London is getting the UK’s first anti-apartheid museum

If you walked past 28 Penton Street today you’d hardly notice it: just an unobtrusive shopfront on an ordinary Islington street. But between 1978 and 1994, this building played a pivotal role in the international movement for freedom in South Africa, and the strategic decisions made within its walls rippled all over the world.

It was the headquarters of the exiled African National Congress, who used it as a base to plan anti-apartheid activism against South Africa’s brutally repressive regime, which enforced racial segregation and put all the power into the hands of a white minority.

At the time, London was a safe haven for people escaping oppressive countries all over the world, thanks to a government that was willing to offer them refuge. And Londoners rallied round this centre for anti-apartheid activism, taking part in boycotts of South African products and protests against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s support for the apartheid regime.

Still, working at 28 Penton Street didn’t come without dangers. In 1982, the building was bombed by eight South African policemen who’d smuggled explosives into the country, as part of a programme of attacks against international activists. Luckily, the building was mostly empty that day, so only one person was injured and the centre lived on. 

But after South Africa’s apartheid regime crumbled in 1994, its role came to an end. Today, it’s been derelict for a decade, with only a blue plaque marking its pivotal role in world history.

Still, plans are afoot to change all that. A charity called Liliesleaf Trust is working to turn the building into a centre for anti-apartheid history, and has received a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant of £1.2 million towards the £3 million project. Support has also come from The Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund: you can donate to the fundraising campaign here.

The proposed centre will have a permanent exhibition exploring the history of the anti-apartheid movement, as well as a school outreach programme and heritage-based activities. It’ll be a welcome centre for Black history in London, and a reminder of the pivotal role this city played in helping liberate South Africa nearly three decades ago.

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