In an interview, veteran anti-apartheid fighter Ronnie Kasrils details his years in exile from South Africa, his efforts recruiting and training activists around the world, and the crucial role of this international contingent in defeating apartheid.
The women’s committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement holding a banner and placards reading “Solidarity with our South African sisters” and “Release Dorothy Nyembe and all women prisoners” stage a demonstration outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, London, England, August 8, 1980. (Central Press / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
For three decades, Ronnie Kasrils engaged in a transnational crusade to bring about the destruction of apartheid in South Africa. A founder member of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP), the former government minister began his revolutionary odyssey sixty years ago this month: narrowly escaping a police crackdown on anti-apartheid militants by crossing the border from South Africa into modern-day Botswana with his wife and comrade Eleanor in September 1963.
Before his return to the African frontline as MK’s military intelligence chief, Kasrils coordinated secret missions to support underground work inside of South Africa. From the Eastern Bloc to the East End by way of Dar es Salaam, these operations — and the volunteers who undertook them — played a vital role in the struggle to bring down apartheid rule, and have been finally recognized at length in Kasrils’s latest book, International Brigade Against Apartheid: Secrets of the People’s War That Liberated South Africa.
Compiled at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the edited collection brings together stories and accounts from across the sweep of the anti-apartheid international: from guerilla combatants to civil society campaigners, and the clandestine assignments of Kasrils’s renowned “London Recruits.” Owen Dowling sat down with Kasrils to discuss the book — and a life spent in internationalist struggle.
Roots of Resistance
In International Brigade Against Apartheid’s introduction, you describe the various volunteers, campaigners, and fighters that the text features as having belonged to an “Ubuntu Brigade.” Could you elaborate on this concept?
I use the term “ubuntu,” which is an African term, a Zulu/Xhosa term; it’s a very humanistic idea. “Ubuntu” is like “solidarity of community” of people. A phrase about ubuntu is: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which translates as “a person is a person because of other people.” So it’s through your interaction and solidarity with others that you really become human. That’s the essence of ubuntu. So you see how it relates to the question of internationalism.
We regarded internationalism as a major pillar of the struggle to overthrow apartheid. We had four pillars: politics was always primary, political leadership, political mobilization of the people, etc. [We believed] that that’s what would end apartheid, the struggle of the people of South Africa. That would be reinforced by an underground network that would distribute leaflets, help smuggle in weapons, and could give guidance to the aboveground organizations, social organizations, community, youth, trade unions, and so on, which were in the 1980s developing in quite an energetic way.
The third pillar was the armed struggle. South Africa doesn’t have the features of Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique — we don’t have these vast forests and inaccessible areas. The mountains we have, but they don’t have any cover — they’re stony crags, you see — so no place to hide there. From that point of view, we saw that while we needed armed struggle, it would never be more than low level and very much urban based, though we had a presence in the rural areas. The armed struggle would reinforce the mass struggle.
The armed struggle would reinforce the mass struggle.
The fourth pillar was international solidarity. We saw that — and we’d seen it in Vietnam as playing a decisive role to isolate the regime — to bring pressure on governments like the British, the French, and the Americans (who were allies, really, of apartheid), and mobilize the people against the governments, pressuring them to cut trade and business and cultural links: boycott, divestment, and sanctions, that greatly weakened apartheid.
In terms of that international pillar: the Anti-Apartheid Movement was public, aboveboard, and that was the real pressure on these governments, the mobilization of their people. It was very profoundly important. But from these young activists, or older, and trade unionists and seamen, we began to see that these were people who were really very committed, who we could utilize, like in World War II — think of Britain and the struggle in France, sending people in to work with the Resistance. It’s a little akin to that, except that we weren’t using these internationalists to go in to do the fighting. Of course, the title comes from the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. This “brigade” wasn’t people in the trenches fighting the enemy head-on, but undercover people, so at the most two or three working together, not knowing the others.
In terms of the Resistance, the International Brigades, and so on — how decisive do you think that anti-fascist memory was in terms of recruiting people into anti-apartheid work?
It was integral. If we start with the first group, which was mainly British: the impetus of the anti-fascist struggle in World War II, the struggle against Mosley and fascism in the ’30s. They weren’t around, but they learned this from their working-class parents and grandparents — it was very essential. It also meant that on issues of anti–white supremacy, anti-racism, anti-fascism, you could then find particularly among people with links with the working class. The class issue was linked [with anti-racist and anti-fascist feeling].
