Just over thirty years ago, one of the first actions I took part in as a War on Want activist was a picket of a Shell garage in North West London. War on Want groups were involved in solidarity with a range of liberation movements and anti-colonial struggles. I helped run the North West London War on Want group and collected bikes for containers for Nicaragua, raised money for Palestinian health centres, and organised public meetings about the Western Sahara. But it was the anti-apartheid struggle that was gaining traction. The campaign to free Nelson Mandela was growing and we walked down tube trains giving out badges until the whole of London seemed to be wearing one. We even sold jigsaws of Nelson Mandela on Camden market.
Of course, the movement had taken decades to build but boycotts and disinvestment campaigns were beginning to bite. Barclays bank was suffering as students closed their accounts in droves, and Shell was the next target as it literally was fuelling the apartheid regime. As boycotts built and pension schemes disinvested, there was an increase in funding for the anti-apartheid movement within South Africa. War on Want identified groups who needed support – like the parents of the children who were detained for taking part in protests – and raised funds for them. The South African Government decided to pass a law to make funding such groups illegal – War on Want led the campaign to oppose the law and it was withdrawn. Within three years, Mandela was free and apartheid was being dismantled.
Obviously, the role that War on Want played was tiny when compared to the struggle of the South African people who had fought apartheid for over 40 years and colonialism since the Europeans had first come to their coasts to extract their wealth.
Later, I wrote the history of War on Want with Peter Burns, a General Secretary of War on Want in the 1970s. We told its history as an anti-colonial movement. One of its founders was Fenner Brockway, who had formed the Movement for Colonial Freedom, and he saw War on Want as an organisation that could help countries achieve economic liberation as they took their path to political freedom. In the 1970s, War on Want published a report called “Aid in Conflict” which argued for support for liberation movements in Southern Africa to help build “a new society under the bombs”. Peter Burns recalled meeting Reg September of the ANC and Peter Katjavivi of SWAPO to discuss how War on Want could best support their struggles. We continued to support the people of the frontline states in southern Africa after they gained their freedom and became targets of the Apartheid regimes and their proxy armies.
War on Want has been constant in its support for the liberation of people from colonialism and oppression. To this day it supports the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara in their anti-colonial struggle against Morocco and the BDS campaign of the Palestinians – this support must continue until they have their political freedom and then stand beside them in their fight for economic liberation.
Former trustee and long-time War on Want supporter and campaigner