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.

May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
Nicolas J S Davies
Escalating U.S. Air Strikes Kill Hundreds of Civilians in Mosul, Iraq
Binoy Kampmark
Class, Football, and Blame: the Hillsborough Disaster Inquest
George Wuerthner
The Economic Value of Yellowstone National Park
Rivera Sun
Celebrating Mother Jones
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir and Postcolonialism
Mairead Maguire
Drop the Just War Theory
Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail