The history of Britain's anti-apartheid movement

Submitted by Matthew on 11 December, 2013 - 1:23

If you grew up in radical politics in the 1980s, anti-apartheid activism was ubiquitous — a reference point, an inspiration, and an accessible vehicle for campaigning.

Demonstrating outside the South African embassy, attending cultural and political meetings and demanding freedom for Nelson Mandela were rites of passage across the spectrum of the left.

The lessons of the anti-apartheid movement retain their contemporary relevance. Some within climate and anti-war campaigns have looked to it as a model. More widely, the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign has explicitly tried to make the analogy between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa, and to mimic anti-apartheid tactics. Roger Fieldhouse’s detailed history, Anti-apartheid: a history of the movement in Britain: a study in pressure group politics (Merlin 2005) recounts many important episodes, although it is highly deficient politically.

Racial oppression in South Africa dates back to the beginnings of colonial white minority rule over the majority black population. Apartheid — literally “apartness” — was the codification of racial segregation in the years from 1948 to 1994 under National Party rule.

The South African Native National Congress was founded in 1912. In 1923, it changed its name to the African National Congress (ANC), which together with the Indian Congress constituted a “moderate, law-abiding and largely ineffective opposition” to apartheid.

The ANC formed an alliance with the Stalinist South African Communist Party (SACP), epitomised by the ANC’s Freedom Charter in 1955, and later with the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). But the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was never homogenous — for example, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) broke away from ANC in 1959, and the Black Consciousness movement led by Steve Biko had a high profile in the 1970s.

The global struggle against apartheid was part of a decolonisation movement in the post-war world. The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) was founded in April 1960.

It coalesced during the wave of protest following the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960, when 69 Africans were killed and 186 injured — over 70% shot in the back. After a continuous week-long picket outside the South African embassy, some 4,000 participated in a protest march and 15,000 were present at the rally in London.

Over 35 years, AAM expanded into a substantial and high-profile social movement. Membership peaked at 19,410 in March 1989.

The ANC was “instrumental” in founding the AAM in 1959. Over the next thirty-five years the two organisations maintained “a close, if not always harmonious relationship”. The 1990 AGM called for further campaigns around the themes: stop apartheid repression; boycott apartheid — sanctions now; solidarity with the ANC. The perceived strength of AAM “derived from its role as a solidarity movement that accepted (by and large) the position of the liberation movement”.

If the politics of the AAM were set by the ANC, then the line originated in Stalin’s Moscow. In 1928 the Stalinist bureaucracy had instructed the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) to strive for an “independent native republic”, part of an evolving two-stage perspective in which socialism was pushed into the future, displaced by immediate demands in the interests of USSR foreign policy.

The party was banned under apartheid and changed its name to South African Communist Party (SACP) to reflect the national liberation orientation. In 1962 the SACP’s Road to South African Freedom “reaffirmed the strategy of seeking to work with a multi-class liberation movement to attain a national revolution in South Africa”, as a first stage of a two-stage process (the second promised to overthrow capitalism).

This two-stage approach put the AAM ideologically at odds with Trotskyist conceptions of permanent revolution, which held that the working class should lead and integrate the fight against apartheid with the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

Fieldhouse acknowledges that AAM was “quite heavily influenced by communist ideas”. Many of the leading figures, particularly in the early days, were members of the SACP or CPGB, or were fellow travellers. However, the CPGB was not officially represented on the AAM National Committee, due to fears about Cold War anti-communism. He quotes a 1970 Foreign Office secret assessment of AAM: “AAM is, and has since its foundation in 1960, been subject to considerable communist influence... But because of the presence of many articulate non-communists — Liberals, Trotskyists, Socialists and pacifists, for instance — it has never been merely a front organisation run by the Party”.

The AAM was openly inclusive of other parties, including those representing the bourgeoisie. Although AAM’s predominant political support came from Labour Parties and Labour Party Young Socialist branches, its relationship with the Liberal Party was “at least as close as that with the Labour Party”.

