The Power of Protest

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By Coral Abraham, Matt Bennett, Sarah Wilson, Sinead Brennan, Claire Gilbert, Katie Green and Kat Lund- Yates

No matter what they do or how they do it, the student body appears unable to shake off a disruptive and chaotic tag when it comes to protesting.

Last years summer riots and the protests over tuition fees both ended with negative publicity. Despite their original intentions, with regards to the tuition fee demonstrations, students have come out on the wrong side of public opinion.

Thinking as a student with a desire to change this image, does the recent success of Southampton students in their campaign to save The Hobbit pub represent more than just a willingness to keep alive a popular watering hole? Does it not also demonstrate a successful change of tactics, the use of a more appropriate campaign medium that could set the tone for future student public activity?

A campaign that has caught social media by storm, ‘Save the Hobbit’, was a battle to keep open a Southampton pub in hot water after being accused of copyright infringements by Saul Zaentz Company (SZC), the worldwide owners of much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.

Unlike recent high profile student action as mentioned above, ‘Save the Hobbit’ worked through social networking, attracting over 50,000 supporters on its Facebook page and high profile celebrities Stephen Fry and Sir Ian McKellen through Twitter. Instead of tearing the front off the Conservative Headquarters or looting a JD Sports in Woolwich for a pair of trainers, this passive form of protest has brought a Hollywood powerhouse to the negotiating table through word of mouth and support of the underdog. Is passive protest the way forward?

It is vital to make the distinction between what is deemed as ‘passive’ and  ‘active’ when it comes to protesting and our analysis of the two. As shown by the ‘Save The Hobbit’ campaign, passive protest is the raising of awareness; it could also be the use of boycotts. It is using indirect action to force the opposition to sit up and listen. This is unlike active protest that relies on direct action, taking the opposing force by the scruff of the neck, resulting in face-to-face confrontation.

Although the thugs who attacked Millbank Tower in 2010, shouting “die Tory scum”, represent the extreme face of active protest, is there not the possibility that positive aspects of active demonstration could be brought together with passive mediums? Or does active protest fundamentally hinder the effect of passive methods?

Student involvement in the Anti-Apartheid Movement from the late sixties through to the early nineties represented a collaboration of both passive and active methods that aimed to have an impact on an international issue. Can we assess the effectiveness of this combination in the fight against apartheid to discover whether students of today can learn a thing or two from their predecessors?

What is Apartheid?

Apartheid was a system of racial segregation, enforced through legislation by the National Party government of South Africa between 1948 and 1994. Under this regime the rights of the majority non-white inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed and white supremacy and Afrikaner minority rule was maintained.

The anti-Apartheid struggle that emerged worldwide in reaction to this oppression had one of its strongest followings in Britain. Made up of nearly all walks of life, the nation’s student body played an important role in the boycott of South African goods in an attempt to cripple the Apartheid economy. Opposition really began to develop in 1960 after British journalists, who were in South Africa at the time, reported on shootings of 72 peaceful protesters in Sharpeville, a turning point for the entire international community, not just for students.

What part did the students play in the movement and how effective were their efforts?

In terms of passive protest, boycotting South African goods and holding meetings within university buildings to raise awareness ranked highly in student activity. The SUSU Debating Society held regular meetings over the Apartheid issue and current Labour MP, and former-SUSU President, Alan Whitehead commented:

“I remember a time when a debate took place with over 1500 students present. They spilled over from the hall into the gym. Considering there was about 5000 students at the time this was quite commendable.”

The Students’ Union was at the forefront of politicised issues and raising awareness was one of their main tasks. The November 1982 ‘Chocolate Bar Ban’, as it was dubbed by the Daily Echo, was a result of Rowntree Mackintosh’s controversial association with South Africa. The Boycott removed products from shelves in union bars, shops and cafes.

Although consumer boycotts can be limited in scope, their impacts can also be far reaching. Oranges, a common South African export also joined the ‘black list’. Such consumer protests were not strictly limited to the University campus with boycotts and picket lines outside Sainsbury’s in Shirley and Bitterne making front cover news. Police were often present at the scene of such boycotts where petitions were signed by locals to raise awareness of the cause and promote further boycotts. Students were also at the vanguard of the boycott of South African goods when the new supermarket PRESTO opened in Portswood in 1980.

As useful as passive measures were, the students realised themselves that this was not going to be enough. Ron Belgrave, a student at Southampton University in 1985, highlights that more would have to be done if a change was going to be brought about:

“For a long time I have been writing letters but have become aware of their limited effect, so have come round to putting most of my energies into direct action – picketing, blockading, climbing up roofs and hanging banners, being arrested and acts of sabotage. I believe these are the kinds of action that put spanners in the spokes of oppression and get media publicity whereas letters… are too easily fobbed off.”

