A New Documentary Explores the Anti-Apartheid Activists in South Africa You Never Learned About

A new film project explores a long-forgotten chapter in the global struggle against apartheid.

Peter Cole January 13, 2016

Norman Lucas, one of the "London recruits."

The 50-year strug­gle against apartheid — arguably the great­est glob­al social move­ment of the 20th cen­tu­ry — end­ed only about two decades ago, and his­to­ri­ans and jour­nal­ists are still pars­ing its lessons and sto­ries. One of the many, near­ly unknown sto­ries of the anti-apartheid move­ment involves a white South African, a Lon­don-based exile who recruit­ed dozens of young white Euro­peans and one North Amer­i­can to join the cause. Risk­ing their lives, these Lon­don Recruits” trav­eled to South Africa where they det­o­nat­ed leaflet bombs” with inspi­ra­tional mes­sages in an effort to bring hope to the black mass­es in a place and time where resis­tance seemed futile.

They simply posed as people—tourists, business people or potential settlers—who liked the idea of Apartheid and wanted to see it for themselves.

Direc­tor Gor­don Main and pro­duc­ers James Bar­rett and Peter Edwards are at work on a doc­u­men­tary film depict­ing this fas­ci­nat­ing and noble sto­ry, based upon Ken Keable’s 2012 book Lon­don Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid. Him­self one such recruit,” Keable helped shine a light on this sto­ry that had long been secret — most of the par­tic­i­pants did not know each oth­er. Bare­foot Ras­cals, the feisty Welsh film com­pa­ny that Main helps run, has — apro­pos the sto­ry — turned to the mass­es to help crowd­fund this sto­ry for the screen. If this doc­u­men­tary dra­ma” is any­thing like the trail­er avail­able on its web­site, it will be like Search­ing for Sug­ar­man meets The Cove.

In 1960, South Africa had rough­ly 16 mil­lion peo­ple, with few­er than 20 per­cent being white or Euro­pean,” as they fre­quent­ly called them­selves, though most had lived in South Africa for a few gen­er­a­tions. About 70 per­cent belonged to var­i­ous African eth­nic groups, includ­ing Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana and Sotho. Anoth­er 9 per­cent were des­ig­nat­ed Coloureds,” peo­ple of mixed race ances­try, with the rest being Asians,” large­ly Indi­ans brought to South Africa by the British, essen­tial­ly as inden­tured servants.

Despite these demo­graph­ics, white South Africans had dom­i­nat­ed the coun­try for cen­turies and enjoyed a high­er stan­dard of liv­ing, on aver­age, than peo­ple in the Unit­ed States or West­ern Europe. If ever one want­ed to under­stand racial­ized cap­i­tal­ism, South Africa was the place: The white minor­i­ty were rich pre­cise­ly because the non-white major­i­ty were poor. To main­tain their priv­i­leges and pow­er, and just a few years after the defeat of Nazi Ger­many, South Africa insti­tut­ed apartheid.

Ronald Ron­nie” Kas­rils was a white man born in Johan­nes­burg, South Africa, the grand­son of Jew­ish immi­grants, who became a leader in the anti-apartheid strug­gle. In the ear­ly 1960s he joined Umkhon­to we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation in the isiZu­lu lan­guage), an off­shoot of the African Nation­al Con­gress (ANC), and soon became the MK Com­man­der in Natal province. By 1964, the move­ment inside the coun­try had been crushed; to escape, Kas­rils went into exile.

In 1965, Oliv­er Tam­bo, the Pres­i­dent of the ANC who was then based in Zam­bia, had just begun to build a glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment. Their aim was to pres­sure the white minor­i­ty gov­ern­ment in South Africa to aban­don apartheid. Their only recourse: take the strug­gle out­side of South Africa to over­throw apartheid inside of it.

