FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The ANC’s “London Recruits”

by JEFF KLEIN

There was a reunion of sorts in South Africa last month.

A group of white-haired visitors, mostly Brits with a scattering of other nationalities, were gathered at the University of Johannesburg along with veteran leaders of the African National Congress, former underground anti-Apartheid activists, students, faculty and administrators.  It was a genteel affair, with cocktails and canapés at the posh Council Chambers of the University’s Kingsway campus, but the atmosphere was as far as imaginable from the times and events that were being recalled.

The foreigners had once directly aided the resistance to Apartheid, often at great personal risk to themselves; their host was Ronnie Kasrils, one-time underground “terrorist” within South Africa, later a leader of the ANC’s armed wing, Unkhonto we Sizwe (MK).  For most of them it was their first visit to free South Africa.

Nearly everyone knows about the South African mass movement and the ANC that, with significant international support, finally brought down the Apartheid system after 1990.  Sanctions, boycotts, diplomatic pressure and isolation of the South African government played an important role in defeating the racist regime.  But another story went on behind the scenes, in secret, which has never been told in detail before and has remained largely unknown.  This was the direct participation over the years of international volunteers in the in the fight against Apartheid under the direction of the ANC, facing off against the ruthless South African security forces.

The event in Johannesburg celebrated the publication of a new collective memoire LONDON RECRUITS: The Secret War Against Apartheid (London: Merlin, 2012) which recounts some of that untold history.

In the mid-1960’s the internal resistance to Apartheid had been largely crushed and dispersed.  The ANC and the SACP had been banned some years before, and after the Rivonia raids many of the movement leaders who had gone underground to begin the armed struggle were arrested and jailed.  This was when Nelson Mandela began his long prison term on Robben Island.  Others had managed to escape abroad but had lost contact with surviving internal anti-Apartheid activists.

It was during this period of weakness and isolation of the South African resistance that Kasrils and others who had found refuge in the UK began to recruit volunteers who could use the cover of their foreign passports and white skin to smuggle ANC and Communist literature into the country.  The scale was small but inventive methods carried out largely by the internationals kept the flame of resistance and knowledge of the ANC alive in South Africa until the movement took on new life in the mid-1970’s.

For example. the London recruits used false-bottom suitcases to smuggle ANC and SACP literature into the country.  Some of these leaflets were circulated within South African through the post; others were scattered in busy public streets using ingenious “leaflet bombs” – shopping bags full of literature propelled by small time-delayed explosive charges.  ANC banners were unfurled over public buildings in the downtowns; tape-recorded messages from exiled ANC leaders were broadcast from loud speakers.

The volunteers were drawn largely from the British working class movement — the CP and other leftist groups, the trade unions — and student contacts at the London School of Economics where Kasrils and other ANC activists were enrolled; eventually they included  participants from Ireland, the Netherlands, the US and other countries as well.  The spirit of radical optimism and revolutionary fervor that was widespread among young people and workers in the late 1960’s meant there was no shortage of willing recruits.  “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” – as Wordsworth remembered about an earlier revolutionary time.

But this was also very dangerous work, as the volunteers understood.  In 1972 several of them were captured and tortured by the South African security forces, then sentenced to long prison terms.

Some of the veteran internationals, including Ken Keable, the editor of the book, recalled their own experiences at the Johannesburg meeting; others told their stories in chapters they wrote for LONDON RECRUITS. The visitors also brought along one of the surviving smuggler’s suitcases, which they donated to the Rivonia Museum of the South African resistance.

After the Soweto uprising in 1976, the internal and external movements gained a momentum which enabled them to challenge the Apartheid regime more directly.  The ANC rebuilt its underground network within the country and its armed forces outside. Foreigners were no longer needed for propaganda missions, but they did continue to aid the struggle in other clandestine ways, again at great personal risk.

International volunteers contributed by helping to set up secure communications networks or safe houses for ANC agents and armed fighters in the frontline states and inside South Africa;  others smuggled arms into the country for the MK’s internal fighters.  Some of this is retold in the later chapters of LONDON RECRUITS and in the book’s introduction by Kasrils.  Memoires of this aspect of struggle, which was little known even within South Africa, have also begun to appear in recent years

It’s a story idealism and internationalism well worth remembering.  And that spirit is alive today also, as Kasrils, Tutu and other anti-Apartheid veterans, having achieving their own county’s liberation, now work with unstinting dedication in the cause of Palestinian freedom.

Jeff Klein worked for the ANC at its headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia between 1987 and 1990.  He recently visited South Africa for the first time.

Jeff Klein is a writer and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region.  An earlier version of this piece, with illustrations, can be found in his occasional blog: “At a Slight Angle to the Universe.” He can be reached at jjk123@comcast.net.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail