The Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A has now closed (prior to travelling the world over the next few years), but it continues to generate creative explorations of how objects of various kinds have been used in (and as) protest. This week saw the release of an experimental film,linked to the exhibition, by Disobedient Films about the London Recruits – the young British volunteers who went to South Africa in the 1960s and ’70s to conduct covert missions for the African National Congress.
On many of their missions, the London Recruits constructed ‘bucket bombs’ to remotely distribute ANC leaflets at key sites, like rush hour railway stations, in South African cities. At the time, the South African authorities had largely destroyed the structures of the ANC inside South Africa. By using unknown foreign volunteers, the ANC could ensure their propaganda continued to be distributed inside South Africa and, by doing so, they appeared still to have an active membership operating freely inside the country. This, in itself, was powerful propaganda.
A popular feature of the Disobedient Objects exhibition was a series of ‘how to’ schematics for visitors to take away, which illustrated how to construct various ‘disobedient objects’. One of these outlined how to make a bucket bomb of the kind that the London Recruits were trained to construct and use in South Africa.
The bucket bombs are also central to the London Recruits film. As part of the filming process, the film-makers worked with former ‘London Recruits’ to assemble the parts of a bucket bomb. construct it, and set off its small explosive device to distribute reprinted versions of the original propaganda leaflets. Just for that, the film is a fascinating piece of experimental contemporary archaeology. However, the film also features interview footage with Ronnie Kasrils, the ANC official who recruited middle class students and working class members of the Young Communist League to volunteer on missions to South Africa. Also interviewed are some of the surviving London Recruits recounting tales from their covert operations in Africa.
The film is designed to be viewed on the internet (be warned, it can’t play on mobiles). At times, multiple windows open simultaneously, with images of everyday life under apartheid juxtaposed with footage of ANC demonstrations from the 1950s. Overall, the film and the website is structured through a series of parallel pathways telling the story of the volunteers from their recruitment, through their training, their travels to South Africa and the different stages of their mission. It is well worth spending some time exploring the site and learning more about this story of covert anti-apartheid solidarity by young British volunteers (which, until Ken Keable published his book on the subject in 2012, had remained secret for nearly forty years).
Although there is no direct connection between the story of the London Recruits and the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in the 1980s, Gavin did provide some advice to the film-makers early in the production process about the history of anti-apartheid solidarity in Britain. It is nice to see these conversations credited on the film.
Finally, if you watch the film to the end, you get a chance to generate a leaflet for a campaign that matters to you today, and add it to the Disobedient Objects online leaflet bomb.