‘Freedom was around the corner’: how UK activists helped the exiled ANC to defeat apartheid

<span>Anti-apartheid movement commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, 21 March 1970.</span><span>Photograph: Roger Jackson/Getty Images</span>
Anti-apartheid movement commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, 21 March 1970.Photograph: Roger Jackson/Getty Images

Speak to those who were fighting it from afar, and they’ll tell you that for a long time, the political situation in apartheid-era South Africa appeared intractable. Even as they wouldn’t allow themselves to feel despondent – the campaign to boycott South African goods had, after all, been successful, and few musicians would tour the country – many activists wondered, deep down, if change would ever come. But in the mid-1980s, things seemed at last to shift. Suddenly, the atmosphere was heady. “There was an energy and excitement that I can’t even begin to describe,” says Chitra Karve, who in 1986 had just taken up a full-time job at the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London. “I worked an inordinate number of hours, but I never thought about that. I never even got tired. You were driven by the pace at which possibility was coming towards you: the possibility of real change.”

Karve had been a student activist, but now she found herself, not long out of university, at the heart of the fight to end apartheid. The team was small – just eight people – which meant that when she developed an interest in working with the press, she was allowed simply to get on with it. Two years later, when the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute took place at Wembley – an event now widely regarded as one of the most important consciousness-raising exercises ever staged – she was so busy dealing with journalists that she missed most of the concert. Up on stage were George Michael, Miriam Makeba, Tracy Chapman, Stevie Wonder and the Bee Gees. But for her, “glamour didn’t come into it”. She spent only 20 minutes in the area where the artists were hanging out: “I went into Harry Belafonte’s trailer where he was sitting with Trevor Huddleston [an Anglican bishop, Huddleston was the president of the AAM] and, wow, that was exciting. But the rest of the time, I was rushing about, trying to get the press organised.”

The AAM was a British organisation. But it had close connections with the African National Congress, and this was key. After the ANC was banned by the South African government in 1960, Oliver Tambo, later the party’s president, made his home in London, and he was followed, in turn, by other exiles; between 1978 and 1994, the ANC had a London HQ at Penton Street in Islington (its offices there were wrecked by a bomb in 1982, an act later revealed to have been ordered by the South African government). “We weren’t operating in a bubble,” Karve recalls. Everything the Anti-Apartheid Movement did was driven by the exiles who were working beside us. There were people that they knew and loved who were being imprisoned, tortured and killed.”

For Karve, a solicitor who is now the chair of Action for Southern Africa, it was a “huge privilege” to be working alongside such people. She remembers Tambo, who had made his home in Muswell Hill, vividly. “He was understated, but oddly powerful. You could feel the brain work. He was gentle, he was clear. I met a lot of the younger exiles, too, and what I remember is that they were 100% committed, but in such a joyful way, as if they knew that change had to come, and that it would pretty damn soon. Their activism was inspiring. They weren’t downtrodden. They worked in friendship with us, and we in solidarity with them. It was very much a hand-in-hand relationship.”

On 11 February, 1990, the day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, many activists made for South Africa House, the home of the South African High Commission, in Trafalgar Square, where a crowd formed. Karve was one; Lawson Naidoo, a South African member of the ANC who had been based at its London office since 1987, was another. “The critical moment had come the previous October, when several other Rivonia trial prisoners were released [on the order of President de Klerk],” he says (it was at the Rivonia trial that Mandela was convicted of sabotage against the state, and sentenced to life imprisonment). “Suddenly, there was no turning back. But still, none of us could have anticipated how quickly it [the end of apartheid] was going to happen, and what a rollercoaster it would be.”

On 11 February, Naidoo was on a No 73 bus in Islington; he heard the news of Mandela’s impending release on a small transistor radio. “We all went to South Africa House because there’d been a long history of protests there, but now we were celebrating, from morning until late at night. Diane Abbott [then three years into her career as a Labour MP] was with us. I remember driving around. We stopped off at a couple of places – there were parties happening all over – and eventually we ended up in Notting Hill. We were starving hungry by then, and Diane took us to this little restaurant. The owner had already gone to bed, but we woke her up and she got us some food.”

