London Recruits tells an inspiring story from the struggle against South African apartheid.
It’s the story of 60 London-based activists. They were students and young workers in the International Socialists (IS)—the Socialist Workers’ Party’s forerunner—and Young Communist League (YCL).
These young women and men entered South Africa in November 1969.
They were carrying suitcases with false bottoms, full of leaflets urging resistance to the racist regime.
Once detonated, their bucket-type leaflet bombs would release thousands of leaflets into the air.
The “bombs” were set off in urban black areas, near black workplaces or at railway stations during rush hour.
For YCL member Sean Hosey it was a “unique and brief opportunity to assist the struggle when it was needed”.
The world was catching fire in the late 1960s. The Civil Rights and antiwar movements were on the march in the US. In May 1968, French students fought riot police and workers staged the biggest general strike in human history.
“As young people of a socialist persuasion at the time, we had great expectations in changing the world,” Sean told Socialist Worker. “South Africa was a key issue.”
But the situation inside South Africa was very different. Sean explained, “Our contribution was at a time when South Africa’s security apparatus was at a high point and resistance at a low point.”
This repression climaxed with the Rivonia trial of 1963-64 that imprisoned ten African National Congress (ANC) leaders, including Nelson Mandela. But a few escaped to London and began reviving underground resistance.
Ronnie Kasrils, a leading ANC and Communist Party member, was a key figure among London exiles.
In the 2012 book London Recruits Ronnie describes how the leaflet bombs were activated in November 1969, August 1970 and August 1971 in South Africa’s biggest cities.
George Paizis was a student activist at the London School of Economics (LSE). “In 1969 I arrived in Johannesburg with my double bottom suitcase,” he told Socialist Worker. “It was packed with letters for ANC contacts.”
George explained how he carried out his mission. “I was staying with my uncle, a former Communist guerrilla, who’d had fled to South Africa to avoid capture,” he said.
“He had discovered my ripped up suitcase, questioned me and quietly offered to take the case for disposal somewhere safe.
“I soon posted them and returned home.”
In 1970 Mike Milotte and John Rose, IS activists at the LSE, travelled to South Africa posing as wealthy tourists.
They hired a car and drove to a Durban marketplace, with buckets ticking loudly on the back seat. A group of armed plain-clothed cops stopped them.
When one pointed to the brown paper bags containing the buckets, Mike thought the game was up.
But John brought his elbow down on to the policeman’s forearm. In an imperious voice he said, “We’re British tourists.”
Being white tourists was enough to elicit a humble apology from the policeman. They primed the “bombs” and drove off.
On returning to London, they learned from Ronnie that their mission had been a complete success.
John participated in a second mission—another success.
In 1971 London recruit Mary Chamberlain’s then boyfriend, Carey Harrison, was approached by an old Cambridge friend, Katherine Levine.
The plan was for them to “immigrate” with their “household effects” packed in old tea chests with false bottoms containing ANC and Communist literature.
They married and sailed for South Africa in 1972 and rented a flat in Cape Town.
In the following days, they packed over 5,000 packages of literature and stamped and posted them from every post box in Cape Town. They left immediately afterwards.
That mission remains Mary’s proudest achievement.
Sean was not so lucky. On his second mission to South Africa, he was tasked with delivering documents to ANC comrades in Durban.
But a trap had been laid. He was caught, tortured, tried and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
By the mid 1970s the liberation movement had recovered. And the following decade an international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign raised solidarity to a new level.
But it was arguably built on the foundations the London recruits had established.
The days of the apartheid regime were numbered.
Ken Keable, a YCL London recruit and editor of London Recruits, told Socialist Worker, “I’m very glad the film is being made—it’s an inspirational story.
“But nor was it just a moral cause. Britain had a financial stake in supporting the racist regime.
“Anti-racism and international solidarity against capitalism are both highly relevant in today’s world.”