Solidarity with Soweto students
Thousands of people marched through central London on 27 June 1976 to protest against the South African police massacre of black school students in Soweto. The march was led by ANC members carrying a symbolic coffin. Right to left: ANC members John Matshikiza, Billy Nannan and Garth Strachan.


The 1970s were a pivotal decade in the struggle for freedom in Southern Africa. In 1975 Mozambique and Angola won their independence from Portugal. In Zimbabwe the guerrilla war escalated, forcing the white minority to concede majority rule. In South Africa the Soweto student uprising in 1976 and the growth of independent trade unions signalled a new wave of resistance.

Britain was preoccupied with domestic economic problems and the cold war against the Soviet Union. The Anti-Apartheid Movement became identified with the left in British politics and came up against a hostile media. Nevertheless it engaged with government and put down deep roots in the student and trade union movement.


In 1970 the Conservative government announced the lifting of Britain’s partial arms embargo against South Africa. The AAM led protests that ensured no major armaments were supplied. In 1977, after the banning of the Christian Institute and black consciousness organisations in South Africa, the UN Security Council imposed a mandatory arms ban. The AAM set up the World Campaign against Military and Nuclear Collaboration with South Africa to ensure the ban was fully enforced.


Barclays Bank was the main target of AAM action to persuade British companies to pull out of South Africa. Other companies came under fire as stakeholders put pressure on universities, trade unions and churches to sell their holdings. In 1973 British companies hit the headlines because of the poverty wages they paid their black South African workers. The AAM argued against the ‘code of conduct’ approach that called for British firms to pay higher wages rather than pull out.


In 1973 the AAM joined with the International Defence and Aid Fund and other groups to set up Southern Africa the Imprisoned Society (SATIS). SATIS supported political prisoners and campaigned for their release. From the early 1970s, the apartheid authorities stepped up arrests of political activists. Some detainees were tortured to death, and the murder of Steve Biko in 1977 was met by worldwide protests. In 1979 SATIS led an international campaign to overturn the death sentence on Solomon Mahlangu, a young freedom fighter. Mahlangu was hanged, but the apartheid government was served notice that political executions would provoke international opprobrium.

By the end of the decade resistance was growing inside South Africa and guerrillas from the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) were entrenched in northern Namibia. In Britain it was unclear how the new Conservative government would respond. The Anti-Apartheid Movement had come through a difficult decade and was building a support base that would help it meet the challenges of the 1980s.

Sharpeville Re-enactment, 1970On the tenth anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre the Anti-Apartheid Movement staged a re-enactment in Trafalgar Square. Around 3,000 people watched as actors dressed as South African police took aim and people in the crowd fell to the ground. The event was organised jointly with the United Nations Students Association (UNSA).