This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
Cronin, Jeremy [Second Interview]
Conducted by Howard Barrell,
Johannesburg, November 19 1990
OK, Jeremy, if we could just start with, very briefly, the place and basic manner of your recruitment back in the early 1970s. So we have some idea of how it occurred.
I'm going to be a little bit elusive about it, but fundamentally it consisted in being involved with a small student left kind of group called the Radical Society at UCT [University of Cape Town] and one of the people involved in that - it was a very small group of about, well it had sort of Friday meetings on campus, but there was a steering group that was quite tight, five or so - and one of the people in that steering group had a family connection, sort of one of those lone survivors that survived the 1960s. And so, from the late 1960s onwards we were given certain tasks which we understood to be [SA communist] party and congress supporting tasks, party tasks and congress supporting tasks. This was a time when there was an ambiguity as to whether whites could or couldn't or whatever do work for the ANC.
So there was no ambiguity?
No, there was ambiguity. And the key task right along - and this continued - was ideological, propaganda, and one of the early tasks before once [a full recruit] and member of the [SA communist] party was to assemble address lists of people on campus basically for forwarding for pamphlet distribution. All that would have been already in the beginning of the late 1960s and sort of getting to be more intense, more structured in the early 1970s. I then personally went...
Sorry, can I just get clarity on this: At that point did you consider yourself a member of the ANC or the [SA communist] party?
No, as a supporter. So there were two kind of things: there was to have a kind of left influence on the campus, to do occasional tasks like assembling addresses and then, three, sort of self-education - small group meetings and things tricked in to us like the [SA communist] party programme which we diligently went through and then we read whatever we could lay our hands on, and it wasn't easy at that time.
Could I also, another question here: Was there any member of this group or any individual with whom this group was in contact who was, as far as you were concerned, definitely ANC or [SA communist] party?
What, one, two, three?
Well, one. But presumably in some kind of unit. Well, in fact I know, was in a variety of units, doing underground work. So, ja, that was our contact, who passed on, we would get miniaturised version of an AC ["African Communist"] or a [SA communist] party programme I remember very distinctly in the sort of "Springbok" notebook.
You were going to say you then went abroad, I think.
OK, yes. So, let me get it right. In the middle of 1972, I went abroad, partly and partly genuinely so I did a sort of masters...
This was in France?
Yes. But very distinctly also a major object for me was to establish more formalised links, and that contact of our small group indicated, and did, send out a covering letter through his channels. So I was expected and people did know about me - obviously through that same channel. So, in the course of 1972 and 1973, when I was overseas, I made contact, or contact was made between me [and them] - there was a system of contacting, and so on. And I was put through some basic training by none other than our friend [Ronnie Kasrils].
I'd just like to know now: It was under one individual who we know, in common, and I know who it is; Now, did you have a feeling that he was working within another structure? Did you have contact with people apart from him or were you restricted to him?
The actual training aspect was restricted to him. But my sort of networking into him - because I didn't make a direct approach to him, my instructions on how to get to him were through other contacts - so he was clearly working under, it was obvious, and also referred back. We would have a discussion, I would raise problems or issues or whatever, or wrote something for an AC [African Communist] and he would come back with comments which, he said, reflected some kind of collective perspective on whatever it was that I was raising.
Can you give me the main areas of training which you were given?
They were fairly specific. They were counter-surveillance - well, it all began with getting Henri Alleg's The Question - I don't know if you have read that - an horrific account of torture in Algerian jails by Henri Alleg...
Can you give me the spelling of the surname please?
Henri and then A-L-L-E-G. It's called The Question. And I was meant to read, but he couldn't lay his hands on it - what's his name, the In the Shadow of the Gallows or whatever, the Czech martyr...
Fucik. And Ruth First's book, One Hundred - and is it Sixteen Days, or so. So that was my first formal encounter: this avalanche of horror stories which I understood to be, you know "don't every claim you weren't warned", sort of thing. I took it to be a test of how serious I was. Ja, counter-surveillance techniques, how to conduct myself under interrogation for which the books had somewhat prepared me, and then discussion about propaganda - preparation of, distribution of, various methods including bucket bombs, tape recorders, banners that unfurl from high points. Ja.
And how old were you at this point?
It was 72-73, so I am 22-23.
Now, was there ever any suggestion that you would be involved in work other than propaganda?
No, there was - gingerly, in the sense that it was clearly under-developed, that's how I read it - but there, one of the ideas that was dropped in my mind was that I should investigate, if I was going back to Cape Town, the harbour, access to, ways of getting in and out, perhaps joining a yacht club and so on with a view to smuggling material which I clearly understood to mean, not just propaganda material but sort of arms and so forth. But that was definitely not a focus. It was just "by the way", if you have a chance, or if you spot someone who might be in the yacht club or whatever, try to cultivate linkages and so on. So there was obviously thought going on around on some capacity of a military kind.
But soon it was clear that your focus was propaganda?
Absolutely. Right from the start. I mean, for instance, I had been - my father was a naval officer and I continued to have those sorts of connections, well, my mother did, and I had spent a large part of my life in Simonstown and still went down there to visit friends. I'd spent nine months as a Citizen Force trainee in the navy in 1967. But I wasn't questioned at all about that and didn't really volunteer - from both sides there wasn't a particular awareness of that angle of things, either as a potential target, or for work inside of them or whatever. You know, we didn't pursue that angle whatsoever.
