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Islington vs apartheid: History of how our borough stood up for black South Africans

PUBLISHED: 12:00 14 June 2018

Bomb damage at the ANC office at Penton Street. Picture: Anti-Apartheid Movement Archive

Bomb damage at the ANC office at Penton Street. Picture: Anti-Apartheid Movement Archive

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With an exhibition running at Islington Museum until Tuesday, the Gazette finds out how our borough played a part in fighting the oppression of black South Africans.

The exhibition launch at Islington Museum. Picture: Em Fitzgerald/Islington CouncilThe exhibition launch at Islington Museum. Picture: Em Fitzgerald/Islington Council

Regular readers of these pages will be used to the idea that pretty much every radical British political movement for the last 300 years has at some point been connected to Islington.

But you might be surprised to learn the borough also played a significant role in the fight against South Africa’s apartheid government.

Islington in the 1970s and ’80s was somewhat of a melting pot for radical thought, with cheap accommodation and properties that could be used as headquarters. Perhaps inevitably, something high on the agenda was the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Gerard Osmata-Milsom, 56, was an activist with the Islington Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) in the early ’90s when living in the Holloway Road. He was involved with the boycott campaign that targeted companies seen to support the apartheid regime, and helped organise the Nelson Mandela concert at Wembley stadium in 1990.

Former councillor Raphael Andrews at the exhibition launch, Islington Museum. Picture: Em Fitzgerald/Islington CouncilFormer councillor Raphael Andrews at the exhibition launch, Islington Museum. Picture: Em Fitzgerald/Islington Council

He said: “Islington was involved in a number of activities, with the main goal to highlight what was going on in South Africa.

“Our activism acted as a way of bringing it home to people that by boycotting South African products you could take action locally.”

The apartheid regime was felt by Islington communities when in 1982 the African National Congress headquarters in Penton Street was bombed by South African secret agents. Unbelievably, no one was killed by the 10lb shell.

The ANC moved its London headquarters to Islington in 1978 where it remained until 1994. It was banned by the South African government following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, where police killed 69 protesters and injured 180.

A poster for the Viva South Africa festival at Highbury Fields in July 1994. Picture: Anti-Apartheid Movement ArchiveA poster for the Viva South Africa festival at Highbury Fields in July 1994. Picture: Anti-Apartheid Movement Archive

After this many of its members were forced to live in exile, unaware of the boycott efforts taking place around the world. Boycotts of South African products began in 1959 and endured until the end of apartheid. By 1986, 27 per cent of people living in Britain said they no longer bought South African products.

To raise awareness among black South Africans, an initiative called the London Recruits was developed in 1970. The plan, hatched in Muswell Hill by exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo, involved disguising young men and women – four of whom were from Islington – as tourists, couples and business trippers and having them travel to South Africa.

The aim was to distribute ANC literature, which meant smuggling it on flights in false bottomed suitcases. To get the leaflets to as many people as possible, the group stowed them in buckets with small explosives underneath each one. They detonated the devices in five cities simultaneously at 5pm, timed for when the black South Africans excluded from the cities would be leaving to go back to the townships.

The London Recruits was one of the bigger international schemes carried out by the ANC but much of the work of the Islington group took place locally. A prominent movement was the Anti-Apartheid Movement, whose main base was in Camden but also had a very active Islington branch.

The movement would organise various campaigns that involved picketing Shell garages and removing all South African products from the shelves of Sainsbury’s in Holloway Road. They received help from various local councillors, helping with the organisation of big benefits.

The support shown by the Islington government was highlighted when Islington mayor Bob Crossman was photographed at a rolling picket outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square. The non-stop protest went on from 1986 to 1989, organised by Norma Kitson, a political activist.

The photograph is in an Islington Museum exhibition demonstrating Islington’s involvement with the anti-apartheid movement to celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth.

Curator Roz Currie said: “It is lovely working with people involved with the movement 30 years ago campaigning. They can come and see what they were doing and how they played a role in getting rid of apartheid.

“I hope that people come to this exhibition and think you can fight for something you believe in and that your actions can make a difference.”

It runs at the museum in St John’s Street, Finsbury, until June 19.

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