The Boycott Movement

The British Boycott Movement was set up at a meeting in Holborn Hall, London on 26 June 1959. The meeting was organised by the Committee of African Organisations (CAO), a group of African expatriate students and activists, in co-operation with South African exiles in London and their British supporters. Around 500 people heard Julius Nyerere, later to become President of Tanzania, call for an international boycott of all South African goods. Other speakers were Kanyama Chiume of the banned Nyasaland (Malawi) African National Congress, Tennyson Makiwane and Vella Pillay from South Africa’s African and Indian Congresses and Rev. Michael Scott.

The idea of a South African boycott was not new. Through the 1950s many people in Britain had been shocked by the imposition of apartheid. Trevor Huddleston’s book ‘Naught for Your Comfort’ sold 250,000 copies. From 1955 Labour Party conferences passed resolutions calling for South Africa to be expelled from the Commonwealth. South Wales miners protested against the all-white South African team at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. Some responded by calling for a boycott. Among them were Hackney Central Labour Party, which sent a resolution to Labour Party conference and women members of the Liberal Party, who organised their own boycott. But these were isolated initiatives.


The new Boycott Movement had bigger plans. They had a vision of a broad movement, involving people from all walks of life and across the political spectrum. They lost no time in getting the boycott off the ground. During the weekend of the launch meeting supporters held a 24-hour vigil outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square and gave out leaflets at London shopping centres telling shoppers ‘Don’t Buy Slavery, Don’t Buy South African’. The leaflets listed Outspan oranges, Cape apples and Craven A cigarettes as some of the products that shoppers should avoid. Over the summer of 1959 a few local Labour Parties, trades councils and peace groups took up the campaign, holding poster parades in north London and Brixton.

This time, after a slow start interrupted by the October 1959 general election, the boycott took off. The end of the decade saw the growth of a new kind of grassroots politics in Britain and the birth of the New Left. A network of organisations focused on three interlinked issues: nuclear disarmament, endemic racism against immigrants newly arrived from the Caribbean and the anti-colonial struggle. The South African boycott was taken up by this network and became part of the repertoire of the new politics.


In South Africa, by the end of the 1950s, the opposition Congress movement found all paths of peaceful mass protest blocked. After the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the Congress of the People in 1955, the government outlawed almost all forms of political action and banned Congress leaders. The movement turned to boycott. In the spring of 1959 it announced plans to boycott potatoes grown on farms using forced labour and launched a boycott of goods made by firms which supported the National Party. This was to begin on 26 June, the day marked every year since 1950 as South Africa Freedom Day.

Congress leaders were already aware of the potential of international support. In 1953 Walter Sisulu and Duma Nokwe visited London en route to the Soviet Union and China. The African National Congress (ANC) sent written evidence to a UN Commission on apartheid and Congress movement representatives travelled to youth festivals and international trade union conferences. They went via London and their travel arrangements were made by the British Communist Party. Now the ANC looked for international support for the boycott. In 1958 its Economic Boycott Committee stated ‘When our local purchasing power is combined with that of sympathetic organisations overseas we wield a devastating weapon’.

Later, Chief Luthuli responded to a request from the Boycott Movement for a clear statement endorsing the British boycott with a message that was also signed by G M Naicker, President of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), and Peter Brown of the Liberal Party. It stated: ‘Economic boycott is one way in which the world at large can bring home to the South African authorities that they must mend their ways or suffer for them … This appeal is therefore directed to the people of Great Britain to strike a blow for freedom and justice in South Africa.’ The appeal became the founding statement of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM).


It is not clear exactly when and by whom the decision to launch a British boycott campaign was made. But one activist remembers discussing the idea with South African friends at the Partisan Café in Soho. Through the 1950s South Africans opposed to apartheid had been arriving in London. Two of the earliest arrivals were Vella and Patsy Pillay; a group of young exiles met at their house for Marxist discussion sessions and to talk about the situation back home. Another key person was Rosalynde Ainslie, who as the Boycott Movement’s first secretary contributed her communication skills and commitment to the cause. Early in 1959 they were joined by ANC youth leader Tennyson Makiwane. As a black South African, Makiwane’s involvement gave the campaign political legitimacy: he could answer the objection that the boycott would hurt those it was intended to help by saying that Africans were willing to pay a price for their freedom. Another important recruit was Patrick van Rensburg of the South African Liberal Party, who started work with Canon Collins’s Christian Action soon after his arrival in London.

The committee set up by CAO to organise the 26 June meeting was re-formed in the late autumn of 1959 to include a nucleus of South African exiles and representatives of British organisations like the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF), the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), Christian Action and the Africa Bureau. It was soon joined by representatives of the Labour and Liberal Parties. The South Africans who initiated the campaign understood that it must put down British roots. They wanted to appeal to the widest possible spectrum of British public opinion. In a press release issued early in 1960, the Boycott Movement declared that it was ‘a truly national movement, in which the people of this country are free, for once in a while, to forget their domestic political wrangles in order to devote themselves to a great cause’.


