Britain’s Secret Anti-Apartheid Militants

“Britain’s Secret Anti-Apartheid Militants”

By Marcus Barnett
20.02.2024

For the first time, a new film reveals how at the height of the apartheid regime’s power, South African revolutionaries recruited and trained young British workers to assist them in the underground armed struggle to topple the racist state.

At an East London cinema last summer, several dozen people in their late sixties and early seventies took to the stage. After being beckoned forwards by the compere, the veteran South African revolutionary Ronnie Kasrils, the shying group of mostly retirees received repeated standing ovations from loved ones, politicians, and diplomats filling out the private screening. Afterwards, they chatted at the cinema bar and signed pamphlets and books, while their proud children and grandchildren took selfies with the actors who had portrayed their family members in the film they had just enjoyed.

The film in question was London Recruits, Gordon Main’s docudrama about the British people who played an active role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. From smuggling literature and weaponry to assembling, planting, and detonating ‘leaflet-bombs’, these volunteers — who were mostly white, working-class young people — played a massive role in the development of the struggle of the African National Congress (ANC) for national liberation. Indeed, Nelson Mandela made a reference to their actions in a 1991 speech, where he paid tribute to those Western volunteers who ‘risked life and limb to contribute directly in our struggle’, and in doing so ‘acted in the best traditions of democratic internationalism’.

Though the stories of these volunteers sound romantic in retrospect, the impetus for their recruitment was borne of desperation. By the late 1960s, the national liberation struggle was in a situation of profound difficulty; much of its core leadership was narrowly spared the death sentence in favour of life imprisonment during the Rivonia Trials, and the Gestapo-like South African police had seen to it that most of the movement’s fighters were killed, jailed, or exiled.

In this period, Ronnie Kasrils — a commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or, commonly, MK), the ANC’s armed wing, who fled South Africa with the police snapping at his heels — had enrolled at the London School of Economics. As a ‘student’, Kasrils worked with a degree of cover in London, and it was there that he convinced the ANC’s remaining leadership that as the South African security services had penetrated the movement so successfully, ‘practical assistance’ from the strong anti-apartheid movement could aid them in their struggle.

From here, Kasrils went to Jack Woddis — a leading communist and dedicated anti- colonial figure in Britain — who then addressed the ANC’s request to Bob Allen, the London district secretary of the Young Communist League (YCL). Born to a communist father, Allen had been active in the labour movement since he was fifteen, and by his early twenties had been known in Nottingham for organising a bicycle-buying campaign for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF), and for hoisting the NLF’s flag over Nottingham City Hall, a stunt which made front-page news.

The commencing of new responsibilities was a lot to take in for Allen, who is at pains to emphasise to Tribune that he was just a ‘back-room boy’. ‘I swallowed very hard — thought, bloody hell,’ he says, ‘and started thinking about people who would be up for it.’ His job was to identify people, whose skin colour would act as a disguise, to go into South Africa to move money, pass on messages, re-establish underground networks, and undertake ‘propaganda activities’. The process of recruitment was straightforward: Allen would approach people who, in his words, would be up for ‘doing something that’s a bit …’ If people seemed receptive, a meeting with Kasrils was arranged.

One of Allen’s recruits was Steve Marsling. A postal worker from Elephant and Castle, South London, Marsling was well-versed in shop-floor politics. But that wasn’t the only thing that shaped him; he was a keen participant in protests against the Vietnam War and apartheid South Africa, which disgusted him. ‘It seemed to me to be the most appalling human condition,’ he told Tribune. ‘They had people telling you who you could fall in love with and who you couldn’t, what bench you could sit on, what hotel you could stay in. I found it grotesque.’ At a meeting with Kasrils in a pub, things were explained clearly.

Ronnie told me: look, the situation is that most of our people are either murdered, jailed, or exiled. The apartheid leadership is crowing that they’ll rule for 1,000 years, that the ANC is extinct. We’ve got to prove this is not the case.

Kasrils was unsparing in making clear the potential for things to go awry. He said, ‘If you get caught, you’ll be tortured. You’ll be kept in solitary confinement for at least six months. You’ll be probably put in prison for a minimum of five years.’

