“What were you thinking?” K. E. Karl


I am often asked this when I tell people I smuggled munitions into South Africa for the African National Congress—Nelson Mandela’s organization—in the 1970s and early 1980s.

My recently published book, Our Man in Mbabane: A Novel Based on a True Story, is about my fictionalized self, Frank George, and his exploits in Southern Africa. Frank is working as an economist in London when an ANC representative recruits him to go to Swaziland, get a job, buy a car, and run armaments into South Africa to support the fight against apartheid. As an ex-pat in Swaziland, Frank enjoys a pleasant lifestyle, has two romances, and explores the country and region with his friends. However, he regularly encounters the dark side of apartheid—the racist views of white South Africans and the treatment of Blacks as third-class citizens in their own country. On his ANC missions, Frank often confronts hair-raising situations, which he deals with as best he can, given that he has had no training as an undercover agent.

I wrote my novel as a low-key thriller, with romantic interludes and humorous encounters with friends. It is the story of an idealistic young American accepting a dangerous assignment because of his strong political views. Over time, however, he comes to doubt his own convictions and begins to lose his sense of self-identity. So, it is also a tale of a young person’s journey in an exciting but challenging environment.

If you’d like to read and review it, it is on NetGalley until the end of May.

The novel includes extensively researched historical events and key anti-apartheid figures in South Africa and Swaziland in the late 1970s. In particular, Ruth First and Joe Slovo appear as characters in the book. Some of First’s letters to me about a job in Mozambique are on my website.

So, why did I go to Swaziland (now Eswatini) and get a job in Mbabane (uhm-buh-baa-nay)? The key reason was that I was a devoted leftist. It was the 1970s, and the Vietnam War had recently ended, energizing an entire generation of young people. At the University of Oregon, I took part in anti-war demonstrations and was active in supporting the United Farm Workers, which was trying to unionize farm workers. After studying at the London School of Economics, I got a job in London, a great city with fabulous entertainment and cultural heritage. I worked, enjoyed the city’s delights, and also helped an organization called the Chile Solidarity Campaign, a group devoted to putting pressure on the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who had overthrown a democratically elected government in Chile, ending civilian rule. My CSC work brought me to the attention of the ANC recruiter in London.

Two books also influenced me: Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Hemingway’s book is about a young American and a dynamiter, Robert Jordan, who volunteers to support the Republicans in their fight against the fascist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell volunteered to fight in that war on the front line in Spain, and Homage is his memoir of that experience. Great writing can inspire, and these two books motivated me. I didn’t dwell on my decision to go to Swaziland; my recruiter gave me a privileged opportunity to fight against a brutally oppressive regime, apartheid South Africa. It was 1977, and in the prior year, the apartheid regime had massacred many young people in the Soweto uprising. The South African Police had simply opened fire on protesting students, killing dozens. I was a committed leftist; of course, I would go.

I had two primary motivations for writing my book. First, it is a reminder of the ugliness of apartheid and provides a concise history of South Africa. Particularly in North America, there is not much remembrance of apartheid-era South Africa. This is important because we need to learn from history; unfortunately, there are still efforts to disenfranchise people of colour in many places in the world, including the US. Too many people look at the world through a prism of “Us” and “Them” rather than seeing us all as human beings.

Second, I hope the book can inspire young people to consider spending at least part of their life dedicated to helping others who are less advantaged. This might be, for example, in the Peace Corps, the Canada Service Corps, or any organization helping poor people. So, it can be a short-term commitment if you prefer. I believe it is important to make a conscious decision about your life path.

After Swaziland, I chose a more conventional lifestyle with two marriages, one daughter from each, and an occupation. Other former recruits continued working in South Africa for a more democratic and equal society or to support various social movements in their home country. Ken Keable edited a book about many of the volunteers, London Recruits, and my short memoir, the story of what I really did in Swaziland, appears on the book’s website.

Well, some serious stuff, but the book is entertaining! That was my biggest challenge as a first-time novelist—to make the book as engaging as possible. I leave you with two quotes that I hope will entice you to read them.

“The fact that the novel is based on the author’s own experiences supporting the ANC in the 1970s and 1980s makes the story worth reading; there are also brief, but effective scenes of suspense scattered liberally throughout…”—Kirkus Reviews

“The dialogue and characterization both are sharp, and Karl’s smooth, unfussy prose keeps the story flowing smoothly as he illuminates a fresh milieu, avoiding the stereotypes or ginned-up suspense that often compromise stories of white Americans in Africa. Lovers of romance and spy novels with a real-world edge will enjoy this story, which is as light in its telling as it is weighty in its concerns.”—BookLife

Written by K. E. Karl

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