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.
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 , 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 Docs, Girls in Film, gal-dem, Sisters 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)
 I hope to feature more stories of women Recruits and the women of the liberation movement on this blog in the coming months!