As our plane touched down in Johannesburg, it was surrounded by police cars. This time, our luck had run out. We made the decision to leave the plane separately, convinced they were looking for a couple, us. Individually, we smiled at the hostess (as they were then called), nodded (but no eye contact) at the policemen waiting to come on board, and walked through into the concourse of the airport. Whoever, or whatever, had alerted the police, we seemed to have got away with it. Looking back, the police would have had passenger lists or would have boarded the plane before disembarkation if they had suspected subversives were on board. But at the time, we were paranoid and terrified. We didn’t start breathing until the London-bound plane was well out of South African airspace.
We had been sworn to secrecy. Lives were at risk if we spoke about our mission. This experience had to be buried and forgotten. We told no one. If asked whether I’d been to Africa, I would talk about a short holiday Carey and I had taken in Morocco. It was a useful evasion. Eighteen years after my visit, I was living in Barbados, waiting to watch Nelson Mandela walk free. His release was delayed, I had to pick up my children from school, ferry them to ballet or piano or gym or whatever after-school activity. In the evening, I caught up with the news. The children were in bed and I was alone in the house, apart from sunken memories and an overpowering emotion which I wanted to share, but couldn’t. I was so used to bottling up this experience, once more could make no difference. Besides, Mandela walking free was a world away from the mission I had undertaken. Had I helped? I didn’t know. Buried deep, it was a puny effort compared with the sacrifices that others had made with their liberty and their lives. I liked to think I had made a small difference, but there was no one to ask. As Nelson Mandela walked from prison, I couldn’t say, ‘oh, by the way, did I tell you about…?’ It was vainglorious, and inappropriate.
I tried to explain to my children what apartheid had been, and what a unique person Nelson Mandela was. Barbados had been independent for twenty years, and the ingrained racism there, a more informal apartheid, but no less powerful, was taking time to wash out. Young though they were, my children had become aware of race, had asked on more than once occasion why some of their black Bajan school friends never went to white Bajan friends’ houses. Yet they were surrounded by black children, black people and black authority figures. My youngest daughter was asked to draw her family, and she did, Mummy, Daddy, sisters, grandparents, all in a line, yellow, spiky hair, brown faces. They were aware, but they couldn’t understand racism, or apartheid. ‘But why?’My nine year old was incredulous.
I wanted to write to Ronnie, to congratulate him, but did not have an address. When he became Deputy Minister for Defence, I could have written c/o the Ministry – but to say what? He would be a busy man, why waste his time with a letter – remember me? Of course he wouldn’t remember me.
So nothing happened, and I said nothing. If a question came up about visiting Africa, I would again spiel out my Moroccan trip. I did confess once, to a colleague whose research interest was South Africa, but as the words came out of my mouth they sounded like make-believe, fantasy. It was all too improbable. What I was saying did not fit into any familiar narrative of recent South African history.
I continued my silence, and the longer the distance, the more impossible it was to say anything. How do you start that conversation? I told my oldest daughter, at some point, what her father and I had done, but I’m not sure it registered. And, indeed, I had become distant from it. It sat, unprocessed, in my memory, raw data without the revisioning of time. I had neither the permission nor the language to investigate it. And what was there to investigate? I had done this, once. I was proud of it. As I got older, and became a mother, and therefore a worrier, I was awfully glad I hadn’t been caught. And if I began along that road, I thought of all those who had lost their lives, and my contribution, and my selfish relief at having got away with it, put me to shame.
In 2009 I saw an obituary of Eleanor Kasrils, Ronnie’s wife. At the same time, a very old friend of mine, active in the Palestinian campaign, who knew Ronnie, gave me his email.
I have been meaning to get in touch for the last twenty years (I wrote), although I am not sure that you will remember me. My then husband, Carey Harrison, and I were privileged to have been able to help the ANC in 1972 by bringing into South Africa, and distributing, some pamphlets. You were our contact.
