Ken Keable writes: I am delighted to publish this article that John O’Malley sent me in November 2013. It is written by John O’Malley with amendments by Joy Leman. At the time the book was published, in February 2012, I had never heard of either of them. I know that there are many other unknown Recruits still out there and I would be delighted to publish their stories on this website.
John and Joy arrived in South Africa on 19 January 1973 and left on 1 February.
At the start of 1973 I was approached by a friend, let’s call him Larry, and asked whether I might consider carrying out a political assignment abroad. After meeting and discussion it became clear that the destination was South Africa and that it was thought that the project was best done by a couple, as this would be less likely to attract security interest. At the time I was married, had two small children, was active in community politics in North Kensington and was a member of the Labour Party.
I asked an activist friend, Joy Leman, a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, if she would be involved and she agreed. This was a time of political activism involving direct action both in the work place and on local issues such as housing and the occupation and ultimately the liberation of the ‘private’ squares, green spaces in the Notting Hill area of London. But protest and demonstrations against injustices elsewhere in the world were considered equally important. The campaign in Britain to boycott imported goods from South Africa was an indicator of how the struggle against apartheid could be helped by small everyday actions. To be asked to print and post out leaflets which might also help in the struggle seemed a basic, normal part of a political campaign. To do this in South Africa, under the noses of the apartheid regime, was a step further! Even in Britain at that time, there were spies from the South African government ready to report any sign of potential opposition to the regime. This meant that all aspects of the plan had to be kept totally secret, even from close friends and family. Throughout the project, we had no contact with anyone else involved or indeed knew who they were.
At the time of the trip I was the Director of one of the Home Office funded Community Development Projects, in Canning Town, the docklands part of Newham. Joy had just started teaching at the London College of Printing at the Elephant and Castle.
We were asked to travel to Johannesburg carrying a sports bag with a secret compartment in which was hidden a concealed text in Xhosa together with sheets of addresses. Once established, we were to reproduce the text, put a copy in each envelope and mail them all out at the same time. We were warned that there were serious security risks. I particularly remember that we were advised not to discuss our day to day plans in the hotel but only in the open air, to wear latex gloves when handling paper and envelopes to avoid leaving fingerprints and to do nothing to draw attention to ourselves. It was impressed upon us that the ANC was at a low ebb, with many key personnel in prison, in exile or eliminated altogether. For this reason, it was emphasised that even though the mail out was substantial, it had to be carried out discreetly so as not to attract attention. The details would be crucial, such as the use of a wide variety of envelopes, and then posting them in as many different mailboxes as we could locate.
We took an evening flight from Heathrow, arriving in Johannesburg the next morning after a stopover in Kenya. It was agreed that we would pass through passport control separately to minimise the chance of us being picked out together by security. Joy maintains this was the most nerve wracking moment of the trip – trying not to look as if we knew each other! The reason for our visit, had we been asked, was to explore the possibilities of getting work as teachers in South Africa if we decided to emigrate. I don’t remember which one of us carried the bag – it was probably Joy. Once through the checks we met up and took a cab to a hotel suggested by Larry. Our first shock was to discover that the hotel did not exist and had been closed down some time before. However, the cab driver proposed an alternative and we registered there for a night.
The following day, we moved to a centrally placed block of apartments and rented a unit on one of the upper floors. We started to assemble the materials that we needed. We hired a car as this enabled us to travel directly from the underground car park to our floor without having to go through the staffed reception area and we could also transport the bulky items we needed without anyone seeing.
We had no prior idea of what method we would use to produce our document, but we started to check out the cost of getting a duplicator or early photocopier. Luckily we found an ancient small Gestetner duplicator in a second hand shop that looked as if it could be coaxed into service with a little love and attention. We smuggled this into our apartment together with reams of paper, ink, stencils, latex gloves, assorted packets of envelopes and a portable typewriter, (also second-hand).
Some of the universal skills of the left at that time involved the production of leaflets and stuffing envelopes, so this was familiar work. We probably printed and posted out maybe 2000 or so leaflets – it seemed quite a lot, but it might have been less. The text was certainly in Xhosa but there may also have been versions in Zulu. Our unfamiliarity with the languages may have resulted in typing errors. Even though we tried to be careful in proof reading the stencils, we ran the risk of getting the ANC the undeserved reputation of being illiterate as well as subversive and active!
