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.