Ronnie Kasrils and anti-apartheid Charlotte Street

By Mike Pentelow

Man addressing people on guided walk.

Ronnie Kasrils outside 89 Charlottte Street.

Ronnie Kasrils returned to Fitzrovia today to lead a guided walk of buildings associated with the anti-apartheid struggle. Kasrils (ex-leader of ANC military wing, and later deputy defence minister of the post-apartheid South African government) described the various pubs, offices and homes that during the 1960s and 1970s were used to smuggle political material into South Africa as described in the recently published book, London Recruits, The Secret War against Apartheid.

The smuggling of anti-apartheid taped broadcasts and leaflets into South Africa bolstered the liberation movement when it was at its lowest ebb in the 1960s.

And it was all planned at great personal risk in the Goodge Street area, as is revealed in this book.

After Nelson Mandela and numerous other activists were jailed for life in 1964 and the underground network destroyed it “spelt the nadir of the liberation struggle”, writes Ronnie Kasrils in the book’s introduction.

He himself was exiled to London and formed a command group to plan daring acts to demonstrate the African National Congress was not dead. These included broadcasting taped messages and distributing leaflets (blown into the air from exploding buckets) at rail and bus stations in South Africa during rush hours.

The command group met at 39 Goodge Street, the shabby office of Yusuf Dadoo and the exiled South African Communist Party. The group consisted of Kasrils, Dadoo, Joe Slovo, and Jack Hodgson. Just round the corner was the African National Congress office at 49-51 Rathbone Street, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement at 89 Charlotte Street (after its original office was bombed in 1961 by BOSS, the South African secret police, at 200 Gower Street).

Ken Keable was one of those recruited to release “leaflet bombs” in South Africa. He recalls meetings with Kasrils outside the Dominion Theatre, 269 Tottenham Court Road. “For the most secret work he took me to a flat near Tottenham Court Road, the owner of which had given Ronnie a key. It was there that he gave me a suitcase with a false bottom containing about 1,200 small enveleopes, already addressed, which I was to post in Johannesburg.”

This flat was possibly 28 Tottenham Street, where Martin and Fiona Green lived and let the ANC and its choir meet.

As well as posting the letters Keable released one of the leaflet bombs with its broadcast message. “Ronnie had played the tape to us in the flat in London,” he writes. “It started with 15 minutes of silence (this was our get-away time) followed by the striking words ‘This is the African National Congress, this is the African National Congress, this is the voice of freedom.’ Some militant songs were next, performed by the London based ANC choir known as Mayibuye. I think the first song was the ANC anthem, Nkozi Sikelel’ iAfrika, and followed by a speech.”

The leaflets were released simultaneously in other towns and were widely reported in the press, which sent out a message that the ANC was still alive and active.

Another recruit was Eddie Adams. “The first part of my introduction to what was needed was a training session with Ronnie in an empty office in Charlotte Street. We crouched behind some desks while he explained and showed me how to operate a street broadcast. The second session related to what we called ‘leaflet bombs’. These consisted of a domestic plastic bucket with a platform over a tube with explosive powder in it. On the platform was a pile of propaganda leaflets. This was set off by a timer of the type used by motorists when they parked their cars. They buzzed when the parking time was up. This device would send leaflets a hundred feet into the air.” His was set off at Cape Town railway station in 1969.

Another recruit anonymously recalls being trained in making bassic explosive mechanisms from easily obtainable components in “a small attic room somewhere off Oxford Street.”

Other recruits were selected by Bob Allen, London secretary of the Young Communist League, and introduced to Ronnie Kasrils “usually in a particular pub near to Tottenham Court Road tube station.” A pub in Tottenham Court Road was also where another recruit, Pete Smith, was briefed by Joe Slovo and Yusuf Dadoo, for a mission to Pretoria.

Alex Moumbaris, a Greek communist, also planted leaflet bombs, after making contact with the ANC when its Rathbone Street office was in the same building as the League for Democracy in Greece, campaigning against military rule.

Ronnie Kasrils went on to become head of intelligence for MK, the military wing of the ANC, where he became known as the “Red Pimpernel” and then deputy defence minister in the first South African government after apartheid.

He wrote a book “Armed and Dangerous – my undercover struggle against apartheid”, published in 2004, which has a chapter on the London Recruits.

London Recruits, The Secret War against Apartheid, edited by Ken Keable, published by the Merlin Press (ISBN 978-0-85036-655-6).

Editorial note: This book review was written before the walk. We will have a feature about Ronnie Kasrils’ visit to Fitzrovia in the next edition of Fitzrovia News out in September.

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