Last month Ken Keable, editor of London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid received the South African Communist Party (SACP) Special Recognition Award on behalf of 66 currently known London Recruits. A former recruit himself, Ken was joined at the ceremony by former ANC minister Ronnie Kasrils and fellow London Recruits Bob Newland and Ian Beddowes. Kasrils was sent to London in 1966 and charged with the task of coordinating the London Recruits missions.
Presented by the 14th Party Congress the award highlighted the ‘outstanding role’ played by the Recruits in the South African liberation struggle. The name ‘London Recruits’ has been given collectively to the internationalists who travelled to South Africa either alone or in pairs on undercover missions from 1967 onwards. Post Rivonia, with liberation leaders banished to Robben Island and the ANC brutally forced underground, these young women and men (the majority of whom were young workers living in London) sought to amplify the voice of the banned ANC via a series of agitational stunts.
Fifty years ago in August of 1967, the covert plan was set into motion in city centres across South Africa. In Durban, activist turned “underground postman” Danny Schechter infiltrated the South African postal system with letters from the liberation movement and deployed leaflet scattering mechanisms at places used primarily by black workers travelling home to the townships.
In Johannesburg, Sarah Griffith and Ted Parker (both students from the London School of Economics) breached high profile buildings to install banners and clockwork alarm devices. Once activated, the device’s razor blade arms severed the cord fastening, unfurling banners that read ‘ANC lives’ and ‘ANC fights’, and cascading thousands of resistance leaflets into the busy streets below.
Elsewhere in Johannesburg Daniel Ahern, a West Londoner and member of the Young Communist League (YCL) successfully positioned several of the timer-powered leaflet devices at key high-rise locations. Synchronised action is thought to have taken place on the same day in other South African cities.
Later missions saw Recruits assisting freedom fighters directly. In 1971, Katherine Levine (now Salahi) and companion Laurence Harris smuggled arms and ANC guerrillas down to the South African border in support of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Others were charged with tasks that included organising safe houses, couriering letters and packages, and detonating non-lethal leaflet bombs (used in missions from November 1969 onwards). In 1970, Ken (on a second mission following his first to Johannesburg in April 1968) and fellow recruit Pete Smith deployed a bicycle in Durban, which had been customised with an amplifier and cassette tape. The device allowed 15 minutes get away time before the voice of activist, journalist and ANC member Robert Resha boomed out:
“This is the African National Congress. This is the African National Congress. This is the voice of freedom”, followed by the choir of London exiles singing the ANC anthem: ‘Nkozi Sikelel’ iAfrika.’
Three recruits faced arrest, torture, solitary confinement and imprisonment. Tasked with delivering passbooks and money to comrades in Durban, Sean Hosey was captured by Security Police (SP) just seconds after delivering the package into hands of his contact. It was later discovered that Sean had walked straight into a trap. Sean served 13 months awaiting trial and then five years in prison. French citizen Marie-José Moumbaris alongside husband Alex Moumbaris, a Greek Australian, were arrested while helping MK fighters cross the border. Mounting political pressure from France forced the release of Marie-José who was pregnant at the time. Alex was sentenced to twelve years in jail but escaped after seven and a half years.
Recipients of the Special Recognition Award include Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, and Cuba’s Henry Reeve International Contingent of Doctors (specialising in Disasters and Serious Epidemics).
The SACP said, “The 14th party congress recognises the outstanding role played by these gallant fighters for our liberation struggle. The SACP and many South Africans will forever be indebted for their involvement and sacrifice in solidarity with the people of South Africa who were oppressed by the Apartheid regime.”
Kasrils added his voice to this declaring that, “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. They represent a very significant piece in the kaleidoscope of endeavour, by South Africa’s people in the first place, and the supportive international community, that led to the victory over apartheid.”
In accepting the award, Ken Keable said, “The ideals that motivated us in our youth are now more relevant than ever. We hope that our story will inspire people, especially young people, to fight for a better world and this wonderful award, this great honour, will help to achieve that.”