Kurt Karl: Gunrunner, 1978-1980


I have written a fictionalized account of my time in Swaziland and Mozambique, Our Man in Mbabane: A novel based on a true story (under my pen name, K. E. Karl). See https://kekarl.com/book for more information. I’m hoping it reaches a wide audience for two reasons. First, it is a reminder of the ugliness of apartheid and provides a concise history of South Africa. Particularly in the US, there is widespread ignorance of apartheid-era South Africa and Africa in general. Second, I hope the book can inspire young people to consider spending at least part of their life dedicated to helping others who are less advantaged. This might be, for example, in the Peace Corps or an organization helping poor people. After my time in Swaziland, I had a long successful career as an economist, so such work need not derail one’s other ambitions. Profits from the self-published book, should I be so fortunate to achieve any, will be donated to worthy causes.


The following is the actual history of what I did in those days, to the best of my recollection. 


I became politically active when I was attending the University of Oregon in 1973/74. Besides anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, I was active in supporting the United Farm Workers. This involved picketing stores selling non-union grapes, handing out leaflets, demonstrations, etc. At university, I took classes in political economy and became interested in the Marxist theory of economic determinism. 

 So, after getting a degree in Sociology at UofO, I attended the London School of Economics to get an M.Sc. in Economics. I thought LSE was a left-leaning university, but I was about six years too late; it was very conservative. The Marx class I took there was pure matrix algebra, with no political implications. This was unsatisfactory, but I still got the master’s degree and landed a research assistant job at Birkbeck College in London. My thinking at the time was to enjoy more of London and participate in British left-wing politics. While at LSE, I had little time for anything more than joining counter-demonstrations at National Front rallies. The left-wing political organizations in the UK were much more diverse and practical than most of the groups in the US. I joined a union, the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, and encouraged other RA’s to do the same. I also became active in the Chile Solidarity Campaign, which was aligned with the Communist Party of Great Britain. Again, my role with the CSC was basic—handing out leaflets, demonstrations, making protest signs, etc. 


In the summer of 1977, as my job was ending, I was approached by a member of the CPGB (who prefers to be unnamed but let’s call him Walter) that had heard about my CSC activities and wanted to recruit me to work for the African National Congress. My assignment was to travel to South Africa and Swaziland, pretending to be a tourist. Then, while in Swaziland, I was to get a job, buy a car, and transport armaments into South Africa for the comrades in Umkhonto we Sizwe. I accepted the challenge; it was the right thing to do, and I felt I could now make a larger contribution to a worthy cause. I felt honored to have been chosen to do this covert mission for the ANC. Walter gave me the code name Polo, after the mints which were popular in Britain at that time. We met briefly with Joe Slovo in London before I departed. I can’t recall anything from that meeting, but assume it was a welcoming pep talk.


I told all my friends and family that I had a job in Swaziland in the import/export business and if it didn’t work out, I’d be back in London in a couple of months. I thought two months would be enough to find a job, or not. I departed for South Africa in late September 1977, shortly after Steve Biko’s death. I play acted as a tourist—even visiting the Voortrekker’s monument (what could be a better cover than that?)—and then headed to Swaziland. I’m sure I did a little tourism there, but, like in South Africa, it was perfunctory. I was looking for a job almost immediately and greatly feared my mission would be a failure—I really had no confidence that I could land a job there. But I was lucky; an expat in the Swaziland Central Statistical Office wanted to hire a qualified candidate to replace him when he left Swaziland in a year. There were open positions in the CSO that I could fill before he left. His position was the head of the External Trade Section of the CSO, the unit that produced the import statistics that were used in the Southern Africa Customs Union to apportion Swaziland’s share of the customs revenue (so my initial lie about my job in Swaziland was prescient!). For three years, my colleagues and I made sure that the data included the highest possible realistic estimates of imports to ensure Swaziland maximized its share of revenue to the detriment of South Africa. 


I had met my two handlers in Swaziland, code names Job and (as I recall) Michael. They told me to get a permanent place to stay before buying a car. I began working in November 1977, and finally, in March 1978, the government assigned me housing. Job then provided me with about three thousand rand and I set off for Johannesburg to buy a vehicle.


At the used car lot, I told the salesperson I was looking for a vehicle that could transport things like furniture. He showed me two panel vans, and I chose the beige Toyota Corolla because it had better visibility and handled better than the Ford one. Panel vans have an empty cavity beneath the back platform where the rear seat would be if they had one. The cavity is sealed off with a metal plate with two holes in it. I poked my hand into that cavity and decided it had a good chance of being large enough to transport munitions. 


