This article was published in Spanish on 4 May 2014 in Artilleria, a weekly supplement to Correo del Orinoco (The Orinoco Post), a Venezuelan newspaper founded by Hugo Chavez. Lee Gordon is a British journalist who works for Correo del Orinoco.
LEANING back in his seat, Pete Smith glanced nervously out of the aircraft window.
He listened to the throb of the engines as the plane nosed through the London clouds and reflected on what he was leaving behind – his home, his job and his friends. And then he felt cold sweat creep down his back as he braced himself for his journey into the unknown.
This was no ordinary flight. It was 1970 and Smith had been recruited as an undercover agent in a secret war against South Africa’s Apartheid regime. A dedicated Young Communist and university student in London, he had been handpicked for a mission by the armed wing of the African National Congress, known as Umkhonto we Sizwe (meaning ‘Spear of the Nation’, or MK for short).
Noticing the young passenger was unsettled, the stewardess smiled and offered him a dry martini. It was the first time Smith had drunk a martini and he picked awkwardly at the olive as he contemplated what lay ahead.
Posing as tourists, he and his fellow recruit Ken Keable were flying to South Africa to explode specially designed bombs that would shower banned African National Congress (ANC) leaflets over city centres, and to set off devices that would broadcast ANC messages in the street.
It was a mission fraught with danger. The ANC was in a life-or-death struggle with the Apartheid regime and its operatives were branded terrorists. If caught, Smith and Keable would be tortured and spend years in a South African prison.
Until Apartheid collapsed in 1994, South Africa was a white-dominated brutally racist country. Black South Africans were forced into cheap labour so British and US firms could exploit the country’s vast gold, diamond and mineral resources. Backed by Washington, London and Western Europe, Apartheid was also on the front-line of their Cold War against the Soviet Union and Cuba, which supported the ANC.
Militant opposition in South Africa was led by the ANC. But in 1970 when Smith and Keable set off the ANC’s morale was rock bottom. Its leaders had been jailed or scattered into exile, the MK had been contained and supporters were suffering a reign of terror.
To send a message it was still alive and kicking the ANC decided to launch a covert war using scores of volunteer agents like Smith and Keable, from Britain, Holland, France, Ireland, Greece and North America. For almost 30 years a secret army of teachers, university students, factory workers, clerks, engineers, seamen and firemen waged an underground war that eventually helped turn the tide against Apartheid.
Dubbed the London Recruits and organised from a tiny office in London their job was to spread propaganda, smuggle weapons and support ANC and MK operations.
Some even took part in a failed Granma-style invasion by a small band of guerrilla fighters.
The Recruits had one decisive advantage: they were white and with US or European passports could penetrate South Africa unsuspected. Apartheid’s blind hatred of black people meant its security struggled to conceive white tourists from Britain and Europe might actually be agents helping black Africans.
Some, like Smith, were trained in the Soviet Union and Cuba. But they also had to learn on the job and more than once Smith used tricks borrowed from James Bond.
To protect against the agents giving away names under torture they were all in the dark about the scale of the London operation. It took the recent Publication of a book
by Keable, London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, for the astonishing story to emerge.
But on their way to South Africa in 1970 neither Smith nor Keable had any idea what lay ahead – only that their futures were hanging dangerously in the balance.
“I was a bit romantic, young and enthusiastic,” said Smith. “But I had studied Karl Marx so I had clear ideas. When my comrade in the Young Communist League, Ken Keable, asked if I would volunteer for some important work overseas I automatically said, ‘Yes!’ He wouldn’t give details until I agreed but I knew that whatever the job I had an internationalist duty. Back then, of course, I couldn’t imagine how things would turn out.”
They were flying to a country scarred by centuries of violence. A slave colony after Europeans landed nearly 400 years ago, it was later part of the British Empire which plundered gold and diamonds then developed the first concentration camps in a brutal war on Dutch Afrikaner settlers and black Africans, which the young Winston Churchill called “great fun”.
It gained partial independence from Britain and in 1948 imposed Apartheid rule. The Afrikaner word for separation, Apartheid was a system based on British divide-and-rule tactics and Nazi ideology. It categorised blacks as either ‘black’ for Africans who were bottom of the pile, ‘coloured’ for mixed-race, or ‘Indian’ for workers the British had imported from the Indian sub-continent.
Most blacks lived in reservations called townships, had to sweat for poverty wages in mines, factories, on farms and as domestic servants, and all were forced to carry passbooks controlling where they lived and worked. Streets, beaches, buses, sports stadiums, drinking fountains and even public toilets were segregated, and mixed race marriages banned.
In his book I Write What I Like, South African campaigner Steve Biko recalled the humiliation of medical checks before being allowed to move city: “You are made to stand naked in front of some doctors supposed to be draining pus off you, because you may be bringing syphilis to the town … Now I must feel that I am being treated like an animal, and as you enter the room … there is a big notice saying: ‘Beware – Natives in a state of undress’.”
Whites led privileged lives – the middle-class believed wealthy Western standards were their birth-right, working class whites that blacks were a hateful enemy within.
Just a handful of whites supported the ANC.
