How Lessons from Student Organising Shaped My Political Life
“How do you sustain activism and protest within the student union?” That was one of the questions posed by Ilyas Nagdee, the NUS Black Students’ Officer in the fascinating panel discussion at the latest Evolution of Struggle event, ‘University –Organising: Then and Now’. This important question led me to reflect on my own journey into activism and the important role the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) played.
Like many students in the mid-seventies, I started supporting AAM by boycotting Barclays and goods from South Africa. These were simple individual actions, but collectively they made a difference. My early involvement with AAM as a student didn’t extend much beyond this, but it was a start – and I carried my nascent interest and these experiences into the world of work.
In the early 80’s, I worked in the British Council evaluating the technical training as part of the overall aid programme. It was a time when we were encouraged to join a union. On my first day, my boss, who was a senior grade, showed me round and took me to the union office to sign up to the union.
At the British Council, alongside me on our Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA) union branch executive committee, was a South African exile, Thembi Nobadula. She was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s Committee in London. She was a huge influence on me and others. Hearing her story of life in South Africa – the women’s struggle, her escape and exile in London, and her lifelong commitment to fighting against apartheid and for freedom – spurred me and others within the British Council unions to want to go with our activism in ways that went beyond boycotting.
But how could we do that? How could we use our position in the British Council to do more for South Africa?
The opportunity came as a result of the Thatcher government’s increasing support for the South African regime. As the UK Prime Minister, Thatcher insisted on a strategy of ‘constructive engagement’ with the apartheid regime, and broadly refused to condemn the National Party.
Margaret Thatcher was openly hostile to the ANC. When asked by a journalist for her response “to a reported ANC statement that they will target British firms in South Africa”, she replied: “when the ANC says that they will target British companies, this shows what a typical terrorist organisation it is.” Referring to the same press conference, the Washington Post reported: “When a Canadian reporter suggested that the African National Congress might overthrow the white South African regime, Thatcher’s spokesman responded, ‘It is cloud cuckoo land for anyone to believe that could be done.’”
The Thatcher government was also seeking to use the aid budget to support the regime, which was a fundamental change to the use of aid – and marked the re-emergence of the “aid for trade” approach.
As part of this arrangement, the government wanted the British Council to develop its presence in South Africa in an effort to maintain good diplomatic relations with the apartheid state.
British Council staff who worked overseas had no control over where they were posted, but there was concern from some union members who they felt they should not be forced into a posting in South Africa. We contacted AAM through our unions and worked with Mike Terry, the Executive Secretary at that time. I wrote a trade union position paper to persuade all the union branches that we should have a union anti-apartheid campaign and oppose government plans to increase its presence in South Africa or use the aid budget to support the apartheid regime. A key demand of the local-level campaign was to call on British Council management to agree that postings to South Africa would be on a voluntary basis, turning what was a little known “conscience clause” for individual staff (first used after the Allende assassination in Chile in 1974) into a collective agreement.
We also sought to highlight to our members and the public what life under apartheid was really like, calling attention to the inhumanity and ruthlessness of the regime to gain broader support for AAM campaigns. To this end, with the help of AAM, we organised a meeting with a panel of speakers including the radical Anglican Bishop Trevor Huddleston, then the President of the AAM. To our surprise, we were banned from holding the meeting on British Council premises by the Council’s management. That fuelled the campaign, and we made maximum use of the fact that Archbishop Trevor Huddleston had been banned from British Council premises in getting press coverage for the campaign (no social media in the 80’s!) and reorganised the meeting following press coverage in the House of Commons.
It was a great success. We had a huge turnout – and gained a much larger profile than we had imagined. There’s nothing like being banned from doing something to heighten the determination of a campaign! Needless to say the management of the British Council were not best pleased with us, but we were also ultimately successful in pushing them to bring in the voluntary postings policy in regards to South Africa: a small but important victory in the broader boycott campaign.
We then took the campaign from our branches to our union conferences to try to change our national unions’ policies (there were five unions in the Civil Service at the time). We called for the national unions to go beyond just tacit support of the AAM and pushed them to vocally endorse our campaign, to protect and support our members who refused to be posted to South Africa, and to clearly oppose the government’s relationship with South Africa.
It was at this point that our local campaign came up against the political realities of persuading other union groups and branches to support our call. We were only one small branch. We soon found out that we couldn’t just assume that because we had taken this view, we would then get automatic support from the rest of the union to turn our branch policy into national union policy. We learnt quickly that we had to persuade workers in the Social Security offices and Customs and Excise – the biggest groups of members in the union at the time – to take a practical stand on apartheid and to take action in solidarity with our fellow workers in South Africa. We didn’t succeed in doing this the first time we put forward our motion, but in preparing this document, we built important alliances and we finally succeeded in changing our national union policy, and in the process emphasised that international solidarity was an important issue for trade unions.
So, what does that say about the impact of university organising? From those early beginnings, in the seventies supporting the Barclays boycott, to campaigning about South Africa as a trade union issue in the mid-eighties, my activism was firmly rooted in my student years.
For many of us, the NUS was our first experience of being in a union, and it is true that with each new academic year a new influx of students have to be persuaded to take a stand on key political issues. However, this story shows how university organising was not simply confined to campus actions and the duration of a degree, but often carries on into the world of work. It is as important today as it was in the eighties to encourage involvement in unions within the workplace as a natural progression from organising at university.
Ultimately though, what can we take away from my story of activism and involvement for the current and next generations of student organising?
Don’t underestimate your influence on the students that you are seeking to motivate and convince. Many will take this and carry it into the world of work. The trade union movement needs young activists to carry on their organising in the workplace, with innovative campaigns as we’ve seen with the McStrikers.
Focus – whether it is a small local campaign or a national one, keep the focus tight. The success of the campaign against Barclays to divest from South Africa was in part because it only targeted one bank. Our local campaign was focused on staff being forcibly posted to South Africa, whilst opposing the Thatcher government’s actions in South Africa.
Adapt and develop to changing forces. When barriers are put in your way, just find alternatives.
Value each new intake. Long campaigns always need fresh initiatives and the student movement always comes up with innovative ideas.
Chair, War on Want