exclusivity than to the non-racial ideology of the ANC, which made room for the inclusion of all races in the struggle against apartheid. This fundamental principle was embodied in the ANC’s Freedom Charter of 1955. During the 1960s, the newly independent African leaders did not understand the ANC policy of non-racialism or its willingness to include communists in the movement. Non-racialism was interpreted as an excuse for continued white domination. It seemed to be too similar to the multi-racialism in Kenya and the multi-racial partnership in the Central African Federation which Africans interpreted as the further entrenchment of white settler rule. Furthermore, African leaders expressed doubts over whether black Africans were actually in control of the ANC because of the prominence of other racial groups. The PAC was viewed as the more genuine expression of African nationalism.

The question was one of who would predominate and hold the ultimate power in controlling the riches and destiny of South Africa. The ANC’s answer according to the principles and aspirations stated in its Charter was that South Africa belonged to all the South African people; all ethnic groups should have an equal stake in the public life of the nation and its future destiny. However, the PAC’s answer to this was that only the original inhabitants and owners of the land, the African people, had the right to determine the future of the country. Even though the ANC’s vision for a non-racial South Africa ultimately became the reality, a significant minority of Africans in South Africa did not share the ANC’s non-racial perspective and the PAC was the embodiment of this opposing view. Moreover, significant numbers of black activists in the diaspora including in Britain, shared this sentiment. While the ANC was supported whole-heartedly by white progressives as well as some black supporters, the PAC found more sympathy and allies among black radical activists and Pan-Africanists. They shared a suspicion and distrust of the motives of white progressives who benefited from the status quo whether they held racial prejudices or not. Sceptics argued that it was in the interests of self preservation that white liberals supported a non-racial democratic solution for South Africa as represented by the ANC instead of the PAC. By the mid-1980s as the ANC gained more prominence and recognition even from Western critics, there was a general shift to the realisation that the ANC with its multi-racial platform was more fully endorsed by the African majority, and could bring relatively peaceful change to South Africa. However, expressing what he felt may have been a greater level of sympathy for the strident views of the PAC, a former member of the AAM and its Black and Ethnic Minority Committee (BEM) stated,

There were [black] elements in this country that were racially ‘exclusive’. There was recognition that you could have people who were anti-apartheid but did not necessarily support the ANC, more supported the PAC. We worked with them, did not necessarily agree with their wider perspective but we did work with them.

A former head of the National Union of Students and a supporter of the AAM while a student, is more direct:

Black political activists were hostile to the ANC … I’m talking about organised community groups, activists within the black community, people in the Black Unity and Freedom Party all these kinds of people were more interested in the black nationalist perspective in South Africa, as a consequence they were rather hostile to the ANC because the ANC was consciously multi-racial, they were also hostile to it because of the involvement of the Communist party and they were suspicious of the Communist party.

The extent to which local black communities may have drawn ideological distinctions between Southern African liberation groups is impossible to measure. In the view of the musician and poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who was a prominent figure of the young black intelligentsia in the late 1970s and 1980s, many black Britons were not attuned to the ideological distinctions between the ANC and PAC:

I don’t think ordinary black people in this country really made any distinction about PAC or ANC, politically minded people would be split, the more radical progressives would be pro-ANC and black nationalists would be pro-PAC but in terms of the general population, I don’t think people made any distinction between the two. As long as you were struggling and fighting against apartheid and fighting to free black people, people identified with them whoever they were.

Furthermore black activists were suspicious of the AAM and it did not help that the hierarchy of the AAM tended to favour the ANC. The organisation formally recognised both liberation movements, but in practice, relations with the ANC were warmer and more productive. This bias was inbuilt from the beginning. A significant factor was that the AAM originated in direct response to the ANC’s request in 1959 to boycott South African goods. From this point the two organisations worked in tandem mutually supporting each other. The ANC established and maintained an independent presence in London, at its office which functioned as its external mission headquarters. The AAM, on the other hand, often acted as an interpreter of its objectives to the British people and was its main support in Britain and on the international stage. At the same time, critics of the ANC were condemning its opposition to a western-orientated government in South Africa. The ANC’s armed struggle was labelled as terrorist.

