Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Zambian Students did their bit Against Apartheid

On the way into town from the airport in Lusaka, the taxi driver told me that there had recently been large protests in the city about the high prices of essential goods, fuel in particular.  It seems—as is often the case in many parts of the world in relation to many different causes—that university students were at the forefront of these protests.

This was by no means the first time that students in Zambia had taken to the streets in protest, but it reminded me of a file I ran across in January which described what must have been amongst the earliest of student protests in Zambia.  The year was 1970, and the cause in question was material support from the British government for the apartheid government in South Africa. 

Its rhetoric of inclusion aside, the British government (particularly under Tory administrations) was a strong supporter of the National Government, and nowhere was that support more evident than in the provision of military supplies, technology, and know-how.  By the early 1980s this support was well-documented*, and eventually the British and the U.S. governments (forced by a Congress which overrode Ronald Reagan’s veto) abandoned their conciliatory approach to South Africa and adopted firm sanctions. 

But in the 1960s and ‘70s, the British government became the target of ire from opponents of apartheid.  Zambians were supportive of the African National Congress (the largest political party working to undermine the South African government, which has governed the country since the end of apartheid in 1994), and were dismayed when, just a month after the Tory Party’s June election victory, the British government began discussing renewed arms sales to South Africa (so extraordinary were the emotions over the arming of the apartheid government, that the Zambian government went so far as to mull the expulsion of Britain from the Commonwealth!).**

The British Foreign Secretary met with the Zambian High Commissioner in London to express his desire that the Zambian police safeguard his own country’s High Commission in Lusaka in the face of impending protests by the Zambian Youth Service.  While the High Commissioner reassured Alec Douglas-Home, he also chastised the British government, turning its own rhetoric back on the Foreign Secretary when he remarked that Zambia was committed to multi-racialism, and cited former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous “Winds of Change” speech.**

On 21 and 24 July, Zambian students descended on the British High Commission in Lusaka.  President Kaunda sent the police to secure the outskirts of the Embassy, but they were initially too few, and demonstrators tore down the Union Jack, egged on by a district governor who remarked that “he too ‘would have thrown his stone’ had he been there”.***  Once they marshalled their forces, the police responded brutally, using tear gas and batons on students who were undeterred in spite of urgings from the Vice Chancellor of the University that they “go home”.***

Students delivered a petition, which accused the British government of embracing policies “directed to minimize and reduce the freedom of the black people and peace loving people in Africa, invoking the spirit of Enoch Powell in the UK.  “What ever their reasons may be”, its authors cautioned, “Britain knows fully well that these arms are going to be used against the armed struggle to liberate countries south of the Zambezi”.***

In the crowd itself, students waved militant signs, some of them analytic, others mocking, still more vituperative: “British voters: are you murderers like Heath?”; “Arms on the Doorsteps of Zambia”; “Britain is Africa’s Enemy, Heath an Imperialist”; “Down with toothless bulldog”; “Keep Zambia tidy, away with British duty personnel”; “HEATH rethink or else”; “UNZASU long march against imperialist, treacherous British sale of oppressive arms to South Africa”; “British High Commissioner go back, it’s tea time!”***

In the short term, it would take far more than the protests of Zambian students to halt the profitable arms trade to South Africa embraced by British and American Republican governments.  But in the coming decade and a half, the Zambian students would be joined by their counterparts on other continents, including those at UC Berkeley, whose struggle to force the Regents of the University to California to divest is movingly documented in the film Soweto to Berkeley.

The political consciousness in Zambia which was sharpened by years of anti-colonial struggle did not fade after independence, but was instead reapplied to the struggle in southern Africa to end the pernicious form of colonialism represented by apartheid.   

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* This support is particularly well-documented in Fitzsimons, Pat.  Arms for Apartheid: British Military Collaboration with South Africa.  London: Christian Concern for Southern Africa, 1981.
** The National Archives (UK).  DO 161/300.  Expulsion from the Commonwealth.
***The National Archives (UK).  FCO 45/587.  Demonstration at British High Commission in Lusaka Against Policy of HMG on Arms Sales to South Africa. 

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