It is a hole in the ground now. Razed and reduced to rubble, a new iron frame fills the gap, waiting for more memories to move in. Perhaps when the new building is completed they will replace the blue plaque, but there will be nothing to mark the spot in the building, appropriately underground, where anti-apartheid warriors fought a clandestine battle against the South African government, the South African Bureau for State Security, MI5 and the British Government.
The hotel was owned by Chris de Broglio who was born in Mauritius but went to Durban, South Africa to study accountancy where he became South African Weightlifting Champion from 1950 to 1962 and trained, illegally, with black athletes in the gym he had set up in his garage.
He worked for an airline in Johannesburg, a position that allowed him some freedom to help other dissidents to leave the country and to maintain contacts and communications on behalf of the ANC. He never actually became a member of the organisation, as he disagreed with some of their tactics and because he knew it would draw attention to his activity. Alas he finally did draw attention and had to leave with his family very suddenly in 1964 and eventually washed up in London where he took over the lease of a hotel in a quiet street in the Marble Arch district of London’s West End.
It was here that guests from around the world experienced the peculiar rackety charm of the Portman Court. If they were lucky and passed muster, they would be invited to epic three to four hour lunches cooked by Chris in the basement kitchen, the old dolls-eye switchboard in reception switched to emit an ear piercing alarm when a call came from one of the 31 rooms or from outside.
Alternatively reception and the switchboard would be left in the charge of my mother (the manager) or sometimes, me, the teenage denizen of the basement flat. To be honest, the ear-piercing alarm would be on duty more often than I. But every week, without fail, the shady gentleman of MI5 would practice their inadequate tradecraft and come wandering in enquiring about a room we both knew they would never occupy, their eyes darting around, trying to catch sight of the various people disappearing through the door to the basement rooms. It never occurred to them that although they were working in rotation, we were not and we came to know their faces and roughly the times they would choose to visit. Perhaps they just didn’t care.
For behind the bohemian bonhomie and the expert cuisine of Chris de Broglio, in a basement office beneath Edward Lear’s blue plaque, lay the headquarters of SAN-ROC, the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee formed in South Africa by the dissident poet Dennis Brutus, John Harris and fellow weightlifter Reg Hlongwane in October 1962 and established in London by Chris in 1966.
Over the next few years SAN-ROC played a major part in getting South Africa banned from the Olympic Games, helped with the Stop the Seventy Tour’s disruptions of the South African Rugby team’s 25 match tour of the British Isles, enlisted Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe to highlight the sports boycott, organised a boycott of the Miss World competition and generally campaigned to ensure that South Africa was excluded from all international sporting events. It was no wonder our clandestine gentlemen were so interested in the likes of Peter Hain, Manny Brown, Breyten Breytenbach, Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone and many others descending the stairs to the seditious basement of the Portman Court Hotel.
In August 1966 Dennis Brutus was allowed to leave South Africa on an Exit Permit and joined Chris de Broglio in London. Together with Reg Hlongwane, their three men team intensified their action. SAN-ROC met with FIFA delegates in London, travelled to the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica, attended the IAAF congress in Budapest, the Weightlifting Congress in Berlin, Inaugural meeting of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA) at Bamako, the IOC meeting in Teheran in 1967. At that meeting it was decided to send a three-man delegation to South Africa. This Commission composed of Lord Killanin, Judge Ademola of Nigeria and Reg Alexander of Kenya. Their report which was presented to the 1968 IOC meeting in Grenoble was very confusing. It neither condemned Apartheid nor cleared SA of racism in sport. On the basis of that report and organising a postal vote from absent members (which was unconstitutional) SA was invited to the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
When the decision was announced SAN-ROC, in close cooperation with the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa, organised a massive boycott of the Games if SA was allowed to participate. Most African and Asian countries joined the boycott which forced the IOC to withdraw the invitation. That was the most important victory of SAN-ROC which led to the final expulsion of Apartheid SA from the Olympic Movement at Amsterdam in 1970.
This decision was a great blow to the friends of Apartheid South Africa at the IOC and International Federations. After massive demonstrations organised by SAN-ROC (with Peter Hain as Chairman of Stop the Seventy Tour) in opposition to the 1969-70 Rugby tour of Britain, Rugby tours to and from SA were cancelled. The cancellation of the 1970 Cricket tour of England followed. SAN-ROC amplified its activities in close collaboration with the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa, the Anti-Apartheid movements in Australia, New-Zealand, France, Holland, the US etc. which led to the expulsion of South Africa from most international sport.
In 1987 Chris de Broglio and Breyten Breytenbach became involved with the Institute for Democracy in Africa (IDASA) in the organisation of the historic meeting between ANC Officials and 60 leading Afrikaners which was held at Dakar, Senegal under the Auspices of President Abou Diouf and Madame Daniele Mitterand. That Meeting contributed greatly to the dramatic changes which followed leading to the final defeat of Apartheid and the creation of the New South Africa.
In an acknowledgement of the political reversals that had taken place, and after all his battles with the International Olympic Committee, Chris de Broglio was awarded the Olympic Order in 1997 in recognition of his actions against Racism in Sport and in defence of the Olympic Charter. He defended its principles all his life, especially through the apartheid years when the IOC seem to have forgotten them.
There are many untold stories of the price paid by those involved in direct action against the apartheid regime, battling with domestic security services only too happy to work hand in glove with BOSS and others to defeat the objective of making South Africa a pariah state in the area it held most dear - sport.
It is the nature of underground activists who use code names and covert routes in and out of the prisons Breytenbach called 'No Man’s Land' that the majority of the battles remain secret and forgotten. The price the players in this underground game paid was also exacted on their families and has been documented in Hilda Bernstein’s brilliant book, The Rift - a searing document of the South African exile experience.
There are no blue plaques for Chris, Dennis and the others. Nothing to mark the spot of the part that dingy basement played in the dismantling of apartheid. Nothing but memories of the endless convivial lunches, the faces of people far from home around the table, some of them on the run and in fear of their life, mixing happily with a German painter or a happy Australian couple on their anniversary European tour. Laughter mixed with fear and pain and above it all, the profound excitement of les actions clandestin. Lear and de Broglio lived here. A house of nonsense and significance.