6,000 Miles From Johannesburg

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It’s over 8000 miles from Bristol to Johannesburg. The geographical distance between here and South Africa may be considerable, but the social and political bonds that entwine the two cities is significant. Many Bristolians were vociferous in the fight against apartheid and the city’s collective voice in the movement was one of the loudest in the country.

The struggle didn’t finish in 1994, we’re still working on the legacy of apartheid across the whole of southern Africa.

Bristol’s efforts to help end oppression in South Africa have been sustained, diverse and unflinching. From the 1969 Bristol Lawn Tennis Club demonstration against the Davis Cup match between South Africa and the UK, to letter writing and petitions in the Bear Pit, pockets of activism have sprung up in all corners of the city.

Famous freedom fighters

Launched by Joe Slovo, one of the leading members of the liberation movement in South Africa and the African National Congress (ANC), Bristol’s anti-apartheid movement (now ACTSA) gained momentum from the energy of its members.

Another of these members is South African-born Ronnie Press, a member of the ANC, who was exiled from South Africa in the 1950s and lived in Bristol for some of the 30 years he was away from his homeland. The presence of these two influential characters was key in igniting Bristol’s long-burning commitment to the issue.

The 1964 telegram – an inconspicuous piece of text with great historical context – announcing that Slovo would be speaking at the inaugural anti-apartheid movement meeting in Bristol is on show at the exhibition. Sheila Roberts, Secretary of Bristol ACTSA, she told us why the movement was so strong in the city, There were a lot of very strong-minded people who felt strongly about the apartheid issue.

A turbulent history

Most of us are aware that Bristol’s history of racial equality hasn’t always been so compassionate – the city was a major player in the trans-Atlantic slave trade during the first half of the 18th century. Around the city today there are opulent symbols of the wealth that arrived into the South West on boats used to carry a human cargo – look no further than the grandiose buildings of Queen Square that were funded, in part, by the profits gained from this vile practice.

In acknowledgement of these uneasy reminders of yesteryear, Pero’s Bridge was opened in the city centre in 1999 in remembrance of an African slave called Pero Jones who was bought over from the Caribbean by the infamous plantation owner John Pinney.

Could it be, then, that Bristol’s anti-apartheid activism arose partly as a subconscious effort to atone for this dark period in its history? Probably not, says Dave Spurgeon, chair of Bristol ACTSA. He believes people became involved for very different reasons, ‘The success of the anti-apartheid movement in Bristol was partly because Ronnie Press lived here,’ here says, ‘I wonder actually if it’s the other way round. These guys’ [Bristol’s activists] work set the foundations for public debate in Bristol, rather than building on stuff that was already going on.

Wide-ranging support

From grass-roots activism in the community, to key political figures, Bristol’s involvement in the liberation movement for South Africa has always been varied. Yet many aspects of it had, until now, gone undocumented. ‘Somebody needed to draw all those bits together,’ says Spurgeon, ‘lots of individual stories don’t tell the collective message.’

And so Bristol’s own Forward to Freedom exhibition began to take form. Part of a collaborative project between ACTSA, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and the University of Bristol. One aim of the initiative was to collect community-based accounts of the anti-apartheid movement through Know Your Bristol, a web-based platform used to discover more about local history.

By combining this information with archives garnered by Bristol ACTSA and the wider Forward to Freedom exhibition, Roberts and the team created a new way to look back at Bristol moving forward.

Memories of the past

The exhibition contained documents as eclectic as the action Bristol took. A colourful, illustrated poster for the 1990 Anti-Apartheid Festival showed the connection between Bristol and those suffering under apartheid. It depicts South African women facing a list of festival events, which range from gumboot dancing at a children’s day at St Pauls’ Malcolm X Centre, to a Smith and Mighty gig on Canons Road. And a satirical monochrome Seasons Greetings card from St Pauls Apartheid Free Zone show heavy, bespectacled eyes that couldn’t only belong to South African leader and apartheid supporter P.W Botha, tucking into a Christmas pudding disguised as a bomb.

2014 marked the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s post-apartheid elections, yet there is still more to be done. The wall of oppression may have been knocked down, but there are many pieces left to clear up says Spurgeon, ‘the struggle didn’t finish in 1994, we’re still working on the legacy of apartheid across the whole of southern Africa.

‘Nobody’s doing anything in Swaziland, no one’s doing anything on the impact of silicosis amongst gold miners who worked in the apartheid mines in South Africa,’ he says.

Do more

There are a number of ways to get involved.