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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 September 2005, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Tracking the anti-apartheid groups
By Martin Rosenbaum
BBC Freedom of Information Unit

Anti-apartheid rally
Special Branch kept close tabs on anti-apartheid groups
Documents obtained by the BBC show that the Metropolitan Police closely monitored the activities of the anti-apartheid movement for 25 years.

This included infiltrating informers into meetings at both national and local levels, according to records released to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act.

The operation was carried out by the Met's Special Branch, which is responsible for keeping track of political subversives but has been accused by critics of interpreting this role too widely by also spying on mainstream political campaigns.

The material seen by the BBC suggests that Special Branch possesses about 30 inch-thick files on the anti-apartheid movement, ranging from 1969 until 1995.

They contain a mixture of public documents such as leaflets and newspaper cuttings and private information such as secret reports of demonstrations and meetings.

This is revealed in The Right to Know, a BBC Radio 4 programme which assesses the impact of the Freedom of Information Act.

Trade union role

Special Branch regularly received reports of the movement's members-only annual general meetings, at which the group's political strategy for the coming year was discussed.

The reports give details of those elected to the movement's executive committee, sometimes noting whether individuals are linked to the South African or British Communist Parties.

Special Branch also sometimes obtained the movement's internal documents, including some relating to its work with trade unions. One report from 1980 notes how the movement is disappointed at the level of support it is getting from unions.

Peter Hain in the 1970s
Peter Hain was among the current ministers mentioned

It adds: "It would appear that the trade union movement is really interested only in the wages and conditions of its members in this country and not their black 'brothers' thousands of miles away."

The documents contain frequent references to information received from "secret and reliable" sources.

One message in 1981 notes that the public sector union NUPE had decided to picket the South African embassy. Special Branch decided not to pass this on to their colleagues in the Met's Public Order Branch A8 because it 'may well come from sensitive source'.

In some cases the makes and registration numbers of cars used by the movement's leading figures are noted. The reports of demonstrations and pickets include methodical listings of the banners carried and slogans chanted.

Schoolboy activist

There are many references to the activities of Peter Hain, who is described as "an implacable enemy of apartheid over many years." Other individuals mentioned who, like Hain, are now government ministers include Richard Caborn and Fiona Mactaggart.

The files also contain reports of local group meetings attended by as few as six people, of whom one must have been the police informant.

At one point in the 1970s Special Branch noted that a new anti-apartheid movement group had been formed in Ealing by a 17-year-old schoolboy. At another point it is noted that a member of a local group has written a letter to the Guardian in defence of Tony Benn.

On occasion the most low-key form of anti-apartheid movement activity was drawn to the attention of Special Branch.

In 1982 they investigated the discovery of posters in "a shed under a fire escape at the back of a factory" in Barnet.

In 1984 the Surrey Police Special Branch sent the Met a confidential telegram to report that a part-time worker at Sainsbury's in Croydon "is actively passing anti-apartheid literature to other members of staff".

No criminal evidence

While some informants seemed impressed by what they heard - with one report of a rally referring to "lucid" and "compelling" arguments from "a barrage of quality public speakers" - others clearly found their work rather tedious, as they had to sit through long speeches at boring meetings.

One report describes a rally in 1989 at which the head of publicity for the South West Africa People's Organisation delivered "a long and often rambling diatribe" which lasted for over an hour.

When he sat down he "was greeted by a standing ovation and thunderous applause by an audience hitherto unmoved by his monotonous rhetoric."

For many years the anti-apartheid movement was one of the most active protest groups in Britain, until the end of white minority rule in South Africa in the early 1990s.

The documents seen by the BBC contain no evidence of the movement having been involved in anything criminal.

The monitoring of the movement continued until the organisation was disbanded in 1995 following the end of apartheid and succeeded by a group called Action for Sourthern Africa (ACTSA).

A Special Branch minute noted: "ACTSA seems to be a broad-based support group concerned mainly with providing information and education on issues in southern africa; it would appear to be of little interest to this Branch at the present time."

The Right to Know is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2000 BST on Tuesday, 27 September and repeated at 1700 on Sunday, 2 October.


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