“London Recruit” in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa in 1971. Trade union youth activist.
I was born in 1951 and brought up in the Elephant and Castle area of South London. My claim to fame is that I went to the same Junior School as Michael Caine. “Not a lot of people know that.”
Anyway, it was called John Ruskin Primary, so I stayed closer to Socialist Ideals than he did!
I left school at 15 and started work in the General Post Office (GPO). Experiences at work and my mother’s death when I was 16 led me to question what kind of society it was that put private profit before the needs of the people.
One day I was walking past a pub near the Oval when I fancied a beer. I got chatting to a bloke called Harry, who said he was in the YCL. I must have told him I was interested. He said there was a YCL Folk Concert upstairs and would I care to take a look?
Now I didn’t mind the Communism bit but Folk Music? Yuk! I was into Jazz, Blues and Soul, not all that Finger in the Ear stuff.
So I went and afterwards got talking to what I now know were members of the Brixton YCL. I joined soon after and participated in all aspects of branch activity.
After a short while I was asked to help a comrade called Pete Kavanagh. The YCL were trying to set up a TUC Youth Conference and would I:
a) help set up a London Committee;
b) help organize a Conference in Manchester;
c) lobby TUC Members to support the idea.
The photo attached is myself and Pete Kavanagh going in Congress House to meet Vic Feather*, TUC General Secretary. The Manchester Conference was a great success. We stayed with Communist Party stalwarts Ruth and Eddie Frow. The place was rammed with books. Those books later became the foundation of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.
A short while after this I was approached by Bob Allen, the YCL London Secretary. Would I like to meet someone from the ANC and help out against the struggle to overthrow the Apartheid Regime in South Africa?
This would have been 1971. He further asked me to recommend someone else. I thought of Sean Hosey, an Irish YCLer who had recently come down to London from Coventry.
We met Ronnie Kasrils, who explained what he wanted us to do. We were to fly to South Africa, smuggle in some explosives in a false bottom suitcase, learn how to detonate leaflet bombs and engage in other propaganda work.
Bearing in mind I had never been on a plane before, the furthest I’d travelled was to a few Millwall away games, so it was really exciting.
Ronnie told us to think it over, but we had no hesitation. Apartheid was evil, its philosophy borrowed directly from Nazi Race falsehoods. Ronnie (who was to become Commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe and a Cabinet Minister in the first Mandela Government) told us of the dangers and what we could expect if we were caught.
Torture and a minimum sentence of 5 years imprisonment. No remission. Training began and our severe lack of DIY skills was eventually overcome.
So in August 1971 we flew to Cape Town. The mission wasn’t without its problems. The timing devices used to detonate the bombs were all fine bar one, which had a life of its own. We set the timers for 20 minutes and they were supposed to detonate when the time was up.
But this dodgy timer sprang back and was about to explode. Without thinking I jammed my finger nail in between the timer and the detonator to prevent it going off. I could have burnt myself and no doubt we would have been arrested. A lucky escape! I wound the timer back and this time it stayed put.
These leaflet bombs were not designed to hurt anyone and indeed they never did. They were intended to let the working class know that the ANC was still alive and kicking. The bombs all worked and made headline news in all South African and Rhodesian newspapers. We arrived home safely and Ronnie was delighted.
About one year later Ronnie asked me to go back to South Africa to hand over some money and passports. On the face of it, a far easier task. However, I had just started a Teachers’ Training Course and was about to begin my first teaching practice. Sean volunteered to take my place as he had holiday owing from his work.
Neither I nor Ronnie knew he was walking into a trap. The Apartheid Security Forces had captured some comrades and managed to break the secret codes for messages. Sean was arrested, tortures and served 7 months in solitary confinement before being sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. Both myself and Ronnie were devastated.
I cleared Sean’s things out from his digs and took away anything that could be incriminating. I was hassled by their agents for a while. Followed and phone tapped but nothing too serious. After Sean was sentenced all that stopped.
Of the people that went on missions to South Africa two thirds were from the YCL, a record of which young communists should be proud. The African working class liberated South Africa. But at a time when the leaders were either in prison or exile, we kept the flame alive.
So now, 50 years later, we have a book about the London Recruits, still selling well. A feature length film about the recruits will be finished and shown this year. We have seen a rough cut and it really is very exciting. Several of the recruits are in it with actors playing our younger selves.
In addition to this, a group of recruits have written a Teacher/Pupils’ Resource Pack “The London Recruits and the Struggle Against Apartheid”. This has been awarded a grant by the NEU union and it is hoped that both a PDF and a written version will be in schools this year.
The Young Communist League was my university. Before I joined I knew capitalism was wrong but I didn’t know how to go about changing things. The YCL made me who I am today.
Last year I rejoined the Communist Party. Another good decision by me.
*Ed – Vic Feather was secretly in the employ of the Information Research Department, an anti-Communist propaganda branch of the Foreign Office, according to Lashmar (1988), Wilford (1998) and others.