An Irish anti-apartheid activist: 'Our skin colour was our secret weapon'

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

During the 1970s, with Nelson Mandela in jail and South Africa in the grip of apartheid, the ANC recruited overseas activists for secret and dangerous missions. MIKE MILOTTEbecame one of its ‘leaflet bombers’

THESE DAYS, the news from South Africa seems relentlessly negative: political and business corruption, rampant gender-based crime, the world’s worst murder rate and a persistent Aids epidemic. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, which came to power in 1994, might have overturned the most glaringly awful aspects of the racist ancien regime, but it has failed to deliver on many of its promises. Its black supporters are still largely dispossessed and impoverished, for although the white elite no longer runs the state, it still controls most of the wealth.

This outcome doesn’t entirely surprise me, yet it is still somewhat painful to acknowledge, because 42 years ago, when Mandela was in prison and I was a student in London, I signed up to advance the cause of the ANC by going on a secret and dangerous mission to South Africa.

At the outset, my ANC contact told me that if I was caught I would be tortured and jailed, and while I would like to think it was a selfless commitment to the cause of liberty that made the risk worth taking, in truth I would have to acknowledge that the sheer lure of adventure also played a part.

It was the summer of 1970. I had just completed my degree at the London School of Economics, where studying went hand in hand with protesting: against the US war in Vietnam, the military dictatorship in Greece, the illegal white-supremacist regime in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and the brutal apartheid government of South Africa.

Prominent at every protest was Ronnie Kasrils, another LSE student and a jovial and vociferous member of the South African Communist Party. As I was to discover, he was also a leading figure in the ANC underground whose job was to recruit and train people like me. With another fellow student and lifelong comrade, John Rose, I was detailed to smuggle thousands of subversive ANC leaflets into South Africa, in false-bottomed suitcases, along with enough explosives to propel them harmlessly into the air from “leaflet bombs” planted on busy streets. We would also smuggle cassette recordings of rousing speeches from ANC leaders to be broadcast in public places.

Ronnie showed us how to assemble the explosive devices and make timer switches, how to obliterate our fingerprints, use disguises, evade detection and shake off tails. But mostly at our training sessions we argued politics, for, despite our willing involvement, neither John nor I agreed with Ronnie’s unabashed Stalinism.

Critically, Ronnie impressed on us how valuable our skin colour was. It was our secret weapon. If ever we found ourselves in a tight corner, he counselled, we should just behave like arrogant whites. That advice served us well.

And so, in Durban, we masqueraded as wealthy young tourists, staying in a posh hotel on the shores of the Indian Ocean, feigning indifference to the degradation of the country’s black population. Here, between swimming and sunbathing, we assembled our leaflet bombs and soldered handmade micro-amplifiers on to cheap cassette players.

Living the life of a privileged white brat, even if only briefly, was depressing. Our every need was attended to by black people, all of them embarrassingly deferential. There was no sense of defiance, no evident spirit of revolt. This, of course, was why we were here: to encourage rebelliousness by creating an impression, on the back of a sensational propaganda coup, that the ANC was back in business after its brutal suppression half a decade earlier, when most of its leaders had been jailed or executed.

We identified several busy spots for planting our devices, and when D-day came we checked out of our hotel and loaded all the gear, concealed in large brown paper bags, on to the back seat of our hired car. The timers were set to give us half an hour to get everything in place. After that they would go off every couple of minutes.

Our first target was the market in downtown Durban, but as soon as we pulled up at the kerb, and thankfully before we had time to begin our work, our car was surrounded by half a dozen smartly dressed white men. It was obvious that they were plain-clothes policemen.

The big blond one rapped on the driver’s window, and when John rolled it down the policeman leaned forward, exposing the gun beneath his jacket. He demanded to know what was in the bags in the back of the car while thrusting his hand through the open window towards the leaflet bombs. With the ticking of the timers seeming to fill the air, evasion seemed impossible. Torture and imprisonment loomed large. To make it worse, a small crowd had gathered to watch our humiliation.

But Ronnie had trained us well.

In a split second, John brought his elbow down sharply on the long arm of the law, pinning the policeman to the doorframe before his inquisitive fingers could reach our the bags.

“Do you mind,” John boomed out, angrily and authoritatively. “We’re British tourists.” It was a stroke of genius. The cop was startled. He withdrew his arm immediately and stepped back. A lot of thieves from Johannesburg fenced their stolen goods at this market, he said apologetically, and as we were driving a Joburg car with lots of bags in the back, they decided to check us out. He glanced at our passports and, smiling inanely, waved us on our way.

The sense of relief defies description. But was the mission compromised? Had they noted our car number and passport details? If we went ahead now, would they recognise the carrier bags after they exploded, and put two and two together? If so, had we any chance of escape?

On the other hand, we had come so far it would be a terrible let-down to abandon everything now. So we decided to press on, but we had to move rapidly, as the first device was only minutes from detonating. We rushed from one location to the next, got everything in place and took off at speed for Swaziland, where we had another, more mundane mission to complete.

Back in London, Ronnie presented us with South African newspapers indicating that every one of our devices did what it was supposed to. Our mission had been 100 per cent successful.

What I didn’t know was that John and I formed just one of many external teams of volunteers, mostly British socialists, who risked their lives and liberty in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the clandestine struggle against apartheid. Some, like our fellow Irishman Seán Hosey, were discovered and suffered the fate we all feared: torture and imprisonment.

The extent of this international contribution to the ANC’s fight for freedom has been revealed only now, with the publication of a book of reminiscences from nearly 40 of the recruits. These underground activists had another thing in common: they were all white. And this was the ultimate irony: the white racists who ruled South Africa were so sure of their supremacy that they found it hard to imagine privileged Europeans like us would risk our liberty to help “mere” blacks. That gave us the critical edge and, in our case, directly helped us complete our mission.

Kasrils, who went on to become a minister in ANC governments, has said of the international volunteers: “Without a shadow of a doubt they played no small part in the ultimate success of the struggle that liberated South Africa from apartheid tyranny.” That is a generous compliment. Compared with the sacrifice of black South Africans, our contribution was modest, but I am proud to have played a part, even if a small one, in the process of change, albeit a process that has sadly stalled.

London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, edited by Ken Keable with an introduction by Ronnie Kasrils, is published by Merlin Press, £15.95