• UNDERGROUND: Ken Keable had to press some contributors to share their stories. Picture: DENIS WALSHE

  • UNDERGROUND: Ken Keable had to press some contributors to share their stories. Picture: DENIS WALSHE

SINCE 1994, South Africa has built up an extensive oeuvre of struggle literature but its latest addition, London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, is unlike anything else.

There were many secret wars in South Africa's liberation, but this recollection of radical exploits in the late 1960s and early 1970s is unique. What's remarkable about the stories of the London Recruits is that they stayed under wraps for so long.

Most remarkable are the details: of Young Communist League (YCL) members from all over the UK and Ireland sneaking into the country as fresh-faced newlyweds and harmless young travellers, with "the right skin colour" of course, only to post letters to local anti-apartheid sympathisers and, far more audaciously, unfurl huge banners from the top of buildings with slogans such as "ANC fights!"

Their most brazen acts, however, were the thousands of leaflets and recorded messages they smuggled into South Africa using suitcases with false bottoms. Using simple explosive devices they made "bucket bombs" from which were blasted insurrection confetti - plumes of pamphlets with the simple message: "THE ANC SAYS TO VORSTER AND HIS GANG: Your days are coming to an end . We will take back our country!"

The result was electric, coming at a time when the resistance movement was still reeling from the Rivonia trial that left black South Africans with a feeling of enduring defeat. In one instance, a leaflet bomb exploded outside the offices of the Rand Daily Mail just as a police officer was fiddling with it. The bomb's discharge, though small, was still strong enough to cover the cop in black muck. The next morning, the Mail splashed a photo of the startled officer on its front page.

But the government of John Vorster expected as much from apartheid's most vocal print-opposition at the time. The best newspaper punch, however, came from Vorster's own Broederbond-led favourite read, Die Transvaler.

In one's mind's eye, you can almost see "old BJ" spluttering in his morning coffee reading the bold headlines: "ANC Shows its Teeth Again with Inflammatory Pamphlets".

As if these cocky acts of agitation weren't bad enough, amplifiers and cassette recorders hidden in abandoned cars and bicycle baskets would start broadcasting "Voice of the ANC" messages while black pedestrians were going about their business.

All in all, between rousing oratories beamed from bicycles and leaflet showers lifting the mood of the downtrodden, the work of the London Recruits wiped the smirk from the face of apartheid South Africa.

Why, though, has the lid been kept on the stories of these brave suitcase-carrying collaborators for so long?

The editor of London Recruits, Ken Keable, one of the first people to be recruited in 1967, grew up on a diet of communism and the need for activism, but after two missions, he spent 30 years being "too security conscious that the secret police of South Africa and Britain might pay him a visit".

Keeping quiet for three decades can't be easy and, in 2005, after his 60th birthday, Keable realised there was only one real remedy for the existential restlessness he was feeling: "I asked myself, if I felt death approaching, what would I most regret not having done?"

So he started recalling his role in the revolution: "I sat down and wrote and the memories just came tumbling out. In three days, I wrote the story. It was then that the idea came to me: I should get the others to do the same."

The "others" came from all walks of life. Mostly they were electricians, engineers, telephonists, seamen and students from the London School of Economics (LSE), where Ronnie Kasrils, a leading agent provocateur and one of the National Party's most wanted enemies of the state, was studying. It wasn't too difficult for Kasrils to identify potential recruits for one of the liberation movement's most left-field campaigns. At the time, LSE students were staging a sit-in against the appointment as college director of Walter Adams, formerly of University College Rhodesia and a perceived sympathiser of the government of Ian Smith. This part of London Recruits sets a very strong sense of what it must have been like as politically conscious students in the late 1960s in "swinging London".

I t was all about "flower power". Even the Beatles were making music that sounded more East than West and feverish anti-Vietnam War support was cresting a wave of sorts. In short, it was a period of rock 'n roll and resistance to anything that stank of totalitarianism - such as South Africa at the time.

The initial focus of student protest at the LSE being a wellspring for the London Recruits, however, blurs one of the book's starkest realisations: that many of the recruits were rank-and-file YCL members filtered into the campaign through contact Kasrils had with comrades at the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In one chapter, Alice McCarthy recalls: "I don't think I struck Ronnie as a woman with a revolutionary commitment. He looked at an East-ender who at the time wore false eyelashes and the shortest of miniskirts - not the image of a communist intellectual."

That's the real triumph of London Recruits - its personal accounts and vignettes of ordinary people participating in this most clandestine of campaigns. Often it's hilarious, such as when Keable accidentally sets off a charge in his Durban hotel room. "It has haunted me all my life. I had just completed a degree in electrical engineering for goodness sake. How could I make such a mistake?"

Thankfully it happened during religious festivities, so Keable and his mate, Pete Smith, deftly blamed the explosion on a firecracker.

In another incident, Denis Walshe and Graeme Whyte had covered their hotel room with thousands of pamphlets they were prising apart for a leaflet shower the next day.

"Next thing - bang ! - in comes the maid. We were in a state of semi-panic. So we sat her down, gave the ANC salute and explained to her what the pamphlets were about." Luckily she kept the strange scene to herself.

Some recruits didn't have such luck, causing them to resist submitting their stories at first because of mental scarring.

Sean Hosey, for example, was arrested, tortured and jailed for five years. But Keable displayed tenacious determination in collecting the stories. In one example, he reached a recruit, Katherine Levine, while she was shopping. "Here's a woman, 60 years old, with a trolley in front of her, and she's telling me how, when she was in her 20s, she pretended to be on her honeymoon while running guns across the borders of Zambia and Botswana."

Because of all the secrecy, the recruits only met one another in 2005 in London: "Ronnie calls it a reunion but it really was a reception," says Keable.

London Recruits, the final outcome of that meeting at SA House in London, is a blast, a collection of sublime stories nowhere else to be found in the annals of the struggle.