OK, the decision is made that you should go into propaganda - it's not difficult to understand why. You are an intellectual, you have access to a variety of resources and skills. What was your understanding of, why propaganda at that point? I mean I can think of an obvious answer to that.
I'm wondering if I'd give an honest answer. I can think of all the good theoretical answers. It made a lot of sense to me because a year could go buy and you wouldn't see the initials ANC, let alone an SACP in the daily newspapers - the Cape Times or whatever. And already, as a group in the Radical Society, we had done some propaganda ourselves - we had put out pamphlets and we had done some spray-painting and so on - partly under the suggestion of our contact but partly self-initiated. And I think that showed an awareness from our side that there was massive demoralisation and lack of a sense of the presence or reality of certain traditions and organisations, and so on. So, it seemed like a continuity, but a more formalised one for me. So, I think that would have been my understanding of it, although I could now dress it up in a sort of a broader theory. I now understand that there were decisions made at a 1970 central committee [of the SA communist party] augmented, and so forth, which I wasn't aware of.
So how long - your training goes on intermittently, I presume, over what kind of period of time?
It was short bursts. Two short bursts really. Because I was in Paris obviously and the contacts were in London. They actually came over once - in fact that was at a later point. So, effectively it amounted to - I can't remember exactly, but something of the order of two intense weeks of training.
And then when do you come back?
I come back at the end of 1973, and start to lecture at UCT in 1974. Sorry, have I got it right? 68-69-70-71, yes.
Now, when you come back, what are your operational instructions?
Well, I am told to be careful for a few months. They possibly would be watching me. I had had a bit of a police record before then - I had been raided and so on. In fact, as a result of one of the earlier - the Timol unit, when they got busted, on their list of addresses were some that I had supplied, and my own address. And the cops clearly - they raided about 300 homes in one night in the days following Timol's arrest and then death. And they clearly thought they had something like membership lists or whatever. And they had a bit of a file on me which probably they had padded up, and so on, which was clear from the questioning. But there was an understanding that I had, not a major profile, but a little bit of a profile. And I had been out [of the country] and so on, so the first instruction was be careful for three or four months, prepare the ground and so on. But it was to form a unit, which meant recruiting two others...
Two was the guideline was it?
Roughly, ja. To buy printing equipment. The idea was that we would be roneoing pamphlets, that was the main task, to find some kind of place to do the printing, and then a whole range of other things: establish the usual kind of counter-surveillance expertise - get to know your area, establish [check] routes that you can use, that you can check, reflecting glass, whatever, whatever, whatever, shopfronts. To develop that kind of user-friendly terrain, one that I. I think I said to start purchasing equipment and to stash it in some way. Also to look for explosives for bucket bombs. And all the advice I was given was incorrect.
Yes, like there were various fertilisers that were meant to be on the market that had been withdrawn years before, Guy Fawkes cracker have now come back I see but at that stage they had definitely disappeared - I eventually found some Guy Fawkes crackers in Grahamstown in some little Indian shop - and so on. So, and also what I distinctly remember was that because the regime was like so in command at that time and so seemingly all-powerful, there were two very distinct attitudes in my mind. The one - both related - the one was, "God, let me at least accomplish one successful run, then they can catch me"; but what I don't want to happen is that I get caught before I have done one. Do one, and that's OK. So it was kind of very - so one's sense of being able to survive endlessly was not there in my case. And the second was that, in a sense, all that training had been very useful but it developed a bit of a paranoia in me so that I imagined that I was seeing sort of tails and things which I am sure weren't there. So I was hypersensitive and that also related to the sense that they were very powerful, breathing down one's neck the whole time, and so on, which was a feature of the time. And I hadn't had the experience - I mean there had been little, small-time stuff - of outwitting them. And there is nothing like that to kind of build one's confidence.
So I just want to confirm one thing, although you have implied it: there had been absolutely no military aspect to your training whatsoever?
No, that's right.
But there had been a suggestion of basic intelligence and how you might be able to get stuff...
Hang on, maybe I shouldn't say absolutely none. There had been bits and pieces about how one could sabotage a train and how - but it wasn't the focus of the training. It was thrown in as an idea.
What sort of thing on sabotaging a train - putting something across the lines, or...?
Ja, that sort of thing: How to pull down a pylon, that kind of thing where you don't need explosives - you can use a car.
But no suggestion of using formal weaponry or any [military equipment]?
So you get home and you have the instructions which you have just outlined. Are you told how you link up with, or how you form part of anything larger?
Well, I mean the anything larger is London, and the link is secret ink correspondence. So that was another instruction, another part of my training which I forgot about - sort of postboxes, communications, DLBs [dead letter boxes] and so on; there was a lot of attention to that, which I did set up. And again, which indicated that people were very much learning, there was a cock-up with secret ink: I could read them fine, but they were having enormous difficulties reading me. And what it proved to be was that the temperature differences, the sort of heat of summertime Cape Town, somehow cocked up [things]. They sent me a fairly rudimentary system in, I think, so that I could develop, but they had given themselves a complicated developing task; but it was a bit too complicated, and they obviously didn't realise - it worked very well when you posted it from Surrey to London, and somehow it apparently didn't work too well [between them and me]. So, apparently, they were having difficulty reading me.
