The Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1990s

At the beginning of 1990 apartheid was breaking down. President de Klerk’s inauguration in September 1989 was marked by a mass march led by churchmen in Cape Town in defiance of the State of Emergency and by strikes all over South Africa. International banks were reluctant to lend to an unstable economy. Military setbacks in Angola and overwhelming international pressure had forced the apartheid government to concede independence to Namibia. After elections held in November 1989, Namibia celebrated the inauguration of SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma as President on 21 March 1990.


On 2 February, President de Klerk announced the lifting of the bans on the African National Congress (ANC), Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). On 11 February, Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in gaol. His release was celebrated all over the world. After visits to neighbouring African countries, Mandela came via Sweden to London, where the Anti-Apartheid Movement welcomed him with a second Wembley stadium concert on 16 April. He told millions watching on television: ‘We know of the solid support we have received from the Anti-Apartheid Movement. It has not only been a source of real inspiration to us all, but it has also helped to put the struggle for a non-racial South Africa on a level never seen before.’


The lifting of the bans on the liberation movements and Mandela’s release opened the way to negotiations for a new constitution in South Africa. But it was far from certain that they would lead to genuine majority rule. Over the next four years the Nationalist government pushed for a constitution that would privilege the white minority and fomented violence among Africans in an attempt to divide and rule.

In Britain, the AAM faced contradictions. The ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations within South Africa still needed international backing, but after Mandela’s release many AAM supporters felt the struggle was already over. On sanctions it was faced with a fast-changing situation, in which it had to accommodate the conflicting pressures exerted on the liberation movement. The ANC needed to keep up pressure on the apartheid government, but at the same time did not want to inherit a collapsing economy. It had to make new alliances to prepare for government. And the ‘black on black’ violence, in which thousands were killed between 1990 and 1994, threatened to confuse and alienate AAM supporters.

The AAM identified three main issues: the maintenance of sanctions until there was irreversible progress towards majority rule; the creation of a climate conducive to negotiations; and the endorsement of a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa as the only acceptable outcome. It argued that the British government was still the ‘No. 1 protector of apartheid’1. It made the strategic decision to prioritise work at an international level, in the European Community, Commonwealth and UN, as the most effective way of constraining Conservative government support for the Nationalist government in South Africa. 


Prime Minister Thatcher moved swiftly to lift British sanctions. On 2 February she announced the relaxation of the ban on cultural, academic and scientific links. The day before Mandela’s release she declared her intention to lift the UK’s voluntary bans on new investment and the promotion of tourism. The AAM responded by stepping up its campaign for people’s sanctions, focusing on gold and tourism. It organised a demonstration outside the South African Airways office at Oxford Circus and a sit-in at the World Travel Market at Olympia, west London. At EC summits, the British government pushed for the removal first of the ‘restrictive measures’ imposed in 1986, and then of the 1985 oil embargo and bans on military collaboration. The AAM played a leading role in the Liaison Group of European Community Anti-Apartheid Movements, which lobbied to stop the EC lifting its restrictions. At the Commonwealth summit in Harare in October 1991, the AAM pressed for the Commonwealth to maintain sanctions. 

The international solidarity movement was entering new and uncharted waters. At the same time as they confronted the old order, the democratic forces in South Africa were looking to the future. By 1991 the cultural boycott had virtually broken down. The ANC’s Department of Arts and Culture invited international artists to come to South Africa ‘not only to perform but to contribute to redressing the inequities of apartheid’2. South Africa’s non-racial sports bodies were negotiating their way back into world competition. In March 1991 they set up an Interim National Olympic Committee and South Africa was readmitted to the International Olympic Committee. The UN General Assembly recognised the new situation in its December 1991 resolution endorsing ‘academic, scientific and cultural links with democratic anti-apartheid organisations’ and contacts with non-racial sports bodies. The AAM publicised the UN resolution, but tried to hold the line by pledging that it would still boycott ‘institutions which continue to promote apartheid in the sports, cultural and academic fields’3. But the policy of distinguishing between visits by organisations which were pro- or anti-apartheid was impossible to sustain. This was shown in 1992, when an all-white South African rugby squad arrived in Britain on a tour originally sanctioned by the ANC and the new non-racial National and Olympic Sports Congress, but from which they later withdrew support.

