Bolton recruit: the story of anti-racist activist Ramila Patel

Bolton recruit: the story of anti-racist activist Ramila Patel
By Guest Writer | October 22, 2020
Features

https://themeteor.org/2020/10/22/bolton-recruit-the-story-of-anti-racist-activist-ramila-patel/

The story of Ramila Patel, Bolton raised trade union and anti-racist activist who was recruited to work undercover for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1980s.

In the early 1950s, many Indians from Gujarat settled in Uganda where Ramila was born in 1957. In 1962, a few months before independence, her family moved to the Ugandan capital Kampala where her father secured a job as a carpenter in a sawmill. Two of her earliest memories are of standing on the street corner watching the Independence Day parade with her mother, who was pregnant with her brother, and also, her mother discussing with neighbours the Zanzibar revolution that overthrew the Sultan in 1964. Having lived in Masindi, a remote village, her mother spoke fluent Swahili and was warned by the community of the impending threat from Idi Amin, who expelled the entire Asian community in 1972.

Ramila’s family had already left Uganda in 1966, three children going with her mother to India and two, settling with her father in Bolton, Lancashire, where he was employed in the textile mills. The family reunited after nine months, Ramila attended a local primary school and after failing the 11 plus spent the next five years at a girl’s secondary school.

Soon both parents were employed in the textile mills. They lived in a terraced house – no garden – amongst many identical streets in Bolton which she remembers the author Alan Gibbons describing as ‘a dour northern town.’ This typical L.S. Lowry type industrial landscape with tall factory chimneys belching smoke was her home for 20 years.

Ramila’s father was politically minded and as a young man, he joined the Salt March led by Mahatma Gandhi in Dandi. He was arrested with thousands of other anti-British rule protestors and spent six weeks in jail. In Bolton, he joined the Labour Party. At 18, Ramila came into contact with the local International Socialist (IS) group (from 1977 Socialist Workers Party) on a picket against the closure of her art school.

The IS were keen to involve her and much of her formative political education came through IS, attending weekly meetings, selling Socialist Worker outside the Hawker Siddeley factory early on Friday mornings and in town on Saturdays. She leafleted, joined picket lines and attended large Anti-Apartheid demonstrations in London. The Grunwick strike, which saw Asian women, led by Mrs Desai, fighting for union recognition, was particularly important and Ramila regularly boarded a bus on Sunday night in Manchester, bound for London, to join thousands of others on the Monday morning picket.

At the same time, neo-Nazis such as the National Front (NF) were growing in strength. With many Asian youth unemployed and looking for a channel to vent their frustrations, Ramila helped to set up an Asian Youth Organisation and they organised counter-demonstrations every time the NF marched in immigrant areas. She remembers being profoundly inspired by pictures of the school student uprising in Soweto in 1976 as black youth protested against being forced to learn in Afrikaans in school. She was also introduced to the ideas of internationalism and international solidarity by an old member of IS, Jack Cummings. Jack told her about fighting fascism in Spain in the 1930s in the International Brigade.

As the NF were gaining support amongst the unemployed youth, a turning point came with the Battle of Lewisham when thousands of anti-fascists and local black youth broke up an NF march. An NF march in Hyde in October 1977 was banned but with the assistance of the Greater Manchester chief constable, the NF leader, Martin Webster, was allowed a one-man march accompanied by 2,000 police. The SWP decided they would also have a lone marcher opposing Webster. Ramila was asked to be the counter-marcher and on the day jumped out with her placard walking in front of Webster.

The formation of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) created a united front that was quickly supported by tens of thousands of members and many trade unions and other organisations. “Never Again” became the slogan. When the NF had a candidate in the local election, Bolton was saturated with a mass door-to-door leafleting campaign resulting in a considerable decline in their vote. When the NF decided to have a meeting in the Bolton Town Hall in Feb 1978, a mass leafleting campaign mobilised hundreds of young Asians. A grassroots campaign, Rock Against Racism (RAR), was formed in 1977 to counter the tide of right-wing hatred.

On Saturday 29 April 1978 Ramila travelled overnight on the ANL coach to attend the Anti-Nazi League/RAR carnival, starting in Trafalgar Square and marching to Victoria Park in East London where 80,000 were gathered at the open-air RAR concert. RAR showed how it was possible to use pop culture to highlight political causes and Ramila helped with a RAR club in Bolton where teenagers were invited to ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’. Ten weeks later ANL and RAR organised a Northern Carnival against Racism in Manchester starting outside Strangeways Prison with its notorious reputation for employing prison wardens who were members of the NF. Ramila was on the platform and addressed the 15,000 strong rally; she remembers it as an emotional moment, feeling ‘an acute sense of solidarity with the crowd’ who then marched to Alexandra Park for the Rock Against Racism gig.

Whilst studying art at Manchester Polytechnic, and as a member of the Socialist Worker Student Organisation (SWSO), Ramila joined occupations against fee increases, strike pickets outside factories, and ‘Reclaim the night’ demonstrations. She joined Palestine Liberation Organisation supporters on pickets of the Zionist Society meetings and joined ‘Boycott Barclays Bank’ pickets, leafleting outside supermarkets, which sold South African products. In April 1980, as Zimbabwe won its independence, she left classes to attend a rally addressed by a Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front member. The atmosphere was electric, with everyone chanting ‘Pamberi ne Chimurenga’, ‘Forward with the Revolution.’

As sanctions against South Africa were at their height in the mid-80s, in July 1986, Ramila was approached by Ronnie Kasrils, Chief of Intelligence for UMkhonto we Sizwe, to run a ‘safe house’ in Gaborone Botswana, on the border with South Africa. Kasrils was instrumental in taking the Anti Apartheid struggle to the international community. He was the key organiser sending volunteers into South Africa to plant ‘leaflet bombs’ in the early 70s. Kasrils was impressed with Ramila’s history of fighting racism and as a London Recruit from the 80s, her brief was to establish a stable home and to operate legally without raising suspicion.

