by Ronnie Kasrils
Danny Schecter, the “media dissector,” prolific writer and tireless activist, once acted as a secret courier for the South African freedom movement, and “forged strong personal links with many South African comrades such as Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Pallo Jordan, Zanele Mbeki, Sue Rabkin, and Nelson Mandela himself.”
Danny Schechter (1942-2015): Media Activist and Clandestine Courier
by Ronnie Kasrils
This article previously appeared in ColdType magazine.
“The sullen South African police who must have been puzzled by the sight of a young white person in a crowd of militant black men and women singing freedom songs with gusto.”
Danny Schechter, my friend of 48 years, was a mensch who proudly referred to his 1942 birthplace as “The People’s Republic of the Bronx” - that part of New York City populated then by many class-conscious Jewish immigrants.
His family, like mine, hailed from Lithuania and their radicalism and wit gave shape to his life. He gained fame as a media activist and commentator of note. His was a combative, witty, irrepressible, guerrilla fighter style of mosquito against elephant. It derived from his passionate involvement in just causes from the American civil rights movement, through Vietnam’s liberation struggle, anti-apartheid solidarity, freedom for Mandela, labor, race and gender issues, rampant capitalism, electronic surveillance, environmental catastrophe and so much more.
I met Danny at the London School of Economics, London, in 1967, where he was extremely popular. From the start we got on so well that I referred to him as “Danny Boy.” He was a post-graduate student studying for an honors degree and had become friends with Ruth First with whom he pretended to flirt. I asked her what she thought of him and remember her remarking: “Bright and irreverent, although for him Marxism is not the crust of the earth.”
Danny was that species of unconventional American leftist who had cut his teeth in student protests, studied Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao and Malcolm X and sought creative, contemporary answers though activism. He had close contact with leading figures and foot soldiers alike from those turbulent times. I met Stokely Carmichael in Danny’s shabby bedsit in London’s Islington (well before it became trendy) and talked about race and revolution and narrow shaves with the Ku Klux Klan. His involvement in protests against his country’s invasion of Vietnam epitomised the courageous revolt of American youth.
He was one of many self-exiled Americans who took to foreign shores to avoid the draft which is why I originally assumed he opted for further studies in Britain. But study in isolation from social upheaval was not in his book. He was eclectic and abuzz with radical ideas and practical action. We participated in the first ever British university occupation over the LSE Rector’s pig-headed handling of protests against Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and UDI declaration. The fact that the Rector’s background was Rhodesia-linked added fuel to the fire. I had some connection with Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, and first lecturer at the LSE when it was established in the 1920s. Danny encouraged me to seek Russell’s support and together we presented his solidarity message to the student body to rousing applause. We were instrumental in establishing an association of third world students – Africa, Asia, Latin America – and campaigned on issues ranging from Cuba to Vietnam to Palestine. We marched on the Israeli embassy, protested American aggression against Vietnam, held a memorial meeting for Che Guevara after his assassination in Bolivia, debated Regis Debray and Frans Fannon, showed films like “Battle for Algiers,” donated blood for Vietnam and threw wild fund-raising parties.
“Danny studied Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao and Malcolm X and sought creative, contemporary answers though activism.”
I was part of the underground structures of the then-outlawed African National Congress (ANC) in enforced exile following the crushing by apartheid of all democratic resistance. I soon recruited him for a secret mission to South Africa. He accepted with alacrity despite the dangers which I was at pains to point out. This was the beginning of an episode that has come to be known as “the London recruits,” involving workers from Britain’s Young Communist League (YCL) and socialist activists from the LSE like Danny. They were radicals of pale pigmentation who could travel to South Africa as tourists, smuggling leaflets, forged documents and funds to an oppressed people whose leadership and movement had virtually been eliminated in arrests, round-ups and killings.
What the exiled ANC and SACP (Communist Party) alliance desperately needed was to get the message of resistance and hope across to a battered people. The literature was crammed into false-bottomed suitcases, and the mission of the likes of Danny was essentially to post the subversive material we provided to South African addresses. This might sound easy and humdrum. But courage and nerve was required to pass through customs, hole up in a scruffy hotel room, purchase envelopes and postage stamps, copy out the addresses from lists we provided, and finally foray into the night to surreptitiously post the material over as wide an area as possible.
It could be nerve wracking, with paranoia playing its haunting role, eyes of hotel staff and postal clerks seemingly glued to your every move, and the lonely toil lasting several days.
These couriers were instructed to behave like typical white tourists and avoid any contact with black South Africans. Later, with cursory training, recruits smuggled in components for the assembly of simple “bucket bombs.” These harmless devices propelled the leaflets into the air. Creativity led to the use of street broadcast equipment relaying ANC speeches in public places.
So staggered were these recruits encountering the bizarreness of apartheid in practice that, according to Danny, it was “like visiting Pluto.” Joe Slovo, privy to Danny’s involvement, liked the quip and would ask me “How are your Plutonic postmen?”
Danny’s mission was a success. However, in de-briefing him, I came to realise that there was no way that his effervescence could be restrained even in the face of danger. There was clearly nothing of the lone-wolf, dispassionate secret agent about this guy.
“Couriers were instructed to behave like typical white tourists and avoid any contact with black South Africans.”
