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