International Brigade Against Apartheid – Secrets of the People’s War that Liberated South Africa (Book review)

By Bob Newland

December 16th 2020 was the 60th Anniversary of the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the army of the African National Congress (ANC). Editor Ronnie Kasrils was a former MK Commander and Chief of Intelligence and a Minister in the Governments of Mandela and Mbeki. The title of the book demonstrates Kasrils’ belief that armed struggle was key to the defeat of Apartheid – something many recent commentators have tried to underplay.

In the fight against imperialism the battle against apartheid was one of the longest and arguably most successful internationally. The ANC strategy named ‘the four pillars of struggle’ encompassed mass mobilisation, an effective underground organisation, armed struggle and international solidarity. This brilliant book contains many moving and informative stories which bring home the scale and scope of solidarity actions. It is also interesting to discover the interconnection between the many different parts of the struggle.

Many Liberation readers will be familiar with the ‘London Recruits’ who, recruited by Ronnie Kasrils and Aziz Pahad, went to South Africa in the 1960s and 70s on clandestine missions providing support for MK. I had the privilege to have been one of them. This volume tells of the many other internationalists who contributed to the victory over Apartheid by their underground exploits.

Pallo Jordan introduces the struggle for National Liberation in a timeline back to the 18th Century. The volunteers’ stories are from the 20th Century. In their own words activists from Britain, Belgium, Canada, Holland and throughout Southern Africa share many secrets of this extraordinary saga of leaflet bombings, arms smuggling, safe houses, dead letter boxes and transportation of MK combatants.

What is amazing is the scale of these activities which remained unknown for 40 years. However, you will have to read the book to discover these secrets for yourselves. Near misses, capture, torture, imprisonment and escapes all add to the drama. Many of the ‘Brigaders’ did their bit and returned to ‘normal’ life in their homelands. Others remained in their adopted South Africa continuing to make their contribution towards a better society.

Part two is dedicated to international solidarity organisations including Britain’s Anti-Apartheid Movement and groups in France, India, Ireland and Canada. Support for the struggle with arms and training from the Soviet Union, German Democratic Republic and Cuba is also addressed.

A number of contributors illustrate the price paid by the Front Line States (many only just independent) for daring to support MK with training facilities and a safe haven. Others raise controversies about the way the armed struggle developed, life in the camps and not surprisingly issues about post-Apartheid developments. Kasrils looks at the critical victory by Angolan and Cuban troops against the South African Defence Force at Cuito Cuanavale in 1987 which turned the tide of the struggle.

Finally, Kasrils addresses the question ‘Was it worth it?’ While cataloguing the many problems in today’s South Africa, he is clear – ‘Yes it was’.

Discussing further aspects of international solidarity, Urko Airtza from the Basque Country recalls the relationship forged between ETA (Basque Country and Freedom), MK and other liberation movements while training in Algeria. He highlights Kasrils’ role in helping bring about a ceasefire by ETA and the subsequent arms decommissioning. Urko quotes the last words to his parents of an ETA militant killed fighting in El Salvador in another internationalist initiative: ‘Solidarity is the tenderness among peoples’, which seems to me a fitting point on which to end.

Bob Newland was a London Recruit and a former London Area Secretary of Liberation.

International Brigade Against Apartheid – Secrets of the People’s War that Liberated South Africa by Ronnie Kasrils. Published by Jacana and distributed in the UK by Central Books. £16.95.

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