Growing up in a college town it seemed like there was always some protest or another happening on campus, and as someone living hand-to-mouth working odd jobs in my early 20's, I didn't believe I had the power to change the world so I didn't pay much attention to things outside my immediate sphere of influence.

One of the issues I remember people protesting against was apartheid in South Africa, but I didn't know much about it and I'm ashamed to say I didn't make any significant effort to learn more. In my defense this was pre-Internet so it was remarkably easy to pretend the world outside our borders didn't exist.

It turns out apartheid is just a fancy word for racial segregation enforced by the South African government from around 1948 to the early 1990's. Similar to the "Jim and Jane Crow laws" put into place to restrict the opportunities of Black Americans in the US after slavery was abolished, but even more strict and oppressive.

Apartheid wasn't just a matter of limited opportunities for the non-white citizens of South Africa, but imprisonment, torture, and death for people who violated the laws or dared to challenge the system.

A movement was formed in the early 1900's seeking equal rights for all Africans, and in the latter half of the century it emerged as the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC became a vigorous opponent of apartheid, leading the government of South Africa to ban the organization and imprison or exile its members in the 1960's.

The remaining leadership of the ANC never gave up though, even when all they could do was fight apartheid from abroad. One ANC leader, working from exile in Tanzania, was Oliver Tambo. Tambo knew that a critical component of keeping hope alive was convincing the South African people the ANC was still operating in the country, so he devised a plan to distribute pro-ANC propaganda created abroad but make it seem as if it originated in South Africa.

As part of this effort, Tambo sent a young activist named Ronnie Kasrils1 to London, England to join a “Secret Command Unit”2. A few years earlier a large protest against pass laws3 had resulted in the Sharpeville massacre. Hundreds of anti-apartheid protesters were killed by police and it had radicalized Ronnie. He knew he had to join the fight.

One of the plans the Secret Command Unit devised was to recruit young white activists to visit South Africa, posing as tourists, to covertly distribute pro-ANC literature. These young activists became known as the London Recruits4.

I learned about the London Recruits from the late Michael Brooks' 2016 interview with Ronnie Kasrils on The Majority Report, when the Majority Report crew re-broadcast it a few months ago.5

During the Majority Report interview Kasrils mentioned that a documentary film about the London Recruits was in production and referred to the film's website. I entered my email address on that site so I would get updates about the film's production status, and somehow got invited to pre-screen the nearly finished film along with Ronnie Kasrils and a bunch of the surviving recruits.

I won't reveal too much about the content of the film because this isn't intended to be a film review and I don't want to steal its thunder, but as a teaser, two of the campaigns it focused on were the distribution of this pro-liberation comic book called The Story of Simon & Jane, and the distribution of pro-ANC pamphlets via bucket bombs.

On the Zoom call following the screening of the film each of the recruits were given the opportunity to comment. There was unanimous agreement that the film was true to life and very well done, but there were some suggested changes too. As I mentioned the film was unfinished so some of the comments may not be relevant to the final cut but I'll share them here anyway.

Some wished more had been said about MK and the Rivonia Trial. uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was the armed wing of the ANC, headquartered for a time in the affluent suburb of Rivonia, in Johannesburg. In July, 1963 the Rivonia Trial led to the imprisonment of MK leaders including Nelson Mandela.

Some recruits noted that while the pre-release version of the film did discuss Chris Hani and the ‘67 Wankie Campaign he led, it had overlooked Hani's assassination. Hani was assassinated by someone affiliated with the Conservative party after decades of service to the ANC, just one year before the ANC took power in South Africa.

A couple of the recruits wished more had been said about the Soweto uprising in 1976 that resulted in the police killing of as many as 700 children. Again, the final cut of the film may or may not cover some or all of this ground.

In the end, most of the recruits were primarily concerned with whether the film effectively honored those who sacrificed, would inspire young activists (particularly those involved with Black Lives Matter and Palestinian liberation), and illuminate the importance of international solidarity to a new generation.

This was an amazing opportunity for me on several levels. I came to this film knowing almost nothing about apartheid, the ANC, or the scope of the struggle for liberation so many people risked their freedom or even gave their lives for, and it was deeply moving. It was also a real honor to witness the discussion with Ronnie, the recruits, and the filmmakers.

  1. Ronnie eventually served in various capacities in the South African government, and wrote a powerful article in 2013 called How the ANC's Faustian pact sold out South Africa's poorest in which he expressed remorse over the leadership of the ANC accepting an IMF loan.

  2. Other members of the Secret Command Unit were Joe Slovo, Yusuf Dadoo, and Jack Hodgson

  3. “Pass law” is a colloquial term for the Urban Areas Act, which was a statutory restriction on where black South Africans were allowed to live. So-called “undesirables” were “endorsed out”, meaning that they were prohibited from living in certain urban (mostly white) areas.

  4. Most of the recruits were from London, but there were recruits from other countries as well, including Danny Schechter from the US.

  5. In the discussion following the re-broadcast, show producer Matt Lech mentioned that Brooks had strongly recommended A Legacy Of Liberation, by Mark Gevisser for people interested in learning more.