Interview with former Equity member, activist & London Recruit Joy Leman


In January 1973, former Equity member Joy Leman touched down into Johannesburg, South Africa on a secret mission for the African National Congress (ANC). Posed as a young traveller wishing to enjoy a slice of the popular tourist destination, Joy was assumed a natural ally of apartheid. Unbeknown to airport security, ‘subversive’ anti-apartheid literature contained in a secret compartment of Joy’s sports bag would soon flow throughout South Africa’s postal system.

By the late 1960s the South African liberation movement faced a stalemate; leaders of the then banned ANC had been imprisoned, killed or forced into exile. In the shadow of law enforcement brutality at the demonstrations of Sharpeville and Langa, challenges to the apartheid system were severely suppressed and compounded by the impossibility of establishing underground freedom units in a police state.

It is in this context that, in a plan orchestrated by exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo, international trade unionists and activists were recruited by young freedom fighter Ronnie Kasrils to undertake covert missions against the regime. The idea was that the recruits – white and therefore immune from suspicion – would employ various guerrilla tactics to fan the spirit of the liberation movement while the resistance regrouped.

From 1967, volunteers disguised as honeymooners, business trippers and emigrating couples couriered ANC literature in false bottomed suitcases, detonated non-lethal ‘leaflet bombs’ at strategic commuter sites, unfurled banners from the heights of the high-rise buildings, played rousing speeches out of handmade speaker boxes and undertook link building reconnaissance to communicate that the ANC was well and truly alive.

 “When there is a particular case of horrendous injustice like apartheid, if there is something that any individual can do to change that, you have to respond to that call,” says Joy. “It was vicious racism that was bureaucratised. It was like reading about slavery. It was all made official.”

Based in London at a time of intense grassroots political activism, Joy was engaged in various campaigns that spearheaded the period including CND in the late Sixties, Anti Nazi League marches in the 70s, protests against cuts to education, Vietnam, Miners Strike support and numerous Women’s Rights campaigns including contributions to Women’s Voice. Today, Joy remains an active member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and continues to campaign for social justice. In 2014, responding to the rise of the right wing in France, Joy and husband Mike Healy set up the Anti Racist Association (‘Oui a la Diversite’), which they continue to co-run.

Joy Leman 2.jpg

“I don’t think you stop. It’s always there; the passion to want to do more, and there’s always something to be done, be it tackling racism or campaigning to improve housing. I don’t agree that age is a justification to stop fighting.”

Accompanied to South Africa by fellow activist John O’Malley, the pair feigned a marital relationship to minimise security interest whilst they carried out their mission. Their first task was to rent an apartment in a block in central Johannesburg from which they would conduct their activity. Then, using a hire car that allowed them to enter and exit their apartment via an underground car park avoiding a staffed lobby, Joy and John smuggled in the materials needed to build a makeshift printing press.

The remaining days before the postal drop were spent in their “leaflet factory,” working slowly to stop the reverberation of the ancient Gestetner duplicator from alerting the regime to their activities. Once complete, the letters were packed into an assortment of envelopes bound for destinations across South Africa. Their cover story was that Joy was a secretary posting business letters. Driving quickly from one postal point to the next, they feared of the obvious question – why so many postboxes?

“At the time, our action seemed such a small contribution and was somewhat unclear just how it might help with the struggle. We left and couldn’t really think about it, it was deliberately wiped from memory.

“I’ve been looking at my diaries from that period, and of course there is nothing. It is blank for that whole time.”

While apartheid still existed, none of the recruits knew that a vast network existed outside of their individual missions, remaining silent about their actions for fear of generating attention from South Africa’s notorious secret police BOSS. On invitation to an official London Recruits meet up in July 2012 chaired by politician and anti-apartheid stalwart Peter Hain, Joy discovered that a colleague and friend whom she worked with at the London College of Printing for 10 years had also been a recruit. Mary Chamberlain, now an author and academic, was recruited alongside then husband Carey Harrison in 1973 and deployed to Cape Town on the passenger ship SS Vaal. Posed as an emigrating couple, the pair couriered banned ANC literature in the false bottoms of old tea chests.

In Britain, Equity adopted sustained intervention against apartheid’s separatist policies, instructing members to decline performances to whites only audiences from 1956, passing sanctions that lead to a total ban on export of programmes to South Africa in 1976, campaigned for the release of political prisoners and joined key protests and boycotts including the enforcement of a total ban on transmission of members’ performances to South African audiences during the 1981 British royal wedding.

Joy joined Equity in 1958 as a young actress in Wales. She landed a number of roles in television dramas, radio shows and TV commercials including a part in an episode of BBC series Saturday Playhouse in the early 1960s.

Many of the London Recruits were activists recruited from the full spectrum of the trade union and labour movement. As such, we are appealing to rank and file trade unionists, branches and committee members to help us reach our funding target.

For more information on the project, or to find out how to secure an early Q&A screening of London Recruits with the recruits, see our website.

Watch Equity General Secretary Christine Payne reflect on Equity’s anti-apartheid work and Joy’s story in our latest video