After returning to Swaziland, Job and Michael took the Toyota somewhere to get the metal plate welded. When they returned they brandished that metal piece aloft; the two holes were now welded shut with additional metal and painted beige like the rest of the plate. I took it and returned to my government housing unit. My housemate happened to be a carpenter teaching at the Swaziland College of Technology, so I borrowed a drill and put six holes in the top of the metal plate so I could remove and replace it easily. I also purchased some outdoor carpet of greenish color and glued it to the platform and the vertical metal plate, leaving slits for the six screws. Now, even the screws were hidden and best of all, it looked incredibly boring—a beige Toyota panel van with an ugly green carpeted interior. The van also had windows all around, making it look like a station wagon (estate wagon). Glancing through the windows revealed an empty cargo area. This may be the same vehicle mentioned by Siphiwe Nyanda as ‘a natural’ in International Brigade Against Apartheid, edited by Ronnie Kasrils. I left it behind with Job and Michael when I departed from Swaziland in late 1980, so it continued to be useful after my departure.


I feared the now hidden space would be too small, but Job and Michael were able on one occasion to put into it five AK-47s and five Scorpion pistols with ammunition. So, this was not a large space, but it was useful for the next three years, given the MK operations from 1978 through 1980. 


I am in awe of the deeds of other comrades, some of whom died, others were jailed, and some had narrow escapes from the South African Police and Defense Force. This is documented in International Brigades Against Apartheid and, of course, in the London Recruits, edited by Ken Keable. My time in Swaziland was humdrum in comparison, fortunately for me. 


On an initial reconnaissance mission, to locate a place to bury arms, I stupidly crossed through a barbed wire fence and was quickly confronted by a rifle-wielding farmer who owned the land. I talked my way out of that, saying I was a tourist looking to spend a night under the stars. The farmer even invited me to his house, but I had no illusions; my white skin made him friendly towards me. I learned to never go near a fence and to find areas that provided cover to dig a hole. I used a shovel with a handle—much more effective than a camping shovel—and carried toilet paper into small wooded areas on less-traveled roads; the TP and shovel served as my ‘cover’ for disappearing into a grove. I have no recollection of where these drop places were, but it was easy to find spots to bury munitions—there were plenty of back roads with small woods within a short distance of the road’s shoulder. These were all in the region between Swaziland and Johannesburg; my cover story was always a wine-buying mission in Johannesburg. Even the shoveling was easy; the ground in these wooded areas was soft from years of leaves and needles descending from the trees. I made five journeys into South Africa and successfully hid munitions in various wooded areas. All these buried munitions were discovered; my maps for locating the cache of arms were always clear enough to ensure MK comrades could find them. 


A sixth mission entailed traveling to Lesotho to deliver arms directly to some comrades who lived near Maseru. I arrived in Maseru and waited until a comrade met me and we exchanged a coded message. We then drove outside of Maseru. I assumed I would hand the weapons over to this one person, but when we arrived, there was a greeting party of four or five comrades, and this upset me; anyone of them could have easily identified a tall, white American driving a beige Toyota Corolla panel van with Swazi plates. Swaziland had a population of about 500,000 in 1980. If one of them had been captured, I would have needed to leave Swaziland abruptly. To compound the upset, I discovered a single Scorpion bullet in a bag Job had given me to pass along to the Lesotho comrades. If I had been searched at the Swazi border, I would have likely spent a long time in jail. But, in fact, I was never searched anywhere. My white skin was protection against suspicions from the SA authorities. 


At another time, I was giving a ride to a South African student who was studying at the University of Swaziland and we spotted Job and Michael walking along the road. She said, “See those two? That’s X and Y and they’re ANC.” My heart sank because that meant their covers as refugees were not solid. My cover was secure; none of my friends from Swaziland ever suspected me of anything. However, one American quasi-journalist visiting Swaziland for a prolonged stay spread the rumor that I was a CIA agent. What he had against me, I have no idea, but it was a deeply upsetting rumor for me: my arrival out of nowhere to find a job in Swaziland was unusual and drew attention to me and, of course, as a socialist, I did not want to be designated as working for the CIA.


The “scary” incidents I had—the farmer with the rifle, the Lesotho delivery, Job and Michael being identified as ANC, and the bullet in the bag—pale in comparison with the close calls that many other international recruits faced. Looking back, I was very lucky: I easily got a job, the panel van was a natural for transporting munitions, the missions were all successful and relatively simple affairs, and no other comrade I met was captured before I left Swaziland.


After two years in Swaziland, I vacationed in the UK and the US. When I stopped in London, I was debriefed by Walter and he took me to see Joe Slovo. Joe did not recognize me until Walter reminded him who I was. Despite that, it’s difficult to explain how honored I felt; that meeting helped keep me going for another year. Joe thanked me for my excellent work; all my first five missions were successful. 


