Apartheid – from fact to thriller

‘London Recruit’ Bob Newland reviews 50 years of Peter Hain’s anti-Apartheid activism

It’s 50 years since the successful Anti-Apartheid Movement Stop the Seventy (South African cricket) Tour, while London Recruits: the Secret Fight Against Apartheid marks 30 years since Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

Apartheid was defeated by a combination of mass defiance within South Africa, armed struggle by uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the ANC’s armed wing) and an international campaign led by the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) building widespread opposition to Apartheid and an effective consumer boycott.

Escalating repression, following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the banning of the ANC, Communist Party and African Trades Unions, forced the ANC to abandon mass resistance and resort to armed struggle. Following the Rivonia Trial in 1963, the ANC’s leaders were in prison or exile. MK’s underground organisation was largely dismantled.

As part of their efforts to keep their name alive while they regrouped, the ANC devised a plan for white youths from London – the London Recruits – to travel clandestinely to South Africa to let off leaflet bombs. Thousands of leaflets declared ‘The ANC lives’, ‘Long Live the SACP’, ‘The ANC will take our country back’.

Recruits also provided reception parties for guerrillas returning by boat after military training overseas and managed safe houses in neighbouring countries. Others smuggled arms into South Africa in a safari truck.

The struggle against Apartheid took many years. In 1976, black students opposing being taught in Afrikaans led an uprising in Soweto. On June 16th, police killed 170 school students and hundreds more over the following weeks. This major turning point in the struggle led to the townships becoming ungovernable.

Military defeats in Namibia and Angola finally forced the Apartheid Regime to the negotiating table in 1990. In 1994, the first free and democratic elections led to an ANC victory.

While Apartheid is gone, much still needs to be done to overcome its terrible legacy of inequality and poverty.

Peter Hain is well known by many for his campaigning role against Apartheid while in exile from his homeland of South Africa – in particular as Chair of the Stop the Seventy Tour Committee aimed at preventing the South African rugby and cricket tours to the UK. Some will recall his involvement in the Anti-Nazi League. Others will remember him as the Northern Ireland Minister who brought about the Good Friday Agreement.

He is also a prolific author, having written books about Nelson Mandela and an autobiography. The Rhino Conspiracy is his first and hopefully not last venture into the world of thrillers.

The book is set in the present, post-Apartheid South Africa. Peter Hain’s detailed knowledge of South Africa, its land, its people and its culture, along with a deep understanding of the liberation struggle, bring the book to life.

It combines the fight against the horrors of rhino poaching with stories from the long fight against Apartheid and the challenges of overcoming its legacy. It identifies the impact of corruption and ‘State Capture’ at the highest levels of government.

Well-known characters are introduced to us, sometimes anonymously (“The Veteran”) as the story unfolds. Many will be recognised by those of us who know them or their role. All are described in a way that shares their experience and emotions with every reader.

As one of the London Recruits selected by ‘The Veteran’ to go underground in South Africa in the 1960s and ’70s to assist the ANC, I found it gratifying to see how well Peter Hain captured his humour, commitment, integrity and determination.

No spoilers here. The book deserves to be widely read but Hain has succeeded in combining an excellent thriller with a history lesson. Sharpeville, the armed struggle, the 1976 student uprising, the release of Nelson Mandela and the massacre at Marikana all find their place in his narrative. Central to the developing drama is the impact of the conflict facing veterans of struggle and their loyalty to their comrades and organisations when reality does not stand up to the high values demanded of them.

Activists from different generations come together to challenge the multi-million dollar business of rhino horn poaching. Hain does not hide the reality of this terrible trade. One’s emotions are dragged from one place to another as the drama unfolds.

A new alliance emerges, crossing old political and ethnic divides. Their enemy, a different corrupt conglomeration of Government Ministers; their acolytes, former Apartheid assassins and foreign gangsters. We are drawn rapidly into the world of illegal rhino horn and ivory trading.

Without pausing for breath, the author – who is also a key player in the story – spells out the extent of State Capture and the significant role played by western companies, accountants and banks in assisting the grand larceny being carried out at the expense of the people of South Africa. Russia, China and Vietnam also face serious questions as to their role.

Running through the narrative is the detail of the distortion of the democratic process and the misuse of the security services in President Zuma’s desperate attempt to get his chosen favourite selected as his successor, in a vain attempt to continue his pillage of the resources of the country and protect himself from prosecution.

While the book exposes many of the ills of present-day South Africa, it doesn’t for a moment lose sight of the enormous potential existing in the very best of the Veterans of the Anti-Apartheid struggle, along with the post-1994 rainbow generation of ‘born frees’.

The book is an excellent read for those who know much about the struggle against Apartheid and those who don’t. All will be better informed when they have finished reading it.

Apartheid is Not a Game has been written to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign. In his foreword, Peter Hain recalls: “When around 100,000 British anti-apartheid activists mobilised to disrupt and wreck a planned all-white South African cricket tour due in May 1970, they achieved a rare outcome for a protest movement: complete success.”

The authors draw on the history of the international efforts to isolate South Africa through a ban on their white-only national sports teams. The aim was to hit them in this most sensitive area for white South Africans – sport.

The booklet shows the development of the mass campaign against the rugby tour through the recollections of many of those involved. It’s a real labour of love, providing an important record of this extraordinary campaign.

London Recruits: the Secret Fight Against Apartheid
edited by Ken Keable
Merlin Press, £15.99
The Rhino Conspiracy
by Peter Hain
Muswell Press, £14.99
Apartheid is Not a Game
by Geoff Brown and Christian Hogsbjerg
Redwords, £4


  1. as peter says the stop the seventy tour campaign was a complete success and this is rare. Have lessons been learnt? I think not. At the time I was up to my ears in the warwick files affair and was only a foot soldier in the wider struggle, helping to write the book WARWICK UNIVERSITY LTD ed E P Thompson, but that was an astonishing experience and again a partial success with lessons that have also not been learned

    trevor fisher

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