In 1967 a little-known chapter in the history of the anti-apartheid movement began. Radical students from London universities, mostly socialists, travelled to South Africa to take part in illegal activities against the regime.
This is the subject of London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, a new book from Merlin Press edited by Ken Keable.
It draws together the stories of 35 students recruited by Ronnie Kasrils. He was a leading South African Communist Party activist and founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC).
Kasrils led the recruitment campaign in response to a brutal crackdown by the South African regime in the early 1960s.
Among Kasril’s recruits were several members of the International Socialists (IS), the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party. They worked alongside members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and others.
IS student activist John Rose was part of the first wave of recruits to launch specially designed “bucket leaflet bombs” across South African cities. He and his companions distributed thousands of leaflets to black workers during rush hour.
Katherine Levine, John’s cousin, was recruited while on a research trip to Tanzania. She ended up smuggling weapons and documents to ANC fighters across numerous borders and over a number of years.
The racism of the system enabled the students to operate undetected—the South African police force never suspected white tourists.
George Paizis writes with humour about delivering propaganda material from London to South Africa in false-bottomed suitcases—and accidentally involving his uncle Costas.
Some of the London recruits were active into the 1980s, a time when levels of state repression in South Africa had escalated. This is brought home in Sean Hosey’s sobering tale of his capture and imprisonment. He witnessed executions and torture.
All the stories are united by their humble approach. The authors don’t glorify their activities or elevate them to more than what they were—small but significant acts in a much larger battle. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly black South Africans, were part of that battle.
The lack of sectarianism is also refreshing. The student recruits were drawn largely from Trotskyist and Stalinist organisations that were traditionally at loggerheads.
As a South African student, I joined the remains of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1990s without much knowledge about the early days of resistance.
I was enthralled to discover how global struggles inspired students to throw themselves into battling apartheid at the heart of the beast.
London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid edited by Ken Keable is published by Merlin Press. Ronnie Kasrils, John Rose and Ken Keable will be speaking about the book at this year’s Marxism festival on Saturday 7 July. For details go to marxismfestival.org.uk