Mercury Man: The brothers from Kidbrooke who fought apartheid

The Bell brothers
The Bell brothers were involved in the 1970s communist scene in southeast London

Mercury Man logoTo mark the May Day bank holiday, 853’s special correspondent MERCURY MAN has a tale of how two working class brothers from a Kidbrooke council house did their dangerous bit to help bring down apartheid in South Africa.

They made their undercover contribution in August 1970 when – after being advised to get proper haircuts and wear suits to fool the opposition – they flew as tourists to Cape Town to set off leaflet bombs with messages of hope for the black population.

The brothers were Tom Bell – an electrician and leading light in the Young Communist League (YCL) – and his older brother Ron, whose previous piece of progressive activism entailed taking on and defeating the “tankies” – Stalinists – in another YCL branch in south London.

Some background: the African National Congress had been all but crushed in the Sixties by the apartheid regime, including the jailing of Nelson Mandela in 1964. All the survivors could turn to was a propaganda war.

One of them, Ronnie Kasrils, was sent to Britain to recruit volunteers like Tom and Ron, who became known as The London Recruits.

“The easy innocence they both projected would provide the desired appearance to slip in as tourists in that paranoid police state,” says Ronnie.

“I trained them in London in the subversive art of distributing leaflets to the oppressed black population through the means of what we called leaflet bombs – essentially a plastic bucket filled with leaflets, contained in a shopping bag with a timing device and fuse connected to a small amount of gunpowder.”

Tom and Ron’s mum, Gwen Bell, was a formidable community activist herself, so when her sons got round to telling her about their tourist trip, she said something like “tell me when you’re going and eat your dinner”.

The YCL in Greenwich and Lewisham was a lively scene in those days, members getting involved in local communities by running a weekly folk club in Forest Hill and a football team in the Metropolitan Sunday League – Red Star Bell Green – and actually winning one of the lower divisions.

But sneaking into South Africa was a whole different ball game.

“My brother was recruited in early 1970,” says Tom. “He enlisted me to go with him in August that year. Ronnie Kasrils also recruited members of the International Socialists – now the Socialist Workers Party – and other socialists who were not members of any political party.”

ANC leaflet
One of the leaflets contained in the leaflet bomb

Decades later Ronnie Kasrils wrote his autobiography that included a chapter on The London Recruits, who got together to write their own book.

“We all knew of the existence of our secret comrades but didn’t meet until 2005, in the South African embassy,” says Tom.

“Quite a few of us had known each other for years without being aware that we were fellow recruits. Now, at last, we could meet each other!”

The whole experience sparked the poet in Tom, and a few weeks back his 21-sonnet book Behind Enemy Lines was read to a packed but not secret hall in Covent Garden.

Sonnet 10 (with thanks to Tammar Yoseloff and the Greenwich Poetry Workshop):
All is ready, prepared and timed:
bucket bombs in bags now primed
broadcast systems now concealed
in picnic hampers, soon to be sealed
all packed in the back of a mini car.
Then a tense cup of tea in the Helmsley bar.
Home in London seems so far away
Where Kasrils trained us for this day.
I sweat as we started the last part of our mission
dropping devices in pre-chosen positions.
Chaining a hamper to a railing we see
a policeman approaching. We freeze
but he stares through us and walks on past.
We retreat to the car; we are done at last.

Mercury Man logoMe? I don’t think there’s a better sight in sport than the black and white of the South African cricket team, especially when the wonderful Temba Bavuma (5ft 4ins) captains the limited overs team that includes fast bowler Marco Jansen (6ft 8ins).

The sight of them together says it all.

Behind Enemy Lines is published by Lapwing Publications.

Mercury Man talks to SE Londoners with interesting tales to tell. Read his past stories.


Help 853 continue reporting on public interest issues in Greenwich and southeast London – we are the only outlet regularly producing original journalism in the borough, and we can only do it with your funding.

Please join over 100 donors who use Steady, PressPatron or Patreon to give a little towards our costs every month. The money pays the bills, a wage for the editor and pays others to write for the site.