Shirley Gunn and Shanil Haricharan, Voices from the Underground: Eighteen Life Stories from Umkhonto we Sizwe’s Ashley Kriel Detachment (Cape Town: Penguin, 2019)

The MK unit known as the Ashley Kriel Detachment (AKD) had a relatively short, but successful, operational life in the Western Cape in the late 1980s. Supplied from Botswana, it conducted over thirty operations, sometimes several on the same day, aimed at buildings and infrastructure. This was an exercise in armed propaganda in the spirit of the original MK of the early 1960s; relatively low-key attacks for maximum effect such as the bombings at Cape Town Castle and the venue of a Conservative Party meeting in Sea Point.

As many of the contributors emphasise, no Wimpy bars were attacked in the Western Cape with operations aborted when there was a clear risk to life. There was an exception when a passer-by picked up a limpet mine concealed in a milk carton outside Bonteheuwel rent office and was badly injured. For the AKD the price was high: four deaths, two killed by the security forces (Kriel himself in July 1987 and Anton Fransch) plus two others (Coline Williams and Robbie Waterwitch) apparently blown up by their own mine in circumstances, muddied by the TRC, that remain unexplained to this day. Other members, including Shirley Gunn, experienced gruelling periods of detention although often resolve was strengthened.

These eighteen stories all follow a similar pattern: background, recruitment and training, operations, and subsequent experiences. Almost all the operations are described; and from different personal perspectives. Some of those involved were couriers of arms, ammunition and explosives; others were responsible for close surveillance. Some led lives that were simultaneously above ground and underground (worker by day and MK operative by night) while others were permanently on the run; and for all of them the stresses were enormous. The level of bravery involved cannot be understated: the police state was frequently inept, but self-compensated with viciousness. One of the writers was witness to the Athlone Trojan Horse incident in October 1985.

Details of life before and after the AKD are particularly interesting. Members were largely recruited through trade unions or activist groups in schools, churches and the broader community. Most had family histories involving forced removal under the Group Areas Act from Cape Town to the socio-economic wastelands of the Cape Flats. One writer makes the telling point that relocation from Claremont and Newlands has largely been forgotten amid publicity about District Six. Another contributor points out that armed resistance channelled anger and represented a love of freedom ‘in a time of hatred’.

Reintegration into post-apartheid South Africa was hard for almost everyone: they found that ‘freedom wasn’t free’. Only one took the opportunity to become a permanent defence force member and the others demobilised with their grants of R22 000. Many battled with health problems. Mention is made of free SANDF medical care, but psychological help seems to have been strikingly absent.

This is a valuable and absorbing collection of reminiscences about events that are now fast fading from public consciousness, even in the Western Cape. The significance of the armed struggle remains debatable, but there is no doubt that AKD action that disrupted and embarrassed the police security branch did boost morale among anti-apartheid campaigners and contributed to liberation.