Rear Window: Boycotting Apartheid: The moral gestures that finally bore fruit

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WHEN Equity, the actors' union, lifted its ban on the sale of British television programmes to South Africa last week, an era ended.

For more than 30 years, while governments resisted the pressure for official sanctions, private citizens, trade unions, churches and other bodies have been taking the matter into their own hands by boycotting the apartheid state, its supporters and its produce. Over the past three years of dramatic change there, these campaigns have been abandoned one by one. Equity's was probably the last.

Many people in Britain, particularly but not exclusively on the left, can now literally taste the fruits of South Africa's changes by allowing themselves to buy Outspan oranges and Cape grapes. Some who would not have done so before are taking holidays in South Africa. And, of course, the Springboks have toured.

The spark for the consumer sanctions campaign was struck by the African National Congress in 1959. Albert Luthuli, the ANC president, saw economic ostracism of South Africa as 'our only chance of a relatively peaceful transition to a system of government which gives us all our rightful voice'.

In Britain, so the story goes, a priest called Trevor Huddleston refused to buy some South African pilchards and before long a campaign was born. At first it was called the Boycott Movement but after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 it became the Anti-Apartheid Movement; Huddleston eventually became its president.

Vivid, often shocking, posters carried the message. In time, the campaign widened from fruit. There were protests against rugby and cricket tours; Equity wrote a clause into its agreements with the television companies forbidding the sale of programmes to South Africa; we were urged to boycott Barclays and Shell because of their interests in South Africa.

Did it have any effect? Research by James Richardson for the Anti- Apartheid Movement shows that in 1985-89, when the campaigns reached their height, South Africa's share of the British imported fruit market fell from 11 to 8 per cent, and he could find no other cause than the boycott. Since 1989 the market share has risen again to 10 per cent. Outspan says that it was always able to find outlets for its citrus fruit, but a spokesman noted with satisfaction that consumer attitudes had changed recently and said the company was looking forward to a big expansion of sales.

The British supermarkets have also noticed the change. A Tesco spokesman said South African produce had achieved 'an increased acceptability'. CRS, which groups many Co-operative stores, has lifted a ban on South African produce.

Unofficial sanctions did not bring apartheid to its knees, but then nobody imagined they would. They were a form of protest. As Mike Terry, Anti-Apartheid's executive secretary, says: 'It was a moral gesture, a way in which people could say, 'Look, I'm against apartheid'.'

(Photographs omitted)

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