Trade Unions Against Apartheid: NUJ

In August 1970, Mike Milotte, 20 year old journalist and seasoned activist – and future National Union of Journalists (NUJ) member –  boarded a plane bound for apartheid South Africa.

Concealing thousands of resistance leaflets inside a false-bottomed suitcase, Mike’s mission was to build and detonate non-lethal bucket bombs, propelling thousands of the smuggled leaflets across strategic commuter sites in Durban. Part of a secretive and coordinated plan to reinvigorate the liberation movement, Mike’s story alongside those of other volunteers known as the ‘London Recruits’ is documented in a new film which charts this largely unknown chapter of the liberation struggle.

Mike and John1.jpg

Mike Milotte (left) & John Rose

During the 1960s the apartheid regime used ever increasing force and brutality to repress the liberation movement. The African National Congress (ANC) was outlawed and their remaining networks had been forced underground. Nelson Mandela and other struggle leaders faced lifelong incarceration following the Liliesleaf arrests and subsequent trial in Rivonia in 1964. Leaders escaping imprisonment during the purge were driven into exile.

Unable to mount a significant offensive from inside the country, exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo summoned young freedom fighter Ronnie Kasrils to recruit sympathetic international students, activists and trade unionists to the liberation cause.

Setting up a secret operations base above a shop in Golders Green, Ronnie enrolled at the London School of Economics (LSE) and began building a network of volunteers for the covert South African missions. The idea was that the recruits, masquerading as young holidaymakers, business trippers or honeymooning couples, would be deployed in two person teams to attempt a number of clandestine forays once inside South Africa. White and so assumed apartheid’s natural allies, the recruits exploited this ‘privilege’ to help rebuild the remnants of the movement and provoke a new wave of struggle.

Mike was among those enlisted from LSE having recently secured an undergraduate politics degree. Speaking of the political fervour that categorised the contemporary landscape in sixties Britain, Mike said “It was a time of unprecedented protest across Europe: against the Vietnam War, the Greek military coup, Ian Smith’s racist Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in Rhodesia, and apartheid in South Africa.

“I fully supported the anti apartheid struggle, so that was the basis for acceptance of the mission. But I’d also have to say that at the age of 20 being asked to participate in this was akin to being invited to join in a fabulous adventure with the added excitement of doing everything in a completely clandestine manner.”

Growing up in Northern Ireland to a family that bridged the sectarian divide, Mike was active in electoral politics from a young age having joined the youth wing of the Northern Ireland Labour Party at 15. Recalling his political lineage, Mike said “I come from a powerful family tradition of working class socialist politics, going back at least to my maternal grandfather, a trade union activist in Belfast and Glasgow.

Mike Milotte.jpg

“When I was young I was taken on CND demonstrations, especially those against Polaris at the Holy Loch and in Belfast in the 1970s I was involved in the anti internment and anti repression struggle, and in advocating a socialist, non-sectarian alternative.”

Accompanied to South Africa by fellow LSE graduate and activist John Rose, the pair undertook reconnaissance in Durban before assembling the materials for the ‘leaflet bombs’ that would mark the climax of their mission. Powered by gunpowder and a small explosive charge, the non-lethal bombs would detonate at strategic commuter sites propelling the smuggled ANC leaflets high into the air, stunning South Africa’s notorious secret police (BOSS) with the sudden reappearance of the liberation movement.

On the 13th August, action by teams of recruits took place in five different cities: Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London.

The flyer read “The ANC says to Vorster and his gang: Your days are coming to an end… We will take back our country!” To compliment the propaganda sting, handmade speaker boxes inspired by activists in Athens following the Colonels’ coup in 1967 were planted at the scene. The speakers projected a rousing declaration – the ANC was alive and preparing to renew the struggle – followed by the jubilant sounds of freedom songs.

In Britain, the NUJ were quick to respond to the worsening situation for South Africa’s black population. The union disinvested in subsidiaries with South African connections seeking to tackle the cash links that fed apartheid, including £1million plus investments in the Guardian Royal Exchange Assurance.  The NUJ also galvanised the power of free speech that was denied to the majority black population by speaking out about the censorship and repression of journalists in South Africa. On one such occasion, the NUJ publicised the gag on ‘subversive press’ and the imprisonment of New Nation editor Zwelakhe Sisulu without trial under state of emergency regulations in December 1986.  Working consistently with the Anti-Apartheid Movement the NUJ sustained the movement with donations, developed fraternal relations with the South African Journalists’ union, joined boycotts, protests and passed numerous motions against South Africa’s apartheid policies.

