Refugee Week

ANC Print Shop

Apartheid was official policy of institutional racism and segregation in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. It was a system designed to disempower black South Africans and ensure the white population remained in power. In the face of brutal repression, marginalised South Africans and their supporters fought against the apartheid regime, backed by people from all over the world. Many people in Islington joined the fight. They took part in demonstrations, boycotted South African goods, went undercover in South Africa and campaigned for political prisoners to be released. Islington was home to the African National Congress (ANC) London headquarters between 1978-1994, forming a base for actions around the country, and the ANC’s print shop in Islington at 1 Mackenzie Road would provide a space to print materials promoting the Anti-Apartheid cause.

Stop 4: ANC Print Shop, 1 MacKenzie Rd, N7 8QZ

Following the 1948 election, the ANC joined the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress and the white Congress of Democrats to fight apartheid. The ANC Youth League began a ‘Programme of Action’ employing boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience. In 1955 many of those opposed to apartheid created the ‘Freedom Charter’ – a vision for a multi-racial South Africa. Some black South Africans broke away to form the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). The South African apartheid government responded with the five-year long Treason Trials. On 21 March 1960 the PAC organised a demonstration in Sharpeville Township against the pass laws, which controlled movement of black South Africans. The police opened fire on the crowds, killing 69 people. The government declared a state of emergency, arrested 18,000 people and banned the PAC and the ANC, forcing the organisations underground and initiating an armed struggle. In 1963 ANC leaders were arrested at their secret headquarters in Rivonia. Eight were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage. Over the next two decades the South African apartheid government responded to activism with the brutal repression of its population, and the detention and torture of political activists.

The injustice of the apartheid system led to growing anger all over the world. South African exiles in London brought stories of apartheid to the British public. This included Sylvester Stein, who was editor of DRUM, a magazine fighting for the rights of black South Africans. As the South African government brutally cracked down on dissent, Stein escaped to Islington in 1957.

Fighting Apartheid in Islington. Copyright Morning Star, Courtesy Marx Memorial Library, London

Islington Anti-Apartheid Group was one of many local campaign groups in Britain, supported by the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) head office. Campaigners promoted the boycott of South African goods in supermarkets and targeted companies which supported apartheid. The Islington AAM group held fundraising benefits, raised awareness and collected funds for the fight against apartheid. The City of London AAM group was formed in 1982 and led by Norma Kitson, a South African exile who lived in Islington. From 1986 they ran a four-year non-stop picket outside the South African Embassy protesting against the apartheid regime and for the release of political prisoners.

Islington Council sticker, 1985

Islington Council formed its first Race Relations Committee in 1979 and began its long connection with anti-apartheid groups. In 1983 it was one of the founding members of the Local Authorities Against Apartheid (LAAA) campaign, adopting charters to disinvest from South Africa and providing support in-kind to the movement; However, from 1986 restrictions on ‘political actions’ by local authorities were brought in by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher limiting future LAAA actions.

The ANC London headquarters was located at 28 Penton Street, Islington from 1978 to 1994. It formed a base for actions around the country under the leadership of Oliver Tambo. Tambo was born 1917 in Bizana, South Africa. After receiving an education at mission schools, he attended the University of Fort Hare where he received a Bachelor of Science in 1941 and subsequently studied law. Along with Nelson Mandela, Tambo was a cofounder of the ANC Youth League in 1944. Briefly teaching in Johannesburg, Tambo then threw himself wholeheartedly into nationalist politics and law, opening South Africa’s first black law practice with Mandela in 1952. In 1958 he became ANC deputy president.

Acting President Oliver Tambo (left) at a reception held by the AAM on 13 June 1977 during the Commonwealth Conference held in London. Copyright © 1977 Andrew Wiard,

As a result of the South African government’s outlawing of the ANC after the Sharpeville massacre, Tambo left to set up the ANC’s foreign headquarters. He would spend more than 30 years in exile (1960–90), located predominantly in Lusaka, Zambia and in London during this time. Under his leadership young, white, non-South African men and women who could enter South Africa without suspicion were recruited to the ANC cause. Many ‘London Recruits’ were enlisted by Ronnie Kasrils from the Young Communist League, and the London School of Economics. Islington was the home of several of the recruits, although due to strict secrecy they were not aware of each other at the time. The recruits travelled to South Africa, smuggling in letters and weapons, unfurled banners and undertook reconnaissance keeping the fight against apartheid alive. In summer 1970, London Recruits converged on five cities in South Africa, a cassette player broadcasting ANC speeches and freedom songs whilst they simultaneously detonated leaflet bombs, blasting ANC leaflets into the air.

Leaflets were an important way of educating and communicating with the masses on the struggle against apartheid. The ANC print shop at 1 Mackenzie Road, Islington was where the ANC materials were printed in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but also where the ANC Media Committee would meet to discuss press campaigns countering South African claims and to gather support in Britain for the anti-apartheid struggles. Such campaigns included the boycotts, fund-raising and sanctions.