In Britain, black activists pointed to the fact that the presence of African representatives at the ANC offices seemed non-existent and that this gave the impression that white South Africans were in charge and directing the struggle. A former executive member of the AAM and founder of its Black and Ethnic Minority Committee explains why this seemed to be the case, at least initially:

There were not a lot of blacks in the ANC leadership here at first. Look at the society they came from. A lot of the white South African members of the ANC were fairly well off people. A lot of the Asians were well off … they were able to run away and come here and live comfortably and work in professions. When the ANC allocated tasks they were performed by those living here in this country they were the people available. Not enough black people were in the office, the real decision makers were white. It is only when people like [Thabo] Mbeki came visiting or Mendi [Msimang] that you saw black people.

However, others have provided an alternative perspective on the seeming absence or invisibility of African ANC members exiled in London. It has been suggested that the mainly white volunteers in the ANC London office did not reflect the depth of African involvement in coordinating and directing ANC operations. Volunteers in the public realm of the office were allocated different roles to those Africans working clandestinely behind the scenes.

As the 1980s progressed, black radicals in Britain once hostile to the multi-racialism of the ANC began to acknowledge that in comparison to the PAC, the ANC was in a stronger position to steer South Africa into a new political dispensation. As one who understood the frustrations that radicals felt over the prominent position of whites in organisations fighting for black rights, Lee Jasper, an anti-racist campaigner, describes the transformation of thought that some underwent:

There were lots of debates around PAC and ANC colleagues. But we understood that the motor of history was behind the ANC, regardless of what one’s personal political views were. When you’re seeking freedom from a ruthless and totalitarian regime, you have to make political alliances on the basis that to build a critical mass is the most effective way of ridding yourself of the oppression. You don’t allow the small ideological differences of interpretation to become a bulwark against you working together to overthrow [injustice].

From the mid to late 1980s, the gradual acceptance of the ANC with its emphasis on multi-racialism by black activists coincided with growing recognition and support of Nelson Mandela and what he stood for.

Identifying with the Liberation Struggle in South Africa

Irrespective of anti-racist struggles in their local areas, individuals and community leaders in the black community often chose to take a stand against what they saw and heard about the apartheid state. Urban black youth easily identified with the struggles of African youth in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The cultural anthropologist William Henry described his experience as a young clerk working in London for a city solicitors firm as being the norm for most of his peer group during the 1970s:

Every time I had to leave the office to take errands for my boss within the city it would always take twice the length of time than it would for my white counterparts. White policemen would repeatedly stop me and question me at length about why I was in the area, where I was going, where I lived. It became pretty bad … I was not the only one, many of my black friends suffered the same thing as they moved across London … eventually I told my employer who could not believe it … he wrote a letter, like a ‘pass’ stipulating who my employer was and confirming my personal details and the permission I was given to move about on the company’s behalf. This was no different to the South Africa ‘pass book’ as far as I’m concerned.

Similarly Lee Jasper was radicalised by his experiences with the police in the 1980s:

Obviously the struggles that young black people were going through in the UK in the early 1980s, resonated with the struggles that were going on in the South Africa townships and began to see pictures of black young people in tremendous struggles with South African police services … it resonated with our own experience of policing in largely poor black working class areas of Liverpool, Manchester, Handsworth, Brixton. It seemed to have a universal metaphor for black experience, and it was one that viscerally affected lots of black people in the country.

Sections of the black press also drew parallels between how blacks were being treated in Britain and the treatment of Africans in South Africa. In casting doubt on the motive of the British government’s immigration policy in upholding the deportation of illegal immigrants who always seemed to be people of colour, an editorial in West Indian World commented that

Our feeling of security has been shattered … before we walked the streets of this country as free citizens, entitled to the protection of the law, like anyone else. It never occurred to any of us that we will be stopped by an official policeman … like the blacks of South Africa [and] have to produce the British version of the pass – the passport.

