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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Canadian internationalists and the people’s war against apartheid

Important new book sheds light on a group of Canadian volunteers involved in the armed struggle against apartheid South Africa

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Vigil for the victims of apartheid in South Africa, 1988. Photo by Peter Power, Toronto Star Archives. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library Digital Archives.

Histories of radical internationalism are often dominated by European accounts, from international volunteers in the Spanish Civil War to foreign fighters in the French resistance. There exists, however, a growing literature on those anti-colonial internationalists who challenged empire at home and abroad. In this vein, an important new book sheds light on a group of Canadian volunteers involved in the armed struggle against apartheid South Africa.

International Brigade Against Apartheid: Secrets of the People’s War That Liberated South Africa, edited by Johannesburg-based writer and social activist Ronnie Kasrils, provides a ‘history from below’ perspective by some 60 contributors who smuggled pamphlets, buried arms, sent coded messages, and generally raised hell against apartheid. While it includes broad histories of the Canadian anti-apartheid movement, more interesting are the personal accounts by seven internationalists (Andrea Meeson, Peter Craig, Sue Godt, Rob Douglas, Helen Douglas, Martha Gordon, and Susan Grabek) who volunteered to conduct covert operations for the African National Congress’s (ANC) armed wing, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK).

From its bases in exile, the ANC saw internationalism as a critical component in the struggle to liberate South Africa from apartheid rule. Newly independent African states like Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique provided space for the movement to organize, train soldiers and coordinate international diplomatic and fundraising efforts. In Europe and North America, the ANC established foreign missions, giving rise to national anti-apartheid movements which pushed for sanctions and boycotts and raised funds for the ANC. Support from the Soviet bloc, both militarily and financially, was also critical. Despite widespread involvement, there is limited historical research on the Canadian anti-apartheid movement. This book provides the first accounts of those who engaged directly in the armed struggle against apartheid.

The formation of MK in 1961 marked a turning point in the struggle against apartheid, and held significant consequences. As one of its commanders reflected, few in the ANC executive had any form of military training and nary a pistol between them. As a result, the early waves of MK activity were subject to intense state repression. Most of its leaders were arrested, detained, or fled the country into exile, and the ANC set up clandestine operations in Lusaka, Dar es Salaam and London, and established MK training camps in Angola.

The 1960s and early 1970s were a period of significant weakness for the movement. Underground formations had largely been destroyed, and connections with activists inside the country were dangerous. It was at this stage that the ANC began relying on internationalists to smuggle communications and pamphlets inside the country—the so-called ‘London Recruits,’ were a group of student and youth activists recruited by MK commanders, including Kasrils.

Following the 1976 Soweto protests, a flood of exiles left the country to join MK abroad. This allowed the liberation movement to develop firmer lines of communication with activists inside South Africa, while the next two years witnessed an escalation of sabotage activity. MK commanders recognized, however, that South Africa was not Cuba, and the conventional tactics of guerilla warfare were not suitable. After a 1979 trip to study military tactics in Vietnam, MK moved toward a ‘people’s war’ strategy, in which military operations were aimed at supporting and bolstering a mass movement inside the country, which had just begun emerging in the early 1980s.

Chief Canadian representative for the African National Congress, Yusuf Saloojee. Photo by Frank Lennon, Toronto Star Archives. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library Digital Archives.

Throughout its history, a key aim of MK had been to secure routes for weapons and personnel into South Africa from its bases in exile in Zambia, Angola, and Tanzania. Its attempts at doing so in the mid-1980s, once again, relied on the help of a vast network of internationalists. In 1987 it launched operation Vula—short for Vulindlela, or “open the way”—the aim of which was to get senior military leaders into the country, provide them with safe houses and allow them to undertake operations. At the same time, internationalists in London devised an ingenious method of smuggling arms into the country. Operation Laaitie established a front Safari tour company, which offered British tourists overland adventures through Africa. Beneath the Bedford trucks they drove were Soviet armaments, welded into a concealed compartment. Canadian internationalists played a critical role in the success of both these operations.

Starting in the mid-1980s, the ANC’s Toronto office on the Danforth began recruiting internationalists for these operations. Using its contacts in the anti-apartheid movement, which included student groups and a range of smaller religious and trade union organizations, it began to identify committed activists who would be open to travelling abroad to support the cause. MK commanders traveled to Toronto to conduct interviews, often meeting with recruits in parking lots and under bridges in order to avoid surveillance—a threat that was far from paranoia given the massive sums the apartheid government was spending on misinformation and surveillance of anti-apartheid groups at the time.

Working as a teacher and active in the Vancouver Southern Africa Action Coalition (SAAC), Rob Douglas traveled to Toronto to meet with MK’s Mac Maharaj. He had initially expressed interest in teaching at an ANC school in Tanzania but was asked whether he’d be willing to undertake more dangerous operations inside the country. Along with his wife Helen, he soon found himself running a safe house in suburban Johannesburg and sending coded communications to the ANC’s exile leadership on weekends.

Similarly, Martha Gordon was involved in student anti-apartheid groups, and was approached by ANC representatives to help with Operation Laaitie. Working with Peter Craig and Sue Godt, she helped move arms over the border, digging Dead Letter Boxes (DLBs) at night, and sending coded messages to confirm delivery. It was gruelling work and maintaining their cover as naïve Canadian tourists was critical to the success of the operations. Gordon later moved to Johannesburg, continuing her work with MK by operating a safehouse where weapons were stored and distributed. She recalls sleeping atop crates of munitions and burning incense to get rid of the smell of gun oil.

