by Neil Harris
Last Saturday comrades and friends returned to the historic Marx Memorial Library in London to raise funds for a special film about a very special group of people.
I suppose one of the great struggles of my life was the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa – preserving minority white rule by using great violence over the majority of people in the country.
In 1962 the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), including Nelson Mandela, were imprisoned at the Rivonia trial for life. The underground was effectively broken up and many ANC activists were forced into exile.
Oliver Tambo, Joe Slovo and Yousef Dadoo tasked Ronnie Kasrils to organise underground operations from London to restart the struggle back in South Africa.
To that end, young idealistic white people were recruited from left-wing organisations and trades unions to go to South Africa. There they did some extraordinary things; they posted out letters to thousands of people, distributed leaflets they had smuggled in, set off explosive devises that scattered leaflets over crowds of people in public places, left hidden tape recorders to relay speeches and anti-apartheid messages to the people.
These may have been stunts but they were very dangerous and were widely reported at the time. They kept the flame alive until the underground could reorganise.
And now there has been a book written about The London Recruits, as well as a website and even exhibitions. The recruits have got together (they never knew each other at the time) and there may even be a film.
The evening started with a brief scene-setter from Ronnie Kasrils, who organised everything from a dusty office above Goodge Street in London, and went on to become Deputy Defence Minister and later Minister for Intelligence in the new non-racial South African government.
We also heard from various “London Recruits” in the audience, who described what they did and the effect this had on them. One of them described how he set up tape recorders and amplifiers in South Africa. Another, Ken Keable, recruited from the Young Communist League (YCL), went to Johannesburg to send out 1200 letters and was responsible for putting the book together.
Mary Chamberlain, travelled with her partner as an emigrating, newly married couple, who brought with them 22 tea chests of belongings to set up their new home. Only the chests had false bottoms containing 7000 anti-apartheid pamphlets to be posted out a few at a time.
Kathreen Solahi (formerly Levine) was a young student studying anthropology who had previously made trips to Tanzania. She was sent to Zambia from where she made numerous trips across the border to South Africa, smuggling people and leaflets.
Quietly and without fuss she described making regular trips with cargoes of weapons hidden in a false fuel tank, to be buried or hidden for collection later. These were trips made cross country, where there were no roads in an age before satnavs. They crossed the Zambesi river where on one side was South West Africa, a South African colony, and on the other the white settler state of Rhodesia, which was just as hostile.
She told us how they camped out on the 200 mile journey, in constant fear of breaking down or being discovered.
Because this was serious, “London Recruits” were captured, tortured and imprisoned, even though the majority made it through and back safely.
There were also tales (well known) of exploits carried out by people who weren't in the audience; the setting up of the notorious travel company "Africa Hinterland", which operated safari tours into South Africa for tourists. They were unaware that the specially adapted vehicles contained caches of weapons and ammunition under the floorboards beneath their feet.
There were tales of two volunteers who were captured and imprisoned by the South African authorities and managed to escape by carving out replica keys made of wood in the prison workshop. They just walked out!
It was an incredible evening, a privilege to spend it in the company of a special group of people who made a difference, however small or big.
But this was serious; South Africa was a country divided by race to the extent that on one occasion when an abandoned child was found, it couldn't be admitted to hospital for four days while investigations took place to work out what race it was.
Where a workman was sent to prison for five years for writing “Free Mandela” on his mug at work.
And I suppose the most important weapon that the “London Recruits” were able to use against Apartheid was that they were all white – they were able to turn the authorities prejudices against them.