Plaque marks building where struggle against apartheid was plotted

Friday, 26th February 2010

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Published: 26 February 2010
by PETER GRUNER

IT was a small, unassuming office in an Angel back street yet 30 years ago it posed such a threat to the then South African segregationist regime that they tried to blow it up.

So said High Commissioner for South Africa, Dr Zola Skweyiya, as hundreds gathered for the unveiling on Monday of a green plaque outside the former London headquarters of the African National Congress in Penton Street.

Dr Skweyiya, on behalf of his country, paid tribute to the historical significance of 28 Penton Street, where ANC workers played their part in bringing about the final collapse of an evil system of racial segregation in South Africa.

The former South African minister thanked Islington councils, past and present, for their support of ANC and added: “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.

“To those who worked here we say thank-you for your help in the fight for democracy on behalf of blacks and whites and women and children. Future generations should never forget where they came from and who stood on their side.”

The three-storey office was the headquarters of the ANC between 1978 and 1994. It was there that Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki planned the overthrow of the apartheid regime. But in March 1982 the building survived a terrorist bomb planted by agents working for the South African government

Abdul Bham, a former exiled South African working on research for the ANC, recalled the explosion. Speaking at the ceremony, he said: “I arrived at Penton Street to discover the entire back of the building had been blown out. One of our people was hurt but mercifully it wasn’t a serious injury.
“The bomb went off at 8.30am. An hour later, with many people in the office, there would have been fatalities I’m sure.”

Rather than deter the movement, the bombing merely hardened the ANC’s resolve. Mr Bham added: “We simply worked harder for the cause and became more determined to spread the word about evil apartheid.”
Lord Hughes, president of Action for Southern Africa and chairman of the anti-apartheid movement for 20 years, described the ANC office as a hive of activity. “When you visited you felt there was a genuine sense of urgency and purpose,” he said.

Lib Dem council leader Councillor Terry Stacy said: “It’s hard to believe that these modest offices in an Islington back street were the ANC’s nerve centre in the UK and the momentum behind the most important political change in Africa.

“The ANC’s time in Islington is part of the rich diversity that gives our borough and its people their unique spirit and character. It is something worthy of commemoration and celebration.” Nubian Jak Community Trust, an educational heritage group, organised the plaque ceremony along with the council.

Trust chairman Jak Beula said: “The ANC plaque, coming hot on the heels of the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and just a few months before the World Cup in South Africa, is a timely reminder of those whose commitment to freedom, justice and democracy has contributed to a new South Africa of hope and fulfilled potential.”

Guests at the unveiling included anti-apartheid campaigner Rosemary McDonald and Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry.

The ANC moved out of the Penton Street office when Nelson Mandela became president in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. The anti-apartheid movement was succeeded by charity Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), which remained in the building until 2006.

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