Racism in all its “glory”

The Irish Times – Saturday, May 5, 2012
An Irish anti-apartheid activist: ‘Our skin colour was our secret weapon’

During the 1970s, with Nelson Mandela in jail and South Africa in the
grip of apartheid, the ANC recruited overseas activists for secret and
dangerous missions. MIKE MILOTTE became one of its ‘leaflet bombers’

THESE DAYS, the news from South Africa seems relentlessly negative:
political and business corruption, rampant gender-based crime, the
world’s worst murder rate and a persistent Aids epidemic. Nelson
Mandela’s African National Congress, which came to power in 1994,
might have overturned the most glaringly awful aspects of the racist
ancien regime, but it has failed to deliver on many of its promises.
Its black supporters are still largely dispossessed and impoverished,
for although the white elite no longer runs the state, it still
controls most of the wealth.

This outcome doesn’t entirely surprise me, yet it is still somewhat
painful to acknowledge, because 42 years ago, when Mandela was in
prison and I was a student in London, I signed up to advance the cause
of the ANC by going on a secret and dangerous mission to South Africa.

At the outset, my ANC contact told me that if I was caught I would be
tortured and jailed, and while I would like to think it was a selfless
commitment to the cause of liberty that made the risk worth taking, in
truth I would have to acknowledge that the sheer lure of adventure
also played a part.

It was the summer of 1970. I had just completed my degree at the
London School of Economics, where studying went hand in hand with
protesting: against the US war in Vietnam, the military dictatorship
in Greece, the illegal white-supremacist regime in Rhodesia, now
Zimbabwe, and the brutal apartheid government of South Africa.

Prominent at every protest was Ronnie Kasrils, another LSE student and
a jovial and vociferous member of the South African Communist Party.
As I was to discover, he was also a leading figure in the ANC
underground whose job was to recruit and train people like me. With
another fellow student and lifelong comrade, John Rose, I was detailed
to smuggle thousands of subversive ANC leaflets into South Africa, in
false-bottomed suitcases, along with enough explosives to propel them
harmlessly into the air from “leaflet bombs” planted on busy streets.
We would also smuggle cassette recordings of rousing speeches from ANC
leaders to be broadcast in public places.

Ronnie showed us how to assemble the explosive devices and make timer
switches, how to obliterate our fingerprints, use disguises, evade
detection and shake off tails. But mostly at our training sessions we
argued politics, for, despite our willing involvement, neither John
nor I agreed with Ronnie’s unabashed Stalinism.

Critically, Ronnie impressed on us how valuable our skin colour was.
It was our secret weapon. If ever we found ourselves in a tight
corner, he counselled, we should just behave like arrogant whites.
That advice served us well.

And so, in Durban, we masqueraded as wealthy young tourists, staying
in a posh hotel on the shores of the Indian Ocean, feigning
indifference to the degradation of the country’s black population.
Here, between swimming and sunbathing, we assembled our leaflet bombs
and soldered handmade micro-amplifiers on to cheap cassette players.

Living the life of a privileged white brat, even if only briefly, was
depressing. Our every need was attended to by black people, all of
them embarrassingly deferential. There was no sense of defiance, no
evident spirit of revolt. This, of course, was why we were here: to
encourage rebelliousness by creating an impression, on the back of a
sensational propaganda coup, that the ANC was back in business after
its brutal suppression half a decade earlier, when most of its leaders
had been jailed or executed.

We identified several busy spots for planting our devices, and when
D-day came we checked out of our hotel and loaded all the gear,
concealed in large brown paper bags, on to the back seat of our hired
car. The timers were set to give us half an hour to get everything in
place. After that they would go off every couple of minutes.

Our first target was the market in downtown Durban, but as soon as we
pulled up at the kerb, and thankfully before we had time to begin our
work, our car was surrounded by half a dozen smartly dressed white
men. It was obvious that they were plain-clothes policemen.

The big blond one rapped on the driver’s window, and when John rolled
it down the policeman leaned forward, exposing the gun beneath his
jacket. He demanded to know what was in the bags in the back of the
car while thrusting his hand through the open window towards the
leaflet bombs. With the ticking of the timers seeming to fill the air,
evasion seemed impossible. Torture and imprisonment loomed large. To
make it worse, a small crowd had gathered to watch our humiliation.

But Ronnie had trained us well.

In a split second, John brought his elbow down sharply on the long arm
of the law, pinning the policeman to the doorframe before his
inquisitive fingers could reach our the bags.

“Do you mind,” John boomed out, angrily and authoritatively. “We’re
British tourists.” It was a stroke of genius. The cop was startled. He
withdrew his arm immediately and stepped back. A lot of thieves from
Johannesburg fenced their stolen goods at this market, he said
apologetically, and as we were driving a Joburg car with lots of bags
in the back, they decided to check us out. He glanced at our passports
and, smiling inanely, waved us on our way.

The sense of relief defies description. But was the mission
compromised? Had they noted our car number and passport details? If we
went ahead now, would they recognise the carrier bags after they
exploded, and put two and two together? If so, had we any chance of
escape?

On the other hand, we had come so far it would be a terrible let-down
to abandon everything now. So we decided to press on, but we had to
move rapidly, as the first device was only minutes from detonating. We
rushed from one location to the next, got everything in place and took
off at speed for Swaziland, where we had another, more mundane mission
to complete.

Back in London, Ronnie presented us with South African newspapers
indicating that every one of our devices did what it was supposed to.
Our mission had been 100 per cent successful.

What I didn’t know was that John and I formed just one of many
external teams of volunteers, mostly British socialists, who risked
their lives and liberty in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the
clandestine struggle against apartheid. Some, like our fellow Irishman
Seán Hosey, were discovered and suffered the fate we all feared:
torture and imprisonment.

The extent of this international contribution to the ANC’s fight for
freedom has been revealed only now, with the publication of a book of
reminiscences from nearly 40 of the recruits. These underground
activists had another thing in common: they were all white. And this
was the ultimate irony: the white racists who ruled South Africa were
so sure of their supremacy that they found it hard to imagine
privileged Europeans like us would risk our liberty to help “mere”
blacks. That gave us the critical edge and, in our case, directly
helped us complete our mission.

Kasrils, who went on to become a minister in ANC governments, has said
of the international volunteers: “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.” That is a generous
compliment. Compared with the sacrifice of black South Africans, our
contribution was modest, but I am proud to have played a part, even if
a small one, in the process of change, albeit a process that has sadly
stalled.

London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, edited by Ken
Keable with an introduction by Ronnie Kasrils, is published by Merlin
Press, £15.95