In a proposal crucial to the future development of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, a member of the Movement’s organising committee argued in December 1959 that decisions must be ‘the result of argument among members in an essentially autonomous body’. From the beginning it saw itself as part of a worldwide movement. In December 1958 the All-African People’s Conference held in Ghana had called on independent African countries to impose a boycott of South African goods. In 1959 Jamaica, a self-governing British colony, became the first country after India to declare a boycott. In November 1959 the Boycott Movement set up an international working group to ‘make all possible contact with other countries who trade with South Africa’. In December it reported it was in contact with groups planning boycotts in Ceylon, France, Cyprus, Germany, Australia and Holland.


At the end of 1959 the campaign took off with the support of the constituencies that were later central to the work of the AAM. The National Union of Students (NUS) asked students not to buy South African products. The London School of Economics and University College, London banned sales of South African food and cigarettes from its halls of residence. The campaign received strong support from Britain’s small but rapidly growing black community and its newspaper, the West Indian Gazette. In December the Trades Union Congress (TUC) backed the boycott in response to a call from the International Congress of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). The individual unions that supported the campaign were mostly small craft, white-collar or media unions like the clerical workers association ASSET, the film technicians association ACCT and the Musicians Union.

By the spring of 1960 22 local councils had announced they would boycott South African goods; several of them were ports, like Liverpool and South Shields, with long-established black communities. Only the churches held aloof. Although Trevor Huddleston, Canon John Collins, Michael Scott and later Bishop Ambrose Reeves all played seminal roles in the wider movement against apartheid, the churches as institutions were influenced by their white-run sister denominations in South Africa. The General Secretary of the British Council of Churches told the Boycott Movement that it ‘does not feel that it can take any action … on the question of the proposed boycott’.

The Liberal Party responded positively to a request to nominate a representative to the Boycott Committee. The Communist Party gave full support to the boycott and its newspaper, the Morning Star, was a vital communications tool. Most importantly, the Labour Party proposed a month of intensive boycott in February–March 1960. The Party was split on nationalisation and nuclear disarmament and designated 1960 ‘Africa Year’ in an attempt to find an issue of principle on which it could unite. It was cautious in its approach and reluctant to take action that would damage the South African economy. It called for a time-limited boycott by individual shoppers. An official reported that the effect of the boycott ‘is likely to be more political than economic’. Nevertheless its participation transformed the campaign. In early 1960 the Party organised 27 conferences on Africa nationwide and distributed 350,000 copies of a special version of a leaflet prepared by the Boycott Movement. The Movement took up the idea of a special boycott month, now scheduled to run through March 1960.


The March Month of Boycott kicked off with a rally in Trafalgar Square on 28 February. Thousands marched from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square, and up to 15,000 heard speeches from Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell, Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe, Conservative Lord Altrincham, Rita Smythe of the Women’s Co-operative Guild and Tennyson Makiwane. The rally was chaired by Trevor Huddleston and there was a recorded message from the ANC’s President, Chief Luthuli. Scuffles broke out with followers of the far-right Oswald Mosley, who staged a counter-demonstration; the Boycott Movement committee complained to the Press Council and the BBC that this dominated the media coverage.

For the next three weeks local groups all over the country held poster and car parades, meetings and film shows, wrote letters to the local press and distributed leaflets to Saturday shoppers. There was wide press and radio coverage and on 1 March the Guardian editorial commented ‘The boycott begins today, and it is an indication of the organisers’ success so far that no-one needs to ask “boycott of what?”’ The Movement estimated that over two million leaflets were distributed and that its broadsheet Boycott News sold 250,000 copies. These were huge quantities, even compared with the AAM’s heyday in the 1980s. Local Labour Parties all over the country took up the campaign. In Darlington, Yorkshire, the Labour Party unanimously decided to boycott South African goods. Labour members in Gillingham, Kent distributed 20,000 boycott leaflets house to house. The boycott was the theme of Hugh Gaitskell’s party political broadcast on 9 March. Activity extended way beyond the Labour Party. In the west Wales town of Lampeter theological students marched in support of the boycott. In West London, the Communist-led Acton and Park Royal Confed declared: ‘As some of the working class of Great Britain, we feel that by supporting the Boycott it will strengthen the ultimate aim of our South African brothers’.

Before the boycott month began the Movement had written to importers of South African goods, but came up against a brick wall. Among retailers, only Sainsbury’s responded and agreed to stock alternatives to South African produce where these were available. Insofar as the aim of the campaign was to remove South African goods from shelves, it probably achieved little outside some Co-ops. In Finchley Road, north London, one greengrocer said ‘I have never encountered anything like this before . . . I haven’t sold a grape and not one single tin of South African fruit has come off the shelf’. More typical was the response of another shopkeeper who denied that his trade had been affected. But as a consciousness raiser the month was a big success.