Tam­bo dis­patched Kas­rils to Lon­don, a city with long and deep con­nec­tions to South Africa due to cen­turies of impe­ri­al­ism and migra­tion. Along with a few oth­er exiles, Kasril’s task was to recruit white men and women to join the move­ment. He found some at the left-lean­ing Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, but most came from the Young Com­mu­nist League, which agreed to select suit­able mem­bers (most­ly work­ers) to pass on to him. 

After mod­est train­ing, from 1967 through 1971, teams of two flew to South Africa with fake-bot­tomed suit­cas­es con­tain­ing anti-apartheid pro­pa­gan­da and explo­sives. Tam­bo was cor­rect that for­eign whites eas­i­ly could trav­el to South Africa: white South Africans pre­sumed all Euro­peans sup­port­ed white supremacy.

Pos­ing as tourists, hon­ey­moon­ers or busi­ness­men, they explod­ed leaflet bombs, unfurled anti-apartheid ban­ners and pro­mot­ed the strug­gle in oth­er clever ways. They simul­ta­ne­ous­ly coor­di­nat­ed their actions in impor­tant South African cities. One such leaflet declared: The ANC says to Vorster [South Africa’s prime min­is­ter at the time] and his gang: Your days are com­ing to an end” and We will take back our country!”

No one ever was hurt dur­ing these actions, though two were cap­tured in 1972 and spent most of the 1970s in bru­tal South African pris­ons. By the ear­ly-mid 1970s, the move­ment inside South Africa had revived as the exile move­ment grew in num­bers and strength.

I spoke to Gor­don Main, the direc­tor, about mak­ing the Lon­don Recruits, cur­rent­ly in pre-production.

Why were you inter­est­ed in this sto­ry and how did you decide to turn it into a film?

I first heard about the sto­ry in a small pub in Cardiff. It’s one of those fast dis­ap­pear­ing places – a prop­er old fash­ioned Welsh work­ing men’s pub with a box­ing gym upstairs and pho­tos of all the greats and near­ly greats that fought it out up there, from the turn of the cen­tu­ry right up to the 1970’s. So it was the per­fect set­ting to hear a con­spir­a­to­r­i­al tale.

My friend Seb Cooke was the one who told me about it. Seb was keen to move from his day job work­ing with unions to becom­ing a film­mak­er and had heard the tale direct­ly from one of the recruits who he had cam­paigned with in Lon­don some years before. Seb men­tioned Ken Keable’s book, Lon­don Recruits, which I imme­di­ate­ly bought. Seb thought it could be the basis for a great film. He had nev­er made a film before, though, so we start­ed to explore the idea and now he is the Asso­ciate Producer.

What inter­est­ed me was the unique com­bi­na­tion of sto­ry ele­ments. Ama­teur agents tak­ing on the might of the vicious Apartheid state, inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty, the idea that our gov­ern­ments — the U.K. and the U.S. — were effec­tive­ly prop­ping up this fas­cist enti­ty while talk­ing about the fight for free­dom.” These young peo­ple were doing much more than say­ing not in my name.” They were tak­ing a very real stand — a stand that land­ed three of them in prison for long peri­ods and severe beat­ings, includ­ing in one instance a mock exe­cu­tion scenario.

It’s clear why South Africans hat­ed apartheid, but why do you think that white men and women from oth­er coun­tries joined the strug­gle? They lit­er­al­ly risked their lives for a cause that many oth­ers might not see as their own.

Not all South Africans hat­ed Apartheid. The rul­ing white minor­i­ty was not, as some would now have us believe, reluc­tant­ly liv­ing under a régime that they dis­liked but felt that they could not change. Many white South Africans very much enjoyed the lifestyle of the so-called white man’s par­adise.” There was a small but sig­nif­i­cant trick­le of immi­gra­tion from the U.K. to South Africa of peo­ple who want­ed to leave the U.K.’s grow­ing mul­ti­cul­tur­al soci­ety for South Africa’s ongo­ing colo­nial set up. This enabled the Lon­don Recruits to slip into the coun­try unre­marked. They sim­ply posed as peo­ple — tourists, busi­ness peo­ple or poten­tial set­tlers — who liked the idea of Apartheid and want­ed to see it for themselves.

