After decades of defiant struggle within the Republic of South Africa and by solidarity movements around the world the hated Apartheid regime was defeated in 1991. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and, in the first democratically held elections, the African National Congress (ANC) swept into power.
How had this come about? The early 1960’s saw the ANC decimated and in disarray. After the capture of many of the leading members of the ANC and their imprisonment following the Rivonia trial in1962 the movement had lost its leadership. The task for the ANC was to regroup and build up the opposition to Apartheid again. Nelson Mandela and other leading members were imprisoned on Robben Island and others that had evaded capture fled into exile with many ending up in Britain.
The Anti-Apartheid (AA) movement in the UK was playing a key part with branches all over the country organising meetings and demonstrations opposing cultural exchanges on the terraces at Twickenham Stadium with vocal chants against the South African Springboks rugby team and in championing the famous Ban South African Goods campaign. The stallholders in Portobello Road would get annoyed with us when we questioned where their fruit had come from.
I remember a torchlight march on Kensington Town Hall to demand that our council withdraw its investments in South Africa. We organised pickets of Barclays banks. In those days Barclays Bank and the Tory Party were seen as the main pillars that supported the Apartheid regime.
By the mid 1960’s the arrival of many South African exiles had strengthened the AA movement and new tactics were being worked out to oppose Apartheid. Ronnie Kasrils, a leading member of the ANC, began to approach people who were sympathetic to the struggle in a bid to turn their sympathy into action. In Africa the movement was preparing for the armed struggle with the setting up of Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation).
This new activity required the upmost secrecy and people recruited did not know who else was involved or what other recruits were doing. This was essential. Two recruits worked together in the same office for ten years and neither knew the other was involved. This was the long silence essential to safeguard fellow operatives. Recruits were trained in various techniques designed to upset the pernicious South African regime and to let black South Africans know that their case was being heard overseas.
We were trained how in various activities including to set up illegal broadcasts in briefing sessions held in secret offices near Charlotte Street in central London and we would test out leaflet bucket bombs in Richmond Park.
The activities of the recruits were varied: as individuals or in pairs we entered South Africa under guise of ‘legitimate’ travel with materials to conduct illegal broadcasts and leaflet bombs These illegal documents might be hid in false bottoms of suitcases or tea chests or in tins of chocolates destined for a phoney relation or friend.
A second group’s job was to set up safe houses for people coming into South Africa or escaping. A third group was running tourist trips in Hinterland Trucks into South Africa with arms hidden under the seats. A fourth group who had special training in the Soviet Union were preparing to bring the ship Aventura for a landing on the coast of South Africa to drop off arms and create secret ammunition dumps which could be accessed by the cause when needed.
My first trip was in 1969. I went to Capetown. People who I have discussed this with have asked me if I scared. Generally I was not but on two occasions I nearly panicked. I was on my own and had just passed through the ticket barrier at Heathrow and was in the departure lounge, when I was approached by a plainclothes man who looked at my passport which recorded me as a youth worker. This had been for the Young Communist League. Before he could speak I said I am finished with all that and I am going to South Africa to get a job and start a new life. He seemed to accept my story and gave me back my passport.
The second time was when I reached South Africa. We had pre-arranged that on arrival I would send a telegram to Ronnie Kasrils saying that I was safely in. I walked into a post office saw an empty counter and went up to it. A uniformed man behind the counter started shouting at me in Afrikaans. I tried to explain but he shouted louder. I didn’t understand what was happening and beat a hasty retreat. Finding another post office I studied it carefully before going in. I realised that my mistake had been to approach the ‘Blacks only’ counter. This time I successfully sent the telegram.
I constructed a couple of leaflet bombs in my hotel room and made up a speaker box for a broadcast. The first leaflet bomb I placed next to a telephone box near the parliament building. I had only gone about 400 yards when it went off. The leaflets rose in a column to a hundred feet and then the wind took them and scattered them around. Immediately people started to pick them up.
Another time I prepared a box with a speaker. When I arrived at Capetown Station I realised it was a perfect location for my next disruptive act. The station had a car park on its roof that stretched along the road where hundreds of black workers walked at home time to get their trains. I set up my makeshift PA system and the press reported that groups of people excitedly listened to the speeches and songs I was able to broadcast to them.
In 1970 I made my second trip. This time it was to Johannesburg and my friend John Simpkins accompanied me. Our taxi driver from the airport took us to a hotel in the market area of town. It looked more like a warehouse. We had told him that we were on a low budget and it suited us. All was good until one evening we noticed the hotel lights had been dimmed and older white men accompanied by youngish black women were coming into the hotel. This was clearly a brothel. Apartheid laws were being broken and we were alarmed that the police might raid the ‘hotel’ so we moved to a new place in the centre of town.
Whilst in Jo’burg we went on a leaflet bomb rampage. We let one off under a motorway construction site. The explosion echoed from under the motorway and made a terrific noise. Our next target was the University of Witwatersrand. We were in luck. A student fair was in progress with stalls outside the Great Hall we placed our device by one of the halls columns. We then drove away for half a mile and waited. We clearly heard the bucket bomb go off!
These are just brief reports of what the recruits were involved in through their actions against Apartheid.
For a fuller report one can get Ken Keable’s book London Recruits, The Secret War Against Apartheid published by the Merlin Press ISBN 978-0-85036-655-6.
For more information please visit http://www.londonrecruits.org.uk