And in terms of the larger picture inside South Africa, I mean were you told there were other propaganda units operating or that this was...?
Well, by this stage, the Timol unit had been cracked. So, again, a lot of time was spent analysing why that might have happened, lessons to be drawn and so forth. I got the impression that there might have been one or two other units - I'm not sure if it was then or a subsequent meeting, a subsequent meeting that I had. No, at the subsequent meeting, the other unit had been cracked; it was the Suttner unit, had just been cracked, along with the Breytenbach fiasco. I think I had the impression that there were a few others but also that it was very smallscale stuff. I mean I definitely know it was now. I think I realised that at the time.
And did you have any feeling that there was at this time a clearly worked out perspective, even if one might now criticise it, but a definite perspective on the way forward at the time that you commence your operations?
I don't think so. I think I had faith that there was such a thing, but I don't think I necessarily had very strong grounds from the briefings I was getting and so forth. I mean it was handled efficiently and that reassured me greatly, and also sympathetically as we know that individual [Ronnie Kasrils] to be. And again, when I met him again the second time, there was an enormous warmth and so on which means a hell of a lot to some lonely individual sitting in the field somewhere. But there was no kind of discussion of any broad - I was given also the kind of "Strategy and Tactics" from Morogoro and a whole lot of things that I had never seen before. So in that broad sense, I understood there to be some strategy and tactics, which were those enunciated at Morogoro, as well as the [SA communist] party programme. But anything more specific than that and more, ja, sort of time-bound by way of a three-year programme or something - I didn't really have that sense. But it didn't worry me, thinking back.
I mean these were the times for lonely heroes, in any case...
A bit, yes.
OK, you get back, you've got your instructions, do you then start recruiting?
I move in the direction of doing that and sort of earmark a couple of individuals, and the idea is to bring them into some sort of reading group and whatever, and begin the process in that way. Then, after about four or five months, the communications are getting sticky for reasons that I didn't understand very clearly at that point - until it was later explained to me that they were having difficulty reading. Anyway, I was reading them, and I was advised now to communicate without using secret ink but just using book code in a sort of letter. Which I do. And the question comes through: Do I want to join up with an existing unit? Yes or No. Yes, is my answer, is my decision. So I put on ice - I've bought stuff, I've found a garage in which to store stuff, I've begun to accumulate paper and all of that sort of thing; but [I] don't proceed with the unit that I was about to build. And my next communication is a rendezvous basically with two other people who turn out to be the Rabkins [David and Sue Rabkin].
And when is this, now? I mean I can go back to the court case...
Probably early 1974, early 1974. Now they have already been operating as exactly this sort of unit, propaganda unit, for I think about a year.
Had they been putting out stuff?
Have you been aware that somebody else has been putting out stuff?
No. I was aware of other units, stuff had come, presumably Timol and presumably Tony Holiday. Right, so then we join up, early 1974.
And when do you yourself go operational for the first time? When do you actually - OK, you've set up a lot of infrastructure: when are you first involved in...
Well, now, with this unit. We begin.
So is that also early 1974 or...?
Yes. Certainly by middle of 1974. So there's like two years. Because I get arrested in July of 1976 and we have about two years - I have - and they've had an extra year.
Right, now, in that period when you join the unit - what's it, early-mid 1974 through to 1976 - how many different sets of pamphlets do you put out?
I think that we are charged with 17, roughly that.
But you get convicted for a fraction of that?
Yes, I think it's...
Nine or something?
Yes, something of that order.
But you did 17?
Yes, about 17, but they just couldn't pin the...
Remainder on you?
No, no, no, some of them were from a period earlier than when I got active, so that reflects the difference in...
Oh, I see. Were Sue and David [Rabkin] convicted for all of them?
Ja. There was a whole deal with Sue. But certainly David was convicted. I think Sue, she was charged under a lesser act - she was pregnant and whatever. I think it's 17. It might be - it's plus minus. It's pretty much that.
Now the geographic area of distribution: Are you working from mailing lists?
So it's nationwide?
And the greatest concentration, would that be in the main kind of urban conurbations?
Ja. And a whole lot of townships which are now very familiar to us but which weren't to me, typing the bloody things. So it was very distinctly Kwazekele, New Brighton, Daveyton, Tumahole - places I'd never...
Presumably you developed this list over a period of time.
I think it was supplied to us, primarily. We added to it, but then it was very localised, Cape Town stuff by and large. And we developed an embassy list, and academics and so on. And we had some sort of reach into that. But the bulk of the list was township people.
Yes. Overwhelmingly so, ja. So I would guess - I never asked - I would guess it was collected off people skipping the country and so on, providing five names or whatever, that sort of thing, that's what it looked like.
Now, the township people you were sending to: you said they were in the majority?
Or you would have a black names' majority?
Can you give me any indication of the kind of proportion that we are looking at?
Oh no, much more than that. I thought, I got the impression, but I was guessing, but a good 80 percent looked like it was New Brighton, Kwazekele, Guguletu, whatever.
Now how long would that list have been on any one distribution?
It wasn't that big. It was about 2,000 to 3,000. So it was fairly small.
That's a lot of names to deal with.
Ja, well that's one of the angles we nearly got caught on, was using an addressograph because to type each time around - we bought an addressograph, but that became very vulnerable...
What is an addressograph?
