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The Politics of Race in Britain and South Africa

Black British Solidarity and the Anti-Apartheid Struggle


Elizabeth M. Williams


International Library of Historical Studies

London: I.B. Tauris, 2015

Hardcover. xi+316 p. ISBN 978-1780764207. £62.00


Reviewed by Rob Skinner

University of Bristol



Bridging the Gap



In June 1999, at a symposium held in South Africa House, London, the academic and activist Stuart Hall spoke of his encounters with anti-apartheid activism. As Elizabeth Williams points out, Hall’s talk touched only briefly upon the involvement of black British activists within the movement, although he did make explicit reference to the way in which anti-apartheid intersected with the gradual process by which the British people came to be ‘aware of the question of race and racialisation and of a racialized political regime’.(1) By implication, apartheid was something of an alien concept, a stubbornly untranslatable and racialized politics entirely disconnected from the long histories of British colonialism. The silence surrounding black engagement with the anti-apartheid struggle was a prime motivating force behind Williams’ extensive and valuable project.

Hall’s own engagement with the question of apartheid warrants closer attention, in fact. He was a towering figure in post-war British social studies, the first Director of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, who inspired an array of scholars seeking to develop a new radical agenda that moved beyond crude materialism as Sharad Chari has recently put it, Hall’s work has the potential to open up ‘ways of rethinking Marxist dialectics in the shadow of Hegelian hopes’.(2) For not only was Hall a radical force in British scholarship, he was also an activist, a founding member of the editorial board of the New Left Review, and a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

His circle of friends included radical South Africans the future South African president, Thabo Mbeki, was a contemporary of Hall's wife, Catherine, at the University of Sussex and a guest at his wedding, while Hall's associates at the New Left Review included the émigré sociologist John Rex. But perhaps his closest intellectual connection to South Africa came via his lifelong friendship with the historian Harold Wolpe. Wolpe, a member of the banned South African Communist Party, had arrived in Britain after a dramatic escape from jail in 1963, and eventually took up a post in the sociology department of the University of Essex. He had an enormous impact on the materialist 'revision' of histories of South African racial segregation and apartheid in the 1970s, in particular through his conceptualisation of apartheid as the 'articulation' of capitalist and subsistence modes of production, which provided an intellectual basis for radical campaigners to argue that apartheid was no anachronism, but intimately connected with the structures of modern society.

Wolpe’s influence upon Hall can be read in some of the latter's most detailed interventions in the field of cultural politics, not least his 1980 examination of 'Race, articulation and societies structured in dominance'.(3) In this piece, Hall used South Africa as an 'ideal' case study in a comparison of what he described as the 'materialist' and 'sociological' approaches to social formations dominated by racial and ethnic characteristics. In what was, in essence a contrast between Wolpe and Rex, Hall considered the materialist reading of apartheid, with its emphasis on economic structures with a sociological reading, which foregrounded racially-determined social relations in themselves as the key determinant of systemic inequality.

Hall turns to what he describes as the 'emergent theory' of articulation, and argued that social and cultural formations might just as easily be understood in these terms. Drawing on the Gramscian concept of hegemony, Hall presented a new model for interpreting the emergence of racial dominance in a given society that acknowledged the fundamental role of economic relations, but incorporated the historical specificity of social relations. He then posed a further question: 'what are the specific conditions which make this form of distinction socially pertinent, historically active. What gives this abstract human potentiality its effectivity, as a concrete material force?'(4)

The answer, Hall suggested, was an analytical methodology centred in the understanding of practice and the determination of hegemony through the actions of real, living human subjects. For Hall, racialised discourse was a site of struggle in itself, where the 'ideologies of racism remain contradictory structures, which can function both as the vehicles for the imposition of dominant ideologies, and as the elementary forms for the cultures of resistance'.(5) But, as Williams noted, drawing on Hall's own testimony, the experiences and social formations that structured the lives of black Britons in the 1970s and 80s did not always offer space for collective, organised solidarity with the struggle against apartheid:

People were bedded down in these daily struggles; they could also see that it connected with what was happening in Africa and in the US [but] it is not a surprise that the overwhelming political energy went into the building of resistance at a local level, rather than he building of anti-apartheid politics. [34]

As Williams demonstrates, African and African-Caribbean activists associated with anti-colonial groups such as the Committee of African Organisations fostered some of the earliest campaigns against apartheid organised within Britain, notably the Boycott campaign of 1959, which became the direct predecessor to the main British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). From the 1960s, as anti-apartheid activism began to centre around the efforts of exiled South Africans, the AAM became somewhat disconnected from black community politics in Britain, and it was not until 1987 that the movement established a Black and Ethnic Minority Committee, whose report called on the AAM to deepen its relationship with and support for black and ethnic minority communities in Britain itself. In his contribution to the South Africa House symposium, Hall suggested that one of the defining features of the AAM in contrast to many other 'new social movements' was its sharp organisational focus, that allowed it to cut across class and party alliances, but also avoid the ‘romanticism of participatory politics’. And yet, this determined narrowing of the scope of the AAM also, arguably, led to an inexplicable blindness when it came to the relationship between systemic racism in South Africa and the racialised social structures that shaped the lives of black (and white) Britons.(6)

The formation of the BEM committee of the AAM at such a late stage (in retrospect) of the struggle against apartheid was a reflection, perhaps, of what Hall described in 1988 as a 'new phase' in black British cultural politics, which had begun to enact a move towards a ‘politics of representation’.(7) Hall described this transformation of black politics via a discussion of the concept of ‘ethnicity’, which he saw as a way of describing the process by which ‘the black subject and black experience … are constructed historically, culturally and politically’.(8) Moreover, re-conceptualising ethnicity required a reassessment of and engagement with ‘difference’, which, for Hall, meant that ethnicity became a way of locating voices and the claims they make, in specific historical, cultural and experiential terms. As he would later note in discussion with Williams, black Britons had not felt that liberal organisations such as the AAM had made 'common cause' with their own, positional, struggles; as such the formation of the BEM Committee of the AAM marked a distinct moment in the history of anti-apartheid, in which the politics of difference were albeit briefly articulated with the politics of anti-racism [164].

