Amplifying marginalised voices: Women, activism & solidarity

Last week I attended the final event of the season from Women on Docs, an all female collective celebrating the contribution of women in documentary filmmaking. The theme of the evening – “Finding your Voice” – was explored by six short films which asserted notions of self-expression and amplified female visibility in the world, before concluding with a compelling talk with panellists Eloise King (Executive-Producer Vice Media/ID), Becca Human (London-based Illustrator and Filmmaker), Ayo Akingbade (Filmmaker) and Abondance Matanda (Writer and Poet).

Being part of a full house of female players from across the spectrum of filmmaking, and occupying and claiming the ‘Second Home, Shoreditch’ as a platform for female expression, was inspirational. It is no secret that female voices, particularly voices of women of colour, are marginalised in mainstream culture; I was enamoured and motivated by personal stories of struggle and the accomplishments of filmmakers who carved out their own narratives in the film world, a space too often overcrowded by men. In the words of Abondance, an 18 year old Poet and Arts/Culture Writer from London, “I’m good at carving out spaces for myself… I’m unapologetic. If I have something to say, I’ll say it.”

Having worked on London Recruits for slightly over a year, the talk inspired me to speak about the stories of the female Recruits and highlight attempts by the media to erase or ‘quietly’ conceal their political activity. For example, an article in The Guardian (2012) ran the following strapline when featuring London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid:

“A new book reveals how, in the late 1960s, just as South Africa’s hated regime thought it had crushed all resistance, a group of white men from Britain packed their false-bottomed suitcases and took the propaganda war to the enemy.”

While several female Recruits’ have reserved their right to privacy, many have published personal accounts in the book or spoken candidly, as panellists, about their experiences. Yet, the synopsis implies that these women did not exist. The article eventually acknowledges the women Recruits with a fleeting nod several paragraphs in; depicted as secondary to men, their essential role in the resistance movement underplayed. The author refers to “men and women”, women never come first. The treatment of women emblematises a microcosm of the disparity of gender representation in today’s society.

Mary Chamberlain, now Emeritus Professor of Caribbean History at Oxford Brookes University and author of titles such as Empire and Nation-Building in the Caribbean: Barbados, 1937-66, was just twenty-three when she was approached by the African National Congress (ANC) to undertake a clandestine mission in South Africa (1972). Tasked with transmitting information into the country as a means of countering apartheid rhetoric, Mary and her then-husband Carey Harrison boarded the SS Vaal to Cape Town in possession of several false-bottomed tea chests stuffed with “subversive literature.” This included 5,000 copies of The Story of Simon and Jane (a graphic novella about a domestic servant and a delivery boy whose marriage was torn apart by apartheid) and 2,000 copies of A History of the South African Communist Party.

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In 1967, Sarah Griffith, a student at the London School of Economics (LSE), breached several high profile buildings in Johannesburg to secretly install rolled up banners and clockwork alarm devices on the visible rooftop locations. Once activated, the device’s razor blade arms severed the cord fastening, unfurling the flag of the banned ANC and cascading thousands of resistance leaflets into the hands of black workers travelling home to the townships.

Katherine Levine (now Katherine Salahi) became an active member of the Anti Apartheid Movement (AAM) at fourteen years old, achieving her first and “easiest victory” against the regime when she succeeded in persuading her school to boycott South African marmalade. In January 1971, Katherine and fellow recruit Laurence Harris flew to Lusaka. Posing as a honeymoon couple, for three months they smuggled weapons and ANC guerrillas down to the South African border in support of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).

In 1973, cofounder of Oui a la Diversite (Anti Racism Society) and lifelong activist Joy Leman posed as a tourist in order to smuggle anti-apartheid material into Johannesburg in a secret compartment of a sports bag. The material included a text in Xhosa and a series of addresses. Once settled inside a small hotel room, Joy constructed a clandestine printing press, creating thousands of anti-government leaflets and distributed them through the government’s own postal system.

White, and, therefore, assumed natural allies of apartheid, Mary, Sarah, Katherine, Joy and many other women Recruits including Marie-José Moumbaris, Deirdre Drury, Diana Ellis, Cathy Dolphin, Veronica Ford and June Stephen [1], subverted their privilege to pierce apartheid censorship and deliver messages of resistance and hope to South Africans suffering under the iniquitous regime. The message, that the banned ANC was alive, that struggle’s flame continued to burn, thundered across South African cities at a time when ruthless state repression had narrowed the possibility of internal opposition.