In the ’80s, with those who came from Belgium, the Netherlands, we asked each person questions — first of all, to say who you are, and what motivated you — and the extent to which they wrote about how their motivation was the anti-fascism of their families and their parents, how it was the first development of their consciousness, their political awareness — it was very, very profound indeed.
Early Years of the Anti-Apartheid International
Could you give a brief summary of your own international travels throughout the three decades of the armed struggle, starting from when you fled South Africa for Botswana in 1963?
I grew up in the South Africa of the 1940s and 1950s. In 1960, when I was twenty-one years old, there was the Sharpeville Massacre. Only very wealthy people traveled out of South Africa then: it was at the bottom of Africa, and very inward looking, which affected the culture and the politics. Anyway, I got involved in the ANC and Communist Party and the armed struggle post-Sharpeville. And then — it wasn’t “fleeing” South Africa. I was actually sent for military training because I was very “hot,” the police were after me; [the party said] “okay, we want you to go out for training.” In those days, we thought we’d be out and back in six months.
So I crossed the border illegally into Botswana, then Bechuanaland, a British protectorate under the protection of the Union Jack — I was actually quite relieved to see that butcher’s apron flying! It was very colonial still, a very archaic state, and the administrators who I met in Bechuanaland were really out of the nineteenth century. It was still very much controlled by South Africa — spies and influence were everywhere.
From there, the ANC organized a charter flight into Tanzania. This was the end of ’63, and it was such a breath of fresh air. As with the rest of the “awakening giant,” as Jack Woddis was calling it in his books, you felt the vibrancy and the confidence welling up. It was then still Tanganyika, because it hadn’t united with Zanzibar to become Tanzania. Julius Nyerere, a very progressive leader, supported all the liberation movements. Dar es Salaam was just wonderful — it was a real breath of spring, and very exciting.
From there, within no time, I was sent to the Soviet Union. We landed in Moscow, then another flight to Odessa: a very Russian city, very cosmopolitan, Russian-speaking, in Soviet Ukraine. The people who trained us at a military academy on the outskirts of Odessa were from all parts of the Soviet Union. What struck me when we had our military exercises — you know, mock attacks and shooting blanks — they would be shouting ‘Smert Fashizmu! Smert Fashizmu!’ (“Kill the Fascists!”).
To me, and I think the others, it was kind of like “yeah, you know, that’s great.” The non-Ukrainian instructors were not so aggressive — they hated the Nazis obviously, but they didn’t use the term “fascism” so much; it was more about “the Nazis,” and they would say “the racists” knowing that we were fighting racism in South Africa. But it’s only in retrospect that I came to realize what was keying up the Ukrainians training us — many had been Communists or just Ukrainian patriots fighting against Nazi Germany, the fascists and the Banderite collaborators.
Anyway, it was such an optimistic society, whether from Moscow to Odessa; this was nineteen years after the end of the Great Patriotic War, but things were developing: change was in the air, advance was in the air, development. Apart from our training school we could go out on the town on the weekends and meet people and be taken to their homes, or visit schools and talk to the kids.
After that, I was back in Dar es Salaam, and the leadership was hitting on the idea that, from London, given that there were such links with South Africa — business, tourism, South African students coming to Oxford and Cambridge and elsewhere — that we needed to exploit this, and develop a clandestine link with South Africa. At that particular time, with the arrests and the suppression of our organizations, we had to reorganize. So it was a protracted struggle with a protracted strategy. In Africa itself, there were the ideas of sending guerillas through Rhodesia into South Africa, but they felt that with me, as a white guy, I could better work with some of the comrades in London to develop those links.
Movement leadership was hitting on the idea that, from London, given that there were such links with South Africa, that we needed to exploit this, and develop a clandestine link with South Africa.
So I traveled to London in 1965. I married, had two sons, and lived there for about twelve years before I went back to Africa. I got involved in the Britain of the Beatles and Carnaby Street and the anti–Vietnam War protests, and I went to the London School of Economics to register, to look and scout for students who could go into South Africa as couriers for us. The other main source was the Young Communist League and Communist Party of Great Britain. One had to be very careful because MI5 would be watching, and South Africa had its agents there.
