Secret Deal With South Africa’s Stalinists

Britain quietly allowed anti-apartheid exiles to run guerrilla operations from London as long as they stayed off the streets

Clipped wings: David Kitson and his wife Norma return to London in 1984 (Getty)

Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police chief, has warned that the force is facing “the most challenging time in its history” due in part to recent student protests which have forced a reversal of the previous Met policy of regularly reducing the number of police dedicated to such duties. This seems pretty strange to anyone who remembers the scale of CND and anti-Vietnam war protests. But oddly, the greatest cause of all — the one which could have mustered paralysing levels of support — sparked almost no protests.

Perhaps one should begin the story with the death in Johannesburg last November of David Kitson at the age of 91. The obituaries picked out the main points. A keen trade unionist and communist, Kitson had worked as an engineer on the de Havilland Comet in England,  returned to South Africa, immersed himself in anti-apartheid politics, quarrelled with the communist leader Joe Slovo, and ended up serving a 20-year prison term for his part in the ANC’s armed struggle. “By the end of my term, our warders were young men who hadn’t been born when my sentence started,” David told me. The Communist Party (the SACP) had ordered all its activists to stay in South Africa but Slovo fled to London where Kitson’s wife, Norma, also fetched up. In 1982, Norma decided to stage a permanent protest outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, giving prominence to the fate of David and other prisoners such as Nelson Mandela. To do this, she had to set up her own City of London Anti-Apartheid Committee, for the SACP, which controlled the ANC and through it the Anti-Apartheid Movement, disapproved of the vigil, claiming it was part of a cult of personality. When David, finishing his prison term in 1984, arrived in London, Slovo told him that as Anti-Apartheid’s Prisoner of the Year, he must give an address to the AAM in which he should denounce his wife for her breach of discipline. David refused and he and Norma were expelled from the SACP and the ANC, and David lost his post at Ruskin College, Oxford. They remained outcasts from the movement they had sacrificed so much for until their deaths. Almost to a man and woman the Kitsons’ comrades and supporters down the years turned their backs on them when the movement told them to do so. The obituaries, written by the few dissidents willing to brave the ANC’s wrath, mainly left this terrible story of Stalinist discipline there.

Why was the full ferocity of that discipline brought to bear against the Kitsons? David, I know, thought Slovo felt personally threatened. For David, when he was released, was second only to Mandela in his rank in the armed struggle, and had a previous record of disagreement with Slovo, who may well have feared that David, with his 20-year term behind him, might publicly expose him for having run away against party orders. Certainly, Slovo was always bitterly competitive against other white communists, for he knew that in an essentially African movement there was very limited room for whites in the top leadership, and he was determined to keep that space for himself. One can certainly never rule this motive out: Slovo was as ruthless and unscrupulous an apparatchik as anything the Stasi or KGB produced. To see roads and squatter camps named after him in today’s South Africa is like seeing streets and squares named after Beria or Ulbricht.

But there was another explanation. When the exiled ANC leadership under Oliver Tambo showed up in London in 1962,  the question was put to the Macmillan government. On the one hand, the ANC was quite clearly under communist control and was involved in an armed (“terrorist”) struggle against the South African government, which was friendly to Britain, and had major trade and investment interests in South Africa, not to mention 750,000 British passport holders. To give refuge to such a movement — while it continued to plant bombs in Durban and Pretoria — would be wholly unprecedented. On the other hand, Britain had to take a long view and in the long term, the ANC might well govern South Africa. Would it really be better to expel it and push it further into the arms of Moscow? Moreover, that would align Britain squarely behind the apartheid regime which, for a host of other reasons both at home, in the Third World and in Cold War terms, would be extremely unfortunate. No doubt the Foreign Secretary of the time, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, a strong liberal on apartheid, would have had the decisive view.

What emerged was a secret deal between the ANC-SACP leadership — that is, Tambo and Slovo — and MI5. The SACP and ANC would be allowed to live in London and operate there under MI5 protection but they would not be allowed to carry out any of their military activities there, nor have contact with any terrorist groups, and they would not give the British police trouble of any kind. What that meant was that there would be no public demonstrations against apartheid. At that time, the police had their hands full with CND. This was quite difficult enough: nuclear disarmament was a popular cause, so the protesters could mobilise large numbers. But the anti-apartheid cause was far more popular — Tories, Labour and Liberals were all anti-apartheid — and the cause had huge support from students and Britain’s ethnic minorities. Moreover, it aroused even stronger passions than nuclear weapons, so it posed an even greater potential threat to public order. 

This extraordinary deal held for nearly 30 years. ANC and SACP activists came to London from which they fanned out for guerrilla training with the KGB,  the Stasi, other East Europeans and Libya’s President Gaddafi. Particularly in the latter case, they collaborated closely with many terrorist organisations which were anathema to London. Often they would then return via London before being infiltrated into South Africa, there to carry out violent acts against what was still a government friendly to Britain. This was greatly resented by the apartheid government and in 1982 it arranged for the ANC’s London offices to be both burgled and bombed. However, this was an isolated incident, for South Africa was very strongly warned by Mrs Thatcher against any repetition. A more normal tactic was to get right-wing Tory MPs to make accusations in the Commons that ANC activists in the UK were consorting with the IRA. It was certainly true that the ANC greatly admired the IRA’s urban guerrilla expertise and there was some trade in weapons and stolen passports, but its London base was far too unusual and valuable an asset for the ANC to risk dealings with the IRA within Britain. 

The ANC and SACP controlled the Anti-Apartheid Movement and were able to prevent any public demonstrations against apartheid. Yet in 1969, to their fury, the young Liberal Peter Hain launched the “Stop The 70 Tour” campaign. Hain was able to rally sufficient support for his campaign to be a success, though the SACP and ANC tried secretly to sabotage him. The fact that direct action led by a 19-year-old could achieve such a triumph, despite the furious opposition of the groups patrolling that stretch of public opinion, showed the awesome public potential of the anti-apartheid cause.

This was the reason for Slovo’s fury against Norma Kitson’s public protest in Trafalgar Square. Norma was a well-known member of the ANC and Communist Party and thus posed a significant  threat to the deal with MI5. She was immediately expelled from both organisations but she remained a threat and an embarrassment, for many ordinary members of the AAM knew and sympathised with her and could not understand why her egregious militancy was being punished. Slovo could hardly explain, Marxist revolutionary though he was, that he had a secret agreement with the British police and secret service. When David Kitson arrived in London Slovo must have feared the worst should David lend his huge prestige and popularity to the protest: hence his demand for David to denounce Norma and the need ever after to send David and Norma to Coventry. This extremely cruel tactic was taken up by the SACP so that the ban against the Kitsons continued to operate even after Slovo’s death. Mandela professed himself puzzled by it and said the Kitsons were heroes, but even this counted for nothing.

Now, at last, David Kitson is beyond such spitefulness (Norma died in 2002). I knew the Kitsons well and often stayed in their house in Harare, weirdly decked out with the mementoes of decades of anti-apartheid struggle in London. But what is far weirder is the part that the Kitsons played in British history. The Comet’s fail-safe undercarriage that David designed always worked, and Norma, unwittingly and single-handedly, almost torpedoed the most remarkable arrangement that the British government has ever reached with a foreign revolutionary movement. Sir Paul should count himself lucky that anti-apartheid didn’t happen on his beat and should perhaps mull the advantages of a discreet deal with the NUS.

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