Ramila worked as a teacher at an international school in Gaborone and once a week she would also go and teach art to inmates at the Gaborone Central Prison. As a British passport holder, she could pass through the border controls operated by the South African army with ease. When necessary behaving like a tourist, she used her eyes and ears in border areas and places like the phoney ‘homeland’, the Bantustan Bophuthatswana, looking for safe crossing points into South Africa. Her safe house was used mainly by Ronnie Kasrils and Ramila would collect him from the airport wearing a blue jacket as a signal it was safe to join her. To protect his identity he was called ‘Frank’ and Ramila only learnt to use his real name after the three-and-half year mission ended in 1989 with the imminent release of Nelson Mandela.

Ramila with Sheila and Richard Attenborough, Waterford Kamhlaba 2006. Photo: Ramila PatelRamila with Sheila and Richard Attenborough, Waterford Kamhlaba 2006. Photo: Ramila Patel.

The early 1990s was a very exciting time for Ramila. Within a week of arriving at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College(UWC) of Southern Africa, Nelson Mandela was released. His daughters Zenani and Zindzi had attended the school in the 70s whilst he was in prison, and Ramila was able to celebrate Mandela’s release with the whole school at an all-day party with his grandson Mandla leading the singing and the dancing.

Currently, Ramila continues to teach Visual Arts in an art centre funded by Sheila and Richard Attenborough at Waterford Kamhlaba, Eswatini, helping to make its very diverse international body of students aware of the rich anti-Apartheid history of the school and other political and artistic developments as they have unfolded in the region. She spearheaded and supervises a Community Service project once a week to teach art to inmates from a Juvenile Detention Centre. Ramila is fully immersed in African Art having based her MA research on Swazi Material Culture. There are 18 UWCs around the world with a specific mission – “UWC makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future”.

Veronica Ford & Jeff Russon

Veronica FordVeronica Ford ( ‘Jill’ )

In the Spring of 1970 I was 22 years old, near to finishing my degree at the University College of Swansea and living with my then-boyfriend Hugh Pearce (‘Jack’). We were both active in many left-wing campaigns, particularly against the war in Vietnam and against apartheid.

We were beginning to consider what we wanted to do when we left University in the summer. I was very interested in going to Botswana to teach at a Secondary school which was trying to implement radical social and educational policies. But I had also been offered a place at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London to do an MA in Southern African studies. I was wrestling with this choice when Ruth First came to Swansea to speak at a Socialist Society meeting about the struggle for Independence in Angola. After the meeting I got chatting to Ruth and she seemed interested in the possibility of our going to live in Botswana. She asked to meet Hugh and myself the next day, and then asked us if we would be willing to go to Botswana as planned, but to also work for the ANC while we were there. And so the choice was made, really quite easily, and it is a choice which I have never ever regretted.

Read more: Veronica Ford & Jeff Russon

SACP & new ANC relationship

This is my amateur video of the reaction of delegates to the Congress of the South African Communist Party last week to their unanimous decision to reconfigure their relationship with the ANC. The singing and dancing lasted at least 15 minutes. My impression, as a guest at the congress, is that they are disgusted with the corruption in the ANC and are fed up with having to defend the indefensible because of being in government as part of the ANC.

Read more: SACP & new ANC relationship

South African Communists honour the London Recruits

 

The South African Communist Party, at its congress in Boksburg, has today (14 July 2017) honoured the London Recruits with its Special Recognition Award. Ken Keable went to the congress, as a guest, to accept the award on behalf of all the Recruits and was introduced by Ronnie Kasrils. Here is the text of his speech.

Ken Keable then and now.

AMANDLA!

Comrade chair, distinguished guests, comrades!
I am very proud to receive this award on behalf of all the London Recruits. It is a great honour for us all.
I am pleased to be accompanied on this platform by two other Recruits: comrade Ian Beddowes, who worked undercover in three of the frontline states and now lives in Johannesburg where he works on the staff of the SACP; and comrade Bob Newland, who set off leaflet bombs in Johannesburg in 1971 and spent eight dangerous weeks in South Africa in 1972, preparing for the arrival of a detachment of MK fighters by sea in a ship which, unfortunately, had to abort the mission because of engine trouble.

Read more: South African Communists honour the London Recruits

Will Gee - My Small Contribution to the Struggle

way out

This article was amended on 27 Jan 2017

I was born in NW London in 1956. My dad was in the Young Communist League (YCL) and Communist Party (CP) in the 1930s and 1940s and was an obvious influence in my formative years. My mother’s parents lived with us in a semi-detached house in Harrow. My mum’s grandfather was Scottish, and had three brothers. His eldest brother stayed on the family farm, my grandfather and his other two brothers set off for World War 1. My grandfather was the lucky one, he was gassed on the Somme and discharged in October 1916…his brothers did not come home. My mum was born 2 weeks before the end of the war – her unique name reflects both being a winsome lass and my grandad’s survival – she was christened Winnsom. Although my dad was a communist, I think my grandfather was the real rebel. He was a chauffeur, working for a variety of rich masters, but refused to let his wife or daughter (my mother) be employed in service as chamber maids or similar. This led to frequently falling out with butlers and housekeepers. As a result, my grandfather walked out of numerous jobs and my mother went to over a dozen schools.

I went to a top grammar school in Harrow, although didn’t really apply myself. When I was about 15 I became involved in the school council, and through that, Harrow Youth Council. I rapidly became exposed to broader political issues including CND and Anti-Apartheid. sport anc

Read more: Will Gee - My Small Contribution to the Struggle

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