Anti-Apartheid a study in opportunism / FRFI 183 Feb / Mar 2005

FRFI 183 February / March 2005

Anti-Apartheid. A history of the movement in Britain. A study in pressure group politics.
Roger Fieldhouse. The Merlin Press,
ISBN 085036549X, 2005, 546pp, £20

Fieldhouse recounts: on 1 January 1960 a special Cabinet Committee chaired by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and attended by the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (the Earl of Home), the Secretary of State for the Colonies (Ian Macleod), the President of the Board of Trade (Reginald Maudling), the Minister of Labour (Edward Heath), met to discuss the newly-formed British Boycott Movement which had declared its intention to build a consumer boycott of South African goods. Despite the fact that the Labour Party and TUC had publicly announced their support, the Tory government was reassured to hear from Heath that the TUC had privately told him that they had no intention of calling for industrial action. On this basis the Committee concluded that the campaign posed no real threat. The TUC’s assurance and a private word in Lord Home’s ear from one of the campaign’s founders led the government to tell the South Africans that the boycott was ‘no more than an irresponsible political manoeuvre’.

Already, in 1960, this infant Anti-Apartheid Movement had sealed its alliance with the British labour aristocracy and set the tone of the campaign for the next 30 years: British imperialism’s boat would not be rocked.

Roger Fieldhouse has written an exhaustive, and exhausting, account of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), examining its archives, interviewing some of its officers and activists, reviewing its relationships with the liberation movements, political parties and the British government. The book examines the minutiae of letter-writing, meetings held with ministers, junior ministers, civil servants over more than 30 years. It ends up as an apologia for a movement that prided itself on its moral, liberal stance, but in practice betrayed its cause, censored and alienated its supporters and covered up for the world’s most ardent apartheid prop – British imperialism.

There is no sense in this book of the life and death struggle that was going on in South Africa: the tragedy of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the heroism of Soweto school students in 1976, the brutality of Steve Biko’s murder or the militancy of the new black trade unions and the township struggles of the 1980s which were, eventually, instrumental in the defeat of apartheid. Perhaps this is appropriate for a book about the British AAM. It was not the necessities or urgencies of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa that dominated the AAM’s activities, but its allegiance to the Labour Party in Britain which totally circumscribed its conduct. It would not even commit itself to the anti-racist struggle in Britain for fear of alienating its ‘broad church’. Anything with life had to be smothered.

In 1963, speaking on an AAM platform in Trafalgar Square, Harold Wilson promised to end the arms trade with South Africa: ‘How can he [Macmillan] speak of the wind of change and supply arms to those who are brutally resisting change?’ Labour won the general election in 1964, and Wilson found no difficulty in continuing both trade and the ‘bloody traffic’ of weapons to the apartheid regime. Labour Ministers like Barbara Castle and David Ennals had been in the AAM leadership, only to ditch all pretence of action when in power. By 1976, with the next Labour government in power, Britain was South Africa’s biggest export market with 23% of apartheid’s exports coming to the UK. It was not just that successive Labour governments failed to act against apartheid, they invariably played an active role in supporting the regime. On every possible occasion when a vote arose at the UN either proposing sanctions against South Africa or opposing its illegal occupation of Namibia, the British government, Labour or Tory, used its power of veto.

When the Tories were in power, the AAM made great efforts to influence the government. During the Thatcher years their correspondence was answered by under-secretaries and their representations met with studied insults.

Did any of this cause the AAM to review its role? Not a bit. It even performed somersaults to keep its uncritical fellow travellers in the Communist Party of Great Britain off its platforms in order not to offend its Labour Party allies. It would happily welcome any renegade Tory or Labour MP regardless of their parties’ support for apartheid (see pp216ff). Plus ça change: the so-called Stop the War campaign of today does very little to stop the war in Iraq but is committed to giving any Parliamentarian a voice. What neither the AAM nor today’s Stop the War campaign will ever do is really challenge British imperialism.

Fieldhouse argues that Thatcher was opposed to apartheid but simply disagreed on the question of how best to defeat it. It takes a curious sort of political tunnel-vision to suggest that Thatcher’s constructive engagement policy was anything other than a ploy to continue British imperialism’s support for the apartheid regime. She had proclaimed, after the 1985 Commonwealth Summit in Nassau, that she had conceded only a ‘tiny little bit’ to pressure from the Commonwealth and argued that sanctions would harm the black majority. At the time Britain headed the league table of foreign investors in South Africa, with £12 billion invested. Winnie Mandela responded in the only fashion possible: ‘We regard it as complete racism that she should think for us’. It is a great pity that Professor Fieldhouse and sections of the AAM did not share this view.

Fieldhouse does not hesitate to dish dirt on behalf of the AAM. For ten years from 1982 the RCG was centrally involved in City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (City AA) which built a vibrant campaign against apartheid, centred on protests outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square. City AA directly involved hundreds of young people, of all backgrounds, races and creeds in solidarity with the liberation struggle in South Africa. It held two non-stop pickets of the embassy (one lasting 86 days, another lasting almost four years) calling for the release of all political prisoners in apartheid gaols. It held regular protests, mobilised the support of all sections of society (including MPs and councillors), but made no concessions to British imperialism whatsoever. It operated in a completely democratic fashion: all participating organisations and individuals were free to speak on its platforms; all participants could distribute and sell literature; all its members were encouraged to attend and participate in its meetings which were held weekly. It gave active support to all the liberation movements without distinction: the African National Congress (ANC), Pan-Africanist Congress, Black Consciousness Movement, and indeed any forces fighting apartheid.

