Ronnie Kasrils, The Unlikely Secret Agent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010)

Few figures rival Ronnie Kasrils in personifying South Africa’s revolutionary trajectory from the day the armed struggle was launched in 1961 through to the messy, post-Apartheid present. Almost twenty years ago, no less a figure than Rusty Bernstein declared of Kasrils and the African National Congress’s armed wing, “You can cover the whole history of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in the life and adult adventures of Ronnie Kasrils.”1 This year, activist scholar Patrick Bond noted that Kasrils is Africa’s “highest-profile white revolutionary.”

Kasrils’ memoir, Armed and Dangerous (1993) documents his contributions as an early MK member and underground revolutionary. After MK was dissolved into the national post-Apartheid military apparatus, he became the country’s deputy Minister of Defense under Mandela, then its Minister of Intelligence, and lastly, its Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry under Mbeki. Along the way, he also made international headlines by standing with the Palestinian people and calling attention to Israel’s occupations and aggression. Most recently, writing with the same sense of outrage that drove him into the ANC and Communist Party after the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), he has condemned the Marikana massacre (August 2012) of striking mineworkers. This is not merely an isolated statement responding to a particularly egregious act; it is part of a broader critique of post-Apartheid class formation and the emergence of South Africa’s post-independence ruling class (called Wabenzi, after the expensive cars betokening its wealth). The occupant of such an outsized life, one would think, must surely eclipse the lives of all those around him.

The Unlikely Secret Agent – his biography of his late wife, Eleanor – suggests however that Kasrils’ achievements are woven into his relationships. Even a cursory reading of this book  provides often surprising insights into the material, political and emotional resources that South African revolutionaries drew on to resist the burgeoning Apartheid state of the 1960s. Kasrils reveals Eleanor’s remarkable fortitude and determination, showing how her life experience (prior to their relationship) strengthened her, thwarted her tormentors, and struck a blow for the resistance at a particularly challenging time in the South African struggle.

Reading the fast-paced text, written in a cadence that meters the emotional roller coaster that underground activists ride, we are pushed through the doors of the Wentworth “House of Truth” as the slightly built Eleanor is thrust into a claustrophobic interrogation center replete with battered prisoners and hostile jailers. We experience her doubts and then the certainty that her comrades had been betrayed by one of their own, the notorious Bruno Mtolo who went on to testify against Mandela and the other 10 Rivonia defendants. We sit with Eleanor as questions, insults and verbal abuse are hurled at her by Special Branch (SB, the security police) personnel.

If Eleanor’s ethnicity (white South African of Scottish heritage) provided a modicum of protection against the worst in her SB interrogators, her gender did not. From taunts about sex with Jews (Ronnie Kasrils is of Jewish extraction) to outright groping and offers of favorable treatment in exchange for sex, the men of the Special Branch were relatively unrestrained. Adding to these pressures, the SB threatened to separate her from her daughter (something they would effectively achieve for the succeeding decade).

But she was able to resist.

She and Kasrils had earlier resolved that “even at the worst of times, one must fight the depression of defeat and, by working on a plan, form a positive response.”2 Of course, this was by no means easy. Her arrest came within a month of the arrest of the MK high command at Rivonia (leading to their imprisonment for much of the succeeding three decades). And so, notwithstanding her own exposure, she had to worry about her comrades and leaders too. The rudiments of a plan emerged out of her decision to begin a hunger strike protesting her detention. Kasrils writes that more than even the MK’s training (unfortunately few insights are offered into this), her experience as a woman and single mother, including resistance to her ex-husband and independence from her parents, provided the resilience and presence of mind that allowed her to shape “the moves of the enemy.” Her allegations of sexual abuse produced the fortuitous charge that she was being clinically paranoid. This provided an opening. Rather than more interrogation, she is sent for psychiatric evaluation.

At this point in the book, Ronnie Kasrils explains why Eleanor was a potentially valuable catch for the state: together with him, Eleanor had executed several major acts of sabotage (aimed at property rather than people). In an early form of “armed propaganda,” they shut down electrical power to the city, and exploded devices at government facilities, including the SB offices! More importantly, perhaps, her underground (as opposed to guerrilla) work provided a communications channel between two key cities, Durban and Johannesburg.

Had the SB suspected her operational involvement in these acts or networks, it is doubtful that they would have moved her to a psychiatric hospital. Instead, their sexism had gotten the better of their objectives. Later Kasrils implies that Eleanor actually cultivated these lower expectations to the benefit of her underground work. Early in her relationship with Kasrils, a friend of his confesses to her, “I’ve always thought of you as a bit of weed.” “Good,” Ronnie recalls telling her, “let people think of you as inconsequential: that’ll fool the SB!” (52)

The pages almost turn themselves as we learn of her subsequent heart-stopping escape from the guarded hospital, her circuitous route from Natal to Johannesburg, her reconnecting with the towering Bram Fischer (underground leader of the South African Communist Party and head of Mandela’s defense team), her and Ronnie’s joint escape, posing as a Muslim couple – surely a reminder of a different time when appearing to be Muslim helps one escape the “terrorist” label – to colonial Botswana. The pace does not let up as they traverse Southern Africa, eventually landing in newly independent Tanzania. There, the ANC was regrouping in Dar es Salaam, then “the crossroads” of Southern African liberation movements from Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Somewhat safe in Tanzania, while focused on the liberation of their homeland, they become aware of the rise of the new Wabenzi elite.

