Stories from the non-stop picket of South Africa House documented by researchers from the University of Leicester
Podcast of Dr Gavin Brown talking about experiences on the picket: http://soundcloud.com/university-of-leicester/dr-gavin-brown-on-nelson
Protesters campaigning for the release of Nelson Mandela staged a non-stop picket of the South African embassy in London for four years.
The picket in Trafalgar Square became the defining image of the UK's Anti-Apartheid movement.
Now more than 20 years later, researchers from the University of Leicester have tracked down members of the group who spent their teenage years on the pavement outside South Africa House.
Their study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, provides a social history on one of the most important protests of the time. The experience was life-changing for the young people who took part, several of whom have retained links with South Africa.
Beginning in April 1986 and running until Mandela was released from Victor Verster prison in February 1990, the continuous picket attracted a socially and racially mixed group from across the UK and the world.
Its position on one of the capital's major tourist routes meant the siege, with its colourful placards and idealistic young activists, became an attraction in itself. It featured prominently in the video of the Pet Shop Boys hit single West End Girls.
The picket was vital in focusing attention in the UK on the struggle against the South African apartheid regime, according to Dr Gavin Brown, the Leicester academic leading the research.
Dr Brown, a geography lecturer who as a teenager became a veteran of the non-stop picket, said: "On the open top tourist buses the guides would point out Nelson's column on the right and the non-stop picket for Nelson Mandela on the left.
"If the embassy had been on the back streets of Belgravia, it would not have been sustained for that long or had the same impact. It provided a real focus for young people who wanted to show their support in some way."
The Leicester study, which has so far interviewed more than 70 of those who took part, documents the highs and lows of the activism; the freezing nights, the hurricane of (15/16 October 1987) and the companionship of London's homeless.
The picketers survived the coldest winter in nearly 40 years in 1986/87 and on two occasions the Metropolitan Police arrested the entire group.
One member Jacky Sutton, now in her 40s and who, until recently, was working for the UN, said: "Dawn was the worse time because the temperature dropped a couple of degrees. I don't remember the picket in the summer, I just remember the bone chilling cold seeping up from the pavement and the smell of sour milk, vomit and car exhaust that heralded the new day.”
When the day of Mandela’s release came on 11 February 1990, a crowd of more than 15,000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square. The 20-year-old Dr Brown had the privilege of announcing to the cheering throng the historic moment – “He has walked free”.
Of those interviewed, about a quarter still have an active interest in Africa and the developing world.
These include the director of the British Burma campaign, a theatre director who has run projects in the South African townships and former protesters who work in international aid and development education.
“The general response to their time on the picket was that it was positive and life changing,” said Dr Brown, “although some people cringe at their adolescent self righteousness. There is also a general sense of disappointment at the way South Africa has developed – that more has not been done to tackle HIV/AIDS, corruption and poverty. Many picketers hoped for a very different post-apartheid South Africa.”
You can find out more on the project blog at: http://nonstopagainstapartheid.wordpress.com/