It was a wonderful moment when the regime fell and I thought of you then, and many times since. Most recently, I was upset to hear of the death of Eleanor. I have a very vivid memory of you both coming to our house with your sons, who were then very small boys…
He didn’t reply immediately, but passed my email on to Ken Keable, who was editing a book about what became known as the ‘London Recruits’. It was about to go to press, but I was given two-hundred words. A week or so later, Ronnie replied.
Thank you too for providing Ken Keable with your important piece about Carey and your mission to South Africa. You assisted us at an important time in our liberation struggle for which the free people of South Africa are eternally grateful… You both were responsible for a very brave deed and can be justly proud…
London Recruits: the Secret War against Apartheid was published earlier this year. It had had a long genesis. In 2005 Ken Keable, one of the recruits, decided to track down others and persuade them to write their stories. With help from Ronnie Kasril and the old networks of the left, a surprising number were located and many of them agreed to contribute to the book.
These stories were not easy to compose. Everyone was reluctant to appear to aggrandize themselves, acutely aware of the far greater sacrifices that others had made for the cause. For this reason, some chose to remain silent. Resuscitating a buried secret is never easy, and to construct a narrative of youth from the perspective of middle age is complex, particularly one from the left where dreams and ambitions had floundered across time and needed to be reconciled. In this case, however, the anti-apartheid cause had been successful and one contributory factor for this was the level of collaboration, national and international – a message that comes through with vivid force in the book and which was the reason why, I suspect, many chose to talk. The recruits were recruited through London, but they were by no means all Londoners nor even British. Our brigade was small and multinational.
The stories come across as raw, honest, immediate and personal. We did it because we were committed. All had histories of activism, some more than others. Many had been brought up in political families, or had been politicized by the struggles of the 1960s. All were passionate about politics, none would have gone without that commitment, and confidence that it was right. There were other factors involved in the decision to go. Pride that we were trusted was one. ‘I wished I could say for sure’, wrote Katherine Levine, ‘that our mission played a significant part in the struggle against apartheid. I was honoured to have been trusted…’
We were also young, full of ‘youthful bravado’ as Stuart Round described it. ‘I have sometimes wondered exactly why I went’, Graeme Whyte reflected, ‘… I knew I was being asked for help, but also being offered an opportunity. I had the chance to have a real adventure, to do something exciting and memorable’. The sentiment was echoed by Daniel Ahern, who undertook several assignments. ‘If you’re working as a clerk in an artificial cream factory’, he said, ‘you’re not going to turn down an adventure like this. Politics did not enter into this decision directly.’
And it was an adventure. For many it was the first time on a plane or abroad, and the shock of the cultural new and of apartheid are apparent in the recollections. Indeed, these tales provide unique witness statements of the regime at that period, and of young people struggling to assimilate what they saw. Alice McCarthy (a pseudonym) had just arrived when they saw a car deliberately driven into a black South African. ‘I was not psychologically prepared for such things’, she wrote:
Witnessing someone trying to injure or kill another person was not within our experience… I realize, thinking back that I must have been a bit of a liability in the first few days.
Graeme Whyte recalled seeing a white man punch a black man in the face:
The black man sat on a bench holding his bloody mouth rocking backwards and forwards. I think he was crying. I could feel his dreadful frustration. We all knew there was nothing he could do. The white man was untouchable.
Many blundered against the regime, and recount hair-raising encounters from which quick wits, and their whiteness, provided lucky escapes. Graeme Whyte and Denis Walshe, unused to hotel routines, hadn’t realized that the maids held pass keys until one entered their room while they were preparing their leaflet ‘bombs’. They showed her the leaflet, and had to entrust her with their lives. She did not betray them. Many of the recruits made repeated visits. Only three – Sean Hosey, and Alex and Marie-José Moumbaris – were captured, tortured and imprisoned. They were true heroes. Most of us were never caught.
