How the YCL fought apartheid

Luke Tuchscherer meets Steve Marsling, one of the ‘London recruits’ who faced torture and prison on clandestine missions to fight the racist dictatorship in South Africa

A chance meeting in a London pub led to a young man embarking on a secret mission to disseminate African National Congress (ANC) materials in apartheid-era South Africa.

The London Recruits is an upcoming film telling the story of volunteers who went to the country in the early 1970s to set off “leaflet bombs” letting the oppressed black population know the ANC was still functioning.

A 19-year-old Steve Marsling wandered into the Hanover Arms on Kennington Park Road, where coincidentally the Young Communist League (YCL) was hosting a folk night. Despite hating folk music, Marsling stuck around to chat to the members, who invited him to a meeting in Brixton.

“I was pretty left-wing anyway,” says Marsling, who is now 70 and lives in Aldringham, where he is chairman of the East Suffolk branch of the Communist Party. “I was brought up on a council estate in Elephant & Castle, my dad voted Labour and so I joined. In the year of the YCL’s 100th anniversary, part of its proud history is that roughly two thirds of the London recruits were members.

“The YCL secretary was called Bob Allen. A year later, Bob called me to one side and said, ‘There’s some political work in South Africa, it might be a little dangerous. I was wondering if you’d be interested.’ I said I was.”

Marsling suggested that his friend Sean Hosey, a young Irishman whose family had moved to Coventry, might also be keen, so the two of them met with Ronnie Kasrils — a member of the South African Communist Party and the ANC — who told them the plan.

“We were to fly to South Africa, taking a number of leaflets, explosives and detonators in a suitcase with a false bottom,” says Marsling. “The bombs weren’t designed to hurt anybody and they never did, but Ronnie explained that if we got caught, we’d be tortured and get a minimum sentence of five years.

“The Suppression of Communism Act meant people couldn’t hand out leaflets in the street. They had to pick white people because only white people could move around the country freely. He gave us a couple of days to think about it, but it didn’t take either of us long to decide, because apartheid was such a dreadful thing.”

Marsling and Hosey had no idea about the other recruits, but were told they could back out at any time as long as they didn’t talk about it. Undeterred, they learnt how to assemble the devices. In August of 1971, with enough leaflets, gunpowder and timers for seven bombs, they flew to Cape Town posing as tourists.

“The idea was to set them off at rush hour, where the South African working class would run to get them and take them back to the townships,” says Marsling. “At the time, Nelson Mandela and much of the ANC executive were incarcerated, some were in exile. Someone had to do something to say the ANC was still alive and still fighting.”

Anticipating bad weather, Marsling and Hosey bought raincoats, only to be met with glorious sunshine on the day.

“We looked a right couple of wallies,” laughs Marsling. “Walking around with big long macs on to disguise the bombs. As we later found out, they were looking for us — they must have been bloody blind!”

Using modified parking-meter timers, Marsling and Hosey set up bombs around the city to go off 15-20 minutes later in order to give them a chance to get away. However, they ran into trouble with their last device.

“When I set the timer, it started to go back towards the detonator,” says Marsling. “Without thinking, I shoved my fingernail in the ticking timer to stop it exploding. Sean’s face had gone completely white. I managed to use my fingernail to move the timer back to the 20-minute mark and thankfully it stayed put this time. If we’d run, we’d have been caught.”

The campaign was a great success and was headline news in every newspaper. On their way home, Marsling and Hosey had a three-hour stopover in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe) and their activities had made the papers there too.

About a year later, Kasrils asked Marsling to carry out another mission. “I was asked to go to a nice part of South Africa, near Durban and hand over some money and some passes. Easy. However, I was due to start a teacher training course so I couldn’t go.”

Hosey went in place of Marsling. When no postcard arrived to say Hosey had got there safely, Marsling spoke to Kasrils, who said he feared the worst.

“It turns out Hosey had walked into a trap,” says Marsling. “They’d tortured someone and learnt our code. They’d arranged the rendezvous as a try-on. He was arrested, he was tortured, he was put in solitary confinement for seven months. He spent five years in prison in Pretoria. I felt terrible, as you can imagine, because he’d taken my place.”

Marsling and Hosey’s story is one of many featured in the new film directed by Gordon Main and produced by Cardiff-based Barefoot Rascals. It will be released theatrically later this year — though the exact timing will depend on the pandemic — and be shown at film festivals worldwide.

Funded by the NEU, Marsling and some other recruits have also produced an education pack to coincide with the release which will be available to schools this year.

The new Bedfordshire and East Buckinghamshire branch of the Communist Party is hosting its inaugural event on Wednesday April 7 at 7.30pm, which will feature Marsling as a speaker to tell his story. Roger McKenzie, assistant general secretary of Unison and Farhana Zamam, chair of Tower Hamlets Unite Community Branch, who will discuss the ongoing fight against racism — visit tinyurl.com/BedsBucksantiracism to register.

Luke Tuchscherer, is secretary of the Bedfordshire and East Buckinghamshire branch of the Communist Party.

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