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When Tribune Backed the Boycott

In 1959, the African National Congress called for a boycott of South African goods as part of an international effort to bring down the apartheid regime. Tribune was the first paper in Britain to back their call.

Anti-apartheid protestors, including British Labour Party politicians Anne Kerr and Ian Mikardo, marching to Twickenham rugby ground where England are playing South Africa, in London, England, 20th December 1969. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

South Africa has gone to the polls in an election in which the vast majority of the nation’s citizens were not able to vote, to return a Government dedicated openly and unashamedly to the principle of racial discrimination.

This was how Tribune reported on South Africa’s 1948 election, which saw Daniel Malan’s National Party elected on a platform of implementing the obscure Afrikaans neologism apartheid. As the post-war era promised new freedoms for many former colonies, South Africa was setting itself against the tide. It was the beginning of a decades-long struggle for equality that would lead to a historic international boycott — and Tribune was one of the first publications in the world to back it.

Tribune had engaged with South African matters in its international coverage since the 1930s, but it was that election which really catapulted the country to prominence in its pages. South Africa was already profoundly racist, and Malan’s defeated opponent, General Smuts, was also a believer in ‘white superiority’. But, Tribune held, implementing ‘the doctrine of segregation or apartheid, as the Afrikaners call it’ would involve ‘not only … the maintenance of the existing segregation and inequality’, but also ‘the removal of the few political rights enjoyed by the non-Europeans’. Baasskap, white domination over the country’s African, Indian, and mixed-race inhabitants, was to be formalised, with interracial relationships outlawed. ‘The outlook’ for South Africa’s non-white majority was ‘appalling’.

Fenner Brockway, a regular columnist for Tribune on African affairs and, later, founder of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, penned an article on the ‘colour bar’ in November 1948. Detailing the pass system under which African workers were perpetually surveilled, Brockway held that, under Malan’s apartheid, South Africa’s black population would be treated ‘as a subject race’, reduced to ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water, while socially outlawed and denied democratic liberties’. Brockway was optimistic that ‘the conscience of the world’ would not ‘endorse South Africa’s treatment of her African population’, but held that words would not be enough; ‘something’ had to be ‘done’. South Africa’s black population would be the primary agents of their own emancipation, but progressive opinion abroad should be actively marshalled to support their cause: ‘I can see no other way than an organised international effort to assist [black South Africans] to reach the equality and freedom to which the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights says they are born.’

As defiance to apartheid grew under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), Tribune would devote more and more coverage to South African events, hoping to help galvanise the ‘organised international effort’ which Brockway had advocated. These efforts would bear fruit in the form of the anti-apartheid movement.

Against Fascism and Apartheid

Tribune featured regular reporting on apartheid throughout the 1950s. South Africa’s ‘two million whites’, wrote John Hatch, had ‘announced their determination to … maintain an absolute social, political and economic domination over ten million Africans’. Segregation in the country’s ‘post-offices, public transport vehicles, hotels, restaurants, sports grounds, [and] cinemas’ was ‘strictly enforced’, while the new Mixed Marriage Act was ‘enforced with a vigour which is surely pathologically neurotic’. Apartheid, for Hatch, amounted to ‘the creation of one vast concentration camp in South Africa’, a ‘determined and hysterical attempt to enslave millions of human beings … which can be equated only with Hitler’s Nazi state’.

The characterisation of apartheid in South Africa in terms of fascism, and the comparisons to Nazi Germany in particular, was routine in Tribune. Jennie Lee, writing in 1957, deplored ‘how completely fascist the Government of South Africa has become’. The elderly Malan’s successor prime ministers, Strijdom and Verwoerd, were personal villains for the publication, with their wartime support for Nazi Germany identified as directly congruous with the nature of their apartheid vision.

Five years after the death of Hitler, Solly Sachs, the left-wing long-time general secretary of the Garment Workers Union of South Africa, wrote for Tribune: ‘World opinion and more especially progressive British opinion must be mobilised to the maximum extent against this plan to establish an African Third Reich. The destiny of the country lies in the hands of the South African people themselves, but the world at large can help much by giving open, whole-hearted support to those who still work for a democratic South Africa.’