The black newspaper West Indian World was singled out for praise by the AAM for its features and expanded coverage of Southern Africa including a front-page appeal to its readership to support the AAM’s ‘Free Mandela’ campaign. The campaigning role of the BBC’s radio programme ‘Black Londoners’, was also commended in the AAM’s annual report, especially its concentration on Mandela and its support of the patriotic front, while publicising AAM demonstrations and other anti-apartheid activities in London that it urged listeners to support. Moreover for the organisation, the most significant contribution of the community at that time was the commitment of black groups to stop the South African Barbarians rugby tour. Before the South African rugby team’s arrival in 1979, the West Indian Standing Conference and Asian groups pledged their opposition to the tour and called on their members not to attend any matches. During conversations with the author, the radio presenter Alex Pascall made clear his deliberate strategy to invite members from most of the southern African liberation movements exiled in Britain and to provide them with air-time to discuss their struggles. AAM representatives were also invited to explain to predominately black listeners the internal and regional affairs of South Africa, as well as to publicise forthcoming anti-apartheid demonstrations and campaigns in support of the patriotic front.

The daily ‘Black Londoners’ radio programme was broadcast by BBC radio throughout the London area and listened to eagerly by most black households. It became an important vehicle for the discussion of domestic and international issues that affected the African and black diaspora world. Its lively phone-ins allowed listeners opportunities to express their views on a range of current affairs. The programme spoke to and for those black Londoners whose views were often ignored by the mainstream media. Many black musicians and artists were given air-time, as were black community leaders and those seeking political office. Recognition of the programme’s influence upon the black community was demonstrated by the number of politicians from the mainstream parties that requested air time on the programme to campaign for electoral support. In summing up his approach to covering South African issues while under restrictions from the BBC to be politically neutral, Pascall recalls,

You had to be careful on the radio not to voice anything controversial against the powers that be … we allowed those who wanted to make their comments to be free to comment … using the arts, particularly the voice of the singers and the messages that came through … for instance the ‘Mighty Sparrow’s ‘Isolate South Africa’ a powerful song, ‘Duke’ another Calypsonian ‘How many more must die’, when Biko went and ‘Brother resistance’. Every time I played it the South African embassy wrote to the BBC to get rid of me!

For Pascall, the abiding legacy of the programme was that it ‘educated and informed the black community … I had to be so careful within the BBC. The BBC never wanted open blatant discussions.’

Pascall’s testimony and other accounts demonstrate that despite the low membership of black members in the AAM, the black community was fully informed and engaged in anti-apartheid activity. Furthermore as the 1980s progressed the AAM noticed that ‘Members of the black community in Britain are increasingly involved in the campaigns of the AAM as well as taking their own initiatives in solidarity with the liberation struggles in Southern Africa.’ Black newspapers like the West Indian World and Caribbean Times carried reports of AAM campaigns and encouraged their readers to get involved in boycotting South African goods or companies that traded with South African counterparts. The readers were encouraged to boycott Rowntree-Mackintosh products to coincide with the AAM’s week of action. In 1983, the ‘Black British Standing Conference Against Apartheid Sport’ was formed by the ‘Mohammed Ali Sports Development Association’. Along with other British-based Caribbean organisations such as the West Indian Standing Conference, it spoke vigorously against the private tour of West Indian cricketers to South Africa. The Standing Conference against Apartheid Sport contributed to the success of the international conference on sanctions against apartheid sport by ensuring the participation of black sportsmen and women and by organising a programme of activity for the ‘International Year of Mobilization for Sanctions against South Africa’. The objective was to include significant numbers of young black sportsmen and women into the sports boycott. An invitation was extended to the AAM to be present at the launch in Brixton, which it duly accepted.


Collaboration between some black community groups and the AAM began in earnest from the mid-1980s when activists from the AAM staffed a ‘Free Mandela’ stall at the Notting Hill Carnival. According to Christabel Gurney, who was an AAM member and the editor of Anti-Apartheid News, the AAM was able to make a moderate impact within the black community through its Black and Ethnic Minority Committee. The Committee became involved in providing a float in the procession on both days of the Notting Hill carnival and contributed to the ANC stalls. Every year from 1985, volunteers distributed flyers and posters, met at the home of AAM members and were asked to wear T-shirts with slogans that proclaimed ‘South Africa Freedom Now!’ Later the AAM set up a carnival committee in the early 1990s to plan how the anti-apartheid message could be conveyed to the crowds. In making links with racism in Britain and South Africa, the BEM produced flyers headlined ‘Black Solidarity Smash Apartheid Now!’

