Retiring after a classic innings: As the Anti-Apartheid Movement winds up, Denis Herbstein recalls a small British institution that helped change the world

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When the Anti-Apartheid Movement is dismantled at a meeting in London today it will be mission accomplished for one of the longest-running campaigns in British political history. Only the battle against slavery and the unfinished business of nuclear disarmament lasted longer.

The AAM will transform itself into a new organisation, which numbers among its aims improving access for South African products to European markets. A tidy irony: the movement's first campaign was to persuade British shoppers not to buy Outspan oranges or Cape sherry.

In 35 years the AAM drilled the words 'anti-apartheid' into the world's subconscious. The word 'apartheid' had scarcely been heard of in Britain, when, in 1959, Chief Albert Luthuli, president of the African National Congress, called for an international boycott of South Africa. A group of exiles formed a Boycott Movement, which soon had the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, at Trafalgar Square launching a month of not buying South African goods. Midway through the boycott, in March 1960, police in a Transvaal township shot dead 69 unarmed blacks. Sharpeville became the most potent and enduring of the anti-apartheid icons.

But why was South Africa a special case? Millions would perish in Mozambique and Angola, compared with 15,000 killed in the apartheid years. The Khmer Rouge and Stalin's Russia were certainly more brutal. And there were worse massacres than Sharpeville. The special resonance had much to do with the transparency of British involvement in South Africa.

The newspapers had pictured the police driving through Sharpeville in Saracen armoured cars. It was the tip of an iceberg that included investment, military collaboration, test matches, emigre sons and daughters and the ease with which white South Africans could acquire British nationality. The Boycott Movement, converted into the Anti-Apartheid Movement, set about breaking these links.

Sometimes the AAM would be the leading player in a campaign, on other occasions its contribution was more modest. In 1960, as Commonwealth prime ministers met in London to consider Pretoria's application to stay on as a republic, it organised Labour and Liberal MPs in a 72-hour vigil. Behind the scenes, Abdul Minty, a founder AAM member, buttonholed the Commonwealth leaders. Cause and effect is not easy to establish, but Dr Verwoerd's application was rejected. In 1963 South Africa was suspended from the Tokyo Olympics. And when Nelson Mandela and his fellow ANC leaders faced the death sentence at the Rivonia trial, the AAM produced wording for a United Nations' resolution on the release of political prisoners that even the British Conservative government supported. The movement gained authority from close links with the African National Congress and its exiled leader, Oliver Tambo.

The new Labour leader, Harold Wilson, pledged at an AAM Trafalgar Square rally to stop the sale of arms to South Africa. But when he came to power, the changes were minimal. Neither was he able to take effective action against Ian Smith's unilateral declaration of independence in Rhodesia.

The late Sixties were the doldrum years, in South Africa and Britain. AAM donations dried up and the secretary was put on half days. The offices were burnt out by right-wing arsonists. Estate agents were wary, so when rooms above a Spanish food importer became available, the campaign sank its anti-Franco pride and moved in. Relief came through the 1969-70 Springbok rugby tour. Though the South African exile and Young Liberal Peter Hain received the credit, AAM claims to have mobilised hundreds of students and Welsh miners. Activists repeatedly invaded the field and held up play - and were sometimes assaulted by rugger buggers. The South Africa debate had exploded into violence in Britain.

Mike Terry, the AAM's administrative secretary for the past 19 years, explains: 'The tour produced a sea change in attitudes, politicising a generation of students. They got jobs in the City, banking, insurance and large companies, and often helped us discreetly.' The Springbok cricket tour was called off, helped by an AAM poster with the words: 'If you could see their national sport, you might be less keen to see their cricket]', beneath a picture of white policemen batoning cowering blacks.

The trade union connection provided financial cover and, on occasions, inside information. The AAM office heard that South African airforce personnel were being trained on a mobile radar system at Plessey in Chessington. An Afrikaner exile phoned the firm and asked for a series of common Afrikaans names, until she was put through to an unsuspecting pilot.

The story was broken during a Commonwealth Conference.

With the Soweto student uprising in 1976 and the murder of the Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, the South African story would not go away.

A country-wide swathe of more than 200 local 'AA' groups - campus, unions, churches, municipalities - gave the sanctions campaign a cutting edge. They were guided to targets by Anti-Apartheid News. No supermarket was safe from selling forbidden apples. Nuclear processing plants handling Namibian uranium were picketed. Sanctions-busters were exposed. When the imprisoned Mandela was made a freeman of the City of Glasgow, universities and local authorities in Britain and Europe hurried to bestow honours. Hundreds of thousands marched.

The 70th birthday concert for Mandela at Wembley Stadium in 1988 produced a quarter of a million pounds for the AAM, the only big money it ever got.

Membership peaked around that time, at 25,000, with 30 people employed at the north London headquarters, raising money or running campaigns (this correspondent won an East German ghetto-blaster in a raffle).

As the struggle became big business, corporate Britain disinvested, led by Barclays, 'apartheid's bankers', which succumbed after a 15-year campaign.

The sanctions campaign linked into Western Europe, North America and Australasia. An umbrella of activists, including Canon John Collins' Defence and Aid, publicised South Africa's nuclear build-up, sportsmen lured by big money to 'play with apartheid', and in particular, the plight of political prisoners.

In 1984, as Margaret Thatcher entertained the South African President PW Botha at Chequers, 50,000 marched through London in protest. Within weeks, a rent boycott in the Vaal Triangle grew into the rebellion that would end in democratic rule. But AAM's success in mass mobilisation contrasted with its inability to influence the British Establishment. No British government ever gave a penny, when even conservative regimes in Scandinavia and Canada offered enormous material help.

AAM tried in vain throughout the Eighties to persuade the government to relax its rigid line on sanctions. Then, in 1986, the US Congress, Johnny-come-latelies to anti-apartheid, voted a comprehensive sanctions bill, inspired by the Black Caucus. In Britain, the AAM had no following from the Asian or West Indian communities, who viewed the leadership as white and middle-class. And too staid.

Mandela is now president, but the legacy of Bantu education, the lost wine and fruit markets, the inequalities between white and black in his country will linger on for years. The AAM's successor, Action for Southern Africa, will devote itself to putting the sub-continent's case to the world: whether it can convert the enthusiasm of the Eighties into support for these more mundane activities remains to be seen.

Kader Asmal, an AAM founder member and now a minister in Mandela's government, says that the movement created a unique consensus on sanctions, which the whole world (barring the British and American right wing), could go along with. That was its great achievement.