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Margaret Thatcher and ‘Constructive Engagement’: Buying into Apartheid

22 Apr

(Un)constructive Engagement

Over the next few months I will publish a series of posts on anti-apartheid grassroots activism in South Africa and Europe from 1978-91. If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll probably guess that the anti-apartheid and antiracist organization, Boycott Outspan Action, will figure somehow. But for now I’d like to introduce the series with a discussion on what was in many ways the counter-position to these forms of activism; the policy of ‘constructive engagement’. And through implementing this policy, I show how a historiography of Margaret Thatcher’s war on trade unions and labour movements might be extended from the UK to South Africa. By steadfastly adhering to ‘constructive engagement’, Thatcher actively pursued an influential international agenda of undermining South African trade unionism and supporting racial oppression and subjugation.  Anti-apartheid activists across Europe and the USA were incensed by this vote of confidence from various governments and multinationals for apartheid, and they were quick to hone in on capitalist motives. In Holland, Boycott Outspan Action’s lawyer, Willem van Manen, took no prisoners in satirizing Thatcher’s rather compromised position in ‘constructive engagement’:

'Constructive Engagement'. Van Manen 1988. Courtesy of du Plessis

‘Constructive Engagement’. Van Manen 1988. Courtesy of Boycott Outspan Action

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Anti-Saccharite Cultures iv) Radical Food as a Matter of Taste

27 Sep

“The links between First World “taste” and Third World suffering are understood by the producing nations and it has become evident that increasingly their destiny has become, in effect, a secondary effect of shifts in First World consumption patterns” (Daniel Miller 1995:3).

“Oh ye who at your ease sip the blood-sweetn’d beverage”(Southey, 1797)

Integral to the slave sugar boycott were changing ideas about food consumption. The blood-sugar topos (the ‘guilt trope’ and idea that sweetened drinks of tea, coffee and chocolate could suddenly become nauseating as they were linked to the blood of slaves) is considered by Timothy Morton to have been part of a wider culture of radical food. The guilt and horror of eating human flesh by association was supplemented by an increasing sympathy for bodies in pain. According to Thomas Laquer (1990) an intensified public sympathy for bodies in pain percolated society through scientific discourse.  Biological evidence of maladies and suffering derived from rigorous attempts at objective autopsy reports and in the ‘realistic’ documentation and depiction of the body and its organs.

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Anti-Saccharite Cultures iii) Networks and Contentious Politics

27 Sep

In this third post on anti-saccharite cultures I’d like to bring attention to the sugar boycott as the prototype for performing contentious politics and for a range of social movements.

“Contentious politics refers to concerted, counter hegemonic social and political action, in which differently positioned participants come together to challenge dominant systems of authority, in order to promote or enact alternative imaginaries”

(Leitner et al., 2007: 1).

Failure of parliamentary politics

The slave sugar boycott became the key tactic to pressurize government policy on the slave trade after the failure of petitioning tactics and parliamentary pressure used by abolitionists in 1787-90. Social movement and contentious politics theory suggest that the closure of lines of communication between groups and governments is fundamental to the development of a political movement. Littler (2005), Brown (2006) and Micheletti (2003) have declared the slave produced sugar abstinence campaign of 1792 as the original prototype for Western popularised political activism; that in its conception, planning, implications and escalation of ideas into activism it became a blueprint for other forms of political protest and ethical consumption over the ensuing centuries. The video clip below is of the Manchester petition against the slave trade from 1806. Although dated over a decade after the anti-saccharite boycott, the petition gives a good impression of the scale of this new, extra-parliamentary politics.


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Esau du Plessis, Boykot Outspan Aktie

23 Jul

Esau du Plessis, Boykot Outspan Aktie

In conversation with Esau du Plessis, the former leader of the
Leiden based anti-apartheid and anti-racist organization, Boycott Outspan Action.

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