Tories like Lord Altrincham and the Bow group were involved in AAM at the beginning, and in the early 1970s, the Pressure for Economic and Social Toryism (PEST) ginger group affiliated to AAM and sent a representative to the Movement’s national committee. In 1976, the Tory Reform Group took PEST’s place on the committee. AAM also enjoyed “a great deal of support from religious organisations and the churches for its moral crusade against the evils of apartheid”.

The anti-apartheid movement advocated boycotts as a tactic throughout its history. The boycott took two forms — individuals refusing to buy South African goods, and more organised, institutional boycotts of shops or businesses trading in South African merchandise or with South African connections.

The boycott was launched by the ANC in South Africa in April 1959 against South African firms supporting apartheid. It was supported by other bourgeois-nationalist parties and by SACTU. In Britain, the Committee of African Organisations distributed over 100,000 “Boycott South African Goods” leaflets, and organised a series of other events to raise awareness of apartheid and to launch a complete boycott of South African imports into Britain.

When the AAM was founded in April 1960, its activities included “continuation and extension of the boycott of South African goods”. In the winter of 1962-3, AAM promoted a cultural boycott which attempted to ban the distribution of British films in South Africa and persuade actors and musicians not to perform, writers not to publish, and teachers not to teach there.

However, the boycotts were not very successful. AAM decided in 1960 to switch the emphasis of its work from consumer boycott to economic sanctions. In June 1965, the PAC, in conjunction with the South African Coloured People’s Congress, wrote a stinging criticism of AAM’s policies and activities. It dismissed the boycott campaign as a futile gesture and “well-nigh impractical”.

A new consumer boycott campaign was launched nationally in 1974, and yet again in 1980. It was only in 1985, with the beginning of a significant increase in membership, that a national consumer boycott really became sustainable. In 1985 the Co-operative Societies agreed to stop buying South African goods. Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Next began to respond. Other major stores gave assurances to trade unions that members would not be required to handle South African goods, after the TUC agreed to back the boycott campaign. A new boycott pledge was launched in February 1989, but the campaign “was still proving difficult”.

AAM found it extremely difficult to get the idea of a sanctions policy accepted by almost anyone. Trade with South Africa actually rose during the late 1980s.

Fieldhouse believes that the campaign to discourage economic collaboration and investment in South Africa was “probably the most significant and influential of all the campaigns”.

Barclays bank commenced a disinvestment programme in August 1985 and announced that it would no longer use the name “Barclays” in South Africa. “Barclays did admit that its withdrawal was brought about primarily by the adverse effect on its customer base”.

During the 1970s, the boycott was constantly undermined by two influences. Within South Africa, “relatively small cosmetic changes, permitting occasional mixed audiences for special performances, confused some artists; while at home the argument that cultural links would defeat apartheid more effectively than a boycott kept on asserting itself”.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, the academic boycott experienced the same pressures, contradictions, and confusion. It began at the end of 1964 when AAM persuaded a number of British academics to not to accept posts in South Africa. Increasingly, the academic boycott was implemented at local level by groups of academics and/or students in their own institutions. In 1980 the lecturer’s union AUT voted to support the academic boycott. In May 1988, the AUT reaffirmed its support, although this was “advisory rather than mandatory”. During the 1980s the National Union of Students also gave full support for an academic boycott.

Fieldhouse concludes that for much of the 1960s and ‘70s, “AAM struggled to make any meaningful contact with the British trade union movement”. It had more success in the 1980s.

The AAM felt it should seek support and assistance from the trade union movement and called on British unions to give the international trade union movement a lead by implementing a trade embargo. However, informal approaches to the transport workers’ union TGWU and electricians’ union ETU, and a deputation to the TUC, brought no meaningful results. Fieldhouse confesses that, in the early days of the AAM, “there was surprisingly little contact between local groups and local trade union branches”, and that “most groups were predominantly middle-class with comparatively few trade union members”.

The TUC was generally dreadful. It set up a fund for the victims of Sharpeville, but such humanitarian aid was “about the limit of its commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle at the time”. It abstained from a condemnation of apartheid by the ICFTU. In September 1961, TUC general secretary George Woodcock told AAM he “saw no purpose” in liaising with it. In the summer of 1962 the TUC declared its support for the South African trade unions, but it did not propose any specific actions. At its annual conference in 1964 the TUC unanimously passed a resolution calling on the government to implement a diplomatic, economic and arms boycott of South Africa and for an international boycott by organised workers.

