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This Neighbourhood Fights Apartheid

In the 1980s, a black working-class area of Bristol became an 'apartheid free zone'. Their community ban on racist institutions inspired thousands — and created a model to be used for today's fight for Palestinian freedom.

SPAFZ secretary Kuomba Balogun demonstrates outside Barclays bank.

In the mid-80s, the UK was witnessing a surge in anti-apartheid sentiment. The cultural boycott had broad support from The Rolling Stones to Dusty Springfield, and the Specials’ 1983 anthem ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ was a rallying cry from UK marches to South African townships.

Simultaneous political shifts were taking place within British councils, as several declared Apartheid Free Zones. Sheffield led the way in 1981, severing ties with the South African government and South African companies, divesting funds, and banning South African sports teams from using council facilities. By 1985, over 120 councils had joined the Local Authorities Against Apartheid (LAAA) group, which shared proliferation strategies in a June 1986 Tribune anti-apartheid special.

A St Paul’s Apartheid Free Zone campaign poster.

Despite all this public opposition, parliamentary support for the movement was lacking. A recently elected Gordon Brown wrote a 1986 article for Tribune which exposed the deep ties between the Conservative Party and apartheid, including the business links between 32 MPs and South Africa, as well as those that linked South Africa to Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Dennis. These links and those of the broader capitalist class made Britain South Africa’s biggest financial backer (Britain contributed over one-third of the apartheid state’s overseas investment) and created political inertia, with the UK vetoing UN sanctions in 1987.

However, the wide network of links also represented an opportunity for UK activists opposed to white rule. In 1985, St. Paul’s in Bristol, a predominantly black working-class community, initiated the grassroots St. Paul’s Apartheid-Free Zone Campaign (SPAFZ) as an offshoot of the Anti-Apartheid Movement group (AAM). SPAFZ aimed to eliminate apartheid goods in the area through community organising and building a campaign that would later serve as a nationwide model.

Jagun Akinshegun, chair of SPAFZ, describes the campaign’s simple and emotive logic: ‘You hit people where it hurts because you hit their economy, which means they won’t have the money to buy arms to turn on the people.’ The strategy was similarly straightforward: contact all St. Paul’s shopkeepers, use persuasion and leaflets detailing apartheid connections to gain buy-in, and secure signatures on a campaign statement. This commitment, publicised in newsletters, bound shopkeepers to remove South African goods with regular spot-checks. Every one of the twenty-seven local businesses in the area signed up.

Gerard Omasta-Milsom, a former Bristol student activist turned AAM national organiser, explains the campaign’s dual structure, emphasising how local activism helped support the ANC’s demand for international sanctions. ‘It made it quite straightforward for the AAM to regard its role as implementing that,’ he says.

Maintaining a visible presence, the campaign also organised public events like picketing, vigils, apartheid-free breakfasts, and public meetings with African National Congress (ANC) representatives, all of which enhanced community engagement. Expanding beyond local businesses, a SPAFZ campaign letter influenced the Southwest Co-operative Wholesale Society boycott, leading to a nationwide boycott across the society’s 1000 stores in October 1985.

Major General Joseph Garba of the United Nations visits St Paul’s Apartheid Free Zone.

Encouraged by this success, the campaign went on to target larger retailers. After just three weeks of campaigning, including a petition, letter-writing, and weekly pickets of sixty-plus people, the Tesco store in Bristol’s Eastville became the first Tesco in the country to boycott South African goods in June 1986.

A similar approach was employed against the local Barclays Bank. Weekly pickets from 26 January 1986 discouraged entry, explained Barclays’ apartheid support, and led to sit-ins. After encouraging locals to close their accounts, the campaign successfully shut down the area’s Barclays branch in November 1987.

The campaign soon garnered widespread attention, and the AAM’s national leadership and ANC connections facilitated strategy dissemination. ANC National Executive member Francis Meli referenced the campaign in a June 1986 speech in West Lothian, urging communities to declare their own apartheid-free zones and picket supermarkets. He underscored how such actions contributed to a broader political project, weakening imperialism and strengthening the British working class.

In March 1987, Major General Joseph Garba, UN Special Committee Against Apartheid chairman, also visited St Paul’s to meet local anti-apartheid leaders and participating shopkeepers. SPAFZ organisers, via the AAM and LBS, toured the country from cities to rural communities. They spoke to campaigns in Merthyr, Butetown, Swindon, Stroud, Notting Hill, Handsworth, Brixton, Nottingham, Birmingham, and Liverpool, encouraging a flourishing network of grassroots anti-apartheid campaigns, all of which contributed in their own ways to the eventual fall of the regime.