I began recruiting people to go into South Africa to carry out clandestine activities — short trips, in and out. A lot of the young Communists were workers and trade unionists. They’d never flown in a plane and didn’t have passports; they had to go and apply. But I’d get them to cut their hair, go in suits, pretend to be very conservative-type students so that they could smuggle in leaflets in the false bottoms of suitcases, and post things to address lists in South Africa, as well as meet certain people and pass over money and documents.
I also went to France in 1968, meeting British seamen who were docking at Le Havre and places, and gave them material to smuggle into South Africa and instructions on who to see and how to help. That period was very exciting: you were on the crest of a wave in those times. I went to Cuba, Moscow, Prague, the Irish Republic, where we had tremendous connections with Irish Communists, and later on with the Irish Republican Army in terms of assisting us with the unfolding of the armed struggle. So it was many countries that one traveled to in those days.
I’d be really interested to hear more about Dar es Salaam in the sixties, and the international milieu that appeared there.
Those were really heady days, amid the upsurge of liberation struggles, and Dar es Salaam was a center for all the liberation movements. The Tanzanian government was our host, so one intermingled with the leaders of all those movements, from Agostinho Neto to Marcelino dos Santos; Samora Machel was a young guy who we hadn’t met yet, but I was quite friendly with the later president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano. So from an African point of view it was very exciting meeting these people.
We met Pete Seeger, who with his family came to Dar es Salaam. My then wife and I found him wandering around the city; he was playing a little concert somewhere, so we chatted to him and invited him to come around to the ANC office, and he came and he performed for us, and there’s a record of that.
Then there was Malcolm X, who also arrived. We were friendly with quite a few young Americans who were teaching in Tanzania, and they said, “there’s this guy Malcolm X, and he’s really keen to meet the ANC,” so they held a party. I can remember being really impressed. We knew a little about him, and that he’d become a Muslim and so on; there was this idea that he was fiercely “antiwhite,” but at this party I saw he was paying most attention to the young white Americans, because he wanted to encourage them. And then he spoke to me — I was one of the few whites there from South Africa, and he asked: “How does somebody like you become involved in this black struggle?” You could see he was wanting to understand.
This was a period when Che Guevara was in the Congo, attempting to help develop that struggle. The Cuban Embassy came to us and said: “Comrades, Che Guevara is in town. Please don’t talk about it, but he’s going to give a lecture at our embassy on Sunday.” They invited all the liberation movements, so the ANC chose twenty people. He spoke there, and it was one of the most wonderful events of my life.
Not that we all agreed with what he had to say, because his essential approach was that we should all merge into one all-Africa movement. You could understand this coming from Latin America with the Bolivarist tradition, but Africa’s a bit different. So it basically meant that we all merge — it cuts across national identity, which was [then] being formed — but it also meant, for instance, with the ANC: you’re now an organic single movement, the first thing is “liberate the Congo,” the second thing is “liberate Mozambique,” the third thing is “liberate Angola,” then come to Zimbabwe, then we’ll fight in Namibia, then everybody fights in South Africa. Nobody was keen on that kind of domino effect.
So I was at the lecture, I think everyone there shook his hand, and of course he had a bit of a chin-wag with five or six of the key movement leaders. The next day, I was walking on the promenade and suddenly there’s my friend from the embassy, and there’s Che — and I was wearing a maroon beret! And we’re introduced, he says to me: “bueno beret.” We had a little chat — it was fantastic, as you can imagine — you don’t want to wash your hands after that!
Can you tell me about the Aventura episode?
By the early 1970s, we were in a bind, because after the collapse of the underground, we had hundreds of young African recruits who had been trained — initially in Algeria or Egypt or even Ethiopia, then some to China, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, and particularly the Soviet Union — and come back to our camps in Tanzania. We were three thousand kilometers from South Africa, and to get through Portuguese Mozambique, to get through Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, to get home that way was very difficult and went very slowly. So there was a building up of impatience in our group.
We tried, first of all, to send a “flying column” through Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). The Zimbabwe African People’s Union people were going to try and establish secret bases in the country; the ANC people were going to try and slip through to cross over the border, and then to go into various parts of South Africa and establish clandestine guerilla groups. But the white supremacists were very resourceful: they had spies everywhere, even in villages, and people who collaborated. So these groups were spotted and there were firefights, so they didn’t get through to South Africa; they had to retreat, or some of them were arrested and spent the next twenty years in Ian Smith’s prisons.
The white supremacists were very resourceful: they had spies everywhere, even in villages, and people who collaborated.