Can he recall how he felt? “It was just … unbelievable. You know, the vindication of all the work we had done – and now we knew that freedom was just around the corner.” Naidoo is in Cape Town when we speak via Zoom – in 1992, he returned to South Africa, where he is now the executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the Constitution and the chair of the board of directors at Cricket South Africa – and I’m struck by the way the memory of all this transforms his face, something you can see even on a laptop screen. He left the ANC when now disgraced Jacob Zuma was elected its president in 2007, and no longer votes for the party. But I can sense his heart briefly lifting, the knowledge of all that has happened since temporarily put to one side as he thinks of the past.


There is no bad time to look back at apartheid and how it came finally to be dismantled; the lessons are important and ongoing. In London, the Liliesleaf Trust has just £350,000 left to raise before it can begin work on transforming 28 Penton Street into the Anti-Apartheid Legacy: Centre of Memory and Learning, where it will host exhibitions and events in the cause both of marking the achievements of the movement in Britain, and connecting them to present-day discrimination problems (it will open next year). But this is, perhaps, a particularly good moment to consider those times. Across Europe and America, people are protesting against the Israeli government’s war in Gaza, a movement that might – and also might not – be likened to the campaign against apartheid. Several of those I spoke to for this piece have joined pro-Palestine marches, and think the comparison a worthy one. But others are infuriated by the way pro-Palestine protesters use the term apartheid in connection with Gaza. “I have a distaste for it,” says Trevor Phillips, the journalist and broadcaster (as a student activist in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he marched against apartheid; he was also close to the Tambo family). “The point about apartheid is that it was a legal system. Also, that the ANC leaders had a theory of change, and a firm view about what we were doing.” In this, he observes, they are rather different to Hamas.

The ANC has become more concerned with its own survival than with the flourishing of South Africa

John Battersby

On Wednesday, meanwhile, South Africa will go to the polls in an election many commentators regard as the most significant – and certainly the most unpredictable – since the country became a democracy in 1994. The ANC, which in 2019 won 57.5% of the vote, is not expected to secure a majority this time (a recent poll put its share at just 40%, others at between 45 and 47%), a result that would make it necessary for it to form a coalition if it is to maintain its hold on power – and on this score, there are few good options. Cyril Ramaphosa, the multimillionaire ANC leader and the country’s president, would either have to make a populist alliance with Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, a party whose redistributive policies terrify investors, or a centre-right one with the Democratic Alliance, which would infuriate his base. A third possibility is that he could work with one of a myriad smaller parties on the ballot, but he would still be extremely vulnerable. His enemies – he has many – would be emboldened.

But after 30 years in power, the ANC cannot reasonably blame anyone but itself for its fading popularity. Corruption in South Africa is widespread, and the country’s infrastructure broken. There is no functioning rail or postal service. There is a water crisis. In many cities, there have been rolling blackouts. The education system needs to be fixed. Unemployment stands at 32%. “It makes me want to weep,” says John Battersby, a South African journalist based in London. “There was such potential. But perhaps we were naive. If a government is in power long enough, it becomes like any other guy. The ANC has become more concerned with its own survival than with the flourishing of South Africa.”

Battersby is well placed to observe the contrast between hope and experience. Between 1983 and 1987, he was the London bureau chief of the Rand Daily Mail, a job that brought him close to the ANC’s leadership (the newspaper was against apartheid). “It was an exciting period,” he says. Like Karve, he remembers how impressed he was with their commitment. “In so many ways, it was a dangerous situation. The South African security services were very active in London.” What about the AAM? How significant does it seem, looking back? “Protest is important, no question. But there was also the fundraising. Canon John Collins at St Paul’s Cathedral was the nexus of a network that gathered huge amounts of money both from individuals and governments and aid organisations, and it was used to defend anti-apartheid protesters who were being tried in South Africa.”

Did he always believe change was coming? “It was difficult to envisage there would be an ANC government in your lifetime. But in London, I began to believe fervently that this thing was going to come to an end much sooner than I’d thought. It used to come to me when I was in the shower in the morning: I would get very excited. But also, little personal things happened to give me hope. A book of Oliver Tambo’s speeches was published, and Mandela wrote a foreword in jail that was smuggled out, in which he quoted from one of my columns.” In 1990, Battersby was one of those gathered outside the prison on the day of Mandela’s release. “By some strange twist of fate, I was the first person to shake his hand. When he came out with Winnie [Mandela, his wife] at his side, I caught his eye, and he came over and … oh, it was an amazing moment.” Later, I watch lots of old news footage of that historic day, and eventually I find it: a fleeting few seconds, unnoticed by the TV commentator, in which a black hand briefly takes hold of a white one. It brings tears to my eyes.


