As a child there were few experiences I looked forward to more than a trip up to London with my father to visit Hamleys toy store in the run-up to Christmas. Rather unusually perhaps, these visits to the capital were also occasionally marked by a stop at South Africa House to see the Anti-Apartheid picket of the embassy, organised to call for the release of ANC leader Nelson Mandela. We had moved to the UK from New Zealand a few years beforehand, and Dad would always use such occasions to regale me with proud memories of the protests which greeted South Africa’s notorious rugby tour in 1981. When the Springboks came to our home city of Hamilton, a key centre of Maori culture, crowd protests led to the abandonment of a test against the All Blacks. Another game became a farce when flour bombs and leaflets were scattered over the pitch from a light aeroplane.
Over recent months I’ve been assessing the history of the anti-apartheid movement as part of a wider attempt to understand the role that ideas of moral economy in trade and consumerism played in debates about Britain’s economic identity. While the outpouring of praise from world leaders for Nelson Mandela, following his recent passing, might suggest that the anti-apartheid boycott had overwhelming support at the time, in fact it was highly controversial and contested from many sides.
The Boycott Movement was launched in London in 1959 (and renamed the Anti-Apartheid Movement the following year). While it is sometimes identified as part of the emergence of a series of ‘new social movements’ in the 1960s, the AAM, especially in its early years shared many characteristics with earlier humanitarian campaigns. Much like the short-lived boycott of Japanese goods movement of the late 1930s it drew heavily on the support of labour, internationalist and religious organisations. Both movements faced similar problems in convincing the public that a boycott would work effectively.
A key part of the problem here (and one also faced by those who sought to encourage the practice of ‘Buying British’) was that it often proved hard for the consumer to discern the national origin of a product. Under the Merchandise Marks Act of 1926 producers were free to label their goods as ‘foreign’ or ‘empire’, as appropriate. Prosecutions for merchandise mark infringement were rare, particularly after 1945, and hampered by the lack of international co-operation or standard practice on the matter (despite some efforts at co-ordination by the League of Nations and the British Board of Trade and Colonial Office). Key trade organisations such as the co-operative movement were divided on the boycott issue and, despite the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, policies on stocking South African goods differed from region to region. While merchandise mark legislation was strengthened in the 1960s and 1970s, it still provided a number of loopholes.
Over time, the boycott grew to encompass other issues such as opposition to sporting ties with South Africa, an important facet of spreading the global visibility of the movement. In New Zealand’s case in particular it also arguably played a significant role in helping to define a new national identity following the severing of trade links from the imperial age, with Britain’s entry into the EEC in 1973. Aside from calling for an end to sporting ties with the Boks, Halt All Racist Tours highlighted unequal living standards between Pakeha and Maori and the thorny issue of land rights in the wake of the Waitangi settlement. Anti-apartheid quickly grew into a global humanitarian campaign, whose concerns outgrew those of the formal territorial boundaries of South Africa.
By focusing on the power of multinational business, anti-apartheid also arguably played a vital role in setting the parameters of contemporary debates about ‘fair trade’ and ethical business practice. The divestment campaign of the 1980s achieved some notable coups, particularly Barclays’ withdrawal from South Africa in 1986. Yet at the same time, other companies such as BP sought to promote ethical practices in the country. The petrol company produced social reports and invested in black education, even drawing the support of figures such as Alan Patton, one of the most celebrated white South African opponents of apartheid. Throughout its lifetime anti-apartheid’s fortunes waxed and waned and opinions differed widely about the most effective means to pressurise the South African government. As well as revealing much about the politics of social movements in the latter half of the twentieth century, the history of anti-apartheid can provide useful insights into the dilemmas facing organisations such as the Occupy Wall Street, Fair Trade, and anti-WTO groups which seek to promote ethical business practices.