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

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 regime 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 regime 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 regime’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 regime 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.

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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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