Peter Hain, the former Labour MP who now sits in the House of Lords, is about to go to South Africa when we meet. He thinks the ANC will probably lose its majority, thanks in part, perhaps, to Zuma, who having launched his own party, uMkhonto we Sizwe (it is named after the ANC’s old armed wing), has taken the fight to Ramaphosa’s political heartlands (last week, a court ruled that Zuma could not stand for election himself, disqualified by his prison sentence for contempt of court, but the party’s campaign goes on). For Hain, such a prospect is personally painful: “Because my parents sacrificed everything. Look, the ANC inherited a bad legacy from apartheid. Everyone understands that. But to find it disabled by corruption … I feel betrayed, and I know Mandela felt betrayed. I know that for a fact because I kept in close touch with him.”

Hain came to the UK with his South African parents, Adelaine and Walter, as a teenager: as anti-apartheid activists they were “banned” and prevented from working at home (they were also briefly imprisoned), and so, in 1966, they left. “Neither of them were able to go to their parents’ funerals,” he says. “We finally went back as a family in 1994 and, for a while afterwards, they weren’t quite the same. It was traumatic, after so long.” Not that life in London had been wholly straightforward either – or not at first. “Within the ANC, people felt under siege the whole time. The South African secret service was powerful, and they were working with MI5. They were constantly bugging phones: you heard the clicks on the line. Virtually every meeting, from tiny ones in my parents’ front room to big student union gatherings, was infiltrated.” The clandestine activities weren’t, however, limited only to one side. He talks about the London Recruits, incidentally the subject of a forthcoming documentary film, who were young, white, mostly British people recruited by the ANC to travel to South Africa in the late 1960s and early 70s. Once inside the country, they would let off smuggled leaflet bombs to inform people that the ANC was still active; to reassure the oppressed that they had not, after all, been abandoned.

People take it for granted now, Mandela becoming president. In fact it was a bitter, hard struggle

Peter Hain

Getting involved with the struggle wasn’t, he thinks, inevitable for him, in spite of his parents’ activities: “But I was drawn to try to change things, and decided to do that mainly through sport.” At 19, he became chairman of the Stop the Tour campaign, which aimed to disrupt visits by the South African rugby and cricket teams. In this period, he was on the receiving end of South African dirty tricks himself, most notoriously when, in 1972, he received a letter bomb. “I was still living at home. We were around the breakfast table. My younger sister, Sally, opened it. This contraption set in balsa wood. The bomb squad of the Metropolitan police descended on the house, and made it safe: it hadn’t gone off because there was a fault in the trigger mechanism. But it was the same type as had killed other anti-apartheid leaders in other parts of the world, and for my parents, this meant there was no escape. They could still get blown up in a south London suburb.” What about him? “My immediate response was that I wasn’t going to be intimidated. They weren’t going to beat me. I was going to fight all the more.” But that fight would be long. Solidarity was crucial. “People take it for granted now: Mandela’s walk to freedom, him becoming president. In fact it was a really bitter, hard struggle, and lots of people contributed, whether it was grannies who refused to buy Outspan oranges, or students who drove Barclays Bank off their campuses.”

For an old friend of Hain’s, Christabel Gurney, a former AAM campaigner who now runs its archives, protest became a way of life. “We were endlessly leafleting, going to demos, fundraising,” she says. “Every two weeks, my local group picketed Sainsbury’s in Notting Hill, trying to get them to stop stocking South African goods, and they did eventually. We tried to make it [Notting Hill] an apartheid-free zone. We had stickers that said: South African goods not sold here. You felt you had to do it, and it became an all-absorbing thing. Apartheid did feel impregnable for a while, but somehow it didn’t depress me. I was often exhausted. My son was small. But the people I knew in the ANC like Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo were very inspiring. Oliver Tambo was so sensible. He kept people together. I remember a dear comrade of mine saying to me: you’re one of us now, and that made me feel tremendous.”