The AAM followed the ANC’s lead in campaigning for the maintenance of economic sanctions until a transitional executive council was in place and a date for elections set. But as negotiations entered their final stage in June 1993 and the ANC came under intense pressure to agree to the lifting of sanctions, the AAM drew back from pressing banks not to reschedule South Africa’s debt and sought further consultation with the ANC. Mandela went to the UN on 24 September, after transitional arrangements had been agreed but before they were implemented, to ask it to lift economic sanctions. On 8 October 1993, in a historic decision, the UN swept away measures restricting trade, investment, finance and transport links with South Africa. The AAM welcomed the move, saying that the agreement on setting up a transitional executive council gave real hope for a democratic future. The UN mandatory arms embargo remained, and was finally lifted after the installation of South Africa’s first democratic government, on Africa Day, 25 May 1994. Appropriately, South Africa’s new Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, was accompanied to the UN by Abdul Minty, Director of the World Campaign against Military and Nuclear Collaboration and Hon. Secretary of the AAM, who had campaigned for an effective arms embargo for over 30 years.


In 1990 the AAM was convinced that de Klerk was hoping to wrongfoot the democratic forces. But it believed there was all to play for, and that the outcome depended on forcing the South African government to remove the obstacles to meaningful negotiations. One of the most important of these was the continued incarceration of hundreds of political prisoners, including at least 50 on death row. The AAM raised the issue at a meeting with Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd in April 1990, but he refused to intervene. Over the next three years it worked closely with the ANC and the Human Rights Commission in South Africa. It responded to hunger strikes by South African prisoners by organising days of fasting outside South Africa House, mass letter writing campaigns to President de Klerk and to the British Foreign Office, and asking supporters to write directly to the prisoners still on Robben Island. 


An even more serious obstacle to negotiations was the endemic violence between supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC, which spread from KwaZulu to the townships around Johannesburg in 1990. In a sinister new development, ‘third force’ assassins targeted workers on commuter trains and in the townships. The AAM cut through the confusion surrounding the violence by insisting that it was the South African government’s responsibility to stop it. When de Klerk paid his third visit to Britain in October 1990, the AAM launched an Emergency Campaign with a message to Thatcher: ‘Tell de Klerk: stop the violence and repression’. It asked de Klerk to establish an independent judicial enquiry into the killings. After the signing of the National Peace Accord in South Africa in September 1991, the AAM distributed leaflets at train stations asking British commuters to write to the South African government. 

In June 1992, at least 40 township residents were killed by Inkatha Freedom Party supporters in Boipatong in the southern Transvaal. This was a turning point in the international community’s response to the violence in South Africa. An AAM delegation asked the British government to consult with the European Union and the Commonwealth on how to monitor the killings. Protesters marched up Whitehall to hold a vigil at South Africa House. The AAM’s President, Trevor Huddleston, flew to South Africa and spoke at the funeral of the victims. In July, Huddleston convened an International Hearing in London, at which delegates from 27 countries heard eyewitness accounts of the massacres. At the UN, the British government did a U-turn and supported a resolution authorising the UN Secretary General to deploy peace monitors. The OAU, the Commonwealth and the EC also agreed to send observers. The AAM campaigned for the peace monitors’ terms of reference to be extended so that they could prevent, as well as observe, violent incidents. Many monitors went from Britain. The violence took a tragic toll of human lives, but partly because of the international response, it failed to derail the negotiations or to demobilise the democratic movement’s well-wishers around the world.


The AAM’s third priority was to project the vision of a united democratic South Africa. As negotiations lurched from crisis to crisis, it looked for imaginative ways of engaging support. Its ‘Call for Freedom’ launched on 26 June 1990 proclaimed the need for an elected constituent assembly to agree on South Africa’s new constitution. When de Klerk visited London to meet Britain’s new Prime Minister John Major in April 1991, anti-apartheid local groups collected signatures for a petition saying ‘Give Democracy a Chance’. Later in the year, the Movement asked people to ‘Vote for Democracy’ by casting votes for ‘one person one vote’ in South Africa. 

The AAM insisted that for any election to be free and fair, the ANC and other democratic forces must be helped to match the resources of the National Party and the election must be monitored. When the election date was announced, on 2 July 1993, Trevor Huddleston wrote to the UN Secretary General, the OAU, the Commonwealth and the European Community asking them to organise a big international presence. The Commonwealth agreed to send its largest ever election observer group and set up a special Commonwealth Fund. In Britain, the AAM’s Chair Bob Hughes met Foreign Office Minister of State Lynda Chalker to spell out the steps the government should take to strengthen the role of observer missions. Hundreds went from Britain to join what became the world’s largest ever international election monitoring operation. 


From February 1990 the ANC grappled with the huge logistical task of rebuilding its organisation within South Africa. In 1991 the AAM launched a twinning programme linking its regions to ANC regions in South Africa and raised money to help establish new ANC structures. The most successful link was that between the Scottish AA Committee and the Eastern Cape. Fifty British participants flew out to the ANC’s international solidarity conference in February 1993. The crowd at the AAM’s last mass rally in Trafalgar Square, on 20 June 1993 heard Walter Sisulu demand an immediate election date. 

