Alan Brooks (1940-2008): An Obituary

Paul Trewhela on one of the most influential but little known members of the liberation movement

Alan Brooks, who died in London in May aged 67, had all the more influence on Britain and in South Africa for his being very little known. Private, discrete, a "backroom boy" through and through, he was for over two decades a senior behind-the scenes leader of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London.

As a former political prisoner in South Africa who was subsequently sent for training at the Lenin School in Moscow, and as a member successively of the South African and the British Communist Parties, his principal work in Britain was as a political organiser on behalf of the SACP and the African National Congress, through the AAM. Yet his life's work has been all but completely ignored in South Africa, the country to whose political transformation his own life was mainly dedicated. 

As an exile in Britain following his release from prison, Brooks worked full-time in London for the AAM over two periods: as organising secretary between 1967 and 1970 when it was struggling for influence, and as deputy executive secretary from 1987 to 1991, when it was at its peak.

In between, in the mid-Seventies, he was director of research in London of the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF), which had been set up with the support of Canon John Collins, the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, in order to provide free legal aid in political trials in South Africa and for related purposes.

Together with his fellow South African political exile, Peter Hain - subsequently deputy leader of the Labour Party, MP and cabinet minister in Britain - he organised the "Stop the Seventy" campaign that disrupted the South African Springbok rugby and cricket tours in Britain in 1969 and 1970, and which ultimately ended sporting contacts between the two countries for twenty years.

Alan Keith Brooks was born in Bristol in the United Kingdom on 18 May 1940, the son of a doctor. When he was seven, his family emigrated to Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia - a country whose plight increasingly engaged Brooks's sympathies in Britain in his last years.

Having secured a Beit scholarship to study at the University of Cape Town, he graduated in law at UCT and was then engaged as a lecturer in the African Studies department, having come under the wing of the head of the department, Professor Jack Simons, one of the leading marxist intellectuals in South Africa, a former member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and subsequently head of political education of the troops of Umkhonto weSizwe in Angola.

Brooks's generation of white students at university in South Africa was sharply divided by the massacre of over 60 black people by the police at Sharpeville in March 1960, during a demonstration led by the Pan Africanist Congress against the pass laws. He was one of a small minority of white students - idealistic, angry and resolute - who were radicalised by the massacre and the rapid polarisation of South African political life that followed.

At university, he was one of a loose circle of friends, many of whom later emigrated to Britain to achieve greater celebrity but much less influence than himself. It included John Clare (education correspondent at the Daily Telegraph); CJ Driver (poet, novelist and subsequent headmaster at two leading public schools, Berkhamsted and Wellington College); the Labour MP, Barbara Follett; Professor Sir Roger Jowell (public policy researcher and first husband of the current Sports Minister in Britain, Tessa Jowell); the dance critic at the Observer newspaper, Jann Parry; as well as of Dr Rick Turner, Follett's first husband,  a student leader and philosopher in South Africa who was assassinated - almost certainly by apartheid state agents - in Durban in 1978 (see here).

Brooks joined the illegal South African Communist Party in Cape Town in1962. He had also been a member of the Liberal Party, which was opposed to Communism. This period in his life is not clear, since at the same time that Brooks joined the SACP he was also a member for a period - not of Umkhonto weSizwe, formed by the SACP and the ANC - but of a small, non-Communist paramilitary organisation, the African Resistance Movement (or National Commitee for Liberation), formed mainly by radical members of the Liberal Party and a small grouping of anti-Stalinist Trotskyists. Explicitly hostile to influence by the SACP, the ARM directed itself to acts of sabotage against buildings and installations as a symbolic form of protest. Brooks stated from the dock that he left the ARM before his arrest, but the evidence about the month of his leaving was contradictory.

It was for his membership of the ARM that Brooks was detained during mass arrests by the security police in July 1964. Severely tortured during his detention, he did not subsequently reveal his membership of the SACP to fellow political prisoners - even fellow Communists - during a two-year jail sentence in Pretoria. The nature of his relation as a member of the illegal SACP to the Liberal Party and to the ARM prior to his arrest remains unclarified.

As a British citizen, he was deported in 1966 on his release from prison. On arrival in Britain, he studied for a master's degree at the newly-opened University of Sussex with a thesis on the SACP, funded by a United Nations scholarship for theVictims of Apartheid. A fellow student at Sussex University (and a fellow member of the same SACP cell in London) was the South African President, Thabo Mbeki.

Following his degree, and after three years' full-time work for the AAM, Brooks was sent by the SACP in 1971 for ten months' study at the Lenin International School in Moscow. (Mbeki had been a student there two years previously). This was described by Brook's friend and political fellow-sympathiser, the journalist Victoria Brittain, in an obituary in the London Guardian, as "training in undercover work", although this was not the nature of the course at the Lenin School. As with his relation to the ARM prior to his arrest, the nature of Brooks's study in Moscow at this time remains unclear.

