They lit up the night skies and sent the apartheid authorities into panic mode, but left a frenzy of celebratory excitement in their wake from the oppressed black communities who were yearning for freedom from a discriminating apartheid system.
The majority of victims of white apartheid policies in South Africa don’t know that the heros behind the leaflet bombs that exploded in the major urban centres of South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s were, in fact, white British volunteers intent on helping to end apartheid-inspired black oppression.
This explosive (pardon the pun), hidden part of the story of international solidarity in the fight against white National Party rule involving then young British citizens sympathetic to the black liberation cause was never told publicly in South Africa.
The project was hatched as the liberation movement was under pressure and some were determined to rebuild resistance in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre and mass arrests following the anti-pass defiance campaigns, and then the Rivonia trial.
The ANC and other organisations were banned and many of their leaders went into exile after the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s military wing.
The Brits were recruited to participate in a series of daring ANC propaganda actions undertaken in the late 1960s and early 1970s, organised from London by then exiled freedom fighter Ronnie Kasrils, a founding member and operative of Umkhonto weSizwe. With instructions from then ANC president Oliver Tambo, Kasrils recruited young workers and students in Britain to participate in the top-secret project.
They agreed to Kasrils’ suggestion to infiltrate South Africa on behalf of the ANC, posing as holidaymakers, newlywed couples on honeymoon and businesspeople on business trips. Barely out of their teens, many had never been abroad.
Travelling to South Africa via boat or plane, resistance materials were smuggled in hidden luggage compartments. They used the entrenched system of white privilege to go unnoticed on the ground.
This operation saw dozens of missions undertaken, surprising even the banned ANC itself, for its success in achieving its aim of creating awareness about the organisation among blacks in South Africa. Their campaign was effective, as people were interested in the leaflets and broadcasts meant to raise the ANC’s profile among the people.
Kasrils recalls with a sense of nostalgia the early stages of the project, saying: “It required quite a lot of technology to explode 500 leaflets 20 metres into the Johannesburg sky. We used to go to parks in London at quiet times to experiment.”
The struggle veteran remembers that after the practice sessions, they would spring into action during missions conducted in the heart of the targeted South African cities. This included the planting of non-lethal leaflet bombs containing struggle messages and pictures at strategic commuter sites, playing impromptu audio messages from exiled leaders and dropping banners from landmark buildings across South Africa’s cities.
Those activities happened under the noses of South Africa’s notorious secret police. They made headlines and sent shockwaves through the apartheid regime. Police would be sent, but they were not sure where the next explosion would happen. The involvement of disguised white foreigners as visitors helped to deepen the mystery of their actions because the apartheid regime didn’t suspect them, due to the mere fact that they were white.
On several occasions, explosive devices, smuggled by the recruits from London, sent thousands of resistance leaflets fluttering into the skies of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London. The message was that the ANC was “alive and well” and that “the struggle continues”.
Of the dozens of missions between 1967 and 1972, many made national headlines. The leaflet bombs featured as evidence in the trial of South African anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol’s co-accused.
Recently, Kasrils traced some of the recruits and they chatted about their significant roles in advancing the South African struggle for democracy.
But how were the leaflet bombs received by those living under apartheid? Many hundreds, even thousands, must have seen the explosions, but few were interviewed at the time, and fewer still were named.
The recruits’ exploits are documented in the book, London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, edited and compiled by Ken Keable. It is also the subject of a movie, London Recruits, which is to be directed by Gordon Main.
The film seeks to bring this little-known chapter of the anti-apartheid struggle to the screen.
About the movie, Kasrils says: “Without a shadow of doubt, the London recruits played no small part in the ultimate success of the struggle that liberated South Africa from apartheid tyranny. I’m thrilled to see this unique story and important moment of our struggle will be documented on film for the first time.”
The film makers are on the hunt for eyewitnesses and footage of the “bombings”.
“To find South African eyewitnesses will be to find the missing voice in this great story. We really want to hear from you, so our nationwide appeal starts today. If you can help, please do get in touch,” said Main.
Anyone in possession of this kind of footage or a story to tell is asked to come forward and contact 071-253-0876, firstname.lastname@example.org or use Whatsapp, SMS, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter @ isawit_sa or @LondonRecruits, or via the websites www.isawit. co.za or www.londonrecruits.com.
Footage will be treated confidentially and discreetly.