The noise of typing and duplicating was definitely a problem – pre ‘new technology’! We needed to guard against drawing attention to what could be seen as unusual activities for holiday makers. In particular we could not use the electric drive of the duplicator as that would produce a characteristic thump-thump-thump to reverberate through the building. Instead we had to turn the handle for each leaflet, a slower, quieter approach, laborious and tiring, but it helped us conserve each stencil and reduce the need to type yet another copy.
The apartment was not serviced and we were not under immediate pressure to conceal our activities. But it was prudent to be clean and tidy and lock away our equipment and, of course, the completed envelopes at the end of each work session.
Our main task was to make sure we could get the leaflets into the post. So, we toured round Johannesburg putting collections of assorted envelopes into each of the post boxes that we had carefully identified over the previous few days. Mostly we did this by car, looking over our shoulders to see if we were being noticed or followed. We adopted a casual but speedy approach, with Joy moving from car to post box, posing as a secretary posting business letters, hoping no one would ask the obvious question - why use so many different post boxes?!
The next job was to dispose of the evidence....to find an unobtrusive method of dismantling our leaflet factory - again without attracting unwanted questions. Finally, our only visit to the South African countryside was to find an isolated spot where we could dump the equipment. The last act was to park the car on a deserted bridge above a river and to take the duplicator and typewriter, both quite solid and heavy objects, and to tip them over the parapet into the water below.
We have no way of knowing whether the leaflets we posted arrived safely, or whether the message of encouragement and renewal had the impact hoped for, even in the short term. However, it must be admitted that we were both relieved to get out of South Africa undetected.
Even though the nature of our task did not enable us to see much of Johannesburg and its surroundings, nevertheless we could see all the signs of the divided apartheid community with the separation of the population clearly labelled and enforced. My enduring memories are of each building in the centre of town being guarded all night by black night watchmen when all others had departed for their settlements and the horrific sight of the daily refuse collection, seen from our apartment balcony, being carried out by men carrying heavy bins and being forced to run hard to keep up with the pace of the lorry.
Following our return to the UK we both resumed our normal lives. One unforeseen problem had been to avoid acquiring a suntan in the South African sunshine when our ‘cover stories’ to explain absence from work and other activities had placed each of us in the grey north European climates of a typical January...My story was that I had been attending a conference in Switzerland. Joy’s story was that she had taken a trip to Sweden at the end of the Xmas holidays, before resuming her teaching job.
Apart from a single feedback session with Larry, we had no further contact with the ANC or anyone else involved with the programme – until a discreet social gathering in London in 2002 and then a phone call from Eddie Adams in 2012 regarding the publication of the book on the ‘London Recruits’.....
This led to the amazing discovery that several close friends and work colleagues had also been London Recruits but had never revealed this - the code of confidentiality had been so solid that each of us had completely sealed off the experience from all aspects of our lives – until the book and the multiple meetings following that. In fact, although we both lived in the same shared housing scheme for the next twenty years I don’t think we discussed our “adventure” again until we had to collaborate in producing this note.
Postscript from Joy
My involvement as a ‘London Recruit' was the consequence of a political awareness which developed over several years – starting with my experience as a student at Coleg Harlech in North Wales. This was a residential workers’ education college – the Welsh equivalent of Ruskin College - which gave ‘mature’ students the chance to catch up on higher education. I had started off in Cardiff as a struggling young actress until the sudden death of my mother prompted me to change direction and to search for ideas to explain the world. At Coleg Harlech, political attitudes of incoming or outgoing students were defined as follows: ‘if you went in pink, you came out red. If you went in red, you came out pink’. I went in ‘pink’! I then went on to York University in 1968 – participating in the student protests and occupations of the time. I joined the International Socialists & then in London hoping to find work as a teacher in further education, also became involved in local community campaigns.
The plan was outlined in the darkness of a car parked in a side street in the winter of 1972/73 – that I should go to South Africa with another activist, John O’Malley, in order to distribute leaflets which would help to fan the flickers of hope in a desperate situation in the fight against apartheid. The ANC had been badly hit by the regime - a leaflet distribution could suggest that the government had not succeeded in annihilating all opposition to its vicious system. So – we set off on the project as described above....It was hard to remember the details so many years later, especially after stripping them from memory in order to protect not only ourselves but any other anonymous links.
However, it was an amazingly optimistic and positive discovery, on the publication of the book in 2012, to find that a person I had worked with, shared an office with and often taught with, for ten years at the London College of Printing, Mary Chamberlain, had also gone to South Africa as a ‘London Recruit’ and we had never spoken of our experiences to each other!!