At carnivals, signatures were collected and AAM material distributed. Black councillors in London were prominent in campaigns for ‘Apartheid-Free Zones’ in local boroughs. Apartheid Free Zones were declared in boroughs like Lewisham and Camden, and outside London in the St Paul’s area of Bristol where the black community took the lead in organising a boycott of the local supermarket chain of Tesco. It was noted in the annual AAM report that black newspapers such as West Indian World, and The Caribbean Times, and the ‘Black Londoners’ radio programme were outstanding in their constant support and publicity given to the AAM and its campaigns, unlike the mainstream press.

The report also singled out for praise a television programme ‘Black on Black’, which was aimed primarily at the black and ethnic minority viewing public, for its coverage of Southern African affairs and solidarity campaigns in Britain. The visit of the African American politician and US presidential candidate, Jesse Jackson in January of 1985, to give a public address in Trafalgar Square, attracted hundreds of people, 25–30 per cent of whom were black. The AAM acknowledged that Jackson’s speaking engagements provided ‘an important boost to anti-apartheid work among the black community’. Jackson addressed a well-attended church service in Notting Hill, West London and spoke to 70 black councillors and community leaders. On the agenda were issues of racism at the local, national and international level. Ben Bousquet, a member of the AAM Executive Committee at the time, organised this meeting at short notice. Jackson’s itinerary included meetings with a range of organisations in the black community, at which the need to support the AAM and engage in anti-apartheid campaigns was strongly stressed. This visit stimulated anti-apartheid activity in the black community. In line with the call to boycott South African goods by the AAM, boycott campaigns were taken up by black activists and local black organisations in areas with a significant number of black residents. For example, the Black Parents Movement in Haringey, North London, and black community groups in Brixton galvanised their members to shun shops and products that had traceable connections with South Africa.

The following year, the annual report of the AAM noted that the ‘Carols for Liberation’ event held in Trafalgar Square on 21 December, was a great success that attracted a significant number of black support as well as that of the wider white community. Four black newspapers in London, The Africa Times, The Asian Times, the Caribbean Times and The Voice had sponsored this event. Black churches, such as the Methodist inner city churches group, and the London Community Gospel Choir also lent their support. The highlight was the contribution of a choir of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) singers and the ANC choir who led the singing. However, it was the visit of the State President of South Africa, P.W. Botha in 1984 to meet with the British Prime Minister, which caused black groups such as the WISC to galvanise a considerable number of black protesters into the streets to join AAM-sponsored demonstrations of protest at his visit to the country. In explaining the significant black presence at the anti-Botha demonstrations, one veteran campaigner recalls,

We had got race relations legislation and we had strength and confidence … so by 1984 people felt strong and they had enough young black kids born in this country who knew no other country who felt ‘this is my home, and I’m going to fight for it!’ they could go on the streets which we could not have done during the 1960s, plus the [1980s] urban disturbances had emboldened people.

The AAM continued to strengthen its links with black groups such as the Black British Standing Conference against Apartheid Sport, Caribbean Labour Solidarity, WISC and the African Liberation Committee who encouraged their members to support AAM campaigns. The Black British Standing Conference against Apartheid Sport in particular was commended for vigorously opposing the private tour of West Indian cricketers to South Africa and contributing to the success of the international conference on sanctions against apartheid sport by ensuring the participation of substantial numbers of black sports people, ‘as well as giving a tremendous amount of organisational support’. Encouraged by the significant numbers of black protesters at their anti-Botha demonstrations and influenced by its few black members, the AAM executive decided to capitalise on this show of domestic black anger and protest. The decision was made to strengthen and deepen contact with black organisations both nationally and locally as well as make a greater effort to increase black membership. Black members of the Executive Committee of the AAM set up a working party charged with exploring the perceived obstacles against black members joining the AAM.  The AAM was now prepared to establish a committee similar to others within its structures whose brief would be to draw in black support; the organisation saw this as a watershed in the Movement’s development. At its AGM in January 1987 it noted,

The Black and Ethnic Minority communities constitute a unique resource and potential for this, and should be made a key strategic priority. In light of this assessment, we propose that the work of the AAM in the Black and Ethnic Minority communities should be placed firmly on the agenda of the Movement.