By recalling their stories, I do not wish to underplay the political dissent of South African women. Their daily sacrifices for liberation from apartheid are incomparable. However, via the Recruits’ stories I intend to illustrate that as women it is our duty, now more than ever, to remember and support our actions, to cultivate platforms that enable and amplify marginalised voices, to stand in solidarity with one another against all forms of oppression, to collectively bring about real democratic, representative change to the futures of every woman, everywhere.

Globally, racism and sexism are ubiquitous; America’s president-elect Donald Trump stands as a malignant symbol of both. However, by exercising strategies of resistance, collectives like Women On DocsGirls in Filmgal-demSisters Uncut and many many more, are challenging gendered and racial exclusions, one thought-provoking article, film, solidarity event and protest at a time.

When London Recruits is released late 2017, I hope that our work inspires, amplifies voices that need to be heard and engenders a more inclusive dialogue.

Lauren (Production Assistant, London Recruits)

[1] I hope to feature more stories of women Recruits and the women of the liberation movement on this blog in the coming months!

Launch of campaign to trace witnesses to ANC leaflet bombs

We have launched an URGENT appeal ‘I Saw It to locate South African eyewitnesses to the activities undertaken in South Africa by the London Recruits (1967-73).

In a plan orchestrated by exiled freedom fighter Ronnie Kasrils (who was working undercover in London), the Recruits’ activities included planting non-lethal bucket bombs that propelled thousands of resistance leaflets into the skies of Johannesburg, Cape Town, East London, Durban and Port Elizabeth, playing pre-recorded street broadcasts from exiled leaders, and dropping large ANC banners from Landmark buildings that read THE ANC LIVES.’

A city-by-city timeline of incidents can be found here.

On behalf of the ANC, the recruits sought to pierce apartheid censorship by delivering information and messages of resistance into the heart of South Africa.

The Recruits’ activities made national headlines in numerous newspapers including the Cape Argus and The World.

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Did you witness the ANC leaflet bombs or come into contact with the London Recruits? Do you know someone who did? Please get in touch with ANY information or leads.

London Recruits Director Gordon Main says ‘To find South African eyewitnesses will be to find the missing voice in this great story. We are sure that you are out there and we really want to hear from you, so our nationwide appeal starts today. If you can help, please do get in touch.’

Follow I Saw It on Facebook & Twitter.

SA OFFICE: Press@isawit.com | 0712530876

UK OFFICE: Info@barefootrascals.com

UPDATE: Since publishing this article, we have had coverage in several news outlets including The Citizen and the Cape Argus. Yesterday (21/11/16), Director Gordon Main and freedom fighter Ronnie Kasrils discussed our urgent eyewitness appeal live with Joanne Joseph on eNCA.

Read articles below.

ANC letter bombing story of ‘courage’  – Cape Argus.

The whites who bombed the apartheid government – The Citizen.

ANC leaflet bomb witnesses asked to tell story  Cape Argus.

Film highlights drama behind pamphlet bombs – Bloemfontein Courant

Have you seen this poster before? – Daily Voice

Joanne Joseph, Gordon Main & Ronnie Kasrils on eNCA – Photo Credit @SixoGcilishe.

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John O’Malley & Joy Leman – Trade unionists undertake clandestine mission in struggle against apartheid South Africa.

On the 19th January 1973, John O’Malley, a member of Unison predecessor NALGO, alongside fellow activist Joy Leman, touched down into Johannesburg airport South Africa. Posing as two young travellers with dreams to emigrate to a foreign haven in the midst of a tourist and economic boom, John and Joy were assumed South Africa’s natural allies. Passing through passport control with a welcome determined by the colour of their skin, the pair exploited this ‘privilege’ and entered the country in possession of subversive literature in a secret compartment of a sports bag. Their task? To post letters to counter the lies of Vorster’s apartheid regime with the voice of the banned African National Congress (ANC), a reminder to those suffering under the tyranny of apartheid that liberation was coming.

