The campaign against apartheid in South Africa
In 1984, when this badge was produced, the system of apartheid that enforced racial segregation and a hierarchy that privileged the white population had been in place in South Africa for more than thirty years. The badge is printed with the logo of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM): the letters A and A printed black on white and white on black on the symbol of the yin and yang, which in Chinese philosophy represents the dual distribution of complementary powers. The design indicates both the belief that segregation should be removed and that the struggle to do so is one for both blacks and whites. Badges bearing this design were first worn by people protesting in London against the massacre of black protesters by police in the South African township of Sharpeville in 1960.
In the 1980s, membership of the AAM reached 25,000 as the campaign for an end to apartheid grew into Britain’s largest mass movement on an international issue. An important aspect of the campaign was the isolation of South Africa both economically and through the breaking of sporting and cultural links. As the British government refused to impose economic sanctions, the AAM led ‘people’s sanctions’ - boycotts of South African imports and of businesses with South African subsidiaries. The AAM also led the international campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela. They communicated campaign messages through mass marches, pickets and high profile concerts, as well as by distributing printed materials and badges such as this one.
Racism in Britain
Trade unions, religious organisations, community groups, local authorities and political parties supported the AAM: the injustice of apartheid and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in South Africa were clear and relatively easy to oppose. However, Britain faced its own challenges with regards to racial inequality and the campaign against apartheid was only one of a number of factors that heightened awareness among white people of the racism that took place much closer to home.
Racism in Britain was not new in the 1980s. Many white British people had reacted with suspicion and hostility towards people arriving in Britain from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia after World War II. By the 1960s and 1970s, immigrants and British-born people from ethnic minority backgrounds found themselves in a mainstream society rife with indirect and direct discrimination and sometimes open aggression. Structural and overt racism denied people access to employment opportunities, housing and education and fair policing.
In the 1970s and 1980s a number of incidents turned the spotlight on the problems faced by people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in Britain. In 1976 women of South Asian origin who had migrated to London from East Africa went on strike in protest at low wages and poor conditions at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in London. They were eventually supported by a number of trade unions, anti–racist organisations and feminist groups. The strike was seen as a critical moment, when many in the labour movement recognised the rights of workers from ethnic minorities, especially women, as equal to those of white workers, though official union support was not sustained and the strike ultimately failed.
Poor relations between the police and black and Asian communities, coupled with a rise in activity by far-right groups, led to violence in a number of urban areas. In Southall in 1979 violence broke out between police and members of the large Asian community who were protesting against a meeting of the fascist National Front in Southall Town Hall. Racially motivated harassment and abuse by police officers was reported but often ignored. This, plus the feeling among many people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds that they were being unfairly targeted rather than assisted by the police, helped create the conditions for violent incidents in St Pauls, Bristol (1980 and 1982), Brixton, London (1981 and 1985), Tottenham, London (1985) and Toxteth, Liverpool (1981) among other areas.
Some signs of change
The untiring work of activists from black and ethnic minority communities was often complicated by such high profile events, but together they ensured that the problem of racism could not be wished away by government and the British establishment. The Race Relations Act of 1965 was strengthened in 1968 and then replaced in 1976 by a new Act that also set up the Commission for Racial Equality. The Scarman Report of 1981 which was commissioned to investigate the disturbances in Brixton made clear that inequality and economic hardship as well as inappropriate policing had contributed to the outbreak of violence. In the 1987 general election, Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant became the first black MPs ever and Keith Vaz the first Asian MP since the 1920s. In 1978, Viv Anderson became the first black football player to win a full England cap. In the 1980s, a growing number of black and Asian writers and some black directors became involved in theatre, TV and film. Music continued to be an area in which the huge black contribution to popular culture was clearly evident. The release and presidency of Nelson Mandela created in him a black icon of courage and integrity respected by all ethnic groups. While none of these factors went far enough or solved the problems of racism and racial inequality in British society, they meant that the circumstances in which the struggle against racism continues to operate nowadays are not the same as they were fifty years ago.
Archives of the Anti-Apartheid Movement
Website focused on South Asian women workers, with a section on the Grunwick dispute.
Black history for schools
Website focusing on the teaching of black history with articles and resources for the classroom, including an activity on opposition to apartheid in South Africa.
Ten key moments in UK race relations
Black Cultural Archives: subject guide on the uprisings of the 1980s
The first Black parliamentarians of our times
Article about the self-help movement
Website with articles about Black History
Year by year guide to Black History in a range of aspects of popular culture