The Impact of P.W. Botha’s Visit

It was not until the mid-1980s that the WISC moved anti-apartheid activism to the top of its list of priorities. The catalyst was the announcement of the visit of the South African President P.W. Botha, to Britain for talks with the Prime Minister. This galvanised black-led organisations such as WISC which had a concern for civil liberties and matters of equality at home and abroad. Both AAM and WISC members were visible side by side at South Africa House picketing in protest at the planned Botha visit. Part of the crowds of anti-apartheid supporters listened to speakers such as Richard Balfe MEP, and members of the British parliament such as Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and Peter Hain who called for the isolation of the Botha government. In the run-up to Botha’s visit, there was a flurry of activity by WISC members who publicly appealed to the Prime Minister not to entertain discussions with the South African President on British soil. The WISC wrote to the press and sent out literature and flyers to members to attach to their premises and distribute to the public explaining the reason for its objection to the visit. The organisation issued a press statement, in which it declared that Botha’s visit was especially an insult to black Britons because

Black people fought in the last war, under the British flag, when Great Britain fought to destroy racism in the form of Nazism which was based upon the concept of the so-called superior race. Apartheid South Africa is similar in its practical intention of degradation of man. It delimits black fellow human beings who are capable of unlimited achievement, to the role of sub-animal status without rights in their inherent country. Therefore Great Britain must destroy it and not accommodate it. Britain must practise what it preaches or it shall lose its customary position of credibility.

For WISC, this apathy to the sensitivities of black citizens was part of the wider apathy of the ruling establishment that refused to acknowledge the historic contribution that blacks of the empire had made to Britain’s economic standing in the world. The organisation informed readers that

Black people have made and continue to make significant, contributions which have transformed the UK society especially in its social, economic and cultural recovery since its costly experience in human and financial resources, because of that war against racist Nazism … black people like white people must have similar rights of equal opportunity in South Africa or in fact anywhere they choose to live permanently.

WISC viewed Botha’s invitation to Britain as a snub to the black presence in Britain. The WISC’s denunciation of the British government for inviting Botha conveyed the outrage and sense of betrayal felt by WISC members and the black community. In a further statement that showed that WISC members viewed white European support of South Africa as tantamount to racial nepotism of the worse kind, it was noted that

The invitation to the leader of the apartheid regime of South Africa to talks in London by the British Prime Minister, underlines a kind of indifference to the feelings of black people against the system of apartheid as practised in South Africa … our solidarity with the struggle of our brothers and sisters in Southern Africa must not fail.

It is clear that WISC held Britain and the US responsible for the apartheid state’s strength and preservation. For members of WISC, securing African political freedom in South Africa had become a matter of honour for blacks in Britain and the rest of the world. The repression of Africans in South Africa was a visible and painful reminder that in societies where white skinned Europeans controlled the state, blacks were kept at the bottom of the socio-economic and political order. Accordingly, WISC noted,

We witness the reinforcing of racism as the USA and Britain with her European partners choose to sustain South Africa’s white controlled economy in preference to a moral stance which will save black lives. The choices made by these white nations are an illustration of their contempt for black people and a statement supporting the view that the black race is expendable.

The black press also condemned the invitation of Mrs Thatcher’s government to P.W. Botha. The Caribbean Times, a popular weekly newspaper stated, ‘We … emphatically condemn the British Prime Minister for extending the invitation and for the implied contempt shown to the black people of Britain’. Readers were informed that the British government had a responsibility to its black citizens at home as well as living up to its claim of impartiality in matters of race in South Africa:

Mrs Thatcher’s represents the leadership of what is now a multi-racial society, which, despite many faults, constitutes Great Britain including over 3million people of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin. The Prime Minister of South Africa represents a minority regime of apartheid that denies equality, self-respect and equal participation and even physical safety to the majority black population of that country and is therefore a regime of oppression immorality and injustice. Furthermore WISC strongly urges Mrs Thatcher to reconsider political sanctions to a racist leader of a racist regime.

The WISC argued that the ruling political and business elites were concerned less with justice for the victims of the apartheid state than with the maintenance of trade and investment interests under the white minority regime. In its critique of the government’s intransigence, WISC placed the government firmly on the side of Botha’s regime in its opposition to African freedom fighters, described as ‘terrorists’ by the British Prime Minister. WISC also argued that supporters of Pretoria in Europe displayed double standards in their assessment of the struggles of repressed groups struggling for political freedoms. Just as modern European democracy came about through revolutionary struggle, it was argued that there should be an empathy with the freedom struggle in Southern Africa.

