On 24 July 2013, Liverpool City Council unanimously adopted this proposal:
Liverpool and South Africa
Council recognises the contribution of seamen, building workers, trade unionists, Christian Churches and other progressive forces from Liverpool in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
In particular Council applauds the bravery of our citizens who risked life and liberty to work underground for the African National Congress in South Africa in the 1960s and 70s, as recorded in the recently published book “London Recruits”.
In recognition of their actions and our city’s active commitment to the fight against injustice, in whatever form, it asks the Cabinet Member for Culture and Tourism to bring forward proposals to erect a commemorative plaque at a suitable location in the city.”
Roger O'Hara made the statement below. He writes:
"Bill and Les McCaig attended the meeting as well as Eric’s son and daughter. The statement I made was very well received and given a long sustained response from all the members."
("Eric" refers to Eric Caddick, who died in December 2012. Unfortunately, there are some errors in Roger's statement; the ship was called Avventura, not Aurora, and Sean Hosey served five years in prison, not nine. Roger's account of the fate of the MK fighters, and their number, may also be incorrect - Ken Keable).
Statement to Liverpool City Council on the Activities of Some Liverpool Seamen 17-July-2013
By Roger O’Hara
Mr Mayor, Lord Mayor and Councillors can I first of all thank you for supporting the proposal to erect a commemorative plaque to those Liverpool seamen involved in the struggle against the hateful apartheid system and for giving me the honour to address the meeting on the matter.
I would hope this gesture will also be seen as a tribute to all those many others involved in the anti-apartheid campaign, by taking part in the demonstrations, the boycotts of the sporting teams and produce or the shop stewards in the Merseyside car factories and docks who hid the ANC materials in the cars and other cargos destined for South Africa.
Those who were around at the time will recall racism was very much present here and very much more so in the US. It could be said, with confidence, the long anti-apartheid struggle not only helped to end the hated system; it also brought change to people’s attitude on race in general.
Having said that, the stories in the book, London Recruits - the Secret War against Apartheid, tell a unique part of the campaign against the South African Government. They are real experiences, told for the first time, of a group of men and women who put their own freedom in danger to work for the African National Congress.
At that time, black people had no leadership; Mandela and other ANC leaders were in jail. The intention of those ANC members, still free, was to keep the organisation’s aims and name in the minds of the people. The majority of those involved were recruited to transport cases full of ANC literature. They then created small explosive devices that, when detonated, distributed the thousand of leaflets over the heads of the black workers who were standing at bus stations waiting to be transported back to the townships.
The story of George Cartwright, Eric Caddick, Pat Newman and Gerry Wan was quite different, as was, to some degree, that of Bill McCaig. All of these individuals were ex-seamen and were from this city. The first three, at very short notice, were recruited to carry out undercover operations for the ANC. Within a few days they travelled to London, and then flew out to join a ship in the Somali port of Mogadishu. The vessel was the Aurora, a luxury yacht previously owned by President Roosevelt. Their immediate task was to prepare the ship for a voyage down the East African coast in order to transport 20 young freedom fighters to a place on the South African coast to join the armed wing of the ANC.
Unfortunately, as they sailed down the coast, the ship engines developed further problems. This meant they had to call into Mombasa, Kenya, to try to carry out repairs. Due to a lack of spares this proved impossible. When the 20 young men attempted to travel over land, unfortunately, five were caught and killed by the South African police. Following this incident, the government put out massive media coverage boasting how the ANC had miserably failed in an attempt to land saboteurs on the coast. Those of us who were involved were very disappointed. But, some years later we were informed, by ANC members, who were studying at Liverpool University, that we shouldn’t see the episode as a failure because the government media had alerted the population the ANC was not dead and while Mandela might be in prison the ANC was still active. This news was dramatic as it gave the rank and file ANC members their confidence back.
As I referred to earlier, Gerry Wan’s story was different. He was a Liverpool born black seaman who worked on the Union Castle line. He sailed out of Southampton to Durban on a regular basis. He would carry messages, documents and sometimes large amounts of money that he left in `post boxes’ for the ANC to pick up later. As he once said, he realised, if he was caught and being black, the regime would not jail him, but treat him much worse.
Billy McCaig’s role was more similar to those stories told in the book but with the added element that he was tasked with preparing the reception when the men from the Aurora landed.
Unfortunately one of the others involved in this side of the events, Sean Hosey, was captured and served nine year in prison. (ed. note - 5 years inprison)
Last December, at a military parade in Pretoria, the South African government gave an indication of its views on the activities, when the President awarded MK medals to the three people who had suffered long prison sentences for their involvement. It has also agreed that any paraphernalia from the Secret War will be installed in a special section to be erected in the Rivonia Museum.
In conclusion, I would like to say that I see this decision as a fitting tribute to some brave men who acted in the internationalist tradition of those who went to Spain in the 1930s.
I hope a suitable prominent site for can found for it. A suggestion has been made that a suitable place could be the Museum of Liverpool where it could be viewed by many local and international visitors.