The Personal Politics of Boycotting

Posted by War On Want

Boycotting South African oranges wasn’t the first action I took to show my opposition to apartheid – I tried to run onto the pitch to stop Oxford University’s game against the all-white Springboks. But the boycott did become a daily reminder of the need to do something. Every time I went shopping I checked the labels – did those oranges have an Outspan sticker, were the apples Cape Fruit? And if, as with avocados, it wasn’t clear where they came from I asked to see the manager and told him (it always was a him) why I wanted to know. For a short while my local Tesco, in Portobello Road, had a sympathetic deputy manager who stopped ordering South African fruit, then he moved on and we were back to boycotting.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement campaigned for the total isolation of apartheid South Africa – for the UN to impose mandatory international sanctions and failing that for the British government to ban trade and investment. But early on it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen and that we were in for the long haul. So boycotting apartheid goods became both a way of directly hitting South African imports and of involving more people in a movement for government action.

Even when I first got involved I never thought the boycott alone would bring down the apartheid regime. In the heady days of the late 1960s we thought the boycott was a first step towards sanctions and that international sanctions would weaken the apartheid regime in the face of armed struggle by the ANC. But on a personal level I felt a deep moral revulsion to buying anything produced under apartheid – I feel the same about Israeli goods now. And the campaigner in me could see that going out and asking other people to take the relatively small step of not buying South African products was a good way of involving more people and building a wider campaign. People who didn’t think of themselves as politically involved, and who might never go to a meeting or demonstration, could be persuaded to boycott South African produce and so consider themselves as committed against apartheid. So there we were, in my local anti-apartheid group, outside Portobello Road Tesco or Ladbroke Grove Sainsbury’s, week after week, giving out leaflets telling shoppers what apartheid really meant and asking them to boycott South African goods.

It was important that the anti-apartheid consumer boycott was always very focused. We just asked shoppers to boycott South African products – fruit, tinned fish, and later clothing and furniture, when this appeared in the 1980s. Never whole shopping chains – the ask was to boycott ‘Sainsbury’s apartheid goods’, not Sainsbury’s stores. Similarly, although the AAM asked institutions to disinvest from companies with a big stake in South Africa, the only British companies it asked consumers to boycott were Barclays, and later, after Barclays had pulled out of South Africa, Shell. This was not entirely logical, but the argument was that Barclays was the biggest high street bank in South Africa; it also made loans for the South African Defence Force. In practice, Barclays was a brilliant target – with branches on student campuses and on nearly every British high street. Shell was chosen, after some argument within the AAM, because it had been targeted by an international campaign.

Looking back, I think it was only in the 1980s that the apartheid consumer boycott really took off and that it did lay the groundwork for the more fundamental campaign for economic sanctions that peaked in the mid-1980s. The boycott campaign began in 1959 – so it took a long time! In 1986 a poll showed that 27 per cent of people in Britain said they boycotted South African goods. The same year, Barclays Bank pulled out of South Africa. Next stopped buying clothes from South Africa and the SA Canned Fruit Export Board lamented ‘the reluctance of buyers to take the risk of stocking South African produce’.

What had changed? Undoubtedly the earlier years of the boycott mattered and had laid the basis for an awareness of what apartheid meant and provided a way of taking a moral stand against it. But the real difference was the situation inside South Africa – where mounting repression was failing to contain resistance on all fronts – in the townships, in workplaces, in the so-called homelands. All through 1985 and 1986 British television news showed armoured cars opening fire on unarmed protesters in the South African townships. At the same time Margaret Thatcher refused to take action – proclaiming her opposition to apartheid but condemning the ANC as a terrorist organisation. Hundreds of thousands of people in Britain said ‘Not in our name’ and long years of solidarity campaigning won through.

It’s hard to draw lessons from history. But the experience of anti-apartheid campaigning shows that if consumer boycotts alone do not bring change, they can conscientise people and help build a movement that can seize the time when other conditions are ripe.


— Christabel Gurney, Former Anti-Apartheid Movement activist, currently secretary of the AAM Archives Committee and member for Action for South Africa (ACTSA