Leaflet for meeting at Islington’s West Library, 1984. Image courtesy of AAM Archive, Bodleian Library

During the 1980s the South African apartheid government targeted anti-apartheid activists with burglary, arson and bombs. The most significant action in Britain happened on 14 March 1982 when a bomb was detonated at the Islington ANC headquarters. An ANC march had been organised for that day, and the bomb may have been intended for Tambo who often held early-morning briefings. An ANC researcher, asleep in the building, was injured and nearby buildings had their windows blown out. Most felt the South African state was involved in the attack and in 1999 nine South African security policemen admitted to the attack during an amnesty hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Pretoria.

By the 1980s South Africa was increasingly isolated. Resistance was growing in South Africa, while anti-apartheid activists across the world put pressure on the regime and their own governments. Calls for the release of Nelson Mandela grew louder and culminated in a concert at Wembley Stadium for his 70th birthday and the 1988 Freedom Rally in Hyde Park which started from Finsbury Park. By the end of the decade the position of the South African government was untenable. In 1990 the ban on the ANC, PAC and South African Communist Party was lifted. Oliver Tambo was able to return to South Africa and Mandela was released after serving 27 years in prison. Islington was one of 42 local councils which declared on his release: ‘The elimination of apartheid is a responsibility of all citizens and their representatives, wherever they may live’.  In 1994 Nelson Mandela became President in South Africa’s first democratic election.

Upon Mandela’s election, the ANC moved out of Penton Street in 1994 and the LAAA movement transformed into ‘Action on Southern Africa’, continuing to provide support for previously marginalised South Africans from Penton Street until 2006. Islington Council supported initiatives such as Denis Goldberg’s ‘A Book and Ten Pence’ campaign, with the launch took place at Islington Town Hall. ‘A Book and Ten Pence’ was a drive that saw almost two million second-hand children’s books and tenpences sent to the black townships in South Africa, encouraging literacy and growth in amongst those who had been cruelly sidelined for decades.

“During the difficult years in the run-up to liberation we could always contact the office in Penton Street and find out how the struggle was being seen internationally”

High Commissioner for South Africa Dr Skweyiya at Penton Street’s plaque unveiling

With thanks to the Marx Memorial Library and AAM Archives for their contribution to this article.

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

Refugee Week

The Keskidee Centre

The Keskidee Centre was envisioned by Oscar Abrams, a Guyanese architect and cultural activist, in the 1970’s. A centre providing educational, social and cultural activities for a disadvantaged and primarily West Indian community in the borough of Islington, the Keskidee provided a thriving space for Afro-Carribean arts and theatre to flourish in Islington. This was the first dedicated arts centre in Britain for the black community and would continue to be an important hub for African and Afro-Caribbean politics and arts well into the 1980’s.

Keskidee Centre, 64 Gifford Street, N1 0DP

In 1948 the British Nationality Act was enacted, conferring British nationality to all citizens within the Commonwealth and Colonies, and enabling them to work and settle in Britain with their families. Britain needed people to help rebuild the country after the Second World War and to assist with labour shortages in the transport system, postal service and the newly formed National Health Service. Many Britons from the former colonies within the West Indies, including Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, were invited to come Britain.

Between 1948 and 1970 many thousands left their homes in the West Indies to live and work in Britain. There were a variety of reasons behind this migration. Many people were seeking new opportunities for themselves and their families and were attracted by the prospects in what was frequently referred to as ‘the mother land’. Some were looking to settle permanently in Britain, others to work in Britain for a while, save money and return home. Many were returning soldiers from the West Indies who had fought for Britain during the Second World War.

In 1948 just under 500 people arrived from the West Indies. This number rose significantly year-on-year, and by 1972 300,000 West Indians had settled permanently in the United Kingdom. This wave of arrivals has been labelled the Windrush Generation, referencing the ship MV Windrush which carried the first Caribbean workers to Britain in 1948. These migrants were not always warmly welcomed by Britons and were frequently discriminated against. Black Britons often found it hard to secure housing and find employment, despite a national shortage of workers. Available housing tended to be low quality and found in poorer inner-city areas.

Throughout the 1950s right wing parties and politicians such as Sir Oswald Mosely, the former leader of the British Union of Fascists, exploited the growing resentment against black Britons.  The summer of 1958 saw an increase of violent attacks against Black people, culminating in riots in Notting Hill, which had a large Caribbean community, as well as the city of Nottingham. In 1959, a Caribbean Carnival was held in Notting Hill in response to the riots and the general mood of race relations in Britain at the time. This event was the precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival which has grown to become Europe’s largest street festival. Bowing to growing public pressure, the British government restricted immigration by enacting the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 and by 1972 only people with parents or grandparents born in Britain could permanently reside in Britain, effectively curbing immigration from the West Indies.  By 1972, 172,000 people from the Caribbean, an entire generation, had permanently settled in Britain and were contributing across all sectors of society.

To meet the needs of the growing Caribbean population in London, a community and cultural centre was created. The Keskidee Centre project was the vision of Guyanese-born architect and cultural activist Oscar Winston Abrams (1937 – 1996). Abrams arrived in Britain in 1958, later becoming Chair of the Islington branch of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, which fought for better housing and education for newly arrived black Britons. Abrams wanted to provide both self-help and cultural activities for the local West Indian community under one roof.