It is fair to say that Southampton students certainly involved themselves in many forms of active protest, ranging from taking part in the nationwide rugby protests to playing a role in demonstrations in the capital. As Belgrave indicated, active forms of protest have the potential to force the issue onto members of the public and onto the international stage whether they like it or not.

The Springbok’s rugby tour in 1969 is one such example. With several coaches organised by the students union, Southampton sent a considerable number of its students to Twickenham where they joined students from around the country to demonstrate outside the stadium. A few even managed to get hold of tickets and continued the demonstrations inside. What made this form of protest so successful was due to the near-religious status which white South Africans placed on sport, especially rugby. The protest, which was imitated up and down the country, forced the South Africans down a path where they would have to choose between international sport and Apartheid.

It has been demonstrated that students had the ability to make the most of both passive and active forms of protest. However they also displayed the ability to directly combine the two methods. The boycott of Barclays Banks stands alone as the most successful act on the part of British students in the fight against the Apartheid regime.

Barclays Bank protest

Barclays Bank, South Africa’s leading banking institution at the time, had become known during the 1980s as ‘Boerclays bank’. The student faction of the Anti-Apartheid Movement would focus huge efforts on bringing this partnership to an end, and by the time the company pulled out in 1986, its share in the UK student market had dropped from 27 per cent to just 15 per cent. Initiated in the 1960s, the incorporating of passive actions in the form of boycotting Barclay’s student accounts with active measures that included picketing of its high street stores and the ambushing of Barclays AGM’s, the student body manage to inflict a telling blow on the future of the South African apartheid economy. Sir Timothy Bevan, chairman of Barclays, later admitted that while the decision to pull out of the South African market was a commercial one, the pressure exerted against the bank by anti-Apartheid student protesters had a detrimental effect on the bank’s business in other areas.

The devotion to this cause is highlighted by student attempts to raise awareness early on in student life. Leaflets were handed out in the Freshers’ Fair and students were persuaded to open their student accounts elsewhere. There was also the opportunity to ban Barclay’s cheques from campus, but this proved to be too difficult to enforce. Nevertheless, Barclays is the most obvious example of collaboration between active and passive measures.

However students were not limited to economic boycotts, and direct action took place within academic affairs. The involvement of South Africa delegates in the World Archaeological Congress, which was due to be held in Southampton in 1986, was prevented due to the success of students’ protests. A summary by the President of the Congress highlights the importance of students in their ability to not back down when in the face of monetary pressure.

“The University of Southampton Students’ Union, which controls the main accommodation to be used by the congress, made it clear that it would withdraw provision of rooms and services and would further engage in ‘non-violent direct action’ against the congress. These measures alone in our view would have made it impossible to proceed. The total financial loss resulting from such moves would have been at least £100,000 or nearly a quarter of the whole congress budget”

Thus, within their reach, the impact of student determination can be catastrophic to those in league with Apartheid. This is not to say however, that students as a faction were the driving force of such change.

Were students alone successful?

It is important to recognise, as with any large movement, that protests were multi-faceted and involved a variety of organisations. Although students had wide-reaching impacts which were commendable, they were hindered by timing and resources. In comparison, groups such as the Trade Unions, Churches, Political Parties, and the Southampton Anti-Apartheid Group had a much more direct link with such politicised issues. Students alone face criticism of being merely ‘rebellious youths’, even when contentious issues directly affect them, therefore when they collaborate with other organisations they gain significant legitimacy for their cause.

Perhaps then, the success of the ‘Save The Hobbit’ campaign can be heralded as its direct non-violent action, whereas such violence in the London riots was much more detrimental to their cause, and caused negative publicity. Clearly the commitment of students in fighting against South African apartheid is just one controversial issue to protest over. Nonetheless, the action of students at the time highlights how their often overshadowed voice can be just as important as those of major organisations. In a time of change, the lone identity can make a difference, and students are just one faction we should not underestimate.

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Discussion2 Comments

  1. avatar

    Great article, thanks very much. It is good to see that at some point our uni was capable of taking a moral stand point, where as now we need kit kats more than anything, and getting funding for courses from arms companies.

    In terms of direct action, I think that if you want to change something that people in power (fiscally or politically) really care about, you probably will have to resort to more direct action, and this isn’t bad. The suffragettes were arrested for their direct action, but it was clearly worth it! Now-a-days, politicians and bankers alike have shown that they hardly care about the over payment that is made, and the fact that the public opinion is against them. On the other hand, there are few alternatives, so for people to actually get a change they will have to do more… That is probably not the best example, but in short, when people in power really want something, they will get it without direct action. Whereas stopping the Hobbit using a copyrighted name is probably not something they are that fussed about (especially as if anything it is probably good publicity!).

  2. avatar

    I didn’t have time to read the full article but noticed the entries about the apartheid. Brings back good memories. Very good essay, may I say, and I would love to share it on Facebook and read it in full, too.

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