It's like a duplicator, like a spirit duplicator, except you have little stencils basically that you've typed onto that carbonised paper, and you brush it with spirits and it produces a sort of purple address. You don't see them so much now, but you used to about 12 years ago, 15 years ago. There were just a few suppliers and I think one in Cape Town of that particular thing, and fortunately for us the guy, the coloured clerk who had sort of sold to Sue [Rabkin] and then to me didn't cooperate with them. I actually went into a trap and he actually didn't - because I, we were worried about it and I went in [because] we had run out of the stuff - and, in fact during my interrogation, I was taken in to this and Spyker van Wyk threatened the guy, and said, "Why didn't you warn us? You were meant to tell us the moment these people came in and so on".
Now the character of the pamphlets: Would these have just been leaflets or would it occasionally have been, let's say, major ANC statements running to more than one page?
It was primarily "Inkululeko" that we were producing, which described itself on its masthead as the "organ of the central committee" [of the SA communist party]. And I think we would get about two or three of those in a year. Again, one could check, but I think it was of that order. So that was the main activity. Just before I arrived, and then it suddenly stops, the unit had been involved in producing ANC propaganda, I think under the imprint of, I forget what it was called, I think possibly "Mayibuye". But I can't remember if that's right or not. Again, it would be on the charge sheet. They had produced a couple of those. In the case of "Inkululeko", it was either two sides of a foolscap, as I think it was then...
They used to use foolscap in those days...
Yes, or four sides. It was often four sides, as I remember. So it would be major statements from the [SA communist] party rather than the ANC. Then a second thing that we developed towards the end, taking up the baton from Raymond [Suttner], was to bring out "Vukani" ["-Awake!"]. Which described itself - I can't remember the exact wording - but something to the effect of "supporters of the ANC-SACP alliance", something like that.
Yeah. And the idea there was that the unit, which was now kind of somewhat more trusted in the sense that there was the feeling that it had the ability to write itself - because most of the stuff obviously we were just typing and printing - we got the green light to produce copies of "Vukani" which we then produced ourselves. OK, now I forget exactly how many, but it was probably not more than two, at the most three "Vukanis".
When does the "Vukani" thing start?
It starts with Raymond [Suttner] I think.
Raymond is picked up in 1975, isn't he?
So I think he might have had one or two, I'm not sure. So our number - it was "Vukani" number three, something like that, I can't remember.
Now the famous Vukani that comes out just after - no, let me come to that later. So you, then, had been recruited into the [SA communist] party rather than the ANC?
And we are looking at Sue, and definitely David [Rabkin], as having been a [SA communist] party unit?
But doing some ANC work.
Right. Now, when you start writing yourself, how do you see your role? what is the character of what the unit is writing? Would you characterise it as agitational or as directive - obviously it can be both at the same time? Is it designating tasks for specific people or is it more agitational? How do you see it? How does the unit see its role? These are early days, I know.
Ja, they were. [conversation with child, Benjy Cronin] I remember us having three or so items per issue of the two or three that we ever did. And it's a bit like "Umsebenzi" - obviously much reduced in size - in terms of the kind of attempt at coverage. So there would be a sort of lead front page which would attempt to editorialise about the current political situation. There would be one sort of theoretical article, and I remember one on what is national democratic struggle, and what is the national democratic revolution. And then there would be an article on underground organising or how to. And I remember us doing an article on slogan painting and stickers, and we recommended that people should make - and we actually included in the envelopes that we sent "Vukani" in sort of five or six - we used a little rubber stamp type thing: "The Party Lives!" or "Long Live..." or something. And then we also sort of gave instructions like wear rubber gloves, you know, put them up at night, have a team, etc, etc. Those sorts of things. So it spanned, it was an attempt to do those three sorts of things. Kind of give a strategic perspective on the current situation, some kind of more theoretical input and something on the practical tasks for - we didn't conceive of people, we didn't have the remotest idea ourselves about mass democratic structures, so we tended to suggest to people that they should reproduce ourselves in their actions. So it was instructions on sort of propaganda activities that could be carried out.
Now was there every any suggestion in your training or during your time in the country that you should attempt to link up with kind of incipient mass formations?
You were to keep an entirely clandestine presence?
Yes. And, in fact, it was a much-debated issue.
Within the unit?
And with our contacts. Not much, but it was debated a bit. The Rabkins in particular were very deep undercover. They had no record whatever. And, although David was writing on the newspaper and was writing what was described as the "pondokkie beat" by his fellow journalists [laughter]. But he was always a little nervous about doing even that, sort of straying that close to reality. I was giving - and it always a source of concern - lectures on Marx and so on.
Very widely appreciated by the way.
Yeah, but not by my unit! [laughter] Yeah, but the kind of line was very much stay away, stay outside. I used to get a lot of approaches from Nusas and things like that which I would turn down and say I didn't really know about - I'm just a theoretician or philosopher, or whatever. Which I felt sick about doing, but it was that, rather than trying to - it was keep yourself very safe.
And did you have any contact with other underground units?
I know that - no, not really - except that David had been involved in, thought the channel, had been posting money to a particular, I think to Port Elizabeth, to an African name.
But you chaps didn't know about Tony [Holiday] at that stage or have contact with him?
Well, I did, historically, know about him. But, again, the instruction was I should cut that. So we had some kind of personal friendship contacts, because he had come down to Cape Town by 1976, in 1976.
In order to study, I think.