Williams’ book provides an excellent, highly detailed account of the dynamic role played by British black activists in the anti-apartheid movement, sketching not only the roots of the AAM in African activist networks and the significant contribution of black campaigners to the AAM over the three decades of its existence, but also the ways in which radical movements such as the All-African People's Revolutionary Party and Black Action for the Liberation of South Africa placed apartheid front and centre of black politics. There is, perhaps, an over-emphasis on the retrieval of the historical 'facts' of black solidarity and, as a consequence the analysis of the intellectual history of the movement and its relationship to the broader trajectories of black and anti-racist cultural politics and social movements might be further developed. Throughout the book, Williams rightly laments that ‘no records exist’ to fill in the full narrative of black involvement in anti-apartheid campaigns. This in the context of a movement that produced over six hundred boxes of records, housed at the Bodleian Library in Oxford might warrant a discussion centred on the nature of the archive itself, and its relationship to power. South African archivists and librarians have begun to examine the ways in which the archive has been figured and refigured in societies structured by racial dominance, and it seems that Williams' work underlines the on-going need for this kind of work at the international level.(9)

But also, just as Hall noted in a wider social context, the ‘new politics of representation’ within black anti-apartheid solidarity featured an awareness of the black experience as ‘diasporic’, with an intimate connection between the black experience and the politics of the Third World, the African experience and Afro-Asian interactions.(10) The strong ideological affinities between pan-Africanism and black anti-apartheid activism is a consistent thread in Williams' book, which provides ample evidence of the extent to which global / diasporic anti-apartheid was shaped by pan-Africanist ideologies. The All-African People's Revolutionary Party, though its membership was small, kept in close contact with its American counterpart in Washington, but more significantly, promoted a pan-Africanist message via its annual All-African Students' Conferences, held in London through the 1980s. Similarly, pan-Africanist ideologies shaped the thinking of the founders of Black Action for the Liberation of South Africa (BALSA), which had its origins in the campaign to establish black sections within the British Labour Party in the mid-1980s (and paralleled demands for the AAM to broaden the focus of its campaigns to include racism in Britain) [219-221].

The pan-Africanist thread in black solidarity movements revealed the fault lines within British anti-apartheid. They also reveal a disconnect between black solidarity and the politics of resistance in South Africa, as groups such as BALSA gravitated towards radical South African movements and began to espouse a message of fundamental liberatory struggle that was some distance from the language of democratic transformation espoused by the African National Congress. The disconnection between radical black solidarity movements and the mainstream AAM was fostered by a combination of pan-Africanist separatism and an understandable disillusionment with the marginalisation of black British voices within the AAM. They were, nevertheless, key to bridging the gap between South African liberation movements, the AAM and black British communities. The clarity with which Williams maps this process marks the work out as a vital reference-point for any scholars of anti-apartheid.

Williams’ book provides a careful and meticulous account of the 'distinctive historical trajectories' traced by the AAM and black solidarity groups, showing how liberal critiques of colonialism and black identification with movements for African liberation connected together via the symbolic significance of the struggle against apartheid. Much work remains to be done on the excavation of black solidarity and anti-apartheid, and how many questions endure on the role of the AAM in debates around anti-racism, 'multi-culturalism', difference and diversity in the shaping of post-colonial Britain. Perhaps Hall offers another clue. In defining the ways in which anti-apartheid fostered the 'race-ing' of Britain, he spoke of the ways in which the movement (in its widest form) articulated a variety of forms of action and dimensions of British cultural life that included marches, boycotts and vigils of various kinds. But anti-apartheid also connected sanctions and boycotts – government action and popular action – in a way that allowed ‘political talk’ into everyday life, in shops, in families. It is here, perhaps, that anti-apartheid was able to make connections between British complicity in the racist policies of South African and the war of position around the black experience; to trace the line between the realities of racism in Britain and questions of global justice, democracy and rights.


(1) Hall, Stuart. ‘The AAM and the Race-Ing of Britain’. London: Anti-Apartheid Archives Committee, 1999.

(2) Chari, Sharad. ‘Three Moments of Stuart Hall in South Africa : Postcolonial-Postsocialist Marxisms of the Future’. Critical Sociology (17 December 2015) : 1-15.

(3) Hall, Stuart. ‘Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance’. In Sociological Theories : Race and Colonialism, edited by United Nations Economic Social and Cultural Organisation. Paris: Unesco, 1980 : 305–345.

(4) Ibid. : 338.

(5) Ibid. : 342.

(6) Hall, Stuart. ‘The AAM and the Race-Ing of Britain’.

(7) Hall, Stuart. ‘New Ethnicities’. In “Race”, Culture and Difference, edited by James Donald & Ali Rattansi. London: Sage Publications, 1992 : 252-259 (based on a talk given at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London, in 1988).

(8) Ibid. : 257.

(9) Hamilton, Carolyn; Harris, Verne; Taylor, Jane; Pickover, Michelle; Reid, Graeme & Saleh, Razia [Editors]. Refiguring the Archive. Cape Town, South Africa: David Philip, 2002.

(10) Hall, 'New Ethnicities'.



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