Recalling the enduring lessons of the movement against apartheid, Mike said “As an Irish opponent of apartheid, my abiding memory is of the boycott of South African produce mounted by the women workers in Dunnes stores, the leading Irish supermarket.


Dunnes store workers strike

“This was a prolonged struggle that won the workers international recognition and praise by progressives everywhere. It set a powerful example to rank and file workers, showing that even where there was official reluctance to engage in struggle, determination at grass roots level could win out.”

In a world still dictated by racism and discrimination, London Recruits the film will tell the stories of those who risked their lives and liberty for their opposite number in South Africa, stories which still hold significance for activists and trade unionists today.

You can support London Recruits by donating to the project via the official website. Trade union awards include the solidarity pack and a special trade union screening of London Recruits in 2018 featuring a Q&A with crew and surviving London Recruits.

Keep up to date with the project on Twitter: @LondonRecruits and Facebook /LondonRecruits.



London Recruits receive SACP Special Recognition Award

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.”

Ken’s acceptance speech, introduced by Ronnie, can be watched here.

Trade Unions Against Apartheid: University College Union (UCU)

At the height of the fervour for political and social change that shook sixties Britain, one of the most impressive solidarity movements of the twentieth century began to mobilise against South Africa’s apartheid regime. At its climax the movement encompassed trade unionists and the wider labour movement, churches, local councils, student and campaign groups. The broad alliance trickled down to almost every sector of society, igniting collective action united in one common cause, freedom for South Africans from white supremacist minority rule.

It is against this backdrop that young women and men from left wing groups of workers and students were recruited for clandestine missions to assist the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. ‘I was there at the height of the sixties. Vietnam, UDI, Paris, CND, decolonisation, anti-apartheid, boycotts of Spain, Greece,’ notes former NATFHE and UCU member Mary Chamberlain, reflecting on her experiences.

‘We were part of a transnational movement for change, exciting and empowering, lived in the shadow of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation. It made us a generation of internationalists.’

Mary, then a recent politics graduate, was part of a generation that saw apartheid as one of the last vestiges of colonialism and imperialism. A member of the Communist Party, Mary was 23 when first approached by the ANC. Arriving in Cape Town on the SS Vaal in 1972 accompanied by her then husband, Carey Harrison, the pair assumed the role of an emigrating couple, their ‘life’s possessions’ carefully concealing subversive ANC literature in the false bottoms of 20 or so old tea chests. ‘At the time, I didn’t think twice about agreeing to do what we did by smuggling in 7000 pamphlets, and thought that my effort was a small and paltry affair given the far larger sacrifices that black South Africans were making every day,’ remarks Mary on her contribution. ‘Of course, I am immensely proud of what we did, but it was suppressed for so very long, it’s sometimes difficult to believe that I actually did that, or to find the words to process the memories.’

Reflective of the highly sensitive nature of the missions, the recruits remained silent for decades, unable to share their experiences. Unbeknown to Mary at the time, future UCU trade unionist Norman Lucas was working undercover for the ANC whilst officially employed as a photographer on the passenger liner that transported her to Cape Town. Noman, ex branch official for UCU predecessor NATFHE and bearer of collective AUT and UCU memberships that total 27 years, worked as an ANC courier on a ship dominated by white South African officers and passengers. Norman was able to conceal his activities behind the lens, subverting the system of white privilege to assist the liberation struggle. Reflecting on his role, Norman speaks passionately about the lessons of the anti-apartheid movement and the importance of collective action as a vehicle for social change.

‘London Recruits may give some optimism to the young that political activism and protest can be effective. The recruits stories show that things can change and individual and collective action can make a difference.’

John Rose, past member of NATFHE and UCU and a longstanding member of the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party), has a legacy of solidarity work in movements home and abroad. During his employment as a sociology lecturer at Southwark College, John was a member of the strike committee during two major disputes in 1995 and 1997. ‘During the strike I helped convince local bus drivers at Waterloo bus garage and their union the TGWU, one of the forerunners to Unite, to support us,’ John recalls, highlighting the importance of a collective movement. ‘On one memorable occasion a delegation of drivers turned up to express their solidarity at one of our mass strikers’ meetings.’