When City AA was started by myself, Norma Kitson, wife of South African political prisoner David Kitson, and their children Steven and Amandla, the work of the AAM in London was moribund. Norma was inspirational in this work. She had spent the previous decade trying to get something done for the prisoners and detainees. She had done the rounds of lobbying David Owen, then Labour Foreign Secretary, and being fobbed off with promises that were never kept. She was determined to build a local AAM group that was really active in giving solidarity to the struggle. Together with other RCG members, we mobilised and worked to build events in London.

Norma was determined to achieve change for the prisoners, and as an ANC member she was given permission to hold a non-stop picket of the South African Embassy demanding that the white political prisoners in Pretoria Central gaol be moved out of Death Row (where they were held following an ANC prisoner escape) to better conditions. The prisoners were segregated by race and David Kitson was one of these prisoners. Black political prisoners were mostly kept on Robben Island. Before the picket had even begun the AAM was circulating rumours that Norma was only acting in solidarity with white prisoners – a ludicrous accusation. This was the AAM that could not generate enough enthusiasm to hold a London committee meeting. Norma did more to educate thousands of young people about the realities of life under apartheid, the names of all the prisoners and the history of the liberation struggle, than any of the AAM’s paper pushers and timekeepers ever did. The picket was successful: after 86 days and nights, the prisoners were moved. But the AAM’s hostility to City AA had only just begun.

Fieldhouse gives a garbled account of the events that followed which resulted in City AA’s
disaffiliation, nodding only occasionally in the direction of the truth, that City AA built a campaign involving thousands, and built a worldwide reputation through its four-year-long non-stop picket. Fieldhouse accuses the RCG of using ‘Trotskyist entry tactics’ – the sort of ignorant abuse that the AAM dished out. The RCG is not Trotskyist and was openly and legitimately affiliated to the AAM.

Fieldhouse’s account is also mealy-mouthed. When David Kitson was released from gaol after serving his 20 year sentence, the ANC tried to force him to condemn Norma and City AA. He is an honest man and he refused. As a result his ANC membership was suspended (along with Norma’s) 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). Fieldhouse uses these events to illustrate ‘the symbiotic relationship’ between the AAM, the ANC and a sympathetic British trade union. He describes the affair as ‘unedifying’, when any honest person would be revolted by the double-dealing, dishonesty and treachery that underpinned the whole affair.

Any normal standards of journalism or academic history would demand that, before accusations are made in print, some attempt be made to check the truth or investigate the standpoint of the accused. Fieldhouse didn’t bother. No one associated with the RCG or City AA was interviewed before Fieldhouse assembled his ‘facts’. This is how the lies of the past are exhumed and given the badge of history. Fieldhouse accuses City AA of assaulting a SWAPO representative at an AAM AGM when the only people assaulted were City AA members. City AA is accused of being violent, when it was nothing of the sort. He even goes so far as to dredge up a forged press statement attacking SWAPO in 1989, suggesting it was issued in revenge against SWAPO. The press statement was investigated at the time by City AA and a Guardian journalist and traced back to the South African Embassy. Fieldhouse would not know this: he didn’t ask.

Why was it so important for the AAM and ANC to undermine City AA? Why were they so afraid of supporting the anti-racist struggle in Britain? Why were they opposed to direct action? Why did they allow the Labour Party to pretend it was anti-apartheid, when it was the opposite?

One might be tempted to think it doesn’t matter; it is all water under the bridge. But there are two very good reasons why it does matter. Firstly, South Africa has achieved a bourgeois revolution: the black majority have the vote. But the ANC government stopped there. The Freedom Charter was ditched and the mass movement demobilised as soon as the ANC was elected. The result, 10 years on, is that the working class and oppressed still live in squalid squatter camps and townships on the edges of cities, the rural poor languish without land, the working class toils while the black and white elites protect their privileges in gated communities behind high fences. Millions have been consigned to death by the AIDS pandemic, unchecked because of the prejudices of Thabo Mbeki. The South African Communist Party plays lickspittle and settles its comfortable bum in the back seat of bourgeois rule. This is the measure of what the ANC and the AAM have achieved. Because of movements like the AAM, the Labour Party and its wealth of hacks remain in place to administer British imperialism and betray the working class in the 21st century, time and again. Because of the AAM, we know what opportunism looks like.

The second reason why this history is important is that we saw the power of the working class in Soweto in 1976 and in the uprisings of the 1980s. In our own way, fighting apartheid in City of London Anti-Apartheid Group we learned the lessons of struggle. It is in our consciousness for the future when the working class is conscious of its destiny again. We know what revolution can look like. Fieldhouse can have the AAM, we prefer life.

Carol Brickley, formerly convenor of
City of London Anti-Apartheid Group