I have inter­viewed many of these young (now old­er) peo­ple. The thing that unites them all is some­thing that they see as the spir­it of their times, some­thing that ani­mat­ed them then and still res­onates in all that they do today: the idea and real­i­ty of inter­na­tion­al solidarity.

In many ways it is the exact oppo­site of the val­ues of today’s con­sumerist world soci­ety, often described to us as glob­al­iza­tion.” Theirs was a tru­ly glob­al view — that if any­one any­where is not free, then it is an issue for all of us. While many peo­ple in the west held such views, attend­ed ral­lies and meet­ings or signed peti­tions, these peo­ple went that extra step fur­ther. They were will­ing to risk their lives and cer­tain­ly their lib­er­ty to do some­thing about it in a far-away country.

Who can say what that final bit of courage or brav­ery was that enabled them to say yes when Ron­nie Kas­rils asked them if they would go under­cov­er for the strug­gle? Would I have done it? I hope so, but I do wonder.

How impor­tant do you think the sto­ry told in Lon­don Recruits was to the larg­er anti-apartheid movement?

This is a key ques­tion, because it is of course one that the recruits con­stant­ly ask them­selves. When I first met them, they down­played their role, quite right­ly point­ing out that oth­ers — most­ly South Africans — bore both the brunt of Apartheid’s cru­el­ties and fought on the real front­line of the strug­gle, many los­ing their lives and loved ones in the process. All of the recruits ded­i­cate their actions to the brav­ery and long strug­gle of those South Africans.

But as I get fur­ther into the process of mak­ing this film, it is those very South Africans who car­ried on the strug­gle, both in exile and inside the coun­try, who feel that the Lon­don Recruits’ role was indeed significant.

Thabo Mbe­ki, the sec­ond Pres­i­dent of post-apartheid South Africa, cred­its it as a crit­i­cal inter­ven­tion,” com­ing as it did when the lib­er­a­tion move­ments were effec­tive­ly destroyed inside the coun­try. Lead­ers had been round­ed up and were either impris­oned, exe­cut­ed or in exile. Local net­works had been smashed, and through coer­cion and tor­ture, the régime had estab­lished a web of inform­ers. Tam­bo was send­ing in cadres from Tan­za­nia and else­where, but they were almost always round­ed up with­in weeks.

The fear inside the move­ment was that the idea that they had been beat­en would take hold in the pop­u­la­tion and would then become true. There was no TV in South Africa, so news of the exiled movement’s activ­i­ties was not reach­ing those at home. It was there­fore vital that the ANC was a real pres­ence on the ground in South Africa. The Lon­don Recruits cam­paign was cer­tain­ly that.

By pulling off elab­o­rate mul­ti-tar­get, mul­ti-city actions with both the leaflet bombs and street broad­casts, the wider pop­u­la­tion saw that despite all of the régime’s efforts, the ANC was a sophis­ti­cat­ed oper­a­tion that could, unde­tect­ed, reach into the heart of South Africa. These oper­a­tions also made head­lines and cru­cial­ly put the régime on notice. At that moment of total tri­umph for the Apartheid state, the strug­gle did not die.

So to answer your ques­tion, I don’t think we should over­state its impor­tance, but I believe that it was of much more impor­tance than the Lon­don Recruits them­selves believed.

Can you say some­thing more about the val­ue of glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty in such social jus­tice or lib­er­a­tion move­ments in anoth­er country?

When you are up against tyran­ny and despo­tism or sys­tem­at­ic injus­tice at the state lev­el, the idea that you are not alone, that peo­ple across the world are aware and doing what they can to help is incred­i­bly pow­er­ful. It can make that vital dif­fer­ence between giv­ing in and fight­ing on.