“When I was originally approached for the mission, the idea was that it would be less intrusive if we were a couple,” remarks John on the circumstances of his recruitment. Part of a plan orchestrated by exiled leader Oliver Tambo and young freedom fighter Ronnie Kasrils (who later was to become a minister in Mandela’s first government) pairs of recruits disguised as business-trippers, emigrating couples and holidaymakers undertook covert missions for the ANC in South Africa. The recruits detonated leaflet bombs, rigged banners to high-rise buildings, amplified voice recordings from the ANC resistance through handmade speaker boxes and completed reconnaissance to help reestablish liberation cells on the ground.

Reflective of the danger of maintaining operations that challenged the legitimacy of apartheid, John and Joy made no direct contact with Ronnie.

“The organisation was completely clandestine. I only had contact with one person and I recruited Joy who only met our recruiter once.  I did not know about Ronnie until 40 years later and had not heard of him at the time,” says John. “I think this is a measure of how serious the situation was in 1973.”

In the climate of apartheid South Africa post Sharpeville and Langa, where unimaginable brutality had been unleashed on demonstrators by police and Rivonia where Mandela and other leaders of the struggle were given life sentences, the internal liberation movement hung by a thread. Remaining networks were forced underground by the regime’s security apparatus.

Then a 33-year-old Londoner and married with two children under the age of five, John was well acquainted with the political fervor that characterised the early 70s. An activist for a number of unions throughout his working life including the National and Local Government Officers union (NALGO), the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Transport and General Workers union (T&G), John was involved with several high profile campaigns. “In the summer of 1962 I joined the Campaign Caravan Workshop, a CND organisation, who organised a countrywide tour of activities in local communities with a core group who would canvass, leaflet markets and hold public meetings each day being accommodated with local CND supporters,” recounts John on his political activism. During his membership of NALGO, in 1971 he was appointed director of one of the twelve community development projects sponsored by the Home Office for London boroughs to tackle poverty.

Masquerading as tourists, John and Joy garnered the raw materials to manually re-print the text they had smuggled including “reams of paper, ink, stencils, latex gloves, assorted packets of envelopes and a portable typewriter.” Safely behind the thin walls of their apartment they began to replicate the materials in Xhosa and Zulu, working slowly to quell the loud reverberations of the ancient Gestetner duplicator and typewriter.

Key to all of the recruits’ missions was to remain as unobtrusive as possible. Blow their cover and state prison and torture would be sure to follow. As such, John’s memories of South Africa were influenced by the need to lay low as to not arouse attention from BOSS, the notorious South African Secret Police. “Our trip to South Africa was on the basis of in-out-and-avoid-being-noticed so I cannot say that I was able to satisfy any curiosity about the apartheid system,” says John. “Obviously the physical divisions in the streets were noticeable and the slave culture of the daily refuse collection remains ingrained in my mind but much remained hidden from visitor eyes.”

John and Joy posted approximately 2000 leaflets in multiple postal boxes across South Africa and left the country without detection just over one and a half weeks later.

“You always left with the feeling that you don’t know if what you have done actually reached anybody,” says John. “You were constantly paranoid that if the post wasn’t perfect, it would be intercepted before it reached its destination.”

Speaking about trade unionism as a whole, John elaborates on the importance of the movement to maintain a collective vehicle for change. “At its best the trade union movement is an essential complement to the formal political structures,” says John. “The movement today tends to its members short term interests but provides links between wider struggles both national and international. In recent years trade union support for struggles in Africa and South America has been essential in keeping key issues in people’s minds.” When John speaks of his contribution to the South African liberation movement back in 1973 it falls simply under the banner of “routine left wing activity,” an extension of his political and moral sensibilities and “something you did and then got on with other things.”

In a world still dictated by prejudice and discrimination, the recruits’ stories offer a timely reminder that if there is something that you can do to stand steadfast with those struggling under oppression, no matter how distant their problems may seem from home, it is the right and just thing to do.

Charting a relatively unknown chapter in the South African liberation struggle, John’s story and that of other international volunteers is the subject of a new feature film called “London Recruits”. The filmmakers are working in coordination with the trade union movement and the project has been endorsed by Unison at a national level. Find out more about the film and how you can help the production funding appeal to help bring it to the big screen by visiting www.londonrecruits.com. To keep up-to-date with the films release follow the Facebook and Twitter pages.


Watch Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis outline his support for London Recruits. Donate to the project here.