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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.