Clipped wings: David Kitson and his wife Norma return to London in 1984 (Getty)
Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police chief, has warned that the force is facing "the most challenging time in its history" due in part to recent student protests which have forced a reversal of the previous Met policy of regularly reducing the number of police dedicated to such duties. This seems pretty strange to anyone who remembers the scale of CND and anti-Vietnam war protests. But oddly, the greatest cause of all — the one which could have mustered paralysing levels of support — sparked almost no protests.
Perhaps one should begin the story with the death in Johannesburg last November of David Kitson at the age of 91. The obituaries picked out the main points. A keen trade unionist and communist, Kitson had worked as an engineer on the de Havilland Comet in England, returned to South Africa, immersed himself in anti-apartheid politics, quarrelled with the communist leader Joe Slovo, and ended up serving a 20-year prison term for his part in the ANC's armed struggle. "By the end of my term, our warders were young men who hadn't been born when my sentence started," David told me. The Communist Party (the SACP) had ordered all its activists to stay in South Africa but Slovo fled to London where Kitson's wife, Norma, also fetched up. In 1982, Norma decided to stage a permanent protest outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, giving prominence to the fate of David and other prisoners such as Nelson Mandela. To do this, she had to set up her own City of London Anti-Apartheid Committee, for the SACP, which controlled the ANC and through it the Anti-Apartheid Movement, disapproved of the vigil, claiming it was part of a cult of personality. When David, finishing his prison term in 1984, arrived in London, Slovo told him that as Anti-Apartheid's Prisoner of the Year, he must give an address to the AAM in which he should denounce his wife for her breach of discipline. David refused and he and Norma were expelled from the SACP and the ANC, and David lost his post at Ruskin College, Oxford. They remained outcasts from the movement they had sacrificed so much for until their deaths. Almost to a man and woman the Kitsons' comrades and supporters down the years turned their backs on them when the movement told them to do so. The obituaries, written by the few dissidents willing to brave the ANC's wrath, mainly left this terrible story of Stalinist discipline there.
Why was the full ferocity of that discipline brought to bear against the Kitsons? David, I know, thought Slovo felt personally threatened. For David, when he was released, was second only to Mandela in his rank in the armed struggle, and had a previous record of disagreement with Slovo, who may well have feared that David, with his 20-year term behind him, might publicly expose him for having run away against party orders. Certainly, Slovo was always bitterly competitive against other white communists, for he knew that in an essentially African movement there was very limited room for whites in the top leadership, and he was determined to keep that space for himself. One can certainly never rule this motive out: Slovo was as ruthless and unscrupulous an apparatchik as anything the Stasi or KGB produced. To see roads and squatter camps named after him in today's South Africa is like seeing streets and squares named after Beria or Ulbricht.
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