Tribune followed the rise of mass anti-apartheid politics in South Africa, celebrating the ascendancy of the popular and broad-based ANC. Under Michael Foot, it described ‘the document known as the Freedom Charter’, drafted at the 1956 Congress of the People, as one which ‘demanded, in simple and effective words, equal human rights for all, regardless of race … including such dangerous things as the right to vote, to go to school, to buy land, and to form trade unions’.

The Freedom Charter ‘read like extracts from the Chartist leaflets of the early nineteenth century’, but to the National Party ‘this sort of this sort of thing [was] “Communism”’ — and high treason. Covering the well-publicised 1956 ‘Treason Trial’ of Congress activists, including Nelson Mandela and most leaders of the liberation struggle, Tribune concluded: ‘If they have to go to prison in the end, it will be for the atrocious crime of demanding racial equality. South Africa can be proud of these “traitors” to white supremacy.’

Barbara Castle, later president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, visited South Africa during the trial and wrote for Tribune about protest among the African residents of Sophiatown facing eviction. The Treason Trial drew global attention to the liberation movement; as the proceedings entered their third year, the article ‘Treason Cage — Symbol of South Africa’ asserted: ‘The trial … has made international solidarity both possible and inescapable.’

The Boycott Movement

The years 1959–60 were pivotal for anti-apartheid consciousness in Britain. Amidst sharpening political conflict in South Africa, and throughout the continent, Tribune began to publish the work of Myrna Blumberg, a young Cape Town–based journalist whose reporting brought the paper’s coverage close to the pulse of the liberation movement. It was Blumberg who, on 24 April 1959, composed the front page, which read ‘BOYCOTT SOUTH AFRICAN GOODS!’

The cover article reported the upcoming launch of the ANC’s ‘most important campaign to date’, the ‘economic boycott of all Nationalist (Government-supporting) firms’. Boycotts had begun among black South Africans, and ‘sympathisers throughout the world, whatever their skin pigmentation’, were now ‘asked for their support’. The boycott represented ‘a non-violent weapon’ that could ‘capture the imagination of the masses as well as paralyse the racialist rulers’: ‘[I]t is hoped that if every single person opposed to racial oppression joins the boycott, Dr Verwoerd will find himself forced to answer the conscience of the world with something other than jail, whips, or waste-paper baskets. He might even find himself in the political waste-paper basket.’

Featuring ‘a list of Nationalist products which are exported from South Africa’, Blumberg’s article, as the paper later wrote, made Tribune ‘the first paper in Britain to pick up the news … that people in South Africa were asking for the boycott’.

Blumberg’s reporting repeated the boycott call to Tribune’s readers through interviews with several anti-apartheid leaders. Elizabeth Mafekeng, communist president of the South African Canning Workers’ Union and a women’s leader within the ANC, told Tribune:

To my sympathisers overseas, I can only say: If you can’t help me or my family, you can help my people. We here will go on opposing apartheid. We are not frightened by these hard knocks. But people overseas must go on with the boycott — boycott South African goods until you make our oppressors change their hearts.

Further, in February 1960 Blumberg interviewed ANC president Albert Luthuli, who sent ‘a special message to Tribune and its readers’. Appealing to ‘our friends, the people of Great Britain — and others throughout the world — to support the boycott of South African goods’, Luthuli dismissed arguments that the boycott would economically or otherwise harm black South Africans, and insisted: ‘If you support us, you must support the boycott.’

Luthuli would himself write directly for Tribune the following year in ‘For Dignity or Greed’, where the Nobel Peace Prize recipient would ‘call for South Africa’s exclusion from the Commonwealth precisely because it would constitute an international disavowal of the apartheid mania’.

