Monday, 21 January 2019

Brent's leading role in the anti-apartheid struggle has lessons for us today

Friday's talk about Nelson Mandela, the Anti-Apartheid struggle and Brent, organised by the Wembley Hisotry Society,  not only brought back memories for many of those attending, but also provoked thoughts about that campaign and what can be learned from it for those of us campaigning now on issues such as Palestine and Divestment from Fossil fuels.

Nelson Mandela first came to Brent in 1962 when he visited what was then Willesden Trades Council. Campaigners in Brent founded a Boycott South African Goods campaign in 1960 answering a call from Chief Albert Luthili, President of the African National Congress (ANC) LINK.

South African fruit was a particular target and small groups were set up across the country and in universities with at its peak  140-150 groups.  The deaths of two students in 1976 in the Soweto Students Uprising generated further support for action against apartheid and in 1984 Brent Anti-Apartheid was working with the National Union of Students, women's groups and black organisations appealing to Trade Unions not to handle South African goods. 

There were calls for boycotts that  have similarities with those promoted today by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign with a wider focus targeting sporting links, divest from companies profiting from apartheid, pension fund divestment, arms embargo and the release of political prisoners.  Barclays Bank, the biggest  high street  bank in South Africa,was targeted locally and Brent Labour Party moved its account to the Co-operative Bank.

In contrast with today's  timid Labour Council, the Labour Council at the time was part of a local authority delegation to Margaret Thatcher to present a petition if favour of the boycott and the Council stopped contracts with firms with South African links and councillors took part in pickets of supermarkets urging them not to stock South African goods.

All this helped the borough earn the 'Barmy Brent' label - they weren't 'barny' - just ahead of their time. In 1981   Brent was one of the first to name streets and buildings after Nelson Mandela with Mandela Close and then named Winnie Mandela House in London Road, Wembley.

1988  saw the huge Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday concert at Wembley Stadium broadcast to 57 countries and watched by more than 600 million people - a huge impetus to the struggle. One of the audience at Friday's talk pointed out that there was no commemoration of the concert at Wembley Stadium or the Quintain development and urged the present council to make sure that this omission is put right.

With Mandela now seen as a heroic figure, celebrated throughout the world and locally in Brent schools during Black History month,  it is important to remember that he was denounced as a terrorist by Margaret Thatcher and Young Tories sported t-shirts calling for him to be hanged. Supporters of the anti-apartheid struggle were attacked as extremists, and supporters of terrorism, in newspapers and the House of Commons. Sound familiar?

As recently as 1990 as you will see in the video Tories in Brent went to the High Court to stop Mandela being honoured by the borough and this was only put right in 2013 at the instigation of Jim Moher, former councillor and  chair of Wembley History Society.

Local historian Philip Grant adds:

Brent Council still has the scroll, pictured above, which would have been presented to Nelson Mandela in April 1990 if the Council had passed its resolution to make him a Freeman of the Borough.

It was brought along to the Wembley History meeting on 18 January by the Leader of the Council, Cllr. Butt, and shown to the c.40 people who had come to the talk.

It is hoped that the scroll, and the silver casket made to hold it, will be on public display at Brent Museum later this year. Look out for further news, if you would like to see it! 



Philip Grant said...

I have found, on the "Kilburn Times" website, the December 2013 article on the insensitive "Tweet" about Nelson Mandela by M.P.(and former Conservative Leader on Brent Council) Bob Blackman, mentioned in Suresh Kamath's talk (see video):

Rev Mick Hough said...

Hi. Way back in c1983(?) I purchased 2 mugs from the columns of the NME. They were from the Brent Anti-Apartheid group, and the text in the back told the story of ‘Mathews Ntshiwa, a black SA factory worker who was imprisoned for 18 mo for having the words ‘RELEASE NELSON MANDELA’ inscribed on his tea mug’. Is anyone from that group able to tell me any more about when they were available?