On 21 March 1960, as the boycott month drew to a close, news came through of the shooting of 69 unarmed protesters at Sharpeville. In Britain, as all over the world, the massacre made front-page headlines and provoked a storm of protest. For the next six days hundreds demonstrated outside South African House in Trafalgar Square. On Saturday 27 March thousands joined a march from Hyde Park, organised by the Boycott Movement’s London Committee, and a rally in Trafalgar Square, organised by the Labour Party. The Movement produced its distinctive black-and-white badge and thousands were sold in and around the Square. On the following Monday Christian Action and the NCCL held a meeting in Central Hall, Westminster. The South Wales miners called for the intensification of the boycott and a one-day protest strike.

At the UN Security Council Ecuador introduced a resolution ‘deploring’ the action of the South African government and urging it ‘to abandon its policy of apartheid’. The US voted with the majority, but in spite of the public outcry in Britain, the UK, with France, abstained.

It is sometimes argued that international outrage at the Sharpeville shootings was the catalyst for the formation of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In fact, the Boycott Movement had announced in mid-March that it would continue after the month of action with a programme that included the internationalisation of the boycott and protests against the all-white South African cricket tour. In the years to come the AAM held annual commemorations of the massacre at Sharpeville as an iconic event symbolising the brutality of the apartheid regime. Sharpeville’s real significance lay in the subsequent banning of the liberation movements and their decision to send leaders out of the country to continue the struggle from exile. For the AAM, its importance was not so much the wave of protest, which quickly died down, but the call for UN economic sanctions made by the underground ANC. In a statement issued by its Emergency Committee, the ANC called on the UN to impose ‘full economic sanctions against the Union of South Africa’. True to their Congress roots, the initiators of the British Boycott Movement moved to translate the ANC’s call into an international campaign.


On 20 April 1960 a meeting of Boycott Committee members, for the first time heading its minutes as those of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, agreed that the programme to be put before the organisation’s 30 April recall conference should initiate a discussion on economic sanctions. This was endorsed by the newly arrived leader of the South African Indian Congress and South African Communist Party Yusuf Dadoo, who suggested that future action should include a call for UN economic sanctions and a request to the trade union movement and African states not to handle oil for South Africa. The subsequent Programme of Action argued that apartheid threatened the peace of the whole African continent ‘in much the same way as Hitler’s Germany threatened the European peoples’, and proposed making a ‘request to the United Nations to call for economic sanctions against South Africa’. A later memorandum argued ‘the moral pressure of the consumer boycott is no longer enough. The South African government must be forced to change its policies, by practical pressure’. It concluded ‘… the only sanctions available, short of military, are economic’. South Africa’s race policies were ‘no longer an exclusively internal affair of South Africa’s but a threat to international peace and security’.


For a brief period, from January to March 1960, the Boycott Movement mobilised people in Britain to act against apartheid on a scale not seen again until the 1980s. It assembled a remarkable cross-party coalition stretching from the Communist Party to dissident members of the Conservative Party and involving many people with no party political affiliation. Its links with the Congress Movement gave it a legitimacy which it used to overcome the reservations of the Labour Party, which feared the economic destabilisation it thought would follow black majority rule. In South Africa opposition to apartheid, although weakened by bans and proscriptions, was still above ground and committed to non-violent mass action of a kind which inspired international support from across the political spectrum. In Britain the conformity of the 1950s had given away to a new mood of grassroots activism manifested in the campaign against nuclear weapons, and in the movements against racism in Britain and for African freedom. At this moment the South African Congress movement launched its campaign of boycott within South Africa, which was internationalised by its exiled members and their British supporters.

The Boycott Movement also established key features which were to characterise the Anti-Apartheid Movement for the rest of its 35-year history. It built a structure which involved other organisations working in related areas, but which made Southern Africa its main concern. It established itself as a non-partisan organisation which set out to appeal to people of any or no Party affiliation. It saw itself as part of a worldwide campaign. Most significantly, it was an organisation which aspired to be an autonomous and democratically run British mass movement, but which had at its heart its relationship with the South African Congress movement.

In 1959–60, the South African boycott was represented as a moral crusade with the limited objective of putting pressure on the South African government. But after the shootings at Sharpeville and the banning of the ANC and PAC, the Anti-Apartheid Movement transformed its strategy to call for sanctions and support for the liberation movements. This challenged both economic interests which underpinned the whole British economy and deeply ingrained racial prejudices in Britain. After the success of the Boycott Movement campaign, the newly formed Anti-Apartheid Movement faced more difficult times.

Poster for the March Month of Boycott

Poster for the March Month of Boycott, 1960. 


Selling Boycott News ouside South Africa House

Selling Boycott News ouside South Africa House.
Copyright: Morning Star


Leaflet asking people to take part in the Month of Boycott

Leaflet asking people to take part in the Month of Boycott, 1–31 March 1960. Around 700,000 copies were distributed in the run-up to the campaign launch on 28 February.



Leaflet for the rally to launch the boycott movement.