As soon as the date was announced, the ANC launched a ‘Votes for Freedom’ appeal with a target of £1 million to be raised in Britain. In January 1994 the Movement initiated its last campaign, ‘Countdown to Democracy’, asking for donations to its regional twinning project or to the ANC election fund. The campaign culminated in a national ‘Votes for Freedom’ day on 20 April. In town halls, workplaces and student unions, people cast symbolic votes for freedom in South Africa and were asked to give a final donation to the ANC fund. The fund more than exceeded its target, with British trade unions contributing over £250,000. 

On election day, 27 April 1994, hundreds of South Africans voted in London, joining queues snaking around South Africa House. Among them were some of the political exiles who had played such an important part in the British AAM. Many more were South Africans living in Britain who had played no part in the anti-apartheid struggle, but were reconciled to being citizens of the new South Africa. For many British activists the most moving moment was Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as president on 10 May, when for the first time they entered South Africa House. At an extraordinary celebration, British supporters of the apartheid government rubbed shoulders with ANC and AAM members. As a live video link showed Mandela taking the presidential oath and the crowd in South Africa sang the national anthem, the activists toyi-toyied in celebration and the old guard drifted away.


As negotiations to end apartheid were about to begin, talks were also initiated between the FRELIMO government and the South African sponsored group RENAMO to end the civil war in Mozambique. A general peace agreement was signed in Rome on 4 October 1992. After delays in implementation, Mozambique held its first multi-party election in October 1994. But in Angola the rebel group UNITA rejected the result of elections held in 1992, when they lost to the governing party MPLA. UNITA refused to implement the Bicesse Accords, providing for the demobilising of its armed forces, and occupied huge areas of Angola, forcing 3 million people to flee. Angola was plunged back into a devastating civil war, which only ended with the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002. With the Mozambique Angola Committee (MAC), the AAM campaigned to alert British public opinion to the ‘forgotten war’, distributing posters and leaflets asking the British government and international community to ‘Isolate UNITA’.

At a meeting in Windhoek in August 1992, the countries that had formed the Southern African Development Coordinating Conference (SADCC) in 1980 established closer economic co-operation by setting up the Southern African Development Community (SADC). In a memo to the British Foreign Office the AAM urged that British policy on Southern Africa should be guided by the need to help the whole region overcome the effects of apartheid aggression. It stressed the need for balanced development which would not aggravate ‘the historic tendency of South Africa to dominate the rest of the region’4.


In June 1993, when the final breakthrough in the negotiations in South Africa seemed imminent, Trevor Huddleston and Tanzania’s former President, Julius Nyerere, convened an international conference in London to look forward to the future. It agreed that trade, investment and aid relationships must not reinforce existing inequalities, that people to people solidarity should be encouraged and that there must be ‘a new era of reconstruction and development throughout the region’5. The AAM considered how its twinning programme could be developed to establish contacts between communities, and how to encourage trade unions, schools and local authorities to link up with their counterparts in South Africa.

The Movement’s 1993 annual meeting agreed to hold an emergency general meeting after South Africa’s freedom election. In May 1994 activists attended a day of workshops to discuss people to people solidarity. On 25 June, at the TUC’s Congress House, delegates from the AAM’s affiliated organisations and individual members agreed to set up a new solidarity organisation. Its remit was to mobilise support for the whole Southern African region to help it overcome the legacy of apartheid and promote development in a way that would benefit all its peoples.


At a final annual general meeting on 29 October 1994 the AAM was transformed into a new organisation, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA). ACTSA continues to work for peace, development and human rights throughout the Southern African region.

1 RH: MSS AAM 13, Report to the 1990 Annual General Meeting, October 1989 to October 1990, p. 29.
2 Quoted in AAM Update Briefing on Sport and Culture, 1991. RH: MSS AAM 1463.

3 RH: MSS AAM 2222, ‘Sanctions against Apartheid South Africa’, statement by the AAM EC, January 1992.
4 ‘Overcoming the apartheid legacy in Southern Africa’, AAM memorandum to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, January 1992. RH: MSS AAM 818.
5 AAM, Southern Africa: Making Hope a Reality: Declaration and the Conference Secretary’s Report, 15 June 1993.

Poster publicising a march and rally from Hyde Park

Poster publicising a march and rally from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square on 25 March 1990.


people celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release

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


London Borough of Lambeth cast symbolic votes

Local councillors in the London Borough of Lambeth cast symbolic votes as part of the AAM’s 1991 ‘Vote for Democracy’ campaign.

South Africa’s first one person one vote election

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.