On 26 June 1959, South African Freedom Day, a group of South African exiles and their British supporters met in London under the umbrella of the Committee of African Organisations to organize a boycott of goods imported from South Africa. The meeting was addressed by Julius Nyerere, then President of the Tanganyika Africa National Union, and Father Trevor Huddleston and was held in response to a call from the African National Congress (ANC) and the All-African Peoples Conference for an international boycott of South African goods. By the autumn of 1959 the group had evolved into an independent Boycott Movement led by Tennyson Makiwane of the ANC and Patrick van Rensburg of the South African Liberal Party. The group decided to call for a national boycott month in March 1960 as a moral gesture of support for the people of South Africa and gradually won the support of the British Labour and Liberal Parties and the Trades Union Congress.
The month of action began with a rally of 8,000 people in Trafalgar Square on 28 February addressed by the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe and Trevor Huddleston. During the month many local authorities joined the boycott and over five hundred local boycott committees were established all over the country. Leaflets were distributed describing life under apartheid for the black population and three editions of a newspaper, Boycott News, were published. On 21 March the South African police opened fire on men, women and children protesting against the pass laws at Sharpeville in the Transvaal, killing sixty-nine. These shootings, when British-made Saracen tanks had been used, led to strong international protests and, in London, to another rally in Trafalgar Square and demands for the termination of British arms supplies to South Africa. In South Africa itself a state of emergency was declared and the ANC and the recently formed Pan African Congress were banned and went underground. The members of the Boycott Movement realised that a permanent organisation was needed to campaign for the eradication of apartheid and during the summer of 1960 the Movement was restructured and renamed the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). It resolved to work for the total isolation of the apartheid system in South Africa and to support those struggling against the apartheid system.
The AAM drew its support from a country-wide network of local anti-apartheid groups, some of which had previously been local boycott committees, from individual members and from affiliated organisations such as trades union councils and constituency political parties. Professional and special interest groups arose which worked with the AAM as did Local Authorities Against Apartheid to co-ordinate local authority action. The AAM co-operated with similar anti-apartheid groups which existed in many countries around the world, exchanging information and meeting at international conferences. During the 1980s groups in Europe formed the Liaison Group of National AAMs in the European Community in order to lobby the European Parliament and Council of Ministers.
The Executive and National Committees of the AAM were established in 1960 and remained the main management committees of the Movement throughout its existence. The Executive Committee consisted of elected members, generally met monthly and was the main decision-making body. The National Committee consisted of thirty elected members and representatives of both groups and affiliated organizations and met five or six times a year. The Officers of the AAM met between Executive Committee meetings and discussed staffing matters and some sensitive policy issues. Minutes were rarely taken and few papers survive from the officers' meetings. From 1962 there were Annual General Meetings for which annual reports, accounts and other documents were prepared and when policy was decided by vote of the participants. Over the years the AAM had several other committees, some short-lived, to work on specific issues. The most important of these were the Black Solidarity, Health, Multi-Faith, Trade Union, Women's and Youth Committees.
The AAM's campaigning work covered a wide range of areas. The consumer boycott remained a constant element but other economic campaigns became equally prominent, particularly ones concerning investment in South Africa by British and international companies and banks. In the area of economic campaigns the AAM collaborated closely with End Loans to Southern Africa (ELTSA) for which see the ELTSA archive at the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House (MSS Afr. s. 2350). The efforts to isolate apartheid South Africa were pursued through lobbying for boycotts of sporting, cultural and academic contacts and for the cessation of military and nuclear links. Campaigning on behalf of political prisoners was an important area of work, organised during the 1960s through the World Campaign for the Release of South African Political Prisoners and later through SATIS (Southern Africa: the Imprisoned Society). Campaigning on behalf of Nelson Mandela began at the Rivonia trial and was reinvigorated from the time of his 60th birthday in 1978 until his release in February 1990.
The AAM's work did not focus solely on South Africa but also on the Southern African region in which South Africa had so much influence. It supported the struggles for freedom in Namibia, Zimbabwe and the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique and, in West Africa, Guinea-Bissau. In this the AAM co-operated with African liberation movements, particularly the ANC and the South West African Peoples' Organisation (SWAPO of Namibia).
Following the first democratic elections in South Africa in April 1994 an extraordinary general meeting of the AAM decided to dissolve the Movement and create a successor organisation to promote peace and development in the Southern African region. Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) was launched in October 1994. The final meeting of the AAM Executive Committee decided to establish an AAM Archives Committee to support the cataloguing of the Movement's archives.