Neither I nor Carey, nor any of those in the book (and it is by no means comprehensive – more recruits have been coming forward since its publication) had any idea about the others at the time, apart from those with whom we went as partners. We had all suppressed our memories, kept the secret buried deep, had no knowledge that we had been part of a wider recruitment. But over the years when the machinery of the ANC and its presses had been destroyed, from the mid 1960s until the mid 1970s, we had helped to keep the message alive through regular and repeated propaganda efforts, using a variety of ruses and devices – exploding leaflet ‘bombs’, banners unfurled, loudspeaker broadcasts. The mechanisms were simple but effective, part of co-ordinated campaigns in which thousands of leaflets were released simultaneously across the major cities of South Africa. Some of the recruits later acted as couriers, ferrying messages, money and arms – providing critical supplies to the ANC and its military wing.
Of the thirty-one recruits with entries in the book, seven were women. A further sixteen are mentioned in the appendix, five of them women. The recruitment profile reflected the time, but women were involved as London Recruits, and also as resisters to, and survivors of, the regime, as activists, as mothers and grandmothers, wives, lovers and daughters, sisters and aunts.
And then after all those years we met. A small group, first, went to South Africa to launch the book. I couldn’t go – I had family commitments. In truth I was apprehensive too about joining a group of strangers, despite our shared experience, and anxious about visiting South Africa for the first time in forty years in case, just in case … I know now all fears were unfounded, though also that they were shared by the others. The group who went were feted as heroes. The collective mission we had jointly accomplished was celebrated as a critical intervention in the struggle. In early July, another small group joined Ronnie on a guided walk through Fitzrovia as he pointed out the secret offices and the haunts of the ANC and SACP. For the first time, I met some of my co-recruits, including Norman Lucas who had been the ship’s photographer on board the SS Vaal when Carey and I had sailed. A few days later, there was a large meeting hosted by Peter Hain in the House of Commons.
Committee Room 11 was packed, with recruits, their families, supporters. Not all the recruits could be there at the Commons, but a sizeable proportion were. We had become an ‘us’, like orphaned children discovering a long lost family. We shared an extraordinary bond, strengthened by the decades of silence. We were overwhelmed with emotions of relief and release, a grand catharsis at being able to talk about our work – ourselves, to each other, to other people – to see what we had done in perspective. We came from all walks of life, educators and trade unionists, seamen and electricians, journalists and activists, and from the whole spectrum of the left, a glorious mosaic of camaraderie, a strange, moving bond to be celebrated and cherished. We felt as if we had known each other all our lives. There were tears. We had worked as individuals, but we all believed in a wider solidarity. Sitting in that room, having part of that movement, was one of my proudest moments. ‘Of all the myriad meetings I have attended down the years’, Tom Bell, one of my comrades, subsequently wrote, ‘that was the most … how to describe it? … uplifting … just the most unusual and bloody lovely meeting I think I’ve ever been at!’
There is a small postscript. From 1977 to 1987 I worked at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communications, part of the University of the Arts). For those ten years I co-taught a course and at some point shared an office with, and then occupied an adjacent office to, Joy Leman. When I left, to go to Barbados, she gave me C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, and Caribbean Cookery by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, gifts which I have made much use of over the years, and which remind me of her every time I make buljol or pumpkin soup.
Joy is not in the book, but it turns out she was a London Recruit, too. For ten years we worked as close colleagues. Neither of us knew what the other had done, that we shared a rare and special link. We met up before the House of Commons meeting, the first time in twenty-five years. We had a cup of tea and a custard cake, two women in their sixties. What did we talk about? Children, and grandchildren and no one, to look at us, would ever have guessed.
Mary Chamberlain is Emeritus Professor of Caribbean History at Oxford Brookes University. She is the author of Fenwomen (1975, 1983, 2011); Old Wives’ Tales (1981, 2004); Growing Up In Lambeth (1989); Narratives of Exile and Return (1997; 2004); Family Love in the Diaspora: Migration and the Anglo-Caribbean Experience (2004); and Empire and Nation-building in the Caribbean: Barbados 1937–1966 (2010). She has edited a further five books, has served on a number of advisory panels and is a former editor of Memory and Narrative. Her debut novel, The Excursion, is awaiting publication.