Meeson was also recruited through the student movement. Strained relations with her family and a background in Latin American solidarity made her jump at the opportunity. She recalls being surrounded by intellectuals who were morally opposed to apartheid but weren’t willing or able to do the practical work needed to end it. She ended up in rural Botswana, working as a primary school teacher. She undertook 38 successful trips into South Africa, usually alone, digging DLBs and burying arms under cover of night. She later moved to Johannesburg where she continued MK operations up until 1993.

What stands out across all their reflections is, in Grabek’s words, the “strangeness of their lives.” This was a period of considerable political change in the region. The internal anti-apartheid movement had reached a high point after the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions in 1985 and the state of emergency and crackdown on dissent regularly made international headlines. In neighbouring countries, apartheid security forces targeted MK camps and dozens, including close contacts of the internationalists, were killed. Through all of this, they had to remain quiet and inconspicuous, leading boring middle class lives where they didn’t discuss politics. Their identities as quiet Canadians was their cover.

In the introduction, Kasrils wonders why they chose to do this work? There are no single answers, but some common threads. Most were young, politically involved but not high-profile. Some came from political families while others were conservative and middle class. Meeson credits her exposure to Latin American liberation movements through her travels, while Grabek was involved in the Cuban solidarity movement. Rob and Helen Douglas were deeply inspired by those they met through the solidarity movement in Vancouver, including some of the last surviving volunteers from the Spanish Civil War. Others, like Godt, encountered liberation movements and activists through their work with NGOs in the region, growing close with them and forming lasting personal bonds and political commitments.

It is impossible to deny that many were also motivated by a youthful optimism in changing the world—not a bad impulse—and saw a way of doing so through anti-colonial struggle. They also understood that they could use apartheid’s rigid racial and gender hierarchies against it. The relative privilege afforded by a Canadian passport, foreign accent and white skin allowed them to undertake work that others could not—an instructive lessons in the uses of flexibility and uses of whiteness in struggle.

Protest against apartheid, Toronto, 1986. Photo by Frank Lennon, Toronto Star Archives. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library Digital Archives.

In various ways, they all came to see armed struggle as a legitimate means of bringing an end to the cruelty and humiliation of apartheid. This belief was, no doubt, also shaped by political currents of the time, from the student movements of 1968 to the Black power movement, to armed struggles against French and Portuguese colonialism. To paraphrase Fanon, they saw violence as a legitimate response to the violence of colonization. While they were not soldiers, they recognized that this work was significantly different from public solidarity efforts back in Canada. As Godt, Gordon and Craig write: “Moving from solidarity to MK… brought a profound internal change and devotion to the cause and to our international and South African comrades—whom we would die for.”

What role did their actions play in hastening the end of apartheid? Among historians, there is debate about MK’s role, with some suggesting that by the mid-1980s, the internal movement, comprised of a broad political base of labour, religious and social movements, was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Rather than military effectiveness, MK’s focus, particularly in the 1980s, centred more on public imagination. Its commanders recognized it could never take on the full might of the apartheid military, but they could provide necessary support and inspiration to movements inside the country, particularly during the dark days of the mid-1980s. By continuing to smuggle weapons into the country, the ANC also demonstrated that they were not being forced into negotiations with the regime but were doing so from a position of strength and could respond if needed. It is a blessing that they never had to do so.

There is a risk of reducing these stories to individual tales of heroism. This would be a mistake and seems counter to how the internationalists I’ve spoken with remember this time. They saw themselves as part of a broader movement against racism and colonialism and realized that their relative privilege would allow them to conduct work that others could not. The book also provides space for some to reflect on the immense psychological toll of this work. They lived double lives with the constant threat of arrest, torture, and surveillance. As Meeson write, she kept doing the work out of a commitment to her comrades, but soon found it wore her down. “It is not romantic work,” she writes, “it is exhausting and contributes to intergenerational trauma.”

What stands out are the close personal, political, and occasionally romantic bonds that formed between those who undertook this struggle. Through encounters with other internationalists, exiled activists and artists, they developed lasting friendships underpinned by strong political commitments. Solidarity is, after all, about human beings encountering, understanding, and supporting one another. As the geographer David Featherstone has argued, solidarity is based on these underlying universalisms—a belief in common human bonds that make us responsible toward one another. But these bonds don’t pre-exist, they are made through political struggles, and through this, visions of justice and equality emerge.

Discerning the book’s lessons for the present is more challenging. In their contribution, Gordon, Godt and Craig write that they decided to share their story to inspire others in a time when neoliberalism has undermined social solidarity and increased our collective sense of isolation and fragmentation. Their words certainly ring true. In these challenging times of war and climate catastrophe, we are in urgent need of new internationalist movements. If the struggle against apartheid can teach us anything it is that these struggles will not arise spontaneously. They require forms of organizing which allow us to better understand and relate to one another, and, in doing so, produce new visions of ourselves and the world.

Christopher Webb is writing a book on the meaning and practice of international solidarity in the Canadian anti-apartheid movement.

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