Recently an experimental interactive film was released, linked to the Disobedient Objects exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert museum (V&A) in London last year. It is aimed both at school and college students as well as general viewers.
The film focuses on the London Recruits — young British volunteers, many of them young communists, who went to South Africa in the 1960-70s to conduct undercover missions for the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).
The film explains through many interviews and contemporary film clips the story of this heroic but hidden aspect of the ultimately successful battle to rid South Africa of the obscenity of apartheid. It’s a story that remained a total secret for more than 40 years.
On many of their missions, the London Recruits built bucket-bombs to remotely scatter ANC leaflets at rush hour railway stations, bus termini and busy markets. They also planted remotely operated, high volume loudspeakers to broadcast ANC speeches and songs.
At the time, the South African authorities believed they had largely destroyed the structures of the ANC inside the country. Both the ANC and the SACP saw most of their leaders jailed. Mandela and many others were sentenced to life imprisonment at the notorious Rivonia trial.
However, a few members of both organisations managed to escape arrest and flee the country. They worked hard to establish a new political resistance movement in exile both in various African countries and also in London.
Their first priority was to show supporters and sympathisers back in South Africa that resistance to apartheid was carrying on. Number one priority was active propaganda. The movement needed to show publicly it retained the ability to regroup and fight back.
One tactic was to use white volunteers from Britain. They could move easily without passes and place their propaganda weapons in places where large numbers of black workers congregated.
London recruits Ken Keable, left, and Denis Walshe in Cape Town with one of the suitcases with false linings they used to smuggle leaflets.
This would show the organisations still had the ability to operate politically inside the country thus raising morale and hope among black South Africans.
The film makers documented former London Recruits recreating the making of a bucket bomb, which we later see detonated in a London park with its small explosive charge scattering leaflets.
We are shown the flimsy ultra-lightweight leaflets being printed by the British Communist Party printer who printed the originals. He tells us how he delivered them to the Daily Worker/Morning Star building for onward transportation to South Africa.
They were smuggled in the false bottoms of the Recruits’ suitcases, some of which can be seen in the film.
The exiled ANC and SACP member behind the plan, Ronnie Kasrils (below), explains how he recruited fellow LSE students and members of the Young Communist League (YCL) to volunteer on these undercover missions to South Africa.
Kasrils was one member of Spear of the Nation — the armed wing of the ANC — who made it to London where he enrolled in the LSE.
He understood the arrogant racist thought process of the South African security forces and worked out how those attitudes could be used against them.
The idea that British white people could be opponents of apartheid and be involved in political action to end the horrific system would have never crossed their minds.
Kasrils realised that young white recruits could visit and travel freely to the apartheid state. He found many ready to volunteer among members of the YCL and other organisations on the left.
The original volunteers are interviewed in the film recounting remarkable tales from their undercover operations. We hear of close calls with the security forces, some unfortunate mistakes and learn a little about their selection process and training.
The film can be viewed free on the internet but it can’t play on mobiles or indeed on iPads.
It isn’t the easiest site to navigate but once you are up and running, multiple windows will open simultaneously. You see images of everyday life under apartheid juxtaposed with footage of ANC demonstrations from the 1950s and 30 or so mini-interviews with the Recruits themselves.
Simply click on the film clip that grabs your imagination or work through the film more systematically.
For me there is one notable story not told in this otherwise wonderful film.
Mandela and his comrades were as reviled by the Tory Party, the British Establishment and media busy cosying up to the racist state as by the obscene apartheid government.
I would have loved to see a few shots of Margaret Thatcher and other leading Tories calling — as they did stridently— for Mandela and his comrades to be hanged as terrorists.
I would have loved to see footage of today’s House of Commons speaker John Bercow proposing, at the Tory student conference, a resolution supporting a death sentence for Mandela.
And I’d have loved to have seen Prime Minister David Cameron justifying his all-expenses-paid fact-finding junket to South Africa courtesy of the PR company employed to undermine the trade boycott of South Africa.
This would have added the other side of the story. But perhaps I’m asking too much.
Those few criticisms don’t detract from what is a wonderful heart-warming and inspiring film, one that will reaffirm your belief in true international solidarity.
One of the heroes in the film sums it up perfectly. He explains how the worldwide protest and political action, much of it illegal, saved Mandela from the gallows and eventually paved the way for a free South Africa — the lauded Rainbow Nation.
“This is one that we won,” he says with a huge smile on his face and we can all say amen to that.
You can find the film on the internet at londonrecruits.vam.ac.uk Much of the film is based on the remarkable book London Recruits – the secret war against Apartheid that is available from the Morning Star shop. £15.95 plus p&p.