In two days which teetered between the sublime and the ridiculous, six Northern Transvaal activists recently released from detention this week took refuge at the British Embassy in Pretoria – only to leave a day later. The British made it clear from the start that they were not welcome and would not allow them beyond the embassy reception foyer.
The activists – all former detainees who had had tough restriction orders slapped on them when they were released – arrived at 11.30 on Wednesday morning and left at about 3pm on Thursday afternoon. They demanded the release of all political prisoners and the lifting of all emergency restrictions on activists. Although their demands were not met, they remained defiant. Congress of SA Trade Unions Northern Transvaal secretary Donsie Khumalo, Construction and Allied Workers Union administrator Grace Dube, Mamelodi Youth Organisation secretary Michael Seloane, Mamelodi Youth Congress executive member Selebogo Mabena, SA Youth Congress executive member Ignatius Jacobs and Pretoria Council of Churches acting secretary Sandy Lebese said on their departure from the embassy that they intended defying the restrictions imposed on them by Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok.
At a press conference on Thursday, mass democratic movement leaders expressed "deep concern" at the British government's handling of the issue, and endorsed the call for the release of all political prisoners and the lifting of restrictions on ex-detainees. And in a statement, the National Union of Mineworkers said the embassy's ''shocking and inhuman" treatment of the six "confirms our long-held view that apartheid oppression is fully supported by the British government".
However, lawyers and democratic leaders privately expressed embarrassment at the actions of the six, and complained that there had been no consultation on the protest. One lawyer told the Weekly Mail that the action of the six "was like moving into the embassy and demanding that they be given their driver's licence". Relatives of some of the activists said the gesture was planned to coincide with British Premier Margaret Thatcher's African tour, and reflected a hope that she would be pressurized into intervening on behalf of emergency detainees.
However, the six at no Stage penetrated beyond the ambassadorial foyer – and certainly not beyond the first layer of diplomatic skin. John Sawyers, first secretary at the embassy, said: "It was made clear to the six that they could not stay in the embassy building and that we could only make effective representations on their behalf once they had left the embassy." He said the British position on detention without trial was "well known" and that the embassy would continue to make its views on detention and restriction orders known to the South African government.
The ambassador, Sir Robin Renwick, was in Cape Town and unavailable for comment, but according to Sawyers, all decisions were taken in consultation with London. However, in a clear attempt to force the activists to leave the embassy, the embassy officials extended them no hospitality whatever. At about 4pm on Wednesday, one of the six emerged from the embassy building, approached the more than two-metre-high gates, and passed through the bars the activists' demands – and a request for chips, cokes, bread, painkillers and toilet paper … Ivor Powell and Thandeka Gqubule.
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.