Coming out of that, we had a long rethink at a conference in 1969, and decided we were still thinking too much along militarist lines, of guerillas going into the country. We had an opening with Somalia under Siad Barre, who was aligned with the Soviet Union, and that country was able to take a contingent of our guerillas there. So we bought a boat, the Aventura, which had been owned by the American state and used for Franklin D. Roosevelt. We put these guerillas on that boat, which was to sail down the coast to select landing points in South Africa.
I was in charge of the reception groups out of London — very small, three people in two groups — that had done reconnaissance, found places that were quite remote and safe to land. We chose which in the end — the ANC, the SACP group of ours with Joe Slovo and Yusuf Dadoo in London — and decided where the Aventura would put the guerillas ashore through dinghies. They would come in and be received by the people who had carried out reconnaissance.
Alex Moumbaris was in charge, and with him was Bob Newland of Liberation; a young Communist, Daniela Hearn; and a sailor from Liverpool called Bill McKay. We had two groups of two each; they were going to receive the people, the weapons would be taken in their cars, and they would ferry them around South Africa.
But the boat was not really seaworthy: it had been bought from the Mediterranean to Somalia, the first crew was a crew of Greek exiles who’d been living in Poland, and the guerillas boarded that boat off Mombasa, but the engines seized up, and it was towed back to Somalia. At that stage, the Greek crew kind of chickened out, and we had to recruit overnight a dozen comrades from Britain, seamen, who immediately responded. They flew out, and the boat had been tended to, we thought it was okay — this time it got out to sea about one hour off the port in Somalia and it cracked up again, and that was the end of Aventura unfortunately.
What happened next was that group, there were about twenty-two of them who were going to be landed that way from Aventura, they now were flown from Somalia to Kenya — obviously without uniforms and without weapons — and from there to Swaziland, now independent, and Botswana. That’s where Moumbaris and his French wife Marie-José were meeting with people: they would drive them to the border, go through into South Africa legally, and the guys would jump the fence and be picked up on the other side. So they began carrying that out; unfortunately in the process, one of those guerillas was captured and talked. Because the couple were doing this over about a two-week period, the police were waiting for them, and they were arrested coming through Botswana.
This led to Sean Hosey’s arrest, because one of the people who crossed through the Swaziland side was in Durban, living in a safehouse in an African township, but the police heard and arrested them. In the process of torture and interrogation, they discovered from one guy that if he had any problems and needed support, there was an address in London he could write to in a kind of secret code, and that was to me. So I received it and, you know, we thought, “Can it be trusted or not?”
Anybody who wrote to us was given a certain instruction — if you were writing it under duress, where you write your name, you’d underline it — but the police were wary of that, so they obviously beat him up and they knew. So when we received that letter, the name didn’t have this underlining, so we thought, “Well, we’d better respond, the guy’s in trouble.” He had indicated to us he was meeting someone on a certain day at a railway station in Durban, and Sean Hosey — who had already been in with leaflet bombs — said: “Yeah, this is easy, it’s not like the other ones, it’s just going in, going to a railway station, and giving a guy an envelope with ID documents and money.” But once he did that, the police pulled out their guns and he was arrested.
He and Moumbaris took trial with four Africans who were captured as well on this project, and the four Africans were all sentenced to fifteen years, Moumbaris to twelve, Hosey to five. Moumbaris later managed to escape from prison [in 1979] and came out to freedom.
The Struggle in Southern Africa
Moving forward into the 1970s and 1980s in the frontline African states, you were in MK’s senior leadership. What was your experience of the military campaigns of that time, in Angola and Namibia against the apartheid South African invasion, as someone involved in the command?
The big sea change, the turning point, was the collapse of Portuguese colonialism: the emergence in Mozambique on South Africa’s border, in Angola on Namibia’s border, of very revolutionary governments. We were welcomed there for the first time in Angola, “the firm trench of the revolution in Africa.” The next collapse was Zimbabwe, with the overthrow of Lancaster House, so it was a real balance-of-forces change in our favor.
This was when I became chief of intelligence of our armed force. Our focus in the main was on the South African front, our rear base was Angola, and I was really dealing with internal South Africa and on those borders; I was underground, in Swaziland and Botswana, in disguise. I had my lieutenants for intelligence services in Angola.
At this stage, going into the ’80s, when South Africa was warring full-on with Angola, we were getting recruits from within the military: some who just crossed over and joined us, others who were key within the military to provide us with information. So I was getting wonderful information on the South African battle plans and weaponry and structure, which was provided to the Angolans and the Cubans, and which made a huge difference.
