Anti-Apartheid: a history of the movement in Britain

Roger Fieldhouse <em>Merlin Press, 546pp, £20

The trouble with single-issue pressure groups is that if they lose, people feel they have wasted their energies, and if they win, no one can ever prove that victory would not have happened anyway. Politicians are not the type to give organisations credit for changing their minds, even if that is what they did.

Anti-apartheid won. It was an unequivocal victory, the sort which makes you feel that political activity may have a point after all. But Harold Macmillan's "wind of change" speech to the South African parliament in February 1960, rejecting "the idea of any inherent superiority of one race over another", is remembered as the moment at which the tectonic plates began to shift. Few people remember that the Anti-Apartheid Movement was founded the following month.

So we cannot say exactly what place the British anti-apartheid campaign has in history. Yet it has one, if only because it reminded successive governments that many people considered it unacceptable to maintain a friendly relationship with a state that, by statute, reserved votes and good jobs for people of one race. Its story is worth telling, both as a matter of historical record and because it is inspiring.

This book serves the first of those two purposes admirably but the second barely at all. In more than 500 densely packed pages, Fieldhouse tells the story of anti-apartheid in relentless detail. Hardly an organisation that endorsed the movement's aims escapes his attention. Yet even though this is a topic that could offer hundreds of compelling images, both from Britain and South Africa, the book contains no pictures. And there is little colour. Time and again I found myself musing: "That sounds like an interesting man. I wonder what he was like."

Occasionally, the narrative features someone I know - for example, Mike Terry, who was the movement's executive secretary for two decades. I searched in vain for a glimpse of the personality of this large, gentle, rather wise and thoughtful man who, when apartheid at last fell, turned down the jet-setting diplomatic jobs that he was offered and instead retrained, in his fifties, to become a science teacher in secondary schools.

On the other hand, Fieldhouse provides all the facts that the serious student needs, and does so in clear, careful, concise, considered English. He presents complicated information as simply as possible. The book is big partly because you could not fit all the information into fewer pages. And it begins with a straight- forward description of the growth of apartheid in South Africa and how it worked in practice. His spare, unemotional style enables you to see clearly the system's brutality and the suffering it caused.

Nor does he sanitise the less attractive parts of the story. Tennyson Makiwane's hard work for the cause is chronicled, but we also learn of the dispute in which he fell foul of a majority in the African National Congress and became a prominent member of a dissident faction. However, it is typical of Fieldhouse's style that the allegation that Makiwane "was also recruited as a South African spy" and was "hunted down and murdered by an ANC unit in 1980" is dealt with only in parentheses. Fieldhouse makes no comment on the truth or otherwise of the allegation, presumably because he does not know for certain. I know a black South African who spent three years in prison with Nelson Mandela before fleeing to London, and who was then alleged to be a spy for the South African government. The quite false rumour was started by a man who really was a spy. One of the jobs of spies is to sow distrust among the ranks of the enemy.

The British security services had their spies inside the movement, looking for evidence that it was seething with communists. Fieldhouse makes no bones about the debt the movement owed to the British Communist Party, about how it relied both on its skills and experience at organisation and its extensive contacts in the trade unions. However, this bought the Communist Party neither control of policy nor an enhanced public role in the campaign - something that leading communists found galling. Yet for the most part, they grumblingly accepted their role as foot soldiers - unlike the Trotskyist sect that, in the manner of sectarian groups from the 1930s to the 1980s, denounced the campaign's staff as "fascist collaborators" and devoted its own energies to taking over the movement.

After 34 years in adult education, Fieldhouse devoted the first six years of his retirement to Anti-Apartheid. It will surely be the first reference book those with a serious interest in the subject turn to. Next, perhaps, we can have a shorter book offering colour as well as pictures to show us what it all looked like.

Francis Beckett's most recent book, written with David Hencke, is The Blairs and Their Court (Aurum Press)