Despite this, Marsling quickly agreed, and got in touch with his friend Sean Hosey. An Irishman by birth, whose family had moved to Coventry a decade earlier for work in the city’s sprawling car factories, Hosey’s life in the YCL had already been something of a ‘whirlwind experience’. But even for the YCL, this felt ‘a little fantastical, to be honest’, he tells Tribune. ‘My first response to Steve was — are you joking mate?’ But still, leaping at the chance, he agreed; in August 1971, they both set off for Cape Town with false-bottomed suitcases packed with explosives and resistance literature.

Under strict orders to ‘behave normally’, they got through security, assembled their bombs in hotels, and detonated them in transport hubs and in front of the parliament — the last target being their own idea, not organisational orders. After getting to a safe distance, they heard boom boom: the bombs had gone off. Marsling recalls watching the reaction: ‘The African workers were scared at first,’ he admits. ‘But when they realised it was the ANC, they were roaring with happiness.’ So were the exiled ANC members, who were ‘ecstatic’ about the mission making headline news.

Marsling and Hosey were not the only volunteers. Kasrils had organised for other volunteers to set off leaflet-bombs across the country’s cities, reminding those suffering under apartheid that the movement was not dead. The missions with other volunteers continued, and around eighteen months after their first operation, Marsling received another call from Kasrils, asking him to drop off vital paperwork for an ANC underground cell. Since Marsling had just entered teacher training college, Hosey was sent instead.

However, catastrophe struck. Unbeknownst to the movement, the South African police had successfully infiltrated the cell, and Hosey walked into a trap when meeting an ANC member who had turned informant. With the modesty typical of the volunteers, he tells Tribune that ‘my Irish luck ran out’. His friend Marsling puts it more bluntly:

Sean was beaten to a pulp, shown his own grave, and [had] a pistol put to his head. He was tortured and told he could have his freedom if he denounced the ANC. He told them to fuck off and got five years.

Despite interventions from the Labour Party, the Irish government, and United Nations figureheads, Hosey was sent to Pretoria Central Prison; after eight months in solitary confinement, he joined the likes of Denis Goldberg and fellow international prisoner Alex Moumbaris. Alongside the singing by condemned black prisoners awaiting hanging, a major memory of time inside was the ‘calculated torture’ of news deprivation. ‘There was no radio, no writing, nothing. I remember landing a football magazine so I could track the scores six weeks behind everyone else and there’d even be censorship in that.’ Eventually he received vital news of back home from union leaders Jack Jones and Vic Feather, who unexpectedly visited after applying successful pressure on the authorities.

For those outside, the secrecy had its own psychological effect; Steve Marsling spent years as a Labour councillor and trade unionist without anyone ever becoming aware of what he did, while Bob Allen describes being finally able to explain his role to his wife after the fall of apartheid as a ‘tremendous relief’. But a 2012 book of volunteers’ reminiscences stoked widespread interest, as did the 2018 documentary Nae Pasaran!, which brought the British labour movement’s recent contributions to international solidarity to national attention.

What do the London recruits hope that viewers will get out of London Recruits? Hosey hopes that ‘[The film will serve as] a historical reminder of apartheid, and how … I mean, none of us would claim any input whatsoever into the end of apartheid,’ warmly claiming that the acknowledgements from figures like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo are ‘generous’.

But the words of Ronnie Kasrils are somewhat at odds with Hosey’s aforementioned modesty. At the private screening, he smoothly contextualised their legacy, describing the ‘massive’ role they played. ‘These volunteers served the anti-apartheid cause at its weakest point, when things were truly hard.’

The risks and sacrifices undertaken by the London recruits, Kasrils said, were what helped sustain the movement in a period of great pressure and helped to establish new foundations after for a new period of struggle: ‘[A]nd it was on the foundations that these people built that the movement which defeated the beast of apartheid in South Africa was able to grow.’

This article is from Tribune and is republished under a creative commons license.

To find out more about the film, please visit the film’s official website: www.londonrecuits.com

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