The Anti-Apartheid Movement is best known for its mass demonstrations and national campaigns. But a look at the activities of AA local groups reveals a rich and varied pattern of grassroots activism. MATT GRAHAM shows how the groups reflected their local communities and often took up issues that were special to them.

One of the most significant achievements of the British AAM was its ability to turn a transnational issue into a cause that ordinary people could actively engage with. This was no easy feat. The AAM’s focus on a single issue – ending apartheid – remained steadfastly the constant throughout its lifespan. The issue of apartheid, and the escalating repression in South Africa, made it a cause that crossed class, ideological, and generational divides. The clarity of purpose and consensus building was critical to the AAM’s longevity and unity for over 30 years.  

To build a mass movement and to raise awareness of apartheid, the AAM adeptly facilitated individual participation and solidarity with the struggle through various entry points. The objective of isolating South Africa and protesting any connections, wherever they existed, meant that campaigns encompassed political, economic, social, and cultural targets. The AAM’s emphasis on collective individual actions, no matter how small, indicated that the public could have a much bigger impact on global issues through coordinated and targeted campaigning. 

The AAM was a transnational, national, and local movement. However, the movement is commonly viewed through a national lens. Ask most people what they associate the anti-apartheid struggle in Britain with, and they will say: Boycott Shell; Don’t bank with Barclays; Stop the Seventy Tour; Free Nelson Mandela. All these campaigns gained nationwide resonance. 

But how do you go about turning a transnational issue into forms of meaningful action and solidarity? The AAM’s local groups ensured individual activists could become involved in this internationalised struggle at a grassroots level. From its very inception, the AAM sought to establish a nationwide structure to avoid being perceived as a London-centric lobby group (not always successfully) and to broaden the mass appeal of the struggle. This aim was enabled by a network of decentralised local anti-apartheid groups, which were autonomous entities, but affiliated to the national AAM and adhered to its overarching objectives.

The status of these groups ebbed and flowed throughout the AAM’s existence, averaging around 30 until the late-1970s, and then growing rapidly to a peak of 187 in 1987, as anti-apartheid became entrenched in the political mainstream. Consequently, there emerged an anti-apartheid presence in almost every part of Britain, spanning rural communities and urban centres.  

The national AAM did not seek to control or dictate the terms of engagement from the local groups, rather it tried to coordinate them. What the AAM established was the national framework, which included clarity of messaging across the movement and targets for campaigns, that local activists could engage with as they saw fit. A good example of the coordinated activities were the national days/months of action against specific companies such as Tesco or Shell, where the AAM encouraged local groups to picket a store in every locality to amplify the depth and extent of protest throughout Britain.

Importantly, it was here, on local high streets, that most people would have first been confronted with the anti-apartheid struggle via pickets outside shops asking them not to buy South African goods. These were the types of local activities that were integral to decentralising the struggle and keeping apartheid on the public agenda even during challenging periods.  

While the local groups operated within this national framework, what is fascinating is how diverse they were and the ways in which they engaged with the cause. The research from myself and Dr Christopher Fevre has started to explore aspects of the AAM’s heterogeneity at the grassroots. What became quickly apparent through the archival records and the 50 interviews we conducted with people from all over Britain was that there was no universal experience of anti-apartheid. These experiences varied enormously, dependent firstly on why they entered the struggle (humanitarian, moral, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, etc.), but also on the local environment in which their activism occurred.  

The outcome was that many AAM activists we interviewed centred their experiences within their local group. They acknowledged that they were working within a nationally approved framework, and engaged with the AAM’s showpiece activities such as the Hyde Park rallies, but their day-to-day roles in anti-apartheid were inherently local. And given the autonomy of the groups, their members were free to decide how they would publicise, educate, protest, and fundraise for the cause. So the forms of activity ranged enormously from place to place, although best practice and ideas were communicated centrally by the AAM’s local group mailing and through AA News. Groups were involved in an array of activities encompassing weekly pickets, monthly meetings, stalls, carnivals, day schools, theatre productions, concerts, discos, wine and cheese evenings, and sponsored sporting events. No two local groups were identical.     

The local groups were not expected to pursue all the campaigns that were created by the AAM, which were perceived as a ‘menu’ of options. The groups premised their actions on the resources (human and financial) available to them, the interests of the members, and crucially the political, economic, and social conditions in which they operated. The messaging from groups varied considerably to match the realities and experiences of their audiences, and to reflect the extent to which major industries or local manufacturers were connected to South Africa. For instance, industries such as coal (Durham, Yorkshire, South Wales), steel (Sheffield), shipping (Bristol, Southampton), oil (Aberdeen), nuclear power (Northwest England), and car manufacturing (Coventry, Oxford) all had different links to apartheid. The groups in these areas publicised and targeted these industries to educate the local population about the realities of apartheid and make it relevant to their lives. The outcomes were many highly localised campaigns.  

What can sometimes be under-appreciated was the sheer breadth and depth of connections to South Africa that existed across Britain. A core purpose of the AAM, and by extension the local groups, was to identify and protest links to apartheid whatever they might be. These connections were by no means uniform throughout the country, and a few examples offer a sense of the diverse targets for local groups: Monmouthshire AA campaigned to prevent a male voice choir touring South Africa (1971); the World Bowls Championships in Brighton was picketed due to South African competitors (1972); a bingo session compered by Miss World (Miss South Africa) was protested by Hampstead AA (1975); the Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band faced protests after visiting Johannesburg (1981); Marti Caine appearing in Aladdin at the Oxford Apollo was targeted for her views on apartheid (1987); and Deeside AA protested Chester Zoo’s photo competition prize that included a trip to South Africa (1990).

These actions may not be regarded as having the same gravitas as economic or political relationships, but they demonstrate how seriously activists took the job of isolating South Africa in all walks of life. Moreover, while these groups were all working toward the AAM’s overarching objectives, how they did so could be very different, shaped by these local conditions and connections.   

Looking at the AAM’s local groups provides a different angle on the evolution of anti-apartheid activism across Britain. Although there were commonalities shaped by the parameters of the AAM and the broader struggle, the stories of the AAM’s local groups show how and why differences occurred in various settings. What is clear is that participation and engagement with anti-apartheid was far from uniform, and an examination of the local setting uncovers alternative stories and experiences. 

This blog is based on archival research and interviews conducted by Dr Matt Graham (History programme, University of Dundee) and Dr Christopher Fevre (International Studies Group, University of the Free State).