Yes. No, he came down to work on the Times, Cape Times, in 1975 probably. And then started studying simultaneously, I think probably. Must have been 1976, I think.
So, when you say you knew of Tony historically, did you know that Tony was involved in this kind of work?
Well, the person I was being elusive about was - someone that I was involved with was family of Tony. So Tony was the contact person.
Oh, I see. OK.
OK. Fluke, you know what I mean. Anyway, the Boere know this because - in fact, the Boere know this absolutely. That's how they got to me in the end as well.
Sorry can you just repeat: The Boers know this. Can you be explicit?
Yes, when I say I was in a small Radical Society at UCT and so on, my very closest friend at that stage was, in fact, Tony's younger brother. So we were being kind of watched and fed and guided and whatever.
So Tony [Holiday] then is the mystery contact man you were talking about earlier?
If we can go up to late 1975, early 1976, there's the Gwala case in Durban. We know that, by that stage, Joe Gqabi starts to come out round about then, Zuma's been out for some time, Ramokgadi's been out for some time. Does you unit have any link up with, knowledge of the work that these other people are doing?
No, no. We read about it in the newspapers when they are on trial, but otherwise --
Is there any - in the period after you come back - do you or your unit get any guidance from internal people, ANC, [SA communist] party on what you can or cannot do, what you should do?
No, no. Again, I have Tony. It's slightly reversed. I mean Tony has lost contact a little bit and has moved from Johannesburg, where he had been working, down to Cape Town, and comes looking for some advice, and knows that I am about to go over at the end of 1975, Christmas time. I go over for a month or two, back to Paris but then, again, make the link. But there's nothing beyond any of that.
When you go over in late 1975, early 1976, do your instruction change at all? I mean, or is there any change of mood that you detect? Is there any change of perspective, strategic perspective, any new direction which is put before you?
I think - I'm not sure if it's at that meeting or - I think there is a bit of a change of mood which at the time, I thought, had more to do with sort of growing confidence in our ability to sort of perform, but perhaps it also had a great deal more to do with the kind of feedback they were getting about something sort of stirring. So quite a lot of emphasis starts to be placed on greater initiative and independence on our part...
Of your unit inside the country?
Yes. Which is where "Vukani" comes in. Now, as I say I am not sure - I don't think - it could have been there that we were given the go-ahead to now start producing "Vukani".
You're not sure - it might have been a little earlier?
It might have just been fractionally earlier. But it was thereabouts if it wasn't then specifically. But it was certainly in conformity with a kind of "We've got to start moving now", you know, "Pick it up" and "React on the ground more confidently" - don't wait for the two or three months that it takes for an "Inkululeko" to arrive and so forth. Sort of try to offer guidance into the situation.
Can I just check one thing. Were you at times receiving stuff from abroad by means of DLBs [dead letter boxes] inside the country? Or was it almost invariably mail? Were there occasions when you received books, perhaps,?
I think it was always mail, bearing in mind also that between us - because they also travelled out a couple of times, at least once during the period - so there was, it was not that frequent, but it was relatively frequent, because they had family and a good reason to be going, and they also had family coming out, and the family was used either knowingly, in one case, or unknowingly in others, to ferry stuff. But it was not anything as grand as - it would be a copy of "Inkululeko" stuffed into the cardboard of an LP record, that kind of thing.
Now can we go into 1976? There is a "Vukani-Awake!" that comes out at about the time of the Soweto Uprising - I think it's about...
Well, in fact, no, it's probably even late June...
Well, I've seen it reproduced in a book somewhere and it's referred to as July; but it's late June, July...
That was us, ja.
So that was you guys. Now at that point, the Soweto Uprisings are occurring, there's a kind of veld fire effect that's going on, you're a unit in Cape Town, you're isolated from other units inside the country, you're in contact with Tony [Holiday], and you have this very long line of communication to London. What is the feeling in the unit? What is the - how does the unit see its role at that point?
OK. I remember all that very clearly. We meet probably on about the 19th of June. It's a kind of routine meeting - we meet every two or three weeks, we pre-set the date before June the 16th; we sit down and it's three or four days, it seems, maybe it was a week after June 16th. And the unit really does appreciate that something very important has happened, and that as a unit we have got to respond. That's the - I mean I remember that very distinctly. We decide to respond, and we are meeting to produce a "Vukani", I think our second. So, now, the whole thing's got to change. Debates: OK, first we've got to editorialise around that, and I haven't seen that since my trial in 1976, but I remember the headline was "Death to the Murderous Oppressors". But there was a big debate in the unit as to whether that was the right language or not. David saying: Absolutely, it's got to come very hard and heavy and whatever, a bit biblical...
But we've got to say that sort of thing. I think the other two of us feeling: Oh, it's a little bit sort of emotive, purple. It certainly was. But the second thing was: What practically do we call on people to do? I think I might be conflating two things. There might have been a pamphlet which said "Death to the Murderous Oppressors", which was produced immediately and then a Vukani which was a little bit more reflective on the issue. But I am not clear.
I seem to remember. Can I try and prompt you - I don't want to mislead you - my recollection is that the "Vukani" addresses itself to any stayaways. Or is that a subsequent "Vukani"?
Well, we didn't have much subsequent. So we are talking about. There is definitely a "Vukani" which talks about the need to carry...
It was very considered in fact. I remember reading it the other day and I remember thinking, My God, at a time like that, how did they produce something so considered...