In response to such criticism, government ministers stated that the invitation to Botha did not signal a shift in the government’s condemnation of apartheid but was part of the solution as it offered an opportunity to convince Botha and his entourage that apartheid must be dispensed with. WISC continued to apply pressure by writing directly to the Prime Minister as well as to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). There exists no record of a reply from the Prime Minister’s Office. However taking the moral high ground, a FCO minister informed WISC that

The government has long made clear its wish to see change in South Africa, and on other regional issues. We believe this can only be brought about by dialogue with those countries and individuals immediately concerned. Mr Botha’s visit to Europe affords a natural opportunity to put across our views to the South African government at the highest level, and we think it would have been wrong not to take it … the visit in no sense means we condone apartheid, any more than talking to the Russians implies we condone communism.

The government’s rationale for Botha’s invitation was still unacceptable to WISC members as well as the wider anti-apartheid movement. Moreover WISC members took part in an all night protest vigil starting on the evening of Friday 11 June 1984. It also contributed financially to an unprecedented full page advertisement placed in The Times newspaper which published the names of many anti-apartheid groups and individual activists that disapproved of Botha’s visit. Black community leaders were determined to mobilise large numbers of black protesters at the planned anti-Botha demonstrations. During this time at the initiative of a number of black councillors in London, the 2 June mobilising committee was convened at a meeting on 15 May. Its specific aim was the mobilisation of black communities to protest. It was attended by editors and proprietors of black newspapers and other representatives of black communities in London. The AAM reported that, ‘This has resulted in excellent publicity in London’s black press especially … the Race Today Collective, the Africa Liberation Committee, the WISC, the Black Standing Conference against Apartheid and many other local black organisations actively mobilising against the visit.’

Also, members of WISC were present at the AAM’s anti-Botha mobilising meeting held on 26 March in Camden Town Hall. In attendance were nearly a hundred different organisations. As an organisation WISC participated in the national anti-Botha demonstration held on Saturday 2 June 1984. Marchers walked from Hyde Park to Whitehall and marched past the Prime Minister’s Downing Street residence. Anti-apartheid activists handed in a letter with signatures of the hundreds of people that deplored his visit. Members also attended an anti-apartheid rally and festival on the South Bank organised by the Greater London Council and the AAM. During the event members helped to distribute leaflets, posters, stickers and badges. Despite the best efforts of WISC members and the wider anti-apartheid movement, P.W. Botha’s visit went ahead as proposed. Nevertheless anti-apartheid activists left the government in no doubt of the strength of feeling that thousands of people felt about the racism of Botha’s regime.

ANC and PAC Outreach

Throughout the 1980s, PAC members visited black communities around Britain, canvassed for funds and informed black activist groups about the history of their organisation and the nature of their struggle. In so doing, they found a willing audience among significant numbers of black activists who criticised the perceived dominance of whites in the anti-apartheid movement. The ANC, however, was not totally sidelined by black activists. Although there may have been sympathy with the PAC’s emphasis on the importance of Africans determining the course of South Africa’s future and reclamation of the land and its wealth, as time progressed, it was apparent that the ANC had majority support within South Africa and was more politically sophisticated and organised in its opposition to apartheid. One historian argues:

The PAC’s insurrectionary ideology accurately reflected black anger at white racism, [but ultimately its] ‘anti-white chauvinism,’ was described as ‘self defeating’. Compared to the PAC, the ANC defended itself as a well organised and disciplined political organisation with a clear political programme and with cadres trained in underground conspiratorial work.