He recounted how in the cut-price Durban hotel I had directed him to, owing to a tight budget, he had ambled down the corridor to run a bath and wandered back to his room for something or other. In his absent-minded way he lost track of time forgetting the running bath until a clamour arose. The bath had overflowed and Danny was soon apologising to the hotel manager. “No problem, the boys will clean up,” he was told. The “boys” turned out to be a couple of elderly Zulu cleaners. Guilt-ridden Danny rolled up his trousers, got down on his knees, and to the amazement of the workers, this supposedly typical white tourist joined in the mopping-up. I must have rolled my eyes as he recounted his story, grateful that the manager had not seen such unconventional behaviour. “Gee,” Danny exclaimed, “I could hardly stand by after the mess I had made... could I?” He suddenly appeared guilty. I cannot forget the cherubic smile and mop of curly unkempt hair. No damage was done so we laughed it off.
That, however, was not half of it. The banned President of the ANC, Albert Luthuli, died while Danny was in Durban that July of 1967. The funeral was held in Luthuli’s Groutville village, a couple of hour’s drive from Durban, in those days off the beaten track.
Our intrepid courier, having completed his propaganda mission, and now feeling safe and at ease, considered it his internationalist duty to pay his respects to the great man of Africa. The challenge was how to get to the venue? Only untouchable figures in the country, predominantly churchmen, diplomats and journalists, would be prepared to brave the police cordon and travel through check points to a funeral the security police would do their level best to keep as limited in size as possible.
Undeterred, Danny persuaded an Indian waiter from his hotel to drive him by a circuitous route to the venue. The man refused to get too close, dropped him off in a sugar cane field, and told him that if he was not back within two hours he would have gone.
As Danny made his way to the church he came across a crowd of ANC supporters holding aloft banners, flags and a portrait of Luthuli. He simply joined them and marched into the venue, surrounded by sullen police who must have been puzzled, to say the least, by the sight of a young white person in a crowd of militant black men and women singing freedom songs with gusto. The presence of the diplomatic corps and cameras would have restrained the police, for Danny managed to safely disappear after the event. I was gobsmacked by his chutzpah then and still am to this day.
This latter operation had a life changing impact on him. He forged strong personal links with many South African comrades such as Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Pallo Jordan (who he had already known from USA student days), Zanele Mbeki, Sue Rabkin, and Nelson Mandela himself. Danny was at the forefront of welcoming events in the USA when Madiba visited after his release, and central to the many pre- and post-release solidarity concerts and films about the iconic figure which included Anant Singh's movie Long Walk to Freedom. Danny made several documentaries about Madiba and interviewed him numerous times. When the great man first visited New York he stopped by a group of organizers, noticed Danny and famously enquired to everyone’s amusement, “Danny do you remember me?”
“Danny made several documentaries about Madiba and interviewed him numerous times.”
Danny Schechter, unforgettable mensch, born 27 June, 1942, died March 17, 2015, at the age of 72 in his New York home after a brave battle with cancer. He will be sorely missed by so many friends world-wide, who offer solace to his talented daughter Sarah Schechter and immediate family. He lived an eventful and meaningful life, inspiring a legion of activists. He opened the eyes and ears of countless more. He was an inspirational voice in contemporary rebellions including the Anti-War and Occupy Wall Street movements coming full circle from the civil rights era of his student days to the Ferguson uprising of African-Americans against police brutality, the surveillance state and the USA’s aggressive imperialist wars.
There was no denying the continuity in his life. Best known for what became an awe inspiring career as “media dissector” up to the time of his death – evolved from his ground-breaking South Africa Now programmes of the 1980s – he came a long way from the clandestine distributor of leaflets in South Africa. His was a vibrant, engaging, witty and uncompromising alternative media voice. His skills stretched to a brilliant penchant for public speaking. His oratory was complimented by a sharp pen, as prolific author and writer, crossing swords with American imperialism and the insidious threat to people and planet posed by finance capital and global corporate power. Danny kept pace with the most current critical issues, so eloquently attested in many tributes across the globe.
He made one laugh, think, cry and move to act – whether you were a comrade-in-arms or a part of his vast electronic audience. One cannot say that he was uncritical of what South Africa has become. In fact he was saddened by the corruption and lack of principles. But he never regretted his lifelong involvement. The LSE student for whom “Marxism was not the crust of the earth” remained the combative social activist to the very end where others had become self-satisfied, smug, defensive, opportunistic and complacent. In the face of adversity he would never say “no way” and his motto was “never say die.” He remained an activist and thinker, human being of moral courage and internationalist to the very end. The boy from the Bronx travelled a long way from his roots and time as “Postperson from Pluto.”
For the many South Africans who knew him, and the thousands whose lives he touched anonymously or digitally, it is perhaps fitting that the last of his published books, When South Africa Called, We Answered, dealt with a country whose struggle for democracy and equality he dedicated so much of his eventful life to.
Hamba Kahle (go well) Danny Boy!
Ronnie Kasrils served in the South African government from 1994-2008; His last portfolio was Minister of Intelligence under President Thabo Mbeki. He is a former member of the ANC's national executive committee (its highest elected body), and of the South African Communist Party politburo. He was a founding member of the ANC's underground army, Umkhonto weSizwe, and rose through the ranks to become its head of intelligence.