In fact the TUC had a long-standing close relationship with the white South African labour movement. It was generally opposed to any action that threatened Britain’s economic stake in South Africa and was less likely to take heed of AAM than the white South African TUC (TUCSA), which, a few years later, strongly advised the TUC against economic boycotts and sanctions. TUCSA was founded in 1954 to promote the interests of white workers, “but it did foster the creation of African unions in the belief that it was better that they should be under the control of TUCSA rather than be independent”.

SACTU was formed in 1955 as a non-racial organisation aiming to represent all South African workers, in opposition to TUCSA. It was closely associated with the ANC and accepted the two-stage perspective.

By 1961 it claimed a membership of 51 affiliated unions and 53,000 workers, of whom about 40,000 were African. When SACTU refused an offer of £30,000 by the ICFTU to distance itself from the ANC and concentrate its activity in the workplace rather than in political defiance, ICFTU decided to end its association with SACTU and collaborate with TUCSA instead.

Matters were better with some individual British unions. Some early support came from the shopworkers’ union USDAW, the Bakers’ Union, and the Fire Brigades Union. As early as 1961, the Musicians’ Union decided to forbid its members to perform in South Africa. In 1965, actors’ union Equity followed the example. Some 25 trade union bodies had affiliated to AAM in 1964 at national or branch level. The television technicians’ union ACTT refused to cover the 1970 South African cricket team’s tour.

The 1975 TUC Congress recognised for the first time that the trade union movement could most usefully work closely with SACTU. In 1981 the TUC unanimously adopted a resolution that welcomed the development of black trade unions in South Africa. However, the TUC resisted AAM’s arguments for all-out support for COSATU in 1985.

AAM was cautious in approaching unions to take direct industrial action. The Labour Party’s Jim Mortimer and the CPGB’s Bert Ramelson’s advice was very similar: “do not seek support for sanctions or a large scale boycott, and certainly not for direct industrial action in support of these, because that was out of the question.” Bob Hughes and others recall that AAM never asked the trade union movement to take industrial action.

Despite there, there were some small-scale sporadic outbreaks in the 1970s and 80s. At the beginning of 1971, trade unionists at the Westland factory at Hayes mounted a protest when confirmation of the sale of seven Wasp helicopters was announced, and the Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians Association branch at Westlands in Yeovil passed a resolution refusing to work on arms for South Africa. Concerted efforts of the Bristol anti-apartheid group, the Bristol trades council, the Somerset and South Wales National Union of Mineworkers branch, and the National Union of Railwaymen Bristol branch were successful in forcing the diversion of a shipment of South African coal from Bristol to Amsterdam.

Other efforts failed. In August 1976, the Leyland joint shop stewards committee decided to block the supply of kits and spare parts to South Africa. Unfortunately the shop stewards could not persuade rank-and-file members to take this action. Liverpool docks shop stewards did pledge action to stop South African goods in January 1977, but dock workers overturned the decision at a mass meeting.

The biggest setback came when Tom Jackson, chair of the TUC international committee and leader of the Post Office Workers’ Union, instructed his members to block postal and telephone links with South Africa during a week of action. The union was taken to court and lost out badly.

AAM’s relationship with South African trade unionism “was largely determined by ANC policy”. AAM loyally recognised SACTU as the mouthpiece of South African trade unionism. AAM “strenuously opposed attempts, not only by the TUC to give recognition to TUCSA in place of SACTU, but also by the political left in the 1980s to forge links with South African trade unions and federations that rejected the ANC/SACP/SACTU ideology by promoting straightforward working class struggle against capitalism”.

Massive waves of industrial action, beginning in the early 1970s and continuing into the 1980s, as well as changes in the anti-union laws, saw the development of independent unions, such as CUSA, closely associated with the black consciousness movement and in 1984, the FOSATU trade union federation.

COSATU was formed from a merger of FOSATU and other unions in 1985, with the blessing of SACTU.