Then I went to Angola and met with the top people, including [José Eduardo] dos Santos, and the Cuban leadership. This [provision of South African military intel] was a major way of supporting their struggle against the South African invasion. But we also provided them with some of our people speaking Afrikaans, because the South African forces — so arrogant — felt that they didn’t even need to use a code system in radio communication, they’d just speak Afrikaans, but we had our people intercepting those on behalf of the Cubans and the Angolans and translating for them.
In that situation, the South Africans were having their forces fighting there but they were basically training and supporting the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and [Jonas] Savimbi. So there was a huge offensive in various parts of Angola against the communication lines of the state and the forward areas and FAPLA — that’s the armed forces of Angola — so our forces in Angola (we had thousands of people) were involved in fighting not so much the South Africans but UNITA, who were the proxy of the South Africans. So we were very involved as far as that’s concerned in that area, and played a support role there.
What was Operation Vula, and what was your experience of it?
One of the problems, obstacles, challenges that we faced from the collapse of the underground in the ’60s was to reorganize the underground, which we were doing post-’76. [We were] making certain errors of emphasis in that initially we were operating in a bit of a militarist way, and kind of seeing our role outside [as] just sending guerillas to fight.
But within South Africa, what was developing was this new, radical trade union movement called COSATU, very left-wing; and the United Democratic Front, which was this mass movement of over two hundred different structures, social forces, churches, etc. And this was creating, we were realizing, that first pillar, the political leadership and mobilization that was actually of primary importance. We were neglecting trade unions and these kinds of organizations from exile; we’d become a bit too involved in the militarist way, so we began to adjust.
We were neglecting trade unions and these kinds of organizations from exile, we’d become a bit too involved in the militarist way, so we began to adjust.
Although we were sending people in, we didn’t send in senior leadership people until Operation Vula, which was from 1987. Then the first leadership went in — Mac Maharaj and Siphiwe Nyanda, two leading guys. Nyanda later became a commander of the new South African Defence Force, and Mac was very well known, highly experienced, an ex-Robben Island prisoner, one of the guys who was working (unlike me, I was on the military side) more on the political and the underground side. So they went in to now create this underground senior leadership, and that was Vula.
We then reinforced them; I couldn’t go in earlier because I was military intelligence and still very much involved in the military side, but then by the end of 1989, Oliver Tambo said that they wanted me to come in and join them. I went in early in 1990 and was underground for a while before the ban [on the ANC and SACP] was lifted. And at that time, Vula was spreading its network around the country when the big change came, and that became negotiations. So Vula had carried out an initial phase of its intentions.
That was your first time back in the country since the early 1960s?
Yes — except that, with the military way of taking people in, I would take them over the fence and there’d be cars coming who I’d set up, and I liked to go in with the guys. I almost wanted to get in the car and drive with them to Victoria to Johannesburg, but Joe Modise, the commander, had said to me, “Ronnie, you don’t cross the fence even,” and I must say I did on a few occasions.
When Vula was in its early stages, was there any particular expectation that the Robben Island prisoners would soon be freed, and that De Klerk would climb down?
Not when they initially went in, but quite soon after. They went in at the beginning of 1988, Walter Sisulu and company were released in ’89 [and Nelson Mandela four months later], and that’s when we began to see a strategy of armed insurrection was not going to come to fruition — and that actually it would be better, although compromise was needed, to find this political change without shedding oceans of blood.
It’s been almost thirty years now since the first democratic elections in 1994 and the end of white minority rule in South Africa. With those three decades of retrospect, how do you see the contribution of the international volunteers to the ending of apartheid, in relation to the other factors that brought down the regime?
They made an enormous contribution. They don’t like to feel that it was that significant, because they were an auxiliary, and they don’t want to detract from the struggle of the black people inside, so they tend to be too modest. But they made a contribution that turned out to be very significant in support of the change that came through the mass struggle and sacrifice of the people of South Africa, and one they insisted that we’ve got to articulate this way, which I would anyway — but I go further to say that they made quite a significant change.
Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, is on record as saying that their contribution was incalculable at a time when the organized underground structures had been smashed. And he’s talking about the [original] London recruits, saying that this support from the Ubuntu Brigade from the late ’60s, ’70s right on was absolutely invaluable.Original post