Demanding an end to Apartheid and a non-racial South Africa, the ANC worked closely with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and organisations for ‘Indian’, ‘coloured’ and ‘black’ workers.
Apartheid responded by arresting ANC leaders, banning the communist party and crackdowns that saw British-supplied tanks firing on protesters and thousands rounded up under detention-without-trial laws.
But 1960 was a tipping point. Apartheid banned the ANC altogether but elsewhere in Africa it was the year liberation movements began toppling colonial governments.
Known as the Africa Year it was also the moment the dream was born that through armed struggle, Apartheid could be next.
In a township called Sharpeville, police killed 69 protesters and soon after the MK was born. Inspired by Cuba, its small force carried out 200 attacks in just 18 months, sabotaging infrastructure and bombing military installations in retaliation and the hope of sparking a popular uprising. Casualties among white civilians were avoided – “the best hope for future race relations”, said Nelson Mandela.
Over the following decades, the Soviets funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort, training guerrillas, providing military advisors and weapons – AK-47 rifles, machine guns, pistols, grenade-launchers, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, rockets and mortars. East Germany and Czechoslovakia contributed propaganda and medical aid, Cuba gave military training and more support came from China, Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and Mozambique.
Apartheid learned new terror tactics from the French in Algeria and Vietnam, from the British in Africa and Asia and the US in South America. Black townships were bulldozed, opponents disappeared and ANC networks dispersed. At the notorious 1963 Rivonia Trial, ANC leaders including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were given life sentences. A black factory worker was jailed for two-years just for writing ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ on his mug.
A wave of strikes by black workers and students culminated in the police killing 12 black schoolchildren protesting in Soweto in 1976. The country was engulfed and hundreds of protesters were shot dead. Images of tanks confronting blacks armed with sticks and dustbin lids were beamed round the world. Global condemnation fuelled boycotts and protests. Dockworkers in Britain and Europe blacklisted South African goods and hid ANC literature into cargo bound for the country.
From exile in friendly African states, the Soviet Union and London, the ANC leadership tried coordinating events. But it took an astonishing cloak-and-dagger operation in the mid-1980s to smuggle them back.
In a scheme straight out of a spy novel, make-up artists, actors and dentists – many from Holland, disguised the fugitives, artificially aged them or even transformed them into Arab and Asian travellers. Operation Vula (meaning open the way) is also the subject of a book.
Also locked out of South Africa, the MK never penetrated in significant numbers.
Hundreds of its guerrillas spent years languishing in camps precariously supported by African governments under pressure from London and Washington to expel them.
Mostly they marked time, drilling, undergoing political education and surviving on rations supplemented by Soviet tinned meat and Chinese canned fish affectionately dubbed Mao Tse-tung. They also assisted in liberation wars in Zimbabwe – until the 1980s a white supremacist state called Rhodesia - and Angola where the Cubans decisively beat US and British-backed Apartheid troops in the 1980s in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
In the midst of all this, the London Recruits were supposed to strike vital blows against Apartheid. Masterminding the operations were fugitive MK operative Ronnie Kasrils, later a minister in Mandela’s ANC government, SACP leader Joe Slovo and Doctor Yusuf Dadoo, an avuncular, pipe-smoking SACP veteran now buried next to Karl Marx in London.
In their central London office, between piles of books and under an old, chipped bust of Lenin, they plotted to smuggle propaganda, weapons, explosives, documents, and drafted a blueprint for an audacious guerrilla landing on South Africa’s coast.
Kasrils’ wife Eleanor, a renowned MK veteran, was an operations chief, trouble-shooting and advising. Every now and again meetings adjourned to the Kasrils’ modest north London family home where the plotters sometimes broke off to watch Star Trek on television.
To frustrate eavesdroppers working for South African and British intelligence, they used code words and letters written in invisible ink that could only be deciphered using solutions of caustic soda and human blood. They met in secret locations, shaking-off security agents that tailed them by using techniques learned from the Soviets.
Ingenious devices were built to release giant ANC banners from rooftops in South African cities, sometimes using timing devices made from acid drops in a condom. False-bottomed suitcases were built to smuggle ANC literature and leaflet bombs were tested at dawn in a London park, surprising dog-walkers.
The bombs included a small explosive under a pile of leaflets placed in a bucket. Left in busy areas used by black commuters, plastic snakes, spiders or dog faeces from a toy shop were put inside the buckets to dissuade meddlers from poking around.
The operation Smith and Keable took part in was a stunning success. Coordinated across five cities and reported around the world, the explosions showered
commuters with thousands of ANC leaflets, a call-to-arms passed from hand-to-hand in townships.
“Guerrilla war has brought victory to the people of Algeria, to the people of Cuba,” the leaflets read. “Those people did not have big armies. They were like us. Guerrilla fighters organise themselves in small groups. Suddenly when the enemy is not expecting, they attack. They kill and grab the guns and disappear. You sons and daughters of the soil, you must consider yourselves as soldiers in the guerrilla war.”
Simultaneously, tape-playing devices were set off broadcasting the ANC anthem and a blood-curdling message – “[prime minister] Vorster – the black man is coming to get you!”