People walked through fire for the cause. In 2023, Gurney’s 1972 conviction for a public order offence was overturned at appeal (an undercover police officer had infiltrated a group of protesters, and was party to discussions about their defence that led to their conviction). Chris Mullard, a veteran campaigner who is now the chair of the Liliesleaf Trust, found himself under police protection simply for being a known supporter of the AAM. “It attracted fascist groups,” he says. “I was advised weekly on different ways of travelling.” Most shockingly of all, Gillian Slovo, the novelist and playwright, lost her mother, Ruth First, to a parcel bomb that was sent to where she was working in Mozambique in 1982. She was 57.

Slovo came to London with her parents – Joe Slovo, her father, was later to be a minister in Nelson Mandela’s government – in 1964, when she was 12. But I should be under no illusions: being a Slovo then wasn’t like being a Slovo now. “There are roads in South Africa named after my parents. I was in a car once, and I heard someone say on the radio: ‘There’s a pile-up on Ruth First,’” she laughs (in life, neither of her parents had any sense of direction). “But when we came to London, many people in South Africa thought my father, as a leader of the military wing of the ANC, was a terrorist, and even here, he was thought quite way out. Neither of them was well known then.” She learned from a young age to keep things separate. “There were times when I would go into my mother’s study, and my father was putting something on a piece of paper and words were coming up – he was using some kind of chemical to get a secret message. I took that as normal, but I’d never tell my friends, because it was a secret, and also they would think I was bonkers. There was a complete dislocation between the two worlds.”

She watched Britain’s consciousness being raised. When she and her family arrived, no one knew much about South Africa. By 1994, everyone at her daughter’s London school knew about the election, and many of the parents had been involved, if only tangentially, in the fight to make it happen. “The Anti-Apartheid Movement made a difference,” she says. “It changed the world.” In particular, she admired the decision to make Mandela a figurehead: any one of a number of other prisoners might have been chosen, or the campaign could simply have limited itself to pointing out apartheid’s injustices. But she also thinks that apartheid was a relatively straightforward issue, and that this made it easy for people to participate.

Trevor Phillips agrees. “It was the uncomplicated cause of our time,” he says. “Either you were in favour of segregating people according to their colour, or you were not.” Phillips got involved first as a student at Imperial College (though he says it wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion that he would do so: the ANC found it harder to recruit black activists than white ones, perhaps because Britain was then still so racist itself; some felt that this was not their fight), and he still remembers the boycotts, all highly effective. The Royal School of Mines, which is part of Imperial, used to send students to work for a year in places like South Africa. “I don’t think we got a complete block on it, but most didn’t go.”

He also remembers “the little green door at Penton Street”, the heavy security there, and the figure of Oliver Tambo, whom he got to know properly only later, when he, too, went to live in Muswell Hill. “Your stereotypical revolutionary would be Che Guevara,” he says. “Oliver wasn’t like that. He was calling the shots, sometimes literally, but he was very private and thoughtful, almost a tweedy figure.” Looking back, one of the things that strikes him is the contrast between the passion of the British campaigners then, and the cool detachment of the ANC exiles. “Sentiment was indulgent. They were fighting a war, and they won it in the end because they were very cold-eyed and analytical, and they understood what they had to do.”

We talk for a while of the place of emotion in politics; Cyril Ramaphosa, who played such a crucial role in the negotiations that led to the end of apartheid, is someone who prefers to compromise. At the moment, however, it may be passion that is called for, at least in terms of winning the election – and after that, the determination to reform, and thus to make many more enemies. For Lawson Naidoo, though, it’s already too late. Even if the ANC holds on, this election signals a realignment in South African politics. “It’s foregrounding what’s going to happen in the next few years, which is a transition away from the ANC.” Does he feel heavy-hearted about this? “Yes, extremely. I feel privileged to have lived through that history: the transition to democracy, the election of Mandela. The country was euphoric. But then to find ourselves where we are now … many people feel despondent about this. There was so much hope, and we failed to deliver on it. Collectively, we have to take responsibility for the fact that we weren’t able to live up to the ideals of people like Oliver Tambo.”