Mary Chamberlain, Norman Lucas & John Rose

John was among the left-wing students at the London School of Economics (LSE), recruited by underground ANC agent Ronnie Kasrils in the late 1960s. A future minister in Mandela’s first government, Ronnie had registered at LSE with the task of recruiting sympathetic activists. The plan was formulated by ANC leader in exile Oliver Tambo and saw Ronnie oversee more than 40 missions against the regime from 1967. John was impressed by the radical euphoria at an institution where ‘students didn’t just talk, they acted’, and after entering into contact with Ronnie, eagerly accepted a mission to South Africa. John arrived in Johannesburg in November 1969 accompanied by fellow LSE student Mike Milotte. Equipped with ANC leaflets stashed in false bottom suitcases and the basic knowledge of explosive device assembly, John and Mike built and installed plastic buckets full of resistance leaflets at three train stations. Topped with ‘state of the art’ non interference devices – plastic snakes, spiders, ‘do not touch’ warning signs – the small explosive charge was set to detonate at rush hour, delivering the leaflets to outstretched hands as thousands of black workers made their way back to the townships on the outskirts of the city.

The recruits undertook clandestine intervention at a time when internal ANC resistance had been crushed. The impact of a device that hurled the words of a banned movement high into the air right under the noses of the secret police was manifold. Coordinated, covert operations such as these served as triumphs for the liberation struggle, sending shockwaves through the regime and boosting the morale of those struggling under apartheid.

The UCU has a rich history of intervention in response to the economic, social and political freedoms of disenfranchised global counterparts. In recent times, UCU solidarity with Palestinians has born fruit via numerous motions and frameworks and John, a lifelong campaigner and academic, speaks of the similarities between the two respective struggles. “Returning to South Africa to teach about Israel Palestine made me particularly aware of the comparisons between the earlier black struggle for liberation against the Apartheid state and the Palestinian struggle for liberation.’ John recalls. ‘In post Apartheid South Africa, full democratic rights exist for all the peoples living there. Similarly, in the land currently contested between Israel and Palestine, it should be possible to find a just and democratic solution for all the people living there, including of course those Palestinians who became refugees in the last century.”


Joy Leman, Katherine Salahi & George Bridges

In 1970, John referred his cousin Katherine Levine (now Katherine Salahi) to Ronnie. A future UCU member and member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) from just 14 years old, Katherine flew to Lusaka in January 1971 with fellow recruit Laurence Harris. 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 Katherine’s account of her mission she emphasises the difficulty of maintaining her undercover presence and the masquerade of appearing complicit with a brutal system of racial discrimination and the individuals that sustained it. Remembering one encounter, Katherine recalls that ‘his assumption that we would obviously agree with his vile opinions served to provide me with a sharp daily reminder of the grossness of apartheid, and probably helped to firm my resolve to complete our mission in support of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).’

A multitude of women and men signed up, idealists and internationalists from all walks of life eager to lend an extra pair of hands to keep the message of freedom burning bright. In 1973 Joy Leman, ATTI and NATFHE member, was tasked with the transportation, printing and distribution of ANC leaflets. Alongside fellow recruit John O’Malley, Joy garnered the raw materials inside South Africa – a second hand Gestetner duplicator, reams of paper, ink, stencils, latex gloves, envelopes and a portable typewriter – and established a printing press hidden from the regime within the walls of their hotel room.

Past NATFHE member Ted Parker, deployed ‘leaflet bombs’, propaganda banners in strategic city locations with one such banner dramatically unfurling from the very top of the City Treasurer’s Department in Johannesburg. As Ted recalls, ‘one of the most prominent buildings in town.’ It is important to note that none of the recruits wish to overstate their role in a struggle in which many gave their lives. But these stories offer a timely and inspiring reminder that we all have an ability to shape a better and more just world. George Bridges, past NATFHE member and the first recruiter located by Ronnie, used his position as YCL London district secretary to draft in fellow comrades to the operation. ‘It seemed like nothing when you saw the gallows ropes, the solitary confinement cells, the memorial to thousands of MK soldiers and the obscene activities of the apartheid regime,’ says George, presenting a common thread that binds together each of the recruits’ individual stories.

‘However on reflection I feel proud that our relatively small organisation of idealistic young people, none of whom refused to volunteer, played an important part in the downfall of apartheid. Our slogan was always ‘One Race; the Human Race.’

In our latest video featuring UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt, Sally highlights the anti-apartheid work of UCU’s predecessor unions and outlines the UCU’s support for London Recruits.

If you’d like to donate to London Recruits please see our website and donate page

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.


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: | 0712530876


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.