Research on the Anti-Apartheid Movement has concentrated on its well-known leaders. But the Boycott Movement was set up in 1959 on the initiative of a group of little-known South African activists. As part of her history degree at Sheffield University, HANA WILLIAMS uncovered the stories of a group of South African Indian students who continued their fight against apartheid from exile in London, and helped to set up the Boycott Movement.

In the final year of my undergraduate degree at Sheffield, I studied the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. Through this engaging module on the resistance and liberation of South Africa, I was introduced to the ways the struggle permeated transnational politics. Outside of South Africa, Britain was at the centre of the global Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), and I was drawn to the stories of the people who helped orchestrate the movement in its formative years.  

The history of the preliminary years of the British AAM has often focused on the role of white South Africans or Christian activists, yet I was keen to dig deeper to research less prominent figures. Growing up in the UK, the top-down school history curriculum excluded stories of marginalised peoples, and consequently I used my university degree as an avenue to explore these. 

In historian and co-ordinator of the AAM archives Christabel Gurney’s work, I discovered a high frequency of ‘Indian’ names. Immediately, I was drawn to this community because of my own Indian-Pakistani heritage. I learnt about a small group of South African Indians who, in the 1950s, escaped segregation laws in the higher education sector by migrating to London to continue their university studies. Though some individuals in this group progressed to have high profile careers, several remain relatively anonymous and their contributions unknown. I wanted to explore this very early, albeit significant, beginning of the movement. 

Keen to uncover these figures’ personal stories, I reached out to Christabel Gurney through this website. She responded warmly and promised to search for notes from interviews she had conducted over 20 years ago. My thesis depended on Christabel’s primary research, as she was my only source for some of the lesser-known South African Indians in this network. Fortunately, she found the interview notes and I embarked on a mission to uncover their contribution in this formative period in London. 

Establishing a network

Vella Pillay was the first of this group to arrive in 1948. He and his wife, Patsy Pillay, left South Africa shortly after the newly elected National Party introduced hostile legislation for interracial couples and ‘Coloureds’ in the education sector. Pillay appeared in many of his peers’ accounts as a senior figure; naturally, he took on this role because he arrived almost a decade earlier than the others, but he was also the representative of the Communist Party of South Africa in London and successfully recruited many South African Indian students. 

Following the arrival of more students in the late 1950s, such as Abdul Minty, Freddy Reddy, Kader Asmal, Nandha Naidoo, Mana Chetty, Hassim and Tony Seedat, the Pillays’ home became an important base for these young students to converge and organise political activism. In Mana Chetty’s opinion, the talks at the Pillays’ house ‘galvanised’ them and showed the group they could participate from their new home in London. The liberal energy in London in the fifties was a stark contrast from the oppressive regime back home, offering new potential for the struggle to form channels outside South Africa.  

Student activism 

Vella Pillay was heavily involved with the South African Students Association (SASA), which circulated some of the earliest ideas of boycotting South Africa in Britain. I obtained the photograph above of SASA’s first demonstration outside South Africa House opposing the South African Finance Minister’s visit, featuring Vella Pillay accompanied by unidentified activists, perhaps Indian nationals or South African Indians. 

An important relationship developed between SASA and the India League, which Vella’s wife Patsy worked for, as the League offered, amongst other support, premises for producing posters.  

Forming the Boycott Movement 

This student organisation transformed into the South Africa Freedom Association in 1955 according to Pillay’s account (although Mac Maharaj suggests it may have been in 1958).  Providing legal support for non-white South Africans who entered Britain without travel documents, the organisation assisted those escaping South Africa, simultaneously expanding their membership. Many of SAFA’s members, like the Seedat cousins, came via ship.  

Representing SAFA, they cultivated relationships with British politicians and external groups. Mac Maharaj asked Labour MP Fenner Brockway to participate in the movement. Fundamental foundations were built through networking and building a trustworthy community of people to help launch the Boycott Movement. 

The Boycott Movement was publicly fronted by the ANC's Tennyson Makiwane and South African Liberal Party member Patrick van Rensburg, but it depended on grassroots and administrative voluntary work contributed by South African Indian students due to its limited financial resources. Mana Chetty confirmed it was run on a ‘shoe string’ – he utilised his free travel pass working as a guard for London Transport to deliver leaflets! 

At times in the early days, only four or five were campaigning outside South Africa House. They endured racial harassment from fascist Oswald Mosley’s supporters. Freddy Reddy claimed they were jabbed by elbows and Chetty recalls being shouted at to ‘go home’ and ‘bugger off’. Facing such obstacles in this period and committing their free time outside their studies to raise awareness demonstrates their integrity.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement and beyond

On 16 March 1960, the Boycott Movement was renamed the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The Sharpeville Massacre, when the South African police opened fire on a crowd of over 5,000 people protesting against the pass laws, is widely recognised by historians as a catalyst for the AAM. However, Mana Chetty proposes instead that the structures and organisations built in the ‘50s were the key that enabled the AAM to respond effectively in the wake of Sharpeville. 

The paths of this network diverged in the ‘60s as they found their own ways to participate in the struggle. Abdul Minty and Vella Pillay continued their legacy in founding the AAM as Honorary Secretary and Executive Committee member respectively until the organisation’s dissolution in 1995. Pillay sent Nandha Naidoo and Mac Maharaj to the German Democratic Republic (GDP) and China respectively for underground military training on behalf of the ANC's military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Kader Asmal was briefly Treasurer of the AAM before relocating to Ireland with his partner Louise and becoming heavily involved in setting up the Irish AAM. Similarly, Freddy Reddy moved to Oslo and helped build the Norwegian AAM. 

Connected by their twice migrant heritage and shared struggle for justice, these figures made a special imprint in the story of the struggle at a pivotal time. Bringing to light their perspectives is a valuable way to enrich our understanding of the diverse, vibrant networks that shaped the AAM.