The idea was you have got to carry the struggle to white areas. It talks about stayaways, etc, etc. And that it's got to be broadened, the social base of the struggle from sort of student, youth and that kind of thing to a broader - that kind of thing. Now, that's a "Vukani". Now whether "Death to the Murderous Oppressors", which I remember very well because the prosecution made hay with us on that one [laughter], whether that was a small flyer I've gone vague in my mind, or whether we are talking about one publication. But the other thing which is kind of symptomatically significant is that after some debates the decision is taken that we have got to call for a specific stayaway, not just that people should organise stayaways or whatever. But we should actually set the date. And here's a little unit in Cape Town, an impossibility of course, but we do.
Tell me about it.
Well, I can't remember. But we say: Well, they cannot get away with murdering. OK, it's either Vukani or a separate pamphlet which then calls on people to stay away, I can't remember whether it's for one day or two days or three days, but certainly issued that particular call. I think it was possibly for a Friday, something like that. And we mail out our two thousand copies. So, a drop in a huge ocean, to this effect.
Do you sign it as the ANC or the [SA communist] party?
No, it would have been signed as ANC-SACP supporters, something like that. Again, it should be checked.
[End of Side A]
So, of course, no such stayaway occurs, although we hear subsequently that police leave was cancelled for particular dates and there was a kind of general mobilisation. So both we and they had an inordinate sense of...
[Laughter] No, I think they rather more than us. We were kind of speculatively and rather uncertainly...
Now this idea of a stayaway: Does it follow an earlier stayaway which has already occurred in Soweto, or do you generate this idea yourselves?
We generate the idea ourselves.
Can you give me the origins of that? Because it's...
Well, we were kind of looking back to the 1950s and the early 1960s - what did people do, given something...
Like what did the disarmed population do...?
How, there has got to be some galvanised mass action in reply to the gunning down of people: What is it? What should it be? It's kind of, grope around in the history and come up with that.
Now, from June 16, up until your arrest in late July, how many publications do you come out with?
I honestly can't remember. I'm very vague about that.
One "Vukani" we know about. There's "Death to the Murderous Oppressors" which...
Which I suspect is a separate thing, but I am not sure.
And between those two and your arrest...?
That's it. I think so. We could check, but I think so. And I think also there's an attempt which probably wasn't successful to let off a whole series of bucket bombs as well into that situation.
At Cape Town?
All restricted to Cape Town?
The bucket bombs, yes. We would occasionally go to other centres to post, and that would - well, it appeared to work fairly well because there were newspaper reports in places like, Rapport, and places like that, saying cells in PE [Port Elizabeth] and whatever, or perhaps they aren't cells, perhaps it's just merchant seamen getting off and posting. And, of course, it was us.
So, can you not remember more about these bucket bombs, because I would think that would be quite a dramatic sort of incident?
Well we had - what was it, one or two attempts? - it might simply have been one. I'd brought, when I'd come back - it could well have been before June 16. I'd come back with potassium chlorate from sort of Christmas holidays, 1975-76. It turned out to be poor potassium chlorate [laughter]. And none of us were very proficient with our fingers. But we prepared - I think I planted two or three buckets...
Are these mentioned in your trial?
Yeah, well they discovered - you see this is what makes me think they didn't actually go off successfully. Because there was quite a lot of publicity for the ones that did go off successfully. The ones that we planted - I think it was one going - we put, we placed about three or four buckets on one day, basically.
Which went off successfully?
No, I suspect they didn't. We didn't hang around to check, and there was no independent confirmation. And the cops didn't know anything about it because they never charged us for it and had no information. So they probably didn't. David [Rabkin] was convinced they had. But I'm not sure about that. But they did discover equipment for making subsequent - because that was very much the intention, to continue.
Now, were [Timothy] Jenkin and [Stephen] Lee at the same time that you are?
They start to, yes.
When do they start?
I think - precisely, I don't know - I think, they seem to get operational within the months after our arrest. So there's quite a nice sort of baton. And they are certainly very successful with buckets...
Ja well he [Jenkin] seem to be...
Ja, brilliant with his fingers. Absolutely.
OK, now to - so you generate the idea of a stayaway - looking back at the past, I'm trying to get some direction in the current situation of 1976 - as far as you are aware, and we can check the dates here, your call for a stayaway predates the first of the big Soweto stayaways?
I think so, yes.
Well that's an extraordinary...
Yeah, but also...
Well, It's a significant. I remember how difficult it was to make any sense of those times...
But if we had - the error was not in calling for a stayaway, but in giving dates for it without any organisational capacity, which we were kind of aware of at the time and immediately, I think within days of producing the pamphlet, were self-critical [about]; it was a debate as well within the unit as to whether --.
So you operate until the end of July. What, looking back now, is your explanation of the way in which you, Holiday - a range of people are picked up very, very quickly? Where do we really find the explanation?