The effect was electric, recalled Keable, who took part in two propaganda missions:
“It seemed like nothing could stop Apartheid. It said it had buried the ANC then suddenly people were reading about leaflet bombings and it raised morale, signalled the ANC was alive, was a serious challenge and worth joining. They gave information about what the ANC was doing and how to organise. I don’t know how much of a contribution we made to ending Apartheid but the leaflet bombings lead to South Africans joining the MK.”
He added: My passport and white skin meant I felt kind of protected. Anyway, I thought it was all too well planned for us to get caught.”
But just two years after Smith and Keable’s flight to South Africa the attempted landing of a boatload of guerrillas ended disastrously. An ageing yacht bought with Moscow cash sailed down the coast from Somalia shadowed by a Soviet navy ship.
When it broke down, its Greek crew were replaced with experienced engineers handpicked by the British communist party but they couldn’t restart it and the mission was aborted.
Police grabbed several agents who had been working inside South Africa. Young Greek Alex Moumbaris, his pregnant French wife Marie-José, an Irish member of the London Young Communist League Sean Hosey, and three black South Africans were jailed. An international campaign freed Marie-José but the rest of the Pretoria Six were tortured and spent years behind bars: Hosey served five years – many in solitary confinement, Moumbaris more than seven years before dramatically escaping with two comrades. About his torture he said only that his black comrades had endured far worse treatment: “There are different levels of torture and I don’t want to compare what I suffered with what the black comrades suffered.”
Unexpectedly, the trial boosted the ANCs profile, proving its struggle had international support.
With their passports, Recruits could drive across Africa, which made them ideal gun-runners. One of the most daring operations became the subject of 2001 documentary movie, Secret Safari.
With the help of Recruits from Holland and Britain, including 19 year-old Stuart Round from Nuneaton, a converted truck was used to smuggle weapons. Packed with AK 47 rifles, Makarov pistols, grenades, TNT and limpet mines, the truck made the 11,000 kilometre trip across the continent into South Africa more than 40 times between the early 1980s and 1994. The cover was groups of tourists who knew nothing of the secret cargo and thought they were on safari.
Its first mission was aborted after a Soviet tip-off Apartheid police were waiting. In the book London Recruits, Round, who spent five years gun-running on the safari, said the leak may have been an accomplice who left a blueprint in a London taxi after a drunken night out. “It was the most challenging experience of my life,” he said. “Driving up to 18 hours-a-day, then whatever maintenance the vehicle required – all of which I had to learn as we went. Bluffing my way through police questions I didn’t know the answers to, dealing with checkpoints, border crossings, sick passengers, angry rhinoceroses and belligerent elephants.”
London Recruit Roger Allingham, a teacher who joined up through the communist party, ran a safe-house for ANC fugitives in southern Africa and smuggled weapons through the Kalahari Desert in an old car.“We handed the stuff over the [border] fence,” he recalled. “The fence was nothing more than a cattle fence not more than waist high”. Trained by the Cubans for the aborted guerrilla landing, he became an officer in the South African navy after Apartheid.
Smith, who on Kasrils’ advice had taken a job as a high school mathematics teacher in London because the long holidays meant more time for missions, was another the Recruits trained abroad. In the Soviet Union, he learned counter-surveillance and in Cuba was taught combat. “When I arrived in Cuba I was nearly 40, I smoked and drank,” he laughed. “I tried explaining to the instructor I was just too old but couldn’t find a translator. He tried teaching me summersaults while shooting a pistol and stood on my stomach to toughen me up. I spent the next week in hospital recovering.
Then I went back to the training and was immediately hospitalised again.”
Smuggling weapons, documents and running safe-houses in southern Africa, he often relied on tricks picked up from James Bond.
A hair stuck across his hotel door when he went out was a useful tripwire. If it was displaced when he got back, there was a chance his room had been turned over.
Another was to sprinkle traces of talcum powder around his suitcase. If the powder was disturbed, his suitcase had been searched.
“Looking back, I was scared a lot of the time I was undercover,” he admitted. Now 64 and working for a teacher’s union, he left MK in 1992. “But I learned to control fear. I used to say to myself: ‘Look, this might be scary but as long as you focus on what you’re doing and not on the fear, you’ve got a chance’.
Keable, who spent five years researching the book, said the full story of the London Recruits is still to emerge. Recalling a book launch in South Africa in 2012, government representatives were “very moved to meet us because our contribution came at a time when the ANC was at a very low ebb”. A memorial to the Secret Safari is planned.
“There have been many problems in South Africa but it was born into a difficult time,”
said Keable. “With the Soviet Union suddenly gone it meant the US and Britain were no longer afraid a post-Apartheid South Africa was going to be pro-Soviet. Big business felt secure and put pressure on the ANC. But whatever happened to South Africa afterwards, ending Apartheid was the main thing and although the main credit for defeating apartheid goes to the South African people, it’s important to remember the international solidarity they received, including from the London Recruits. This is because, in the 21st century, the need for international solidarity with all those fighting imperialism is greater than ever.”
The above article, as originally published in Spanish, appears elsewhere on this website.