Government papers from 1984 show how rattled the South Africans and their British allies were over anti-apartheid activism, writes SOLOMON HUGHES
Is it worth it? Do demonstrations, pickets and strikes change anything?
This question reappears with annoying regularity.
Especially near elections, as part of the linked argument that voting is a realistic way of getting modest change, while campaigns are a big waste of time.
Personally, I find the question a bit bizarre, because I am old enough to remember many successful campaigns and I think wise enough to know what we would miss if we never bothered making a fuss — like, er, the eight-hour day.
The “don’t bother” case is often put by older folk, ignoring the evidence of the history they lived through. I assume this is just because of the natural pessimism that grows as our hair greys.
Luckily, we don’t have to look too far back to read what the Establishment side thinks of protests. I have a pile of government papers in front of me about South African President PW Botha’s visit to Thatcher in 1984.
This was part of Thatcher’s campaign to make support for apartheid South Africa more respectable. She thought it was a vital bulwark against “communism.”
After some very token complaints about apartheid, Thatcher did her best to show British backing for Botha.
But the anti-apartheid protesters had different ideas. And they clearly rattled Botha and Thatcher. The prime minister and the president knew protest could work.
A telegram from the British embassy in Cape Town described a visit from South Africa’s Prime Minister Pik Botha. It says: “Pik Botha added that PW Botha had been somewhat concerned by the hostility demonstrated by the anti-apartheid lobby in Britain towards his visit.”
However, British ambassador Sir John Leahy “reassured Pik Botha that PW Botha would be most welcome.”
Protests shaped the visit. Originally the South Africans wanted to stay for a week, but a telegram from the Foreign Office to their diplomats says the longer stay was stopped because “the political benefits of the visit could be spoiled by the unwelcome attention from Mr Botha’s critics. The longer he was here, the easier a target he would be.”
Better to have Botha whisked away before he faced too many demos.
A note for the foreign secretary also says the South Africans should not have a “two-day stay” because of fears over “the management of any demonstrations.”
Jack Russell of Special Branch said protest ruled out much of the country for the visit.
He “strongly advised against staying in London.”
However, if the delegation opted for a “country place” to avoid “hostile demonstrations” they should not consider “Oxfordshire/Thames Valley area because eg Greenham Common Women etc.”
Thatcher herself worried over whether to meet Botha in the government’s country house in Chequers or in Number 10.
A note says “The prime minister is concerned about the risk of demonstrations or break-ins at Chequers, but recognised that No 10 is no easier.”
They even considered meeting Botha at an RAF base to keep protesters away, but ruled this out as “wholly undignified.”
There are many notes about how to get Botha from Heathrow to Chequers and “minimise the risk of disruption” by “demonstrations by the Anti Apartheid Movement,” using, for example, helicopters to ferry the South Africans around.
They were so scared of anti-apartheid protesters that Special Branch had informants inside the Anti Apartheid Movement. Thatcher’s government used information from these informants to help prepare for PW Botha’s visit.
A telegram from the Foreign Office to the British embassy in South Africa says: “Special Branch have learned from their own sources inside the Anti Apartheid Movement that the AAM are to mount a protest occupation of the South African Airways office on Regent Street for the two days before and after the Botha visit.
“The police cannot do much about this without compromising their source but they will be ready to step in at once when requested by South African Airways. The police are also considering whether and, if so, how they can warn South African Airways that this is likely to happen.”
The papers include many discussions of the Anti Apartheid Movement’s planned demonstrations.
A minute from the Foreign Office “protocol department” discusses official meetings between the police and the AAM about their June 2 rally to Trafalgar Square, with 10,000 demonstrators expected.
The Foreign Office noted the rally would be “well behaved and well stewarded” but warned: “There is a possibility that the ‘hooligan element’ — the City of London anti- apartheid group, might join in.”
They add: “This group is not expected to be more than 20 to 30-strong. They will not be made welcome by the main body of the Anti Apartheid Movement.”
The police were particularly exercised by a vigil outside the South African embassy by the family of David Kitson, an ANC activist imprisoned in South Africa since 1964.
A Foreign Office memo says: “The police are in touch with the South African embassy here about demonstrations affecting South Africa generally and will be warning them about the Kitson family’s vigil.
“I assume this ill-guided demonstration is unlikely to have any repercussions for Kitson himself.
“It is not clear that there will be any overt association with Kitson, eg banners etc but we cannot rule this out.”
In the end the Kitsons’ demonstration did have repercussions for the prisoner: the “ill-guided” protest seemed to hit its mark as Kitson was released shortly after Botha’s visit to Britain.
Kitson showed his gratitude for this clemency by joining the vigil outside South Africa House, which was transformed into a non-stop picket that tormented the South African officials inside until the end of apartheid.
In the end we know that Thatcher was unable to get British people to back the South African government, and that apartheid fell to the ANC which Thatcher hated. That’s the big picture.
But even on the small picture of the 1984 visit, the government side knew how powerful protest could be, even if our own side do not always understand the power they have.