The 1980s apartheid debate in Britain: colonial legacies, anti-colonial solidarities

Jonathan Omole is currently studying MA Global Development at the University of Leeds, after previously studying History at Northumbria University. His primary interests and areas of study include South African history and colonial legacies of British history and how they resonate in the present. Jonathan can be found on Twitter at @JonathanOmole.

The historic reaction to the anti-apartheid movement tends to be remembered in Britain today as one of widespread moral outrage in response to the atrocities committed by the South African National Party (NP), known as the main ‘party of apartheid’ in South Africa. It is assumed that apartheid was entierly rejected by Britain, through sanctions applied by the British government,  boycotts, and popular protests that culminated in the famous 1989 ‘Free Mandela’ concert. 

But was this the whole picture? Both Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) were demonised, using the same racially coded narratives that excused atrocities in the colonies formerly under direct British rule. 

South Africa’s status within the British Empire 

The British empire was constructed on a racialized hierarchy, with colonies governed on how ‘alike’ they were to Britain. The British empire controlled South Africa from 1902. From 1910, South Africa joined Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the Irish Free State in holding ‘dominion status’. Control was wielded by a white colonial administration, with Britain making direct decisions on aspects such as foreign policy. Crucially, dominion status was given to predominantly white colonies. 

British imperial rule was deeply rooted in white supremacy. It was widely believed that indigenous people within non-white colonies were incapable of governing their own countries effectively, and required British tutelage. This belief in a supposed racial superiority was a key reason why majority-white settler colonies held a higher status in the eyes of Britain. 

Britain perpetuated narratives of racial inferiority in its African and Asian colonies, establishing a belief in a racial hierarchy not just throughout the empire, but within Britain itself. These ideas were deeply entrenched in South Africa by the time apartheid was established by the National Party of South Africa in 1948, as white Afrikaners who were descended from the Dutch asserted their ‘rightful’ place as dominant over Black South Africans and Indians. 

The anti-apartheid debate in Britain was heavily influenced by colonial legacies of racism. During the demise of the British empire in the 1950s and 1960s, movements that fought to remove oppressive British regimes, such as the Mau Mau in Kenya, were demonised. Propaganda saturated with racial undertones was used to discredit independence movements in many colonies. In the 1980s, those in Britain who supported the apartheid regime used the same colonial-era racism to attack the anti-apartheid movement, which had become a mainstream force in South Africa in the 1980s.

British conservatives denounced Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) using the same insulting narratives that were used to attack the credibility of the Mau Mau. These attacks drew upon racist narratives that British imperialists had used for years. 

In Britain, the Federation of Conservative Students published a poster with the slogan ‘Hang Nelson Mandela and all ANC terrorists. They are Butchers.’ This shows how the moral debate around apartheid across the globe had become increasingly polarised and politically divisive. The use of the terms ‘butchers’ and ‘terrorists’ here shows that British conservatives sought to dehumanise black Africans who challenged the established racial status quo. Although posters such as this did not feature overtly racist language, this language draws upon a racist tradition of presenting black Africans as violent, primitive, and dangerous. 

British government opposition to sanctions

 Britain was also motivated by its own economic and political interests. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher argued against sanctions of apartheid South Africa. The UK government vetoed a UN resolution to impose sanctions in 1986, in a similar stance to Ronald Reagan’s administration in the USA. Britain argued that sanctions would do nothing but cause more economic hardship for those in South Africa who were already struggling in poverty. While this argument may hold some weight, it must be recognised that Britain wanted to remain allies with South Africa to further its own geopolitical interests.

A major reason for the West’s hesitance to apply sanctions was that they viewed South Africa as a useful ally to block the perceived spread of Communism in the region, especially with neighbouring countries such as Mozambique and Angola identifying themselves as Marxist. Saul Dubow, the author of Apartheid 1948-1994, argues that Britain and the United States viewed it as “a necessity to keep South Africa firmly anti-communist, which, in their terms, meant hostility to ANC liberation’. Furthermore, many British Conservatives alleged that Mandela and the ANC were Communist, as they knew in the geopolitical atmosphere of the 1980s that this allegation would damage the struggle’s reputation. 

Anti-apartheid movement in Britain

The anti-apartheid movement (AAM) in Britain lobbied the British government and many other key businesses to disinvest from South Africa. This movement received press support following the 1985 Langa massacre, in which twenty people were killed while commemorating the victims of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. In the wake of this massacre, the disinvestment campaign escalated. In 1985, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Britain’s largest union federation, passed a resolution calling on fellow unions to support the British AAM’s boycott campaigns. 

The British AAM’s campaign was hugely effective, and South Africa’s economy was hit hard. Between 1986 and 1988 as many as 55 British companies sold off their subsidiaries and a further 19 reduced their investments. The transnational anti-apartheid movement gained significant momentum in the late 1980s, successfully lobbying governments and businesses to boycott South Africa. Within South Africa, the ANC and the United Democratic Front (UDF) were succeding in their aim to  destabilise the apartheid government.

Resonance today

Whilst it is important to recognise Britain’s eventual aligning with the anti-apartheid movement, it is equally vital that we remember the reluctance of the British government and many businesses to challenge apartheid. This reluctance was rooted in racist mentalities and imperial ideologies  as well as narrow economic and political self-interest. It is all too easy to celebrate the former without recognising the latter, which speaks to the continuing legacies of racism in Britain. The arguments that Thatcher and many other British conservatives used to dismiss the cause of Mandela and the ANC drew upon damaging racist narratives, which the British Empire perpetuated globally.

Today, a similar dynamic is apparent. The Black Lives Matter movement has generated renewed attention through their mass protests. Yet alongside this, we can see a resurgence of racism, including racially coded denouncements of those who are fighting for equality.

The international campaign against apartheid was symbolic of a growing recognition that racism was a global evil. Similarly, one of the most powerful aspects of the BLM movement is the solidarity shown between those experiencing similar forms of oppression across the world. Recently, many BLM groups joined protests against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

It is also important to recognise the efforts of the African diaspora who continue to push for justice worldwide. The campaign to ‘End SARS’, a notorious Nigerian police unit known for using excessive force with apparent impunity, consisted of protests not just in Nigeria, but at the Nigerian embassy in London. 

Like the anti-apartheid movement, Black Lives Matter cannot just be a Western-centric movement to solve the global issues of racial injustice and police brutality. Understanding the global colonial legacy of racism and white supremacy is key to eventually dismantling imperial structures that continue to damage people’s lives throughout the world.

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