My assignment was a lonely affair—I rarely had contact with Job or Michael and communicated with Walter only via coded letters, a slow procedure. In my debrief with Walter in late 1979, I mentioned my growing alienation from my mission. The outcrop of this was extra meetings with Job; we went to the drive-in theater a couple times together. It wasn’t enough to convince me to stay another year in Swaziland, especially since I only had one gunrunning mission in 1980; I didn’t feel needed. Moreover, I was burnt out. 


After three years working in Swaziland, I was drained. It is not in my nature to lie, but I was doing it daily with people I liked and respected. Also, I was not very active in my ANC work; it was six missions over three years. My CSO work was going well—I was made the Acting Chief Statistician for the final six months—but government work is fatiguing; it is hard to get things done and the wheels turn slowly. So, I was relieved to leave. On returning to London, I debriefed with Walter. He told me I had taken the limpet mines in for the SASOL refinery mission, perhaps only to boost my spirits; I was pretty dejected by then. (The attack on the SASOL refineries on 31 May/1 June 1980 was a highly successful MK mission. It was politically very important because of the international campaign for an oil embargo of South Africa; the SASOL refineries converted coal (which South Africa had in abundance) into oil, which it lacked. Two MK teams placed limpet mines on eight fuel storage tanks at two different refineries, causing R66 million in damages. See https://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/sasol-plant-under-attack). He tried to recruit me for another mission to South Africa for a rocket attack on a military installation, but I was too exhausted to contemplate it. I still had socialist leanings, and I was unemployed, so I expressed an interest in working in Mozambique. Meanwhile, after a few months of unemployment and my cash reserves running low, I was happy to get a job in Philadelphia, PA with an economic consulting firm; I could finally begin to replenish my savings.


A few months later, I started getting letters from Ruth First about a consulting job in Mozambique, analyzing their transport system. Her request to employ me in Mozambique was enormously flattering; I assumed this was a reward for my previous successful ANC work. Also, I was sympathetic to the socialist governments, which was not always the case with international consultants. 


I arrived in Mozambique in July 1982 and began diligently working on the project. I was staying in the home of Gary Littlejohn and his family and working for Ruth at the Centro de Estudos Africanos (CEA) at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane. I began with interviews in Swaziland of customers of Mozambican rail and Maputo port. Prior to the second stage of the project, interviews of South African customers, Ruth invited me to her and Joe’s house for lunch. After lunch, Joe and I were left alone, and he proposed an ANC mission to me: when interviewing the South African Rail authorities, I was to ask for a tour of their computer room; Joe hoped to find the location of the SAR computer for a later sabotage mission. This must have been the real reason I was invited to work at the CEA; I did not have a Ph.D, nor was I an expert in transport economics. However, by 1982, South African government officials were suspicious of everyone foreign. When I requested the tour, the SAR official simply looked at me with narrowed eyes and did not reply. I moved on to the rail project work; Polo had failed in his final mission. 


A short while later, Ruth was assassinated. Ruth had declared the day an optional work-in-office day and the Littlejohns and I were working at home; we heard about her death a short time afterwards. The letter bomb she opened killed her instantly. Others were injured, including Aquino de Bragança, the founder of the CEA. There was a large crowd at the CEA memorial service. Joe and Ruth’s three daughters, Shawn, Gillian, and Robyn came from the UK. They and Joe were distraught, and everyone was stunned; looks of disbelief filled our faces. Ruth was an incredibly vibrant, vocal, charismatic person; it was difficult to comprehend that she was no longer with us.

One takeaway I had from my Mozambican work was that socialism doesn’t work; there was little food, the electricity was often off, there was no hot water, and the elevator in the Littlejohns’ building did not operate. My investigation of the Mozambican rail system revealed a lot of incompetence or indifference; entire trains would be lost, and customers did not know when, or even if, their exports would depart from the port of Maputo. I became disillusioned with socialism and stopped being politically active and concentrated on my career as an economist and my family obligations. Today, in retirement, I donate to worthy causes, and do volunteer work. I do what I can to help the Democrats to push against the Republicans. The issues of apartheid South Africa are, sadly, still relevant today in South Africa and the US. Here in the US, restrictions on voting are targeted at people of color. Trump has encouraged white supremacists, racism, and violence. Our democracy is under threat, so I help organizations that encourage voter registration and voting. Though I am not highly politically active, I admire those who have been able to remain committed to improving the world through worthy activities; I personally just couldn’t sustain it. But, from the final paragraph in Our Man in Mbabane, “…I have no regrets about supporting the ANC in its struggle against apartheid. It was a just cause, and I completed my tasks as requested to the best of my ability. I am proud to have had the privilege to do so. Would I do it again, knowing all I know about South Africa? Absolutely.”


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