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Solidarity through boycott: The posters of the Anti-Apartheid Movement 30 years on

Written by Kasturi Pindar, Bodleian Libraries intern, Summer 2023

Content warning: some of the posters shown in this blog post contain images of violence that may be upsetting.

Thirty years ago, between 26-29 April 1994, the first democratic elections of South Africa were held. These elections followed a decades-long struggle against apartheid that saw protests, uprisings, relentless campaigning, and international condemnation and boycotts. The global anti-apartheid movement was one of the largest social movements to ever exist, with campaigning taking place in countries around the world. In Britain, the movement began in 1959 as the Boycott Movement, encouraging British consumers to boycott South African goods. March 1960 saw the movement run a ‘boycott month’ with the backing of the Labour Party, the Liberal Party and the Trades Union Congress.

On March 21st 1960, 69 people were killed and 180 were injured after police opened fire on people protesting apartheid pass laws outside a police station in the Black township of Sharpeville, in southern Transvaal. In the period of unrest following the Sharpeville massacre, the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned and went underground, whilst in Britain, the Boycott Movement transformed itself into the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The new Anti-Apartheid Movement no longer focused solely on boycotting South African goods, but called for the complete isolation of apartheid South Africa. Nonetheless, the use of boycotting would remain an important tactic, and was particularly revived in the 1980s.

The archive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), held in the Bodleian Libraries’ Special Collections, contains a large number of posters produced by the AAM between 1963 and 1994, demonstrating the broad uses of boycotts: of consumer goods, South African sports, and organisations with large operations in South Africa, significantly Barclays and Shell. The AAM deployed a number of tactics in order to attract public attention, inform the public about how apartheid segregated, oppressed and exploited Black South Africans, and what could be done to support the movement. Posters were an important method of public communication for the AAM, and demonstrate some of the messaging used by the campaign group.

Many posters used bold lettering and simple, eye-catching colours. In many posters, just two or three colours were used. The Anti-Apartheid Movement logo—the letters ‘A’ and ‘A’ printed black on white and white on black on the yin and yang—featured on all of their posters. This poster, from around 1976, with white text on a black background demonstrates the use of simple, eye-catching design with a clear message.

MSS. AAM 2512/1/9

The poster below is similar in its simplicity: black and white with a short, clear message. This was produced for the Boycott Apartheid 89 campaign, which called for ‘people’s sanctions’ in response to Margaret Thatcher’s undermining of international sanctions in the mid-1980s. The image of men on a military jeep was used in many materials from this campaign, from posters and brochures, to badges and t-shirts. It also featured on the boycott bandwagon, a converted double decker bus that toured Britain as a travelling exhibition and video cinema. In the poster, the image of the jeep contrasts sharply with the men making a clenched fist salute, a symbol associated with political solidarity, revolutionary social movements, and Black power. In black and white, these two simple images make an impactful statement and effectively convey the struggle for justice against forces of oppression.

MSS. AAM 2512/1/75

Other posters, such as this ‘Look before you buy’ poster from 1977 used more complex images and colour to convey direct instructions to consumers. In the poster, common South African goods, such as tins of pilchards sold by Del Monte and Puffin are highlighted as products to avoid. On some of the packaging labels, images of the 1976 Soweto uprising are superimposed. One image shows schoolboy Zolilie Hector Pieterson being carried by activist Mbuyisa Makhubo, having been shot and killed at age 12 during the uprising. The photograph was taken by Sam Nzima one year prior to the poster’s creation and was a widely-circulated, influential image. Looking at this poster, the viewer begins to associate South African produce with images depicting the violence enacted by apartheid.

MSS. AAM 2512/1/21

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