Under a ‘false flag’: City Group and the troubling case of the SWAPO detainees

One of the joys of archival research is that at times a single, short letter can reveal a great deal.  Amongst the correspondence that we have been examining from the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s archive is a short note, from October 1989, that does just that.  The note is to City Group from Colin Adkins, one of the press team at the national Anti-Apartheid Movement.  It reads simply,

Dear comrades, apologies for the delay. Fake (?) press release circulated at the Labour Party Conference.

Accompanying the note was a copy of a press release, dated 4 October 1989, that had been effectively faked and circulated in City Group’s name.  I’ll come to that shortly, but first it is useful to think a little bit more about the covering note.  The disjuncture between the salutation ‘dear comrades’ and the question mark in parentheses is telling.  As regular readers of this blog will know, City Group had been ‘disaffiliated‘ from the national Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1985 and the relationship between the two organisations remained strained.  Nevertheless, there were occasions when the two groups (temporarily) put aside their differences and work effectively alongside each other (if not quite together). On the face of it, Colin Adkins was being ‘comradely’ in sharing the faked press release with other anti-apartheid activists whose views were being misrepresented. But, his question mark indicates that he could not be entirely certain that the document he was sharing was faked.  Mistrust at the Anti-Apartheid Movement about City Group’s politics and actions clearly lingered.

The press statement that Colin Adkins included with his note certainly appears to be on City Group headed note paper.  It was not written or circulated by City Group and the views expressed in it did not represent City Group’s policy at the time.  The headline statement of the ‘press release’ was a,

“call for SWAPO to answer allegations of human rights violations and free political detainees”

The text continued by asserting that,

“The City AA Group particularly condemns the murder and imprisonment of dozens of Namibian patriots in SWAPO detention camps in Angola…The stance of the national Anti-Apartheid Movement in ignoring such well-documented SWAPO excesses highlights the basically sectarian nature of the national movement.”

It seems likely that this press release originated not with City Group but with South African Military Intelligence or their surrogates.  This was not the first time that well faked   propaganda had been circulated apparently in City Group’s name – in July 1988 a leaflet mimicking City Group’s house style had been circulated at the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday concert at Wembley Arena, and a second leaflet appeared in February 1989.

City Group activists express solidarity with Namibian prisoners (Source City Group)

The circulation of the October 1989 faked press statement was perfectly timed.  That month represented a crucial stage in Namibia’s transition towards independence, with the United Nations Security Council forcing the South African government to demobilize members of the Koevoet counter-insurgency force within occupied Namibia. The elections to the Namibian Constituent Assembly were scheduled for the following month.  The South African journalist Terry Bell has written extensively in his book Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth, about the huge resources that South African Military Intelligence were pumping into Namibia during this period to weaken the vote for SWAPO in the Constituent Assembly elections, so that they did not have a large enough majority to vote through the constitution of their choice unamended.  It seems unlikely that the circulation of the faked ‘City Group’ press release was entirely coincidental to these events in Namibia.

The timing of the faked press statement was not coincidental in other ways too.  News of the torture and detention of dissident members of SWAPO in camps in Angola had recently begun to circulate on the British Left and internationally.  In Britain, the case was championed by members of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (Workers Press) and a Namibian exile, Hewat Beukes (coincidentally to this research project, a University of Leicester alumnus).  Members of the WRP had tabled a motion about the case at the City Group Annual General Meeting at the end of September.  Their motion read,

City of London Anti-Apartheid Group notes with concern recent allegations about the leadership of SWAPO and its treatment of its membership.

We call for a labour movement inquiry into these allegations.

We nominate two members of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group to be part of such an inquiry.

The motion was defeated by 7: 31 votes, with 4 abstentions.  An alternative motion on Namibia, proposed by members of the City Group committee, was passed instead (with 34 votes in favour, no votes recorded against it, and only 1 abstention).  The motion that was adopted read,

City of London Anti-Apartheid Group recognises the right of the Namibian people to national self-determination.

City of London Anti-Apartheid Group supports all liberation movements and organisations in their opposition to the South African occupation.

City of London Anti-Apartheid Group condemns Thatcher’s collusion with the Racists’ April massacres and the continued intimidation of Namibians by the South African forces, particularly Koevoet.

City of London Anti-Apartheid Group notes with concern the reports of mistreatment of SWAPO dissident, held by the liberation movement. City AA believes that the full facts of SWAPO detentions should be made available to the Namibian people.

While City Group took these allegations seriously, they did not throw their weight behind the campaign to investigate them. The significant differences in wording between this motion and the formulation used in the press release circulated at the Labour Party conference on 4 October 1989 are large enough to prove that the press statement did not originate (in any authorised form) with the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group.  However, the theme of the press release and the superficial similarities between its wording and the motions discussed by City Group less than a fortnight earlier would suggest that, if there was not actually a South African agent present at the AGM, SA Military Intelligence were certainly monitoring City Group closely.  As with earlier pieces of disinformation that appeared to come from City Group, this piece of propaganda played on a controversial and unsettling allegation about leading figures/organisations in the anti-apartheid struggle.  It sought to discredit them and sow disunity within the global anti-apartheid movement.  That City Group often took political positions at odds with the policies of the Anti-Apartheid Movement made these disinformation campaigns seem plausible.  In a small way, this was exemplified by the bracketed ‘?’ in Colin Adkins note that drew City Group’s attention to the fake statement in the first place.  Whatever their long-term impact, such incidents of ‘false flag’ propaganda and misinformation served to disrupt ‘comradely’ relations between anti-apartheid solidarity activists of different persuasions.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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