Oscar Abrams, 1990’s

In 1971, Abrams bought the former Gifford Mission Hall on Gifford Street, close to Caledonian Park, for £9,000. Later that year it was formally recognised as the Keskidee Centre, named after a bird native to Abram’s homeland. The centre was to provide a unique and hugely influential cultural and political environment throughout the 1970’s and the early 1980’s. The Centre’s motto was ‘A community discovering itself creates its own future.’

The Keskidee Centre, 1975

The Keskidee quickly became a thriving cultural venue and, for many years, it was the only place to experience Caribbean theatre in London. The centre also offered legal advice and practical classes on literacy and typing, yoga and cookery, as well as photography, painting and pottery. During the building’s early days, the location proved a drawback. Many people unable to find it. Additionally, actor and director Yvonne Brewster remembers, “there was the train line that ran behind it. So during performances sometimes you had incredible competition from iron wheels.” Oscar Abrams said he was “full of joy” when the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), which wanted to increase the recognition of West Indian art forms within British society, approached him to use the Keskidee for its own events. He knew John La Rose, one of CAM’s founder members, and strongly believed that the centre would be enriched by hosting the movement’s activities.

Music, art and poetry all played a vital role in attracting young black people to the centre.  African and reggae roots music found a spiritual home at the building and provided many young black people with their first experience of live music. Up and coming bands such as Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse played to an eager audience and in 1978, world famous Jamaican musician Bob Marley used the centre to make a video for his song Is this love? featuring a a young Naomi Campbell who took part along with other children. The Centre also held regular dances and discos.

The Keskidee Theatre Workshop was a full-time pioneering drama company totally dedicated to black theatre. Directors such as Rufus Collins and Howard Johnson, playwrights Lennox Lewis, Derek Walcott and Edgar White, and actors like Yvonne Brewster, Anton Phillips and T-Bone Wilson all contributed to the centre’s creative process. Backstage technicians were selected from the black community, including one of the Caribbean’s leading theatre designers, Henry Muttoo. Equally ground-breaking was the Keskidee Community Theatre Workshops, which concentrated on developing work directly influenced by the experiences of the black community within contemporary Britain.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, who created dub poetry at the Keskidee, was also its first paid library resources and education officer. His poem Voices of the living and the dead was staged at the centre and produced by Jamaican novelist Lindsay Barrett, with music by Rasta Love reggae group, “it was fantastic, you know, having written something and having it staged with actors and musicians. That was back in 1973 before I had a poem published anywhere. That was before anyone had ever heard of Linton Kwesi Johnson.”

Linton Kwesi Johnson performing his poem Tings, written in 1991.

The Keskidee addressed the needs of local youth and gave a generation of black teenagers a space of their own.  Abrams wrote, “…teenagers respond drastically to anything they call their own.  The Keskidee Centre aims to be their place.” This was echoed by a Keskidee youth who experienced life at the centre during the 1970s, “for this area I think it was good, you know, not just the centre but as a young black guy growing up because when you’re young you ain’t got a lot of self-direction. It helped me to grow anyway.”

The centre also provided a forum for political discussion. It facilitated speakers from Grenada, Uganda and Zimbabwe, who often lectured about colonialism, national liberation and the evils of imperialism. Linton Kwesi Johnson remembers the leaders of the main political gangs in Jamaica coming to meet Bob Marley at the Keskidee to persuade him to go back to Jamaica to perform at a peace concert.

Keskidee Carnival flyer, 1974

By the late-1970s, the Keskidee’s reputation reached distant shores, resulting in theatre tours of Europe and the cross-cultural Keskidee Aroha tour of New Zealand in 1979, where the company met and performed to remote Maori communities. During this period, the Keskidee Theatre Workshop was also selected to represent Britain at the New York Lincoln Center Fringe Festival. These overseas tours were a timely reminder of just how far the Keskidee had come in its short existence.

The Keskidee Centre reached its peak in the mid-1970s, but by the early-1980 it had fallen into decay.  Diminishing funding and the pressure of combining so many activities under one roof led to crippling debts and, consequently, its demise; the costly 1979 tour of New Zealand was later identified by Abrams as the origin of the centre’s financial difficulties. By the late-1980s, the centre attempted to reinvent itself as a theatre crafts training centre for black youths; However, by 1992, the venture had proven to have only a marginal reach and closed. The property subsequently sold off. 

Site of the previous Keskidee Centre after a fire ravaged the building in 2012

The former mission hall came full circle and reverted back to religious use, housing the Christ Apostolic Church and the Power-Age Christian College. A green heritage plaque was unveiled at the church on the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Keskidee Centre by David Lammy MP and former resident artist Emmanel Jegede. Sadly on 8 March 2012, a devastating fire broke out and ravaged the building, raising it to the ground.  The site remains empty today, however its legacy lives on. In 1987 Abrams said, “the most outstanding achievement for me personally is the consciousness the Keskidee brought to the black community and groups that subsequently became interested in the arts.” This remains a fitting epitaph to his, and the Keskidee Centre’s, inspirational legacy and the critical role it played in Britain’s recent social history. 

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.