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North London’s fight for the ANC

‘London Recruit’ recalls his experiences as one of a small number of young white Britons who volunteered to work in South Africa for the African National Congress in its struggle against Apartheid

31 May, 2018 — By John Gulliver

Islington YCL London Recruits, from left: Sean Hosey, Ken Keable, Peter Smith, Roger Allingham and London Recruit Bob Newland

EYES bulging, the security officer lunged at Sean Hosey. One wrong answer, he screamed, and he would hurl him from the fifth-floor window. Punch drunk after three days’ sleep deprivation and violent interrogation, Sean hung suspended, wrists handcuffed across an overhead bar, 8,000 miles from his Islington home in a torture chamber in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It was 1972 and Sean was a London Recruit – one of a small number of young white Britons who had volunteered to work underground in South Africa for the African National Congress (ANC) in its struggle against the Apartheid regime.

The fifth-floor room somewhere in the notorious Apartheid Bureau of State Security (BOSS) stank of sweat and fear, Sean recalled at Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell, last week.

“This homicidal maniac is shouting at me: ‘What do you know about Harold Wilson and his links with the KGB?’” Sean didn’t know what he was talking about.

Sean, then in his early 20s, a member of the Young Communist League in Islington, was jailed for five years for smuggling ID papers that black people needed to move around. He spent three harrowing weeks on death row witnessing the haunting all-night singing by black inmates to accompany fellow prisoners to their hanging.

At the time the struggle against Apartheid was on its knees. But from a pair of shabby offices in Fitzrovia, the ANC ran its international wing, dodging Special Branch and MI5 with operations spanning Africa, the Soviet Union and Cuba.

The Recruits came from among the Young Com­munist League, which met in an Angel pub, the London School of Economics and the North London Polytechnic, then in Holloway Road.

They used their passports to smuggle themselves into South Africa with false-bottomed suitcases stuffed with thousands of ANC leaflets that were launched from special non-lethal bombs over black workers outside train stations.

They set off hidden tape-players that broad­cast ANC messages, unfurled giant banners and posted thousands of letters anonymously. A film about the Recruits is to be released later this year.

Now in his late sixties and living in Sheffield, Sean said he only had a “walk-on part” in overthrowing Apartheid. “There was a thread that ran through my upbringing which linked all of the international campaigns of the left – Spain, WW2, American civil rights, Vietnam, and of course South Africa – and there was a moral certainty of the wrongness of those things, particularly Apartheid,” he said.

An exhibition on Fighting Apartheid in Islington is on at the Islington Museum, 245 St John Street, Clerkenwell, until June 19.

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