Islington, London: Ethel de Keyser (1926-2004), Anti-Apartheid Campaigner

Black and white photograph of Ethel de Keyser

Ethel De Keyser Credit: AAM Archives




Islington, London

Apartheid was a system of institutionalised racial segregation giving white citizens a dominant status over non-white citizens of South Africa. When the all-white National Party gained power in South Africa in 1948, it began enforcing policies legislating racial segregation affecting every area of life from social events to marriage, employment and land ownership. 

On March 21 1960, outside a police station in Sharpeville, 69 people were killed by police whilst protesting pass laws that had been introduced to limit the movements of black citizens. The Sharpeville massacre is commemorated as a public holiday in South Africa in honour of human rights.

Ethel de Keyser, a Jewish South African woman, put South African apartheid on the political agenda in Britain. Ethel was born in South Africa and educated in England, becoming a British citizen. She returned to South Africa following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, at which her brother Jack was detained. Ethel joined the anti-apartheid struggle participating in underground activities for the African National Congress (ANC). 

A large crowd of people holding anti-apartheid banners and protest signs gather behind a barrier in Trafalgar Square
Crowds of anti-apartheid protesters gathered in Trafalgar Square, London.
Credit: AAM Archives

Returning to England after Jack’s trial and imprisonment in 1963, Ethel lived in Highbury, Islington. She became secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) at a critical time, with resistance in South Africa crushed after Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were imprisoned. Together with the Stop the Seventy Tour, led by Peter Hain, the AAM campaigned against the 1969-70 Springbok rugby tour and forced the cancellation of a cricket tour in 1971. 

When the UK Government lifted an arms embargo, Ethel campaigned to stop the supply of weapons to South Africa. She helped set up Southern Africa The Imprisoned Society to campaign for the release of political prisoners including Nelson Mandela. 

Ethel became director in 1981 of the British Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa,  established by Canon Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral, which supported political prisoners and their families,. She also helped set up the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa, supporting students committed to achieving social justice. 

Continue your journey,
connect with us

Facebook    Twitter    Instagram    Vimeo