London-based brothers Tom and Ron Bell are searching for witnesses to the 1970 non-lethal explosions, in Cape Town, that scattered subversive African National Congress (ANC) pamphlets as they went off simultaneously in parts of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban.
The two hope that witnesses will add South African voices to a film they’re making, called London Recruits, the Secret War Against Apartheid, which is expected to be released before the end of the year.
The film is focused on the role played by United Kingdom citizens in the fight for freedom in South Africa. Tom and Ron have already written a book and are now taking things a step further by taking the story to the big screen.
“We are now looking for witnesses who could help us add that South African voice,” said Tom.
Returning to the country for the first time since they first visited in 1970 to carry out their mission, Ron Bell, 73, and his younger brother Tom, 67, made a plea to South Africans, particularly black people who witnessed the blasts or picked up the pamphlets, to get in touch with them.
The duo, active members of the Communist Party in the UK, flew into the country, in August 1970, to plant hand-made bombs around the Cape Town central business district in the fight against apartheid.
In an interview with Vukani, the brothers said they had come to the then “dangerous” South Africa after a meeting with Ronnie Kasrils, former intelligence minister, who at the time was exiled in London with many other ANC leaders.
They were recruited to come and plant the bombs in Cape Town to spread the message that the ANC was alive and well and that the struggle continued.
“Because we were the right skin colour, we could do it,” said Ron. The pair spent two weeks, at Helmsely Hotel, which is now part of the Mount Nelson Hotel, before returning to London. They spent a week before planting the bombs at Cape Town train station, the Grand Parade and outside Newspaper House, in St George’s Mall – where Vukani’s offices are situated – on Friday August 14 1970.
In total they planted five bombs, and set them so that they would explode simultaneously.
Four of the five devices went off as planned, they said. To their surprise, there were similar bombings in other parts of the country at exactly the same time.
“We assumed we were the only ones who had come to do that, until the next day when we saw the papers,” said Tom.
Their mission came at the time when political parties faced a difficult time. Most of the ANC leaders, including former president Nelson Mandela, had been arrested.
“This was at the time when the ANC was on its knees. Everyone was down because of the arrests,” said Ron.
He said the bombings were designed to give black people hope, and they indeed lifted people’s spirits across the nation.
Asked about the risks and fears of flying into the country while knowing they could well be arrested, Ron said as a young man he felt “invisible” and never thought of being caught. “I felt so great when I returned to London,” he said. “We kept quiet about everything until Ronnie published his book in 2005.”
* Witnesses can get in touch with the brothers at www.facebook.com/barefootrascalscardiff or Twitter page BarefootRascals or email firstname.lastname@example.org