Two letters about the Oxford demonstration in 1964 at the time of the jailing of Mandela. There is also an account of these events in Tariq Ali, Street-Fighting Years (Verso 2005), pp. 102-3.
Letter to Oxford Today, March 1995
I was interested to see the Michaelmas issue of Oxford Today (which has only just reached me) with its front-page picture of Nelson Mandela. It is worth recalling Oxford attitudes thirty years ago.
On 12 June 1964, the day on which Mandela was imprisoned, the then South African Ambassador was invited to speak at the Oxford Union. A number of students, including myself, felt that the appropriate response was to mount a fairly vigorous demonstration against the representative of apartheid. As the Ambassador was leaving, I and others made physical contact with his car.
The response of the University proctors was to place concern for petty regulations before justice in South Africa. A number of students (including Tariq Ali) were victimised by suspension. (One of the proctors was a Mr Bond, who was promptly labelled ‘licensed to kill’.)
These events led to the launching of a campaign for student rights, which was the first stage of a movement that was to reach culmination in 1967 and 1968.
These facts are part of the history of the University, though not of the sanitised version which Oxford Today likes to propagate.
Letter in Socialist Worker 30 October 2007
I was shocked to read that the Oxford Union debating club has invited the fascists Nick Griffin and David Irving to speak (» Students organise to stop fascists , 20 October).
It reminds me of an occasion in 1964 when the same Oxford Union invited the South African ambassador to speak.
This was just after Nelson Mandela was jailed. Today everyone admires Mandela – but back then he was called a “terrorist”.
Students organised a large demonstration against the ambassador. The Oxford Union’s hall was plunged into darkness when a future editor of International Socialism journal removed the fuses.
A “mob” – which I am proud to have been part of – surrounded the ambassador’s car and let the tyres down. I do hope today’s students give Griffin and Irving an equally warm welcome.
Ian Birchall, North London