The summer of 1959 saw the formation of the Boycott Movement in Britain. Reporting on the successes of the boycott across different councils and co-ops, Tribune publicised Boycott Movement events, and encouraged its readership, the Labour Party, and the trade union movement to participate. Throughout early 1960, Tribune dedicated the banner atop its front covers, usually reserved for the anti–H-bomb campaign, to the slogan: ‘BACK THE SOUTH AFRICAN BOYCOTT!’

That February, socialist Methodist minister and Tribune stalwart Donald Soper explained ‘Why I Back the Boycott’: ‘Of course, if we were logical we should be boycotting someone or some Government on some issue every day. Nevertheless, the world is confronted by an absolutely evil thing in South Africa and the boycott is our way of expressing our total abhorrence to it and our preparedness to go to any lengths that are compatible with the kind of society which we want to take its place.’

March 1960 was to be a month-long concerted boycott, opened by ‘a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square’ on 28 February, with Tribune urging its readers to ‘[turn] up … in your thousands’. The successful London rally, addressed by a variety of speakers, including even right-wing Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, was an encouraging start: ‘Now the campaign will stretch out through the country with meetings and protest parades.’

As the boycott month progressed, Blumberg reported from South Africa that it was ‘succeeding beyond its organisers’ hopes. None of them ever imagined that it would bankrupt the fruit-canners or drive the grape-growers to ruin’. This incipient success, Tribune’s correspondent held, ‘underline[d] the most durable of all political principles — that a moral gesture is about the most effective political weapon there is’.

Sharpeville Massacre

Three days later came the Sharpeville Massacre. Amidst widespread protest and stay-aways called by the new Pan-Africanist Congress, police fired upon a crowd of peaceful demonstrators in the Transvaal township of Sharpeville — killing sixty-nine, including nineteen children. These shots were heard around the world.

Reporting on events from Cape Town, Blumberg provided Tribune’s first statement on Sharpeville: ‘The world must not allow this pathologically gleeful massacre of rightless, passive men, women and children.’ In the State of Emergency that followed, the ANC and PAC were banned, and over 18,000 people arrested, including Blumberg. Tribune condemned the detention of its correspondent:

This issue of Tribune will not reach Myrna Blumberg. The laws that were framed to prevent the truth getting out of South Africa will prevent these few words of truth and tribute from getting in. But we salute a good reporter, a good comrade and a good future citizen of the free South Africa that neither sjamboks, bullets nor armoured cars can hold back forever.

The state’s repressive crackdown after Sharpeville largely foreclosed the immediate viability of non-violent resistance, inspiring the ANC and underground Communist Party (SACP) to turn to armed struggle. But it also catalysed international anti-apartheid opposition. Martin Ennals, secretary of the Boycott Movement, wrote for Tribune: ‘The massacre last Monday is only a foretaste of the massive tragedy to come unless all means of international pressure are used to dissuade the Nationalist Government from its murderous policies …. The tragedy of Sharpeville underlines the urgency for continuing the boycott after the end of March.’

Following the March boycott, punctuated by Sharpeville, ‘the Boycott Movement changed its name to the Anti-Apartheid Movement’, which, its administrative secretary Dorothy Robinson later wrote in Tribune, subsequently became ‘a membership organisation’ dedicated to securing British support for the diplomatic and economic isolation of Pretoria.

The South African Connection

In the post-Sharpeville decades, Tribune maintained its close engagement with developments within the anti-apartheid campaign and inside South Africa. Canon John Collins lamented the news of the ‘arrest of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu’ in 1962 as a ‘serious blow to those engaged in the struggle for freedom and human rights in South Africa’.

Two years later, Brockway, commenting on the Rivonia Trial and reproducing Mandela’s famous speech at the dock before his sentencing, predicted: ‘When at last South Africa becomes free — and if he lives to be liberated from his life imprisonment — Nelson Mandela will probably become the first African Prime Minister of the Republic.’ Tribune’s South African coverage from this time also frequently featured contributions from liberation struggle figures, including Yusuf Dadoo, Sylvia Neame, Raymond Kunene, and radical journalist Ronald Segal.