The real dan­ger today for those who believe in inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty and free­dom for all is that the both the West­ern state actors and fas­cist ter­ror move­ments are adopt­ing the lan­guage of the inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ments and dress­ing up their activ­i­ties — bomb­ing, for the most part — as some kind of inter­na­tion­al­ism. We need vig­i­lant jour­nal­ism and pol­i­tics to make sure that this does not go unchal­lenged — and more impor­tant­ly that it does not under­mine the activ­i­ties of those who gen­uine­ly believe in inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty and freedom.

What do you say to the argu­ment that focus­ing on exam­ples of noble but per­haps minor exam­ples of white resis­tance take our focus away from the core of the resis­tance, among black South Africans inside the country?

That is, of course, the dan­ger for a film like this, which is why we are deter­mined to tell the par­al­lel tale of black South Africans inside the coun­try as the film unfolds. By track­ing the sto­ries of those who were in some way eye wit­ness­es to the activ­i­ties of the Lon­don recruits, we gain a real sense of the wider sto­ry of Apartheid and the strug­gle inside the country.

Apartheid has been large­ly for­got­ten. This film aims to remind the world that it real­ly exist­ed and what it was real­ly like, but also, by expos­ing it once more, we hold up a mir­ror to our own times and the racism and injus­tice that is still with us everywhere.

Describe the con­nec­tions between doc­u­men­tary film and social movements.

This could eas­i­ly be the sub­ject for a Ph.D. the­sis! I don’t think it is nec­es­sar­i­ly help­ful or inter­est­ing for me to attempt some schol­ar­ship on this and name-drop some key films. How­ev­er, I would say that one dan­ger of doc­u­men­tary in the social move­ment set­ting is that films made by activists can be made to play most­ly or exclu­sive­ly to the already con­vert­ed. They rarely break out of that mold and make a gen­uine dif­fer­ence — with some hon­or­able excep­tions. I would hope that Lon­don Recruits can make that jump, but the audi­ence will be our judge and jury on that one.

What were some of the chal­lenges in mak­ing this par­tic­u­lar film?

We are doing this with very lit­tle sup­port. We have had some finan­cial input from Ffilm Cym­ru Wales – the pub­lic body respon­si­ble for film in Wales. They have been fan­tas­tic but, of course, I have been back and forth to South Africa and was keen to shoot as many of the inter­views as pos­si­ble before we start­ed to take on any com­mer­cial lia­bil­i­ties in terms of film production.

The oth­er chal­lenges are sim­ply find­ing peo­ple all this time lat­er. Ken Keable’s book made find­ing the recruits easy, but find­ing eye wit­ness­es in South Africa and for­mer mem­bers of the secu­ri­ty forces who inves­ti­gat­ed. That is all prov­ing more dif­fi­cult. But that’s real­ly the great plea­sure of doc­u­men­tary mak­ing: the chal­lenges and how to over­come them. The biggest one is always finan­cial. That’s why we are try­ing to raise funds right now: to get us to the next impor­tant stage.

Why do you think that the larg­er sto­ry — the glob­al fight against apartheid — con­tin­ues to res­onate so strong­ly? After all, we are more than two decades past the end of apartheid and there are so many tales of injus­tice hap­pen­ing right now.

Apartheid is not always split along racial lines, but it needs to be as vig­or­ous­ly resist­ed now as ever before. By remem­ber­ing South African apartheid I hope we can see that Nel­son Man­dela becom­ing pres­i­dent did not erase injus­tice from the earth, or even from South Africa. The strug­gle goes on.

Peter Cole is a Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at West­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty and Research Asso­ciate in the Soci­ety, Work and Devel­op­ment Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand in Johan­nes­burg, South Africa. He is the author of Wob­blies on the Water­front: Inter­ra­cial Union­ism in Pro­gres­sive Era Philadel­phia and the award-win­ning Dock­work­er Pow­er: Race and Activism in Dur­ban and the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area. He also is the founder and co-direc­tor of the Chica­go Race Riot of 1919 Com­mem­o­ra­tion Project (CRR19). He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.
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