In the couple of months before we get picked up, David starts reporting that he thinks he is being tailed in the mornings on the bus. Probably not months, but weeks before we get picked up. Everyone's watching me as being the weak link, so there is a tendency to dismiss this a little bit, from the unit. We're not really sure. He catches the bus from Clifton, where he lives, to the Argus in town, and there's this funny guy. Which turns out to be Spyker van Wyk, wearing various wigs and disguises. He gets on at the bus stop before David, goes in and checks what David [Rabkin] does in his morning routine. We can't really believe that David - he's doing nothing ostensibly. So, we kind of say, Let's watch it. But there are not sort of panic signals. And we don't set down what we should have done: We should have put someone on the bus stop. Well, he didn't know where this guy was getting on. But we should have tailed David to see what was tailing him. Which we failed to do. The Rabkins and Tony Holiday were picked up on the night before the two Rabkins are going overseas to London to make another contact. So literally, in the course of that night - I think Tony is picked up at 8 or 9pm - and the Rabkins are picked up early in the morning, 4 or 5 [am]. The other significant thing that had happened was that, in the three or four weeks before, perhaps a bit longer but no longer than two months before they were going out, we get --. Sorry, what had also happened in the interim was that, because my communications weren't that great, there was a problem, and theirs were working smoothly, they took over the communication, or maintained the communication role, and I dropped mine. And they were getting regular, secret ink letters. About two months before we all get picked up, a letter comes through from London which is different in character from previous communications - the handwriting is different, the quality of the paper is different, and so on. So we are uncertain. What the letter says is: We need to send at least one, preferably two of the comrades from our unit out for more training. Which we interpret to be arms training and it's going to be in the GDR. So we sense that this is coming. And they had been vaguely planning a trip out, so they decided to respond, Yes, they will be coming. But we were a bit worried about the letter, not unduly, because the instruction is: Look, it might not always be the same person that writes, and so forth, people come and go, and die - whatever. But it was one of the issues to be raised at the meeting in London: Has someone different started taking over the correspondence. OK, putting all that together, my reading of it - David didn't agree with it, and Sue's got another version - my view was the view of the comrades in Pretoria, Denis Goldberg and others whom we sort of discussed the whole thing with at length --. Oh, the other thing, sorry, just one other item to add in. At least in about 1976, we had started mailing to the embassies and to, I think to the ministers, cabinet ministers, MPs and things like that, and [Minister of Justice Jimmy] Kruger had got a copy of the "Inkululeko" which was commenting on the defeat in Angola. And apparently this really irked him and they'd really thrown everything at investigating us. They knew Cape Town was the key centre. Maybe they thought 15 and not 17 - because the other ones we mailed from other centres, we used different typewriters and things like that. But much of the rest of the modus operandi was similar. So they knew that Cape Town, that there was a unit operating in Cape Town. They knew from their busts of Timol and from Raymond [Suttner] the general modus operandi, including secret ink correspondence, which seems to have been a common feature in all of the groups, the cops told us, I mean the cops were monitoring postboxes. They tried to work out patterns of posting, and invariably there are because you've got 2,000 - that's not a hell of a lot, but it's a fair amount. And there are nice postboxes and lousy ones, size-wise, discreteness and so on. So there was quite an intense survey on us, trying everything - trying to trace our sources of stationery, equipment, ink, etc, etc, etc, posting systems. And therefore also, logically, communications, which is always the vulnerable point. They never questioned us at all, any of us, about our communications systems. I'd taken the trouble because I was vulnerable, to have a kind of DLB postal arrangement, so I would be triggered with an innocent card and that would mean 24 hours I would have to go and fetch something from a boarding house type arrangement. The rabkins were actually receiving their secret ink letters at their actual physical home address. And I think they cracked that letter and then re-wrote it.
Have you ever solved the question of the letter that came?
It seems, according to Sue [Rabkin} and so on, that they had. That it should have been. Which is why they started monitoring David [Rabkin}. The incoming letter says something like: One of the three of you at least should come. So they know it's three. They've got two, or assume that it's two. They're not quite 100 percent sure about Sue, but they are pretty sure. Sexist-wise, one of them must be David. I think in monitoring for secret ink correspondence from London, or from the UK to Cape Town, they are going to pick up one other person from Cape Town who is doing the same thing, which is Tony. Tony's not got caught. He's been floating around. He hasn't done very - he's done little bits of things. His main sort of work, although he's theoretically supposed to be doing the same thing as us, which is being a propaganda unit - he never quite managed to do that. But what he was doing very well writing and editorialising and supplying them with political information, and so on. But anyway, he's corresponding in secret ink from Cape Town, and getting stuff. So that's why, I think, he gets picked up at the same time as them, because he had the misfortune of being in Cape Town. If he had been somewhere else, I don't think that they would have...
So what you are looking at is just basically goo detective work?
I think so.
Which eventually ends up with the interception of your communications.
I think so. And so they have got Tony and the Rabkins. But they are not ready to pounce yet, but the Rabkins are about to leave. So they've got to move, and they pick up the three of them. But they don't know - they are not sure that it's Sue. And they don't know who the third person in the unit is, and it quickly emerges that it's not Tony [Holiday]. But they put pressure on all of them. And it's Tony, not the other two, who actually gives my name. They are still not sure that I am connected with them. I don't realise that Tony's been picked up. When I realise the other two have been picked up, I quite quickly confirm that I'm working with them. And protect Tony like hell, not realising [laughter]. So, yeah, I'm fairly sure that it was good detective work. There was no, certainly no betrayal, until arrests start happening - and then it's under pressure. And funny blanks in the interrogation, as I say, and one of them was clearly communications. Sue's got some theory that's got to do with Craig Williamson - I really don't believe it. I don't know what grounds she has - she's kind of several times said it - and I've pushed her, and she's vague and she's - I don't believe it.