Into the 1970s, Tribune’s advocacy of the boycott was joined by a call to place sanctions on the regime. The paper devoted considerable attention to the economic links between Britain and South Africa. In ‘Britain’s Stake in South Africa: Doing Business with Apartheid’, Michael Walsh of the TUC’s International Department detailed the panoply of British corporate and financial investments in the apartheid economy. Walsh would elaborate this theme subsequently with a series of articles entitled ‘The South African Connection’, derived from the title of Ruth First’s 1972 book on the subject.

Ruth First herself, Peter Hain recalled following her assassination in 1982 in Maputo, ‘frequently wrote for Tribune on the books and the news pages, invariably saying something new or poignant  — never just re-hashing a conventional line’. The independent-minded Marxist academic and anti-apartheid leader first featured in the paper in 1956, reporting on ‘the Population Registration Act, under which every person in South Africa must carry an identity card which states his race’.

Becoming ‘a very familiar figure to anti-apartheid audiences and activists in Britain’ during her post-1964 exile, First reappeared in Tribune’s pages as an authority on a number of new books about South Africa. Tribune’s obituary for First concluded with the call ‘to redouble our efforts in the battle against apartheid and to support the liberation of South Africa for which Ruth made such a crucial contribution’.

Mayibuye iAfrika

After the ‘horrifying spectacle’ of the massacre in 1976 of ‘unarmed and defenceless schoolchildren and adults’ in Soweto township, and the death at the hands of the police of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, whose book I Write What I Like was reviewed by Tribune posthumously, anti-apartheid agitation intensified.

Through the often brutal liberation struggle of the 1980s, Tribune continued to campaign for the boycott and for sanctions against the hostile intransigence of the Thatcher government. In 1985, the year Thatcher reluctantly conceded to partial sanctions, Tribune carried a piece by Oliver Tambo, the London-based president of the ANC, titled ‘Why the Botha Regime Must Be Destroyed’: ‘The armed struggle must and will be stepped up. The masses of our people against whom the Botha regime has declared an all-out war must and will escalate the popular offensive to destroy the apartheid organs of government, to make the criminal racist system unworkable and to make South Africa ungovernable.’

‘Basic human decency,’ Tambo propounded, ‘demands that the entire world community cut all links with the new Nazis who are so wedded to crime that they hold out more massacres as the answer to the crisis afflicting apartheid South Africa.’ Tribune lauded the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the mass anti-regime ferment in South Africa’s cities while it encouraged the chorus in British society calling for the freedom of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela’s release and the ANC’s legalisation in 1990 signalled the beginning of the end for the apartheid system and ‘a new era in South African history’ as negotiations began for elections on the basis of one-man, one-vote. Tribune celebrated these events as the culmination of fifty years of bitter struggle. ‘Nelson Mandela’s visit to Britain’ that April, addressing cheering crowds in Wembley Stadium and urging ‘the maintenance of sanctions on South Africa’ was ‘an occasion for rejoicing for all British opponents of apartheid’.

The negotiations were fraught and the post-1990 interregnum unstable, but in 1994 apartheid was finally ended, with the ANC elected to power in South Africa’s first non-racial elections. Though he had not lived to see it, the ‘organised international effort’ against apartheid that Fenner Brockway had envisaged in Tribune back in 1948, and his 1964 prediction that Mandela would become South Africa’s first post-apartheid head of state, had come to pass.

Yesterday and Today

The anti-apartheid movement and the campaign for the boycott of South African goods remain one of the proudest parts of Tribune’s publishing history. Since its revival in 2018, Tribune has worked to sustain its historic relationship with the protagonists of the South African freedom struggle, including with former uMkhonto we Sizwe commander and SACP leader Ronnie Kasrils.

The best way for Tribune and its supporters to uphold this historical anti-apartheid commitment today, however, is in our solidarity with other international struggles for justice against racial domination. As international human rights groups belatedly catch up with the long-established conclusion of the Palestinians that they suffer under a regime of apartheid, it is incumbent upon the British socialist movement to stand together with the Palestinians — as we once did with the people of South Africa.