After the eruption of the black school students' revolt in Soweto on June 16th, 1976, Brooks was sent from London to the German Democratic Republic by the ANC as one of three political commissars to instruct young people who had streamed across South Africa's borders and joined Umkhonto weSizwe. (His two exile colleagues sent with him from London as commissars were Ronnie Kasrils, now Minister of Intelligence Services, and Dr Z Pallo Jordan, the Minister of  Arts and Culture).

Brooks's engagement with these young militants resulted in his conducting numerous interviews in the GDR and in London which formed the core of his history of the young people's uprising of 1976, Whirlwind before the Storm, published by IDAF in 1980. His co-author, Jeremy Brickhill, was later severely mutilated in a bomb blast in Harare, Zimbabwe, perpetrated by the security forces of the South African regime in 1987.

In 1980, six months after he had begun work at the exile headquarters of the ANC in Lusaka, Zambia, where he had been summoned to set up its research department, a serious crisis took place in Brooks's life. He submitted a report to the ANC president-in-exile, Oliver Tambo, in March 1980 which was critical of two of the most powerful men in the exiled ANC and later in post-apartheid South Africa: Mbeki, then head of the ANC's Department of Information and Publicity (DIP), and Mbeki's colleague in the DIP, Sizakele Sigxashe, a Soviet-trained security official who later presided over the public execution of mutineers in Umkhonto at Pango camp in Angola in May 1984 and subsequently became a head of South Africa's secret intelligence services.

In his report Brooks described the situation in the DIP, then headed by Mbeki and Sigxashe, as "messy", "unhealthy" and being in "crisis". In a more general critique of affairs in the ANC and the SACP in Lusaka, he referred to staffing problems, alcoholism, a "lack of leadership", "lack of collective discussion" as well as "idleness and corruption".

These were explosive subjects, especially since they accorded with the perceptions of younger members of Umkhonto in Lusaka at the time, leading to the resignation of several members of Tambo's personal bodyguard in the same year: an event that prefigured the mutiny in Umkhonto in Angola four years later, over lack of democratic representation and other matters. Brooks's identification of "corruption" as a serious problem at ANC headquarters accorded with the views of the young Umkhonto members from the 1976 generation, a matter that has borne strange fruit in South Africa after the formation of the first ANC government in 1994.

These young people were from the same generation which Brooks had tutored in marxism in East Germany, and which had provided him with first-hand information for his book. His co-author, Jeremy Brickhill, said after Brooks's death that he was "one of the very few to warn of the dangers of stifling genuine internal debate in the movement and he paid the price".

As a result of this crisis, Brooks left Lusaka for Britain, where he immediately resigned his membership of the SACP and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. The CPGB appointed him managing director of books and periodicals at Central Books, the party's London bookshop. He later administered the Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Information Centre in London in the mid-Eighties, at a time when the Cold War in Africa was at its peak, with military forces of the apartheid regime and its proxies in conflict with Cuban troops in Angola.

A de facto accommodation with the SACP later permitted Brooks to re-enter top-level work in the AAM in London as its deputy executive secretary, in which capacity he organised the Artists Against Apartheid concert at Wembley Stadium in 1986, which drew a huge audience in celebration of Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday, and he led a five-week march from Glasgow to London in 1988 calling for the freedom of Mandela. This has resulted in the only public acknowledgement of his death in South Africa so far, by the Nelson Mandela Foundation (see here).

After the unbanning of the ANC and the SACP in 1990, Brooks did not return to South Africa, where otherwise he would have been expected to have become a member of the first post-apartheid government, or at least a very senior civil servant. He told an interviewer a few years ago that he had not returned to South Africa as he thought he would be killed. He was angry with the SACP, the ANC, the Soviet Union, and Britain, just as he was with the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.

He worked briefly for the UN in Somalia in the early 1990s, as part of its Demobilisation Advisory Team. On his return to London he became a case-worker for asylum seekers, not least from his native Zimbabwe, in which he took a radically opposed stance towards the Mugabe regime as compared with his erstwhile colleague, President Mbeki. He was a member of the organising team in annual Open Forums on Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Region held in London by the Britain Zimbabwe Society, which for several years has guided public opinion in Britain in opposition to the Mugabe dictatorship, and in which Moeletsi Mbeki (brother of President Mbeki) and Elinor Sisulu (daughter-in-law of Mandela's late revered colleague, Walter Sisulu) have made an important contribution.

 He was divorced from his wife, Sarah Darling, whom he married in Britain in 1970, and with whom he had two daughters, Lucy and Jenni, but to whom he remained close. He had a further daughter, Ruby, with his subsequent partner, Joni McDougall. Alan Brooks died in London on 10 May. About a hundred people attended a memorial celebration in London in the weeks that followed.

Able, ambitious, determined and courageous, Alan Brooks was a very private man, left at the wayside by the SACP and the ANC, the organisations to which he gave a dedicated life's service.