Camden remembered as anti-apartheid ‘battleground’ as borough mourns Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela unveils a plaque at the former home of anti-apartheid campaigners Ruth First and Joe

Nelson Mandela unveils a plaque at the former home of anti-apartheid campaigners Ruth First and Joe Slovo (2003). Picture: PA/Kirsty Wigglesworth - Credit: Archant

The death of Nelson Mandela held added significance for the many exiles, campaigners and political figures living in Camden who joined the anti-apartheid struggle.

As a borough twinned with a village in Botswana, it is no coincidence that the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AMM) grew from its streets.

The group’s first meetings – held in the basement of the North Gower Street surgery of David Pitt (later Lord Pitt of Hampstead) – saw members formulating a campaign against racial discrimination amid arson attacks and intimidation from right-wing opponents.

Cllr Julian Fulbrook, a lifelong member of the AMM, remembers how Camden became a crucible of the political battle in South Africa.

“Many refugees came here, initially because of its university, but then later as it established itself as an exile community,” he said.

“Everyone had their own reasons for supporting the anti-apartheid movement but mine was partly down to growing up in West Africa.

“Many black African males around Angola and the Congo – where I grew up – were made to work effectively as slaves by European ruling classes.

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“Holes were drilled through their lips and padlocks fastened to their mouths so they couldn’t eat without returning to their ‘masters’.

“As a child, I came across many who were facially disfigured, having resorted to ripping the padlocks out in desperation.

“It’s an image of the brutality of discrimination that will stay with me forever.”

As stories like Cllr Fulbrook’s spread through Camden and the rest of the country, the AMM gathered pace.

Moving to a number of different locations through the borough, it finally settled in the then Selous Street in Camden Town.

Though named after the artist Henry Selous, Camden Council voted to change the name to Mandela Street in 1983 to avoid confusion with Frederick Selous – a British explorer who helped Cecil Rhodes colonise Rhodesia.

“It was undeniably a bold statement,” said Tony Dykes, director of Action for South Africa (formerly the AMM).

“This was a London council agreeing to rename a street after someone who was still imprisoned and labelled a terrorist by our own government.

“But Camden has a proud history of activism and thousands of residents fought side-by-side with anti-apartheid campaigners.”

With the council also a founding member of the Local Authorities Against Apartheid group, Camden’s message of support to Mr Mandela did not go unnoticed.

Six weeks after his release from prison in 1990, he was walking the streets of Camden to thank supporters.

In 2003, he returned to unveil a plaque outside the former home of anti-apartheid campaigners Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who lived in Lyme Street between 1966 and 1978.