Through it all, we find revealing sketches and observations about South Africa’s social structure and also glimpses of Eleanor’s pre-underground/MK work. Her insights into people, her inspiration, and her dedication to comrades are consistent with her connections to trade union work under the tutelage of the legendary Billy Nair, her support for the nurses’ strike at King George Hospital, and even her quiet subversion of bus segregation. Throughout the narrative, the resources for resistance, for escape, and for fighting back come from ordinary people drawing on meager assets and relationships.

In an interesting aside, we also learn that stories of World War II resistance inspired their underground work. Despite the thin descriptions of their above-ground legal resistance, it is clear that their decision to join the military work and the underground political work was by no means a romantic option inspired by tales of heroism and exercised by relatively privileged white South Africans. Instead, it was their connections to the social forces of the day that informed their actions. Their and the movements’ capacity to creatively tap intangible, almost imponderable resources – such as inspiring stories, friendship networks, credible disguises fostered by cross-cultural literacy (and relationships) – would define the asymmetric warfare to come.

Notwithstanding its individual focus, the narrative also provides insights into the strategic thinking and debates regarding the revolution’s “new forms of struggle” (then a euphemism for armed turn). The turn was not a certainty. Janet Cherry recently observed that “It is hard to find anyone in South Africa today who will argue with conviction that the armed struggle for liberation from apartheid was not justified,”3 but she goes on to show that it involved serious debate between committed individuals many of whom were heavyweights within the movement. ANC-SACP debates about the armed option and subsequent strategy are explored in other writings and interviews given by Kasrils. However there may be hints in what Kasrils emphasizes as he retells Eleanor’s story: Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare is unusually salient given the serious questions about its relevance to the South African struggle. The Special Branch is particularly exercised by Eleanor’s importation of multiple copies into the country and they question her about it on several occasions. Kasrils’ description of the cycle of resistance and repression hints that he may have subscribed to Che’s theory that revolutionaries can create the objective conditions for revolution as a result of the state’s response to sabotage. “What the MK command concluded … was that the mission had delivered a psychological blow to a prime enemy.” He continues: the state would “leave no stone unturned to punish the perpetrators. Pay-back time had arrived with the ninety-day detention laws…” (61).

Unfortunately, Kasrils never becomes too explicit about Eleanor’s perspective on these strategic questions. It is not clear that it would have mattered; after all, they were relatively young members of the movement. Kasrils’ own memoir (1993) indicates that he was more of a follower (at this stage) responding to the leadership of Monty Naicker. The broader debates that raged on in the background concerned the appropriate modalities for armed struggle and the class content of the project. The most important concerned the relative weight of rural, peasant-based guerrilla insurgencies versus urban insurrectionary strategies.4

Eschewing an explicit treatment of strategy, Kasrils has written a popularly appealing book by framing Eleanor’s story as that of a secret agent. Endorsed as his choice is via a cover note by the secret agent’s master storyteller, John Le Carré, this may be appropriate. But it brings with it the unfortunate connotations of an individual acting in service of a state. The archetypal “secret agent,” Conrad’s Verloc, after all, is acting at the behest of what we assume to be the Czarist state. As Ronnie demonstrates however, contrary to the Apartheid state’s propaganda machine, Eleanor was quite literally a “servant of the people” bereft of a state’s support apparatus and reliant upon her ingenuity and the resources of her comrades and their communities.

This gripe should not detract from fact that Kasrils shared Eleanor’s heroism in the context of early 1960s South Africa. His work joins a growing body of memoirs and oral histories including works like Men of Dynamite (2010) and The Maputo Connection: ANC life in the World of FRELIMO (2009). Read against current developments – sharpening inequalities, state repression of grassroots movements, and leadership rivalry within the ANC – one wonders if, more than exercises in nostalgia, these works function as heroic myths (as many on the right and far left assert). Is this the ideological literature celebrating the heroic moment of a South African bourgeois revolution and providing a revolutionary pedigree for the ANC?

I don’t believe so. If anything, the book reminds us that it was working people (whether unusual middle-income, privileged white workers, like Eleanor and Ronnie Kasrils, or African workers) and not the bourgeoisie who powered the South African “national democratic revolution.” This reminds me of Barrington Moore’s ironic remark about the French revolution: “The sans culottes made the bourgeois Revolution; the peasants determined how far it could go” (Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 110). By grounding his narrative in choices and heroic actions of ordinary people drawing on the resources at hand, Kasrils has provided South Africans with a narrative that may inspire them to complete the revolutionary project Eleanor joined a half-century ago.

Suren Moodliar
Massachusetts Global Action, Boston



2. As her contemporary, Ruth First recognized in 117 Days (1965), “In prison, you only see the moves of the enemy. Prison is the hardest place to fight a battle.”

3. Janet Cherry, Spear of the Nation: Umkhonto weSizwe  [Kindle Locations 37-38]. Kindle Edition, 2012

4. For historical context, see Cherry, Spear of the Nation, and the Road to Democracy series (2004), esp. vol. 1, ch. 2
(  or even Howard Barrell’s  important 1993 thesis, Conscripts to their Age: African National Congress Operational Strategy, 1976-1986.

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