Opponents of apartheid decide their job is done: The Anti-Apartheid Movement has agreed to disband. James Cusick looks back at its victorious 35-year political struggle

James Cusick
Sunday 26 June 1994 23:02

AT ABOUT NOON today a 44- year-old Labour MP will, for the first time, walk into the South

African embassy in Trafalgar Square. The walk from his office in the House of Commons takes 10 minutes. The spiritual journey has taken him 24 years.

'I'll have to pinch myself, ask if I'm really here,' said Peter Hain, the MP for Neath. As a 19-year-old student formed an organisation that halted the 1970 tour of England by cricketers from South Africa; now he has been invited to an embassy recpetion for South African musicians.

Over the weekend at the 35th anniversary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London, some delegates said they also had to pinch themselves as they listened to a special message from the President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. 'The people of South Africa will be forever grateful. We felt its strength even within the dungeons of apartheid.'

For the AAM, Saturday was the final day when they formally admitted that the job, one that often dominated their lives, was done. Apartheid had been killed. The South African rugby players have been to Twickenham and their cricketers are in England this summer; the defining act of liberalism is no longer the simple matter of ignoring South African fruit or wine in the supermarket.

In choosing to stay together in a new organisation that will be launched in October, the AAM accepted that, as Nelson Mandela said, 'the need for international solidarity is greater than ever'. Now, the movement has come full circle: trade is to be supported.

But three and half decades ago, in response to a call from the African National Congress for a boycott of South African goods, a meeting was held in London. Its main speakers were Julius Nyerere, then president of the Tanganyika African National Union, and a priest, Father Trevor Huddleston. The Boycott Movement was launched at a mass rally in Trafalgar Square. The Anti-Apartheid Movement had been born. The aim was simply to end apartheid, the Afrikaans word for separateness.

Abdul Minty, one of the founder members of AAM and the current honorary secretary, was a student in London when AAM began campaigning to save the lives of Mandela and others in the Rivonia trial of 1963. He said: 'We all thought it would end quickly. What we didn't expect was how the Western powers would support South Africa in the way they did.' Mr Minty was one of the key figures in 1964 to convince the actor Marlon Brando that cultural pressure had to be put on South Africa. Brando insisted on a clause in his contract that prevented his films being shown to segregated audiences.

There were early successes: South Africa had been excluded from the Commonwealth after a vigil at Lancaster House by the AAM; there was growing pressure - later to pay off - for a halt of British arms to South Africa. As news of every horror from inside South Africa emerged, the AAM ensured the event's significance would be remembered. In March 1960 at Sharpeville, 69 people were killed and 180 wounded. The ANC was subsequently banned. But the AAM ensured the massacre's importance never faded.

For Mr Minty it seemed 'a long journey'. The complexity of campaigning against the iniquity of the 'black homelands' policy was not easy. However, in 1969 the task became clear. Peter Hain founded the organisation that joined forces with the AAM to halt the 1970 cricket tour of England by South Africa.

For the AAM, however, there were always other goals: an arms embargo, the release of political prisoners, the ending of academic, sporting and cultural links, economic disengagement. A big success focused on Barclays Bank. The AAM's campaign led to the withdrawal of accounts from the bank. One success, so the AMM's own logic said, led to another. So in 1986 the huge Chase Manhattan Bank led other banks to withhold funds until reforms had been put through.

The Soweto uprising in 1976 was a watershed. Demonstrations increased, symbolic coffins were marched through London.

Finances were not always solid. Robert Hughes, the Natal-educated MP for Aberdeen North and chairman of the AAM, admitted the debt to the trade union movement: 'They helped out with loans, loans later written off.'

The AAM attracted strange bedfellows. Joanna Lumley appearing on the same platform as miners' leader Mick McGahey in a rally at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Oliver Tambo, the exiled ANC leader, stood alongside US presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson in Trafalgar Square in a rally that attracted 100,000 in 1985. Three years later in the Artists Against Apartheid concert at Wembley, millions around the world celebrated Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday. When victory came with Nelson Mandela's inauguration as president of South Africa, reality was difficult to believe.

Archbishop Huddleston, the movement's president, now 81, told the AAM on Saturday - as it prepared to disband on 29 October and reform into a solidarity organisation to assist Southern Africa - that 'this is a moment in history. And I am so greatly privileged to be just with you.' Struggling to describe the journey he resorted to John Masefield's poem The Everlasting Mercy:

To get the whole world out of bed

And washed, and dressed, and warmed, and fed,

To work and back to bed again,

Believe me, Saul, costs worlds

of pain.

(Photographs omitted)

Leading article, page 13

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