40 years of brave solidarity

Anniversary of the bombing of ANC’s London headquarters in Angel

Friday, 18th March — By Anna Lamche and Megan Morgan

Anti-Apartheid and Penton St bombing

Politicians, activists and students on the roof of Lift Youth hub overlooking 28 Penton Street

SPEECHES, poems and an exhibition marked the 40th anniversary of the bombing of an Angel townhouse, a historic event that brought Islington into focus as a frontier of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Politicians, activists and community members from across the borough gathered at Lift Youth Hub in Angel to commemorate the bombing of 28 Penton Street – a building that served as the London headquarters of the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) from 1978-1994 – with speeches, poems and a “Fighting Apartheid in Islington” exhibition.

The event was organised by Caroline Kamana of Liliesleaf Trust UK, a charity set to transform 28 Penton Street into a “Centre for Memory and Learning” in 2023.

At the time, 28 Penton Street was the nerve centre for coordinating international solidarity against the apartheid regime, a brutal system of institutionalised racial segregation that operated in South Africa from 1948 until the 1990s.

Lord Hain and Suresh Kamath

The bombing took place on the morning of March 14 1982, when Oliver Tambo, leader of the ANC in exile, was set to address a crowd of anti-apartheid protesters in Trafalgar Square.

While no one was killed in the attack, the 11kg of explosives used in the bomb severely damaged the building and shattered windows up to 400 metres away from the site of the blast. The explosion was heard from Stoke Newington.

Years later, nine South African former security policemen admitted to the bombing, although nothing was proven at the time.

“It’s taken for granted now that apartheid was overthrown, but it was a hard struggle,” said Labour peer and anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain in his speech on Tuesday. “We were up against enormous forces.”

At the time, police did little to investigate the explosion.

Anna Njie, director of the Go Africa charity; and Lela Kogbara, director of Black Thrive at the event

“If it had been a bomb from the IRA in the 1970s and during the 1980s, the police would have been down on it, chasing everybody. What did they do about the bombing of the ANC headquarters? Nothing,” he said. “The British State … was turning a blind eye to the dirty work of white South African security police in London.”

Guests were also addressed by Madileke Ramushu of the South African High Commission, who celebrated the High Commission’s relationship with Liliesleaf Trust UK.

“There is no greater gift than to open the eyes of others,” Mr Ramushu said. “President Mandela would have said education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”

Elizabeth Garrett An­der­son school students recited poems reflecting on their personal experiences of oppression. “I was inspired by my experiences and felt a need to share my story,” said Almas Mohamud, one of the young poets.

Young poets Allegresse and Almas

Ms Kamana said: “[The Centre for Memory and Learning] is so important for the now: it couldn’t be more pertinent in today’s context. In the UK, when the impacts of Covid-19 have exposed and intensified structural inequality between communities, when post-Brexit xenophobia is heightened, and the need to clearly state that ‘Black Lives Matter’ remains here and across the globe,” she said.

“When you think about conflicts including Palestine, Syria and Ukraine, they remind us that the struggle for racial equality, for freedom, for peace, justice and democracy is ongoing.

“And if you don’t learn from what has gone before, and see how change can be made possible, how do you direct your pathways for the future? It’s really important for us that we look back in order to look forward,” Ms Kamana said.

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