The British anti-apartheid movement and political prisoner campaigns, 1973–1980

20 Aug 2010

This article analyses selected Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) activities designed to publicise political prisoners and detainees. The political prisoner campaign was one way in which the AAM highlighted the role of the liberation movements fighting apartheid. It illustrates how the AAM not only played a key part in exposing the immorality of apartheid, but also in popularising the liberation movements, and especially the African National Congress (ANC). All AAM activity broadly supported the liberation movements, informed British public opinion on conditions in South Africa, and aimed to change British government policy. However, certain actions focused more specifically on popularising the liberation movements and specific members in these movements. Political prisoner campaigns showed the difficulties faced by specific people caught up in the South African judicial system and the way in which the South African government used trials and jail sentences to weaken the liberation movements. On the one hand, the AAM attempted to highlight the activity of the liberation movements inside South Africa and the violence of the South African regime. On the other hand, it appealed to international concerns about human rights. The AAM aimed to invert the idea that the liberation movements were primarily responsible for violence through focusing on violence by the regime. Of all the campaigns for individual prisoners, that for Nelson Mandela achieved the highest profile. These campaigns were effective in increasing international criticism of apartheid and provided an opportunity for many concerned about human right to take a stand against apartheid.