In March 1990, SACTU merged with COSATU. The best of the international left, including the AWL’s predecessor organisation, sought to forge direct links with militant South African trade unionists, such as Moses Mayekiso, the miners’ leader who was at the time a fierce critic of the two-stage strategy of the ANC/SACP. These direct solidarity links were opposed by the AAM leadership.

These differences are not drawn out sharply by Fieldhouse, who clearly agrees with the AAM’s orientation towards the ANC. The only sense of debate is his account of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (CLAAG), which was dominated politically by the Revolutionary Communist Group.

The ANC tried to prevent the RCG’s penetration of AAM by ordering David Kitson, whose wife and two children were founding members of CLAAG, to denounce the group when he returned to Britain after his release from prison in 1984. He refused to obey the order. As a result, his ANC membership was suspended and the funding for his job at Ruskin College — his only income after 20 years in prison — was withdrawn by the trade union TASS (led by Ken Gill of the CPGB).

In July 1984, AAM disowned the CLAAG’s non-stop picket of the South African embassy. In February 1985 the AAM national committee decided to withdraw recognition of CLAAG — effectively banning it from the official movement.

The only other sense of political differences is the brief mention of the South African Labour Education Project (SALEP), which had been formed at the beginning of the 1980s by a small group of Marxist trade unionists working for SACTU in London, who were expelled from the ANC because they criticised it for its “national-revolution-first” strategy.

How important was AAM was to the downfall of apartheid? Fieldhouse alludes to the withdrawal of bank loans, as forcing the hand of the South African ruling class. No doubt that is part of the explanation. But he notes that in Britain AAM did not move governments very far in over 30 years, barely affected trade and consumption, and only dented investment to a limited extent.

A rather more important explanation is revolt among black South Africans. It was their campaigning and resistance that brought about the downfall of the apartheid. It was the black working class, its strikes, the growth of organisation in workplaces, its militancy — those acts of working-class resistance — were a central reason why the apartheid system could not continue any longer. It is an “insider” perspective that is important, rather than focusing on outside pressure, that is the crucial lesson from the anti-apartheid struggle.

Because the militant working class movement was tied politically to the ANC/SACP/COSATU alliance and its two-stage perspective, it was never able to emerge as an independent actor as apartheid was wound down and the current regime put in place. In the 1980s, working-class political representation and the abortive demand for a workers’ party were discussed but largely discarded. It is why the South African working class finds itself today, nearly 20 years since the end of apartheid and after the Marikana massacre, still without an independent political voice.

The problem with the two-stage conception was that the second, socialist, stage was not simply subordinated or postponed, it was ditched altogether. The anti-capitalist, socialist goal played no guiding role, not least because of the impoverished, anti-working class nature of the Stalinist model that informed it.

It meant that the AAM operated as a classic popular front, with bourgeois politicians, largely bourgeois methods, and confined largely to liberal-democratic politics. There is much to take from the history of the anti-apartheid movement, in South Africa and in places like Britain. But the AAM is not our model, despite its apparent successes.

BDS and anti-apartheid

The AAM is currently the model for BDS campaigners who claim to speak for the Palestinians.

They make an analogy between apartheid-era South Africa and the current regime in Israel, and from this draw the conclusion that AAM’s strategy and tactics, particularly boycott, divestment, and sanctions, are the answer. The analogy is false, and so are the political conclusions that follow from it.

The nature of the oppression suffered by Palestinians is different to black South Africans under apartheid. The consistently democratic solutions are different. When AAM started in 1960, black people constituted about 70% of the South African population, with whites around 20%. By the end of apartheid, it was closer to 80%/10%, with the so-called “coloured” mixed race population accounting for a further 10%. In Israel today, 70% of the population are Jewish, while 20% are Palestinian Arabs.

A white racial caste exploited and oppressed the majority black population in South Africa, with the racial oppression reinforcing the economic exploitation of workers. In Israel, the Jewish ruling class exploits mainly Jewish labour, while oppressing the national rights of Palestinian people, both inside Israel and in the occupied territories. The conflict is primarily a national question.

The democratic solution in South Africa was majority rule; in Israel-Palestine today, it is for both peoples to have their own states, as a prerequisite framework for any future single unit.