Over 20,000 demonstrators packed Trafalgar Square on 25 March 1990 in the first big anti-apartheid demonstration in Britain after the release of Nelson Mandela. Former Robben Island prisoner Andrew Mlangeni told the crowd ‘We were never alone. You continued to inspire us from outside our prison walls’.
NELSON MANDELA RELEASED
In February 1990 President de Klerk lifted the bans on the African National Congress, Pan-Africanist Congress and the South African Communist Party, and announced the release of Nelson Mandela. The way was open for negotiations for a new democratic constitution for South Africa.
President de Klerk and the Nationalist Party were intent on salvaging special rights for the white minority. As negotiatins stopped and started, the AAM called for the maintenance of sanctions to keep up the pressure on the South African government to agree to genuine democracy. But Prime Minister Thatcher lifted Britain’s limited ‘restrictive measures’ on the eve of Mandela’s release. The cultural and sports boycott broke down as anti-apartheid organisations in South Africa looked forward to reconnecting with the rest of the world. In October 1993 the UN lifted economic sanctions in response to a request from the ANC. The UN arms embargo remained until after Mandela’s inauguration as President.
The South African government failed to honour an agreement with the ANC that all political prisoners would be freed. The British government refused to intervene. The AAM asked supporters to write to prisoners on Robben Island and to President de Klerk demanding their release. More generally, it pressed South Africa to create a climate in which people could meet and organise freely.
‘BLACK ON BLACK’ VIOLENCE
One of the most serious obstacles to negotiations was the violence between supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC, which spread from KwaZulu to the Johannesburg townships in 1990. This was fomented by a ‘third force’ linked to the government. The AAM asked the British government to support UN and Commonwealth peace monitors and said the South African government must take action to end the killings.
The constitutional talks were stymied by the Nationalist Party’s attempt to embed ‘group rights’ and fragment the national government in any new constitution. The AAM asked the people of Britain to support the ANC in demanding ‘one person one vote’ in a united South Africa.
The AAM looked forward to a new era of post-apartheid solidarity, when South Africa and the other countries of the Southern Africa region would need support to overcome the legacy of apartheid. After South Africa’s first democratic election in April 1994 and the installation of Nelson Mandela as President, it transformed itself into a new organisation, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA).
Twenty years later, ACTSA is still campaigning for peace, development and democracy throughout Southern Africa.
The AAM converted its ‘Boycott Bandwagon’ into a ‘Freedom Bus’ after the release of Nelson Mandela and the opening of negotiations for a democratic constitution in South Africa.
Poster publicising a march and rally from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square on 25 March 1990.
All over Britain people celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release on 11 February 1990. These two young women were taking part in a vigil on the steps of Sheffield Town Hall. Copyright © Martin Jenkinson Image Library
Local councillors in the London Borough of Lambeth cast symbolic votes as part of the AAM’s 1991 ‘Vote for Democracy’ campaign.
in the run-up to South Africa’s first one person one vote election, the AAM called for a full complement of election observers from Britain and the international community.