Published: 29 March, 2012
by DAN CARRIER
THE campaign started with nervous-looking men and women sneaking into quiet clearings in woods on Hampstead Heath where the only people likely to disturb them were early morning dog-walkers.
It culminated on the bustling streets of Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg – where the prying eyes belonged to the state secret police.
They were undercover agents of the African National Congress (ANC), planning a propaganda campaign to tell the South African people that the flame of freedom had not been extinguished.
They had used the Heath to test out “bucket bombs”, which would send thousands of leaflets into the skies above South African cities, saying the ANC was in business and freedom was on the agenda.
For the African National Congress in the late 1960s, getting that message out onto the streets of the country’s cities was incredibly hard – and so they recruited young Londoners who wanted to strike a blow for freedom.
This is laid bare in a new book, London Recruits: the Secret War Against Apartheid.
It reveals the incredible, hitherto untold story of the work done by the people of Camden to attack the Apartheid regime.
They risked their lives to do so – but until now had kept their involvement secret.
After the crackdowns of the early 1960s that had seen Nelson Mandela and his colleagues jailed at the Rivonia Trial, the ANC had been banned and driven underground.
Many of its main players were in exile – so what could be done to persuade South Africans that they had not been forgotten?
The answer came in an unlikely form – and involved carrying a bucket to the Heath to test out a device like a giant party popper.
Author Ken Keable decided on his 60th birthday to write down his account of the role he played – and it prompted him to collect the stories of others who had done as he did.
“I had locked what I’d done as a student away in my mind so I would not release any information that could get people into trouble accidentally,” he recalls.
But following the release of Nelson Mandela and the elections in 1994, Ken felt his role in the fight against Apartheid could be revealed.
He told close friends and family snippets of what he had done, and the approach of the milestone 60th birthday spurred him on.
“I started thinking: what would I really regret not doing in my life, and I realised it was telling this story.
“Then I thought, there must be so many others with similar stories to tell.
But I was still amazed to find out so many people had been involved.”
His book chronicles the stories of the young Londoners who were not willing to stand back and watch the Apartheid regime commit daily atrocities – and were willing to risk life and limb to see the regime overthrown.
Ken was born in 1945.
He came from a family of left-wing activists – his mother, father, aunts and uncles had fought Fascism on East End streets and in the Spanish Civil War.
It was in the late 1960s, when he was living in the Bourne estate, by Leather Lane, when the call came. North London had a fair share of émigrés from Apartheid – often white people who had been put on one of the Banned lists, which would limit the work they could do – and put them in constant danger.
The Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the banning of the ANC and PAC, and the Rivonia Trial of 1964 meant the issues of the racist regime in South African was frequently on the front pages of the domestic press.
University campuses were full of politically aware students, and Ken was in the right place to be able to turn his idealism into activism.
He had been at a Young Communist League (YCL) meeting representing the Islington branch when he was asked if he would be prepared to “do something illegal for the YCL.”
He recalls cautiously saying yes – and then being told it would involve heading to South Africa for a brief time to “help the South African comrades”.
He was introduced to the man the South Africans called The Red Pimpernel – Ronnie Kasrils, an LSE student.
He would furnish Ken with a suitcase with a false bottom stuffed with 1,200 pre-addressed envelopes.
The plan was to head to Johannesburg and post the letters.
Inside was an address by Dr Yusuf Dadoo, the chairman of the South African Indian Congress.
It was not his only trip: in 1970 he would return, this time with a much more risky mission.
“The main job was to play a cassette tape through an amplifier at a very public place and distribute hundreds of leaflets using four leaflet bombs,” he recalls.
Ken and his accomplice left the bucket bombs and the tape at a shebeen, where thousands of black workers would congregate after finishing their shifts.
He recalls the tape had 15 minutes of dead sound at the beginning to allow them to press play and then scarper before the words came out: “This is the African National Congress. This is the African National Congress. This is the voice of freedom...” followed by a choir singing the ANC anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.
He looks back at his covert missions with a sense of pride – and hope: “It was a very optimistic time,” he says. “We thought we could change the world.
I have not lost my youthful idealism, and the concept of international solidarity is needed now more than ever.
“Londoners are from all around the world, putting our city in a unique position to influence world affairs. It is as true today as it was in the 1960s.
It is a strength of our city and we must not forget that.”
• London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid. Edited by Ken Keable. Merlin Press £15.95