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Apartheid: Our part in its downfall

Larry Neild meets the secret Liverpool agents who fought for freedom in South Africa

Written by . Published on October 19th 2012.

Apartheid: Our part in its downfall

TO pupils at Wirral Grammar School for Girls he was their history master, talking them through major events of the 20thcentury. 

Today Bill McCaig, the quietly spoken retired teacher, revealed his own part in world history, and the daring exploits he kept far away from the classroom. 

For Bill McCaig was a secret agent and freedom fighter, once fleeing for his life and almost certain torture from the brutal government forces in troubled South Africa. 

'I went there because there was an important job to do to help the cause of freedom. None of us talked about it. We just got on with our lives'

Undergoing special training, he learned how to avoid being detected or followed by government agents, and was taught how to send and read coded messages to and from London. 

Secret life: Wirral grammar School history teacher Bill McCaigSecret life: Wirral Grammar
School history teacher Bill McCaig
The story of Bill McCaig, one of a handful of anti-apartheid secret agents from Liverpool and elsewhere in the UK, is told for first time in an amazing book which recalls details of their cloak and dagger operations in the campaign to overthrow the hard-line regime in South Africa. 

London Recruits – The Secret War Against Apartheid, charts the incredible stories of the group of British electricians, engineers, seamen, students and other volunteers who travelled to South Africa to work for the banned African National Congress and its imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela. 

Initially they were hired, by an exiled ANC group based in London, to spread propaganda including leaflet bombs. But as the South African National Party clamped down on activists, they resorted to undercover work – often at risk to their own lives. 

Back here, workers at Merseyside’s car plants even hid literature in cars exported to South Africa with messages aimed at the country’s oppressed black population. 


Bill lived a double life in South Africa for two years – working in support of the banned ANC – and leading an everyday life in a country practising one of the worst forms of racism: apartheid. 

It was only a few years ago that Bill’s wife, Lesley, learned about his dangerous escapades during the anti-apartheid campaign. And until they read this article, staff and pupils at Wirral Grammar School will have been unaware of their history master’s past. 

"I had worked in the Merchant Navy and had given up my life at sea, but in the 1960s I was asked if I would go to sea again to help in the struggle against the oppression in South Africa,” says Bill. 

"One of my tasks was to check the coastline as our cargo ship was in South Africa waters. I was looking out for potential landing places for guerillas. There were government spies everywhere so great care was needed. 

Young NelsonNelson Mandela"Before I left to work in South Africa I was given intensive training in London. I was taught how to spot if I was being followed and how to avoid being detected. I was also shown how to write and receive secret messages using a form of invisible ink. "I was young at the time and, as a believer in freedom, I felt this was important work. But I was well aware of the dangers I was facing and the consequences of being caught. It was exciting work,” he added. 

Bill recalled how, on one occasion, he was within a whisker of being caught in the clutches of South Africa’s brutal secret police. He was lucky: another British colleague was arrested, tortured and received a long prison term. 

He finally said goodbye to his secret life in the 1970s and eventually worked at Bidston Steel Mill. He gave that job up, went to Liverpool University, reading history, and embarked on teacher training. 

So why did he never discuss with his students the important part he had played in history? 

"I went there, along with other people from Merseyside and London because there was an important job to do to help the cause of freedom. None of us talked about it. We just got on with our lives." 

The ANC at the time was in tatters and the support and help from a modern-day international brigade was crucial. 

Liverpool's Anti Apartheid FightersLiverpool's Anti Apartheid Fighters at Toxteth Library for the book launch

As well as Bill McCaig, other Liverpool freedom fighters included Eric Caddick, George Cartwright, Pat Newman, Gerry Wan and Roger O’Hara who organised much of the local activity.

City councillor Steve Munby was at Toxteth Library for the launch of the book. 

He said: "After the fight against Fascism and Nazism, the struggles against apartheid and racism in South Africa was one of the biggest causes of the 20th century. 

“The parts played in that struggle by ordinary men and women, some of them from Liverpool, has until now been an untold story. It is now clear the people of Liverpool played a part on helping to bring down what was an evil regime." 

*London Recruits – The Secret War Against Apartheid is published by Merlin Press at £15.95. It is on sale at News from Nowhere in Bold Street and can be borrowed from Toxteth Library.

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8 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Paul PaulsOctober 19th 2012.

Great tale of derring-do. Scousers get everywhere!

BookwormOctober 19th 2012.

I was told this week that Toxteth Lbrary had closed down. Is it true?

Paul PaulsOctober 19th 2012.

Clearly not

Robert KingOctober 19th 2012.

Excellent stuff.

Bryan BiggsNovember 13th 2012.

Is there a way I can get in touch with Bill and any other anti-apartheid activists still around on Merseyside? The Bluecoat's next exhibition is by the eminent South African artist William Kentridge, which I think he/they would be interested in (contact: bryan.b@thebluecoat.org.uk)

1 Response: Reply To This...
EditorialNovember 13th 2012.

Will find out for you Bryan

AnonymousDecember 9th 2013.

fantastic story

AnonymousDecember 9th 2013.

Who knew!

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