The ANC had gained legitimacy in the eyes of the black majority in South Africa and successfully presented itself as the only fully representative alternative to previous racist forms of government. Black anti-racist groups in Britain more ideologically disposed to the PAC could not ignore the overwhelming support of the ANC among those seeking a new political dispensation in South Africa. Therefore the Afro-Caribbean Self Help Organisation, the lead organiser of African Liberation Day events, corresponded with the ANC office in London and increasingly requested information on Nelson Mandela. Furthermore ANC representatives visited the organisation and discussed the current situation in South Africa while distributing the most recent ANC publications. This was enthusiastically accepted. Caribbean societies based in Britain but whose remit was to support political groups in the Caribbean, such as the Maurice Bishop Patriotic Movement (UK) also approached the ANC office for speakers and information. Black campaigning groups tried to cultivate mutual support and solidarity with exiled ANC members in London. Not wishing to become diverted from their own agenda but wishing to build solidarity networks ANC representatives did encourage cultural and political exchanges, and provided speakers and information to those who approached them. Cordial relations with sections of the black press were also encouraged.


Alongside pursuing their domestic agenda, black activist groups were determined to support efforts to eradicate apartheid. However there were differences between these groups in their approach towards the ANC and the PAC. The ideological outlook of these groups affected which exiled Southern African liberation movements were given preference and the full benefit of their solidarity and support. The PAC and its brand of Africanism enjoyed popularity among pan-Africanist groups. It tended to attract support from younger activists rather than from the more professional WISC membership who could easily have been their parents. Plaatje has argued that the PAC’s popularity coincided with a short period of revival during the mid-1970s. This may have provided inspiration for its international supporters including those in Britain facing their own anti-racist struggles. The ANC had strong support in London aided by the work of the AAM. Its headquarters was well organised in comparison to the PAC. However, the popularity of the PAC within black communities outside London may have been more readily achieved than in the capital, which was very much the stronghold of the ANC’s strong ally, the AAM.

During the 1980s, the PAC began to have increasing problems with its leadership and the directional focus of the movement, this would eventually affect its support base. While the ANC continued to heighten its profile and increase its membership. It raised its international profile through its diplomacy, as well as capitalising on the growing instability in South Africa from the mid-1970s. Through its representatives in London, the ANC sought by argument and diplomacy to convert to its side the political and business classes in Britain that provided succour to the regime in Pretoria. The ANC’s external mission presented the ANC as the only alternative to the minority government in South Africa. It focused on building a consensus of international opprobrium against the apartheid state. It concentrated its energies on lobbying British government departments, parliamentary figures and working alongside the AAM. Its priorities were clearly one of appealing to those within the corridors of power. In comparison to the PAC its relations with grassroots black activists were therefore weak. Although contacts increased as the Mandela campaign gained more public recognition. However the PAC’s underdog status in comparison to that of the ANC, appealed more to pan-African groups that had sympathy with its brand of African nationalism, and who felt alienated and resentful of the status quo.

The PAC argued that it had remained faithful to the objectives of the African struggle. However, its organisational instability, factionalism, and exclusivist brand of African nationalism meant it was unable to raise its level of influence or appeal to a wider audience. Nor could it seriously rival the ANC as a unifying political force to take charge of a new political dispensation in South Africa. In Britain, however, black activists and campaigners of all shades of opinion were agreed that apartheid as a system had to be brought to an end, and they were determined to galvanise their supporters and members of their community to support the families caught up in the system and combatants fighting against the apartheid state. Most black groups educated their communities and provided information about the situation in Southern Africa. Representatives from the ANC and PAC were called upon, pickets and boycotts were organised, fund raising events and significant dates were used to reinforce the message that racism should be resisted wherever or in whatever form it appeared.

Black groups, formed in reaction to the challenges that black communities faced in Britain, could not ignore the common denominator of racism in the fight against racial inequality in Britain, Southern Africa and elsewhere. Unlike the AAM, which determinedly remained a single-focus organisation and would not officially incorporate fighting against domestic racism into its remit, these groups succeeded in attracting and gaining support from black communities because they were able to highlight the parallels with, and draw connections between their own experiences of racial exclusion and discrimination with the African struggle in South Africa. In acknowledging and fighting the anti-racist battles of black communities black activists could penetrate and connect with their concerns. They understood that black Britons felt the insult of apartheid most keenly because of past and contemporary manifestations of racism in Britain and were able to tap into the community’s feelings of connectedness. This empathy was then transformed into acts of solidarity and material support for the South African liberation struggle. Black Britons viewed events in Southern Africa with more than casual detachment. There was a willingness to identify with the liberation struggle whether through supporting the PAC, or more convincingly as time went on, the ANC.