So over this period - I just want to check a point - over the period of the Soweto uprising, you are not in touch with any other ANC cell or structure inside the country?
You are more or less generating your own ideas out of your own experience, your own political nous?
Now, in that period, after the uprisings, are there discussions with Tony - OK, Tony has been this other fellow in the background, who has put you in touch with people in the past, who in now in Cape Town. Do you, or any individuals in the group, discuss matters with Tony?
Well, they don't know about him at all. So I am the only...
Do you discuss with Tony at all?
No, I don't think particularly. Also, by that stage, I've assessed Tony in a particular way: that he has got skills but also has certain limitations and so on. So I am not looking to him as a sort of elder statesman, as I had, certainly, in an earlier period. So it wouldn't have occurred to me, particularly to have...
Now, one of the things that Timol did, was that Timol had built up quite an extensive network, sort of support network for his unit: You did not do that?
It was purely a three-person unit which operated very tight...
Well, there were one or two like Marie, my first wife, was a support person. But anyway it was tight like that. So she knew that I was involved, and was helping and so on. But there was certainly no methodical building up of contacts, safe houses, whatever, whatever, in the sense of drawing them in. I mean there were people unwittingly pulled in and helping, providing cover and so on. But they had no knowledge whatsoever. So there was no attempt to build a network, and our impression was that that wasn't our task.
Now my last point is just to try and explore very briefly a basic point that is essentially a speculative point. Do you think that this form of deployment of people like you - intellectuals like yourself, the Rabkins, Tony to some extent, but let's restrict it to your unit - that this form of deployment was correct at that stage? Strategically, in terms of the weaknesses of the movement, its attempts to re-establish itself inside the country? Would you criticise perhaps - and I am asking a leading question - would you criticise the fact that you weren't deployed into, perhaps, early trade union work, trying to develop say a professional associations, develop some kind of incipient mass movement? What would be your comment on that?
I'm not really sure. Maybe because I don't want --. I mean I certainly think that there was neglect of that area. And certainly a number of my sort of peer group were very critical - partly self-defensively, because they had also been approached to do similar things and refused, and there was a bit of self-justification. You know, I think - well, perhaps to latch onto your question in a slightly different form: I think the sort of greatest propaganda success we had as a unit was not the sort of 17 times 2,000, and I think it wasn't always 2,000 either distribution, and it's very hard to assess: possibly half the addresses were out of date, and whatever. But the trial, which occurred in September, in a sort of second wave of the Cape Town uprisings and whatever of 1976. And we have had a fair amount of feedback in that respect. I mean quite a lot of comrades in exile were BC and suddenly there were sort of communist-ANC supporting whites on trial, fairly defiant, no traitors in the group, no sort of messiness - it was quite a nice, clear-cut firm stand type trial. And also it was at that time when you could make statements without having to go into the witness stand. So we kind of made maximum use of that. And all of that got far better --. I remember some of this, this thing I drafter for "Vukani", what is a national democratic struggle, just simply repeated, and got positive feedback from outside. So I just simply repeated all of that in the statement. So, in a sense, it was important that we got caught, maybe. [laughter] I mean it stood for something at a particular time and at a particular conjuncture, where BC [black consciousness] was rampant. And it had that kind of - I know from some of the comrades who were doing recruiting...
There was a sort of victory and defeat because you had been fighting...
And we were white. And I know one [SA communist] party comrade who I met again now in the underground, in the sort of 1980s, in Cape Town, said to me: That trial was very important; we were picking up on the youth and channelling them out of the country for military training and that was happening while your trial was happening and we used the trial to say, The enemy's not just, it's a white system, but it's a bit more complex and whatever, and began to feed people some elementary politics. So probably, as I say, our sort of greatest propaganda act was not our failed bucket bombs or whatever, but our failure to remain outside and getting caught. Which, in a way, is an answer because, I suppose speaking very - and one hates to do that because - but probably I think I would have, if I had stayed on at UCT let's say and been a little less restricted in terms of lecturing on Marxism and also then linking up with the growing trade union movement and so on - I probably would have done more, more consistently over a longer haul than with this business of putting out 2,000 "Vukanis" from time to time. . I don't know.
Final question: Are you aware of other people who came into contact with the [SA communist] party or the ANC at that time - people from your kind of background - who were actually deployed into legal, semi-legal mass work?
No. Who went into that - but I got the feeling, in fact I know that, in a couple of cases, they sort of refused to establish a link. So they kind of touched sides, were attracted to, but one could argue the case, were either more farsighted and saw it had a greater value, or were scared of getting involved. And it was probably a mixture of both things. So some of them drifted then, in the later 1970s, into trade unionism and so forth, and became quite vociferously anti-movement in the workerist-populist days.
Which is often, you are suggesting, or in some cases, reducible to personal problematics?
Partly, I mean ja. Well in one case that I can think of, one prominent case that I know of, absolutely: It was a comrade who was in our small Radical Society group who, whenever we did spray-painting or whatever, had a family engagement, or something weak like that, and who was a menace when it came to doing something like that. So we allowed him to have an excuse. But also like with me, a letter had preceded him when he travelled out at a similar time to study and so on. I can see you are guessing who it is...
And had played cat and mouse, but hadn't ever quite bitten. And then came back here.
[End of interview]