The first time I met Don was at an Indian curry parlor in Brick Lane, London. We each had a plate of Prawn Vindaloo and it was mother-in-law hot. We spent the rest of the evening cooling down on pints of John Courage. The combination of warm beer along with fire-engine red fish curry had a dire effect. But in between refills of the Directors Bitter and trips to the can, Don recruited me to come to America. That was August of 1978. I was twenty-three years of age.
I was then part of a newly formed anti-apartheid organization of white South African War Resisters in the city of London. Don, who lived in Brooklyn, New York, had close ties to the leadership of our group, Terry Shott and Bill Anderson. He was eager to get something similar off the ground in the States. Such an enterprise entailed outreach and publicity à la planting the flag. The idea was that I would come over the Atlantic to help Don, and that we would both embark on a speaking tour across the country, talking about the role of South Africa’s war machine, its backers, and ways to oppose it. My plan was to spend about eight weeks in the U.S. I’m still here. Don could be fairly persuasive.
By the end of September, 1978 I arrived in New York, and soon thereafter Don and I began the great adventure. Suddenly, I was the character in the Johnny Cash song, “I’ve Been Everywhere”. From palaces like the U.N. to ramshackle churches in Sioux City, Iowa, from the lakefront of Chicago, across the prairies of Nebraska, over the Rocky Mountains, through the deserts of the West to the cities stacked along the Pacific Ocean, down through the bayous of the South, we covered the length and breadth of this country, talking up the cause, all in the space of two months. Woody Guthrie would have been proud of us.
My limited knowledge of America then revolved around three avenues, books, films and a jigsaw puzzle I had as a kid, where each piece was a different state. So I was very much in Don’s hands. After all, he had arranged the whole affair. I gotta say, Don had a fair amount of people stashed around the country that he knew…renegade priests, dissident professors, Vietnam veterans, workers organizers, black nationalists, Southern African exiles, journalists, feminists, movement lawyers, student activists, a wealthy benefactor or two, the whole gamut. It was an impressive array, a mini-rainbow nation of leftists and supporters of one stripe or another. We were on the telly and the radio (we were interviewed by the author Studs Terkel in Chicago), we held press conferences, we spoke in town halls and on college campuses, at high school assemblies, in union halls, at church bingo sessions, wherever we could get an audience. Remember, this was prior to the age of faxes, texts, emails and the internet. It was a hell of an organizing job and Don pretty much single handedly pulled it off.
We travelled around in an old four-cylinder Dodge Dart station wagon that had seen better days. The brakes went in Springfield, Massachusetts. We spent three days there mostly in a bowling alley with cheap booze and that’s when Don threw out his back. Finally the old crate died in Montgomery, Alabama. No angel from Montgomery for us. Stuck in Alabama, Don leaned on one of his money people who bailed us out with a Lee Iacocca rental special, a giant boat of car with a name like a Plymouth Behemoth or a Chrysler Man-of-War. We tooled up the eastern seaboard in this state-of-the-art cruiser, stopping off at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina to speak to a student gathering and to catch the second half of a Jimmy Cliff concert at the college union hall. By the beginning of December 1978, we were back in Brooklyn.
I don’t want to dwell on what we were trying to do, but I think the vision deserves a say and a wee tub-thump. I owe this to Don, because he was my primary teacher. We believed that white South Africans had to earn the right to live as equals. The road to humanity lay in us actively refusing to go along with the system of apartheid and all of its impedimenta and by throwing our lot in with the aspirations of the oppressed black majority. Racism in South Africa was a white people’s creation. Therefore whites had a particular responsibility to help undo it. This required more than just repudiating the program and its material benefits, but exploring and enacting ways to undermine it, such as refusing to comply with compulsory army service. The choice might have been clear but it was not without the risks of obvious alienation and punitive retribution from the establishment and its loyalists – either stand with the liberation effort or be condemned to rot on the dung heap of world history, alongside the skeletons and cadavers of good Germans, apologists, opportunists and other assorted bloodsuckers who already littered that stack. The price, though steep, seemed worthwhile, for much was at stake. This was the task confronting whites who called themselves South Africans. We both held this to be true then and, if Don were alive today, we would still both hold it to be true. This position not only applies to South Africa but to any society that is riddled with racism and the inequality of white skin privilege.
Now back to the yarn. Don then went to work on me to stay in America. He didn’t need the rack, the thumbscrews or the lash because, in my own head, I had already signed on. Like Lou Reed sang, “I wanted to play football for the coach.” Thus began the long march, the great trek, the grind and drama of building what we hoped would become an effective deterrent to the forces of darkness. There were too many adventures to explain here, but once on this road, there was no going back. It was a bit like living out an old Eric Ambler political thriller, either “Journey Into Fear” or “Background to Danger,” those late 1930s novels set in pre-war Europe that reeked of peril and intrigue. We worked with communists (real or imaginary), radicals (real or imaginary) and revolutionaries (real or imaginary). We befriended sympathetic journalists, and were courted by phony South African ones who were Bureau of State Security (BOSS) agents. We even had our own organization infiltrated by a South African Police informer, who went public on his return to South Africa. It was high-jinx of the thunder and lightning variety. We made lots of mistakes, but we had some successes and tried to do the right thing. It wasn’t always a bed of roses, but neither was it always a bed of nails. It was the struggle. Above all, we remained a thorn in the side of the regime. In retrospect, I have few regrets.
Don was a heavy hitter and he pulled off some important coups. He originally leaked the Frankfurt documents, the paper trail that exposed illegal secret bank loans to the South African government. This resulted in the formation of a group called ELTSA (End Loans to South Africa), a prominent and influential London based organization back in the day. The founder and main mover and shaker of that outfit (he is now a decorated MBE in the U.K.) has attested to Don’s role in this affair. Don also obtained vital information about illegal fuel shipments through the ports of Mozambique by rail and tanker trucks to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in contravention of the oil embargo, and he supplied the investigative journalists the necessary dope to lay bare this cover-up. These British writers were awarded for this exposé. Both Don and I testified at the United Nations on the role of foreign mercenaries in Rhodesia, Angola and Namibia, fighting to maintain white supremacist rule. That’s when we made some definitely nasty enemies in places like Boulder, Colorado (headquarters of the Soldier of Fortune magazine, the mercenary recruitment rag).
Don also spoke out at the U.N. about South Africa’s covert quest and attainment of nuclear weapons. This kind of work was significant, and it seriously messed with the Boers’ war effort and duplicitous international public relations campaign. Don was a confidant of Breyten Breytenbach, the formerly imprisoned Afrikaner author. In fact, Don and Breyten were in the same clandestine group of white South African rebels named Okhela (the Zulu word for “spark”), which was before my time with him. These were no small feats. He needs to be remembered for them.
The American songwriter Bruce Springsteen once said that in every town and on every block there are angels and there are rotters. Don was one of the angels, in fact a larger than life angel. The side of the street that he walked on was the sunny one, or at least he tried to make it sunny. This too should never be forgotten.
Mike Morgan served a year in the apartheid military in South Africa, then left and became a founding member of a war resister anti-apartheid group in the USA, SAMRAF, and Brooklynites Against Apartheid. He is a founding editor of Lurch Magazine, and has published extensively on Smokebox.