Solidarity Far and Wide

The campaign’s success in Bristol relied on building broad political alliances. Jagun emphasises that SPAFZ was focused on anti-apartheid organising as more than a black issue, stressing the importance of white allies in addressing a ‘human, economic, and political’ injustice. If campaigners failed to reach outside of the community, he feels, they would have been failing to properly grapple with the scope of the problem.

The breadth of the ties SPAFZ formed and drew on showed how successful this approach was. Deep ties with the trade union movement, for one, played a part: the TUC co-organised the pickets outside Barclays. ‘But there were disappointments as well,’ Jagun says, stemming from strains of social conservatism within the unions.

Jagun after a successful spot-check confirming that no South African goods were being sold.

Tensions rose during a Bristol City Council motion in October 1985 to declare the entire city an apartheid-free zone, where the imperative of international solidarity came up against potential job losses, especially at the council-owned port, where 10 percent of goods worth £2 million a year were of South African origin. The campaign promptly met with dockworkers’ shop stewards to seek out a solution.

SPAFZ’s secretary Kuomba Balogun was also active at that time in the Labour Party via the Labour Black Sections (LBS). Despite Labour Conference’s refusal to recognise LBS, it had branches across the country, its largest based in Bristol. Labour links led to the hanging of a 35-foot anti-apartheid banner from Bristol’s City Hall on the 10th anniversary of the Soweto uprising in June 1986, as well as council grants totalling £700 which funded SPAFZ newsletters. These newsletters disseminated South African news, local activities, novel strategies, and ‘Afrikan recipes’.

The campaign had allies in the church, too, and regularly utilised Church of England facilities. The use of Bristol Cathedral was made possible through connections to Horace Dammers, Dean of Bristol and father of The Specials’ Jerry Dammers, who was linked to local activists through the AAM network. Cultural elements channelled energy and funds into the campaign, with annual sponsored walks and a city-wide Festival Against Apartheid organised by the local AAM. In 1988, a ‘warehouse jam’ fundraiser brought in £3000 for SPAFZ. Its headliner, The Wild Bunch, later became Massive Attack.

A St Paul’s Apartheid Free Zone mural.

A New Target

In 2024, the eyes of the world are on a different human, economic, and political crime: Israel’s genocide in Gaza, the apartheid status-quo that preceded it, and the international support allowing it to continue. As in the 1980s, grassroots political organising is seeking to give form to a wave of anger, this time about the plight of the Palestinian people. Marches have taken over cities, activists have shut down factories producing weapons for the Israeli military, and calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions have surged. The UK government appears to be so scared of another movement like that of the 1980s taking place among local councils that it is pushing through legislation to make principled boycotts of companies or countries engaged in human rights abuses by public bodies illegal.

An extract from a SPAFZ newsletter.

The situation is by no means a direct parallel. Britain’s relationship with Israel is more political than economic: in 22-23, trade to Israel constituted only 0.4 percent of total UK trade, with Foreign Direct Investment at a similar level, but pro-Israel lobbyists have funded around 320 MP trips to Israel in the last decade, with MPs visiting Israel more frequently than any other country. Declassified UK highlights the impact of such connections: 37 percent of Labour MPs supporting Labour Friends of Israel and 80 percent of Tory MPs members of its Conservative equivalent.

These kinds of connections are harder for grassroots organisers to target, but the lessons of SPAFZ remain vital. Those lessons, organisers say, include the importance of choosing specific and realistic targets (notably Barclays is a target for boycott organisers this time around, too), ensuring replicability and sharing tactics among different groups, alliance-building, and being honest with all those wanting to get involved about the potentially formidable struggle ahead. Above all, though, the lesson from St Paul’s forty years on is that when politicians fail to act against obvious injustice, normal people can organise and bring about change themselves.

As the death toll in Gaza mounts, the necessity of this organising only grows more urgent. Socialists must commit to building this project, even — especially — when things seem hopeless. SPAFZ’s cause ultimately won against what might have once seemed like an insurmountable injustice; today, too, we must refuse to give up. ‘Keep the candle burning,’ AAM activist Keir Mobb says. ‘Things do change.’