Untold stories of how people in Nottinghamshire rallied to protest the racist regime of apartheid in South Africa have come to light thanks to new research by historians at the University of Nottingham.
The research is being unveiled online as an extensive collection of stories and images spotlighting the people, places and events of anti-apartheid activism in Nottingham city and county from the mid-1960s to 1994.
Nottinghamshire is famous for its legacy of protest and dissent throughout history. Anti-apartheid campaigning forms a large chapter which has never before been gathered or celebrated in one place. Now, the researchers have compiled a rich history of the period thanks to the former activists who came forward to take part in surveys and interviews. Their memories and accounts are supplemented by archival research.
The research showcases 36 diverse stories of anti-apartheid action in Nottingham, Mansfield and Worksop, including public demonstrations and rallies; disruption of events or businesses with South African interests; the solidarity work of trade unions; conferences, concerts and socials to raise funds, awareness and support across local communities. In Nottingham’s Hyson Green and Forest Fields neighbourhood, an ‘Apartheid-Free Zone’ was formed. There were also key visits to the county by campaigners from the black liberation movements and trade unions in South Africa and Namibia.
Researcher Lisa Clarkson said: “The people of Nottinghamshire can be proud of this chapter in the history of political activism in the region. The campaigners in these stories were dedicated allies in the long-haul fight against racism in southern Africa and closer to home. Every supporter and member of the public who heard the messages and got involved – by boycotting South African goods or business, by contributing to a South African strike fund, by joining a demo, by doing a sponsored Soweto walk, or going along to an anti-apartheid benefit gig – they all played a part.”
“We are gathering and telling these stories at a time when the messages continue to resonate. Work to challenge racism in all its forms remains urgent. We hope that this collection helps readers to trace and understand the lineage of Nottingham’s history of anti-racism protest. To quote Nelson Mandela on his release from prison in South Africa in 1990: ‘The struggle continues’.”
Apartheid – meaning ‘apartness’ – was the system of institutionalised racial segregation and white supremacy practised in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Under apartheid, basic political and human rights were denied to the black majority. The system meant poverty, exploitation, poor health and education, and brutal repression of resistance.
All over the world, people protested against apartheid and expressed support for the black liberation struggles in southern Africa. The British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) was a prominent vehicle for this transnational activism, taking its lead from the African National Congress. The AAM’s core aim was to sever British political and economic sustenance for the apartheid regime and to isolate South Africa. AAM headquarters were in London, but regional branches sprang up all over Britain, contributing vital grassroots work. Nottingham, Mansfield and Worksop had AAM branches, led by skilled campaigners who mobilised broad local support. Other bodies in Notts also did anti-apartheid work independently of the AAM, including trades unions, black community organisations, and student groups of many political hues.
Nottingham City Councillor Steve Battlemuch is a former Notts TUC president. The TUC was affiliated to the Nottingham Anti-Apartheid Movement group but also led its own initiatives to build links with black trade unionists in South Africa. He said:
“As a leader of the Notts TUC, I was involved in bringing black South African trade union leader Moses Mayekiso to Nottinghamshire as part of his national speaking tour in 1986. This sparked the growth of strong, direct links between Notts trade unionists and their black comrades in southern Africa. In subsequent years, we promoted the plays ‘The Long March’ and the ‘Sisters of the Long March’ in Notts, telling the story of the BTR Sarmcol strike in South Africa, written and performed by the workers themselves. We were delighted that the shows played to packed-out audiences at the Marcus Garvey Centre and raised much needed funds for the strikers and their families. For me personally, these experiences are second only to the miners’ strike in my political development and understanding. It is something that I look back now with a real pride and joy that I was involved in because I felt like it achieved something – it achieved a greater understanding of what was going on – making links with the workers, breaking links with apartheid. I’m delighted that these stories are now part of a public collection.”
Helen Colley is a lifelong labour movement campaigner and was an activist in Nottingham’s AAM group in the mid-1980s after moving to Nottingham on the strength of her connections with the Notts branch of Women Against Pit Closures.
“This history project is not just about the past, it’s not just about the small role we played in Nottinghamshire in the fight against apartheid decades ago. It actually has really important lessons for campaigners today. For me, the number one strength of the AAM was that it brought together different groups of people who were all involved in their own struggles – miners and other trades unionists, black and Asian communities, women’s groups and so on. And it brought us together as allies, genuine allies, because it was so clear that all our struggles were linked in reality, and apartheid South Africa was one of the global issues that tied us together. And so it generated this thirst for international solidarity on one level, and on a completely different level, it gave the people involved hope and inspiration in their own lives.
“That’s what we need today in the fight against climate change, against poverty, against racism and sexism. We can’t just leave it up to young people, or local organisations, or even the national campaigns on these issues. We need to bring these struggles together, and the Labour Party and trades unions need to use their clout to bring people together and mobilise them in action. That’s the biggest lesson we can take from the history of the AAM in Notts.”
Pete Loewenstein grew up in South Africa and Rhodesia. As a student at the University of Nottingham in the late 1960s he was an active anti-apartheid campaigner and led community anti-racism projects in the city. On returning to Nottingham in the early 1980s, Pete was a core member of the city’s AAM group until apartheid ended in 1994. He also helped set up the Hyson Green & Forest Fields Apartheid-Free Zone. He said:
“Anti-Apartheid activists across Nottinghamshire organised focused campaigns for more than thirty years. These contributed in small but sometimes significant ways to help support the people of South Africa in their struggles to defeat the brutal, racist Apartheid regime. This history project for the first time brings together many strands of this rich activity. They involved people across cultures and races, and organisations from trade unions to community, student and religious groups.”
“In 2021 racism and xenophobia continue to affect our lives in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere in the UK. This history project pinpoints some lessons that are relevant today of how to campaign effectively against intolerance and discrimination and for social justice.”
Mark Shotter was a student activist at Trent Polytechnic in the mid-1980s and campaigned in progressive left-wing circles including the Hyson Green & Forest Fields Apartheid-Free Zone. As part of the Poly’s Anti-Apartheid Action Group, he helped organise Nottingham’s biggest ever anti-apartheid demonstration, ‘Nottingham Against Apartheid’ in January 1986. In 1993 he volunteered through a Nottingham-based international organisation (CIT) to work in South Africa for the National Civics Organisation (SANCO), helping to produce election posters for the ANC. Mark recalls:
“Despite the period running up to the election being extremely tense and dangerous at times, my six months in South Africa working for SANCO and witnessing the end of apartheid rule was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It was a privilege to meet and work with comrades from various parts of the liberation movement there.”
The new resource, Mapping the history of anti-apartheid activism in Nottinghamshire, is now online and free to use on the interactive public platform historypin.org (www.historypin.org/en/mapping-anti-apartheid-protest-in-notts). The material will be expanded in 2022 into a second output, a physical publication containing more story detail, memorabilia and thematic context.
This research is funded as part of Dr Kate Law’s Nottingham Research Fellowship 2018-2022.