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Home > 2022 > A White Woman’s Secret War for South Africa | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL 60 No 47 November 12, 2022

A White Woman’s Secret War for South Africa | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 12 November 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy

The Unlikely Secret Agent

by Ronnie Kasrils

Monthly Review Press
Pages: 183
Price: $14.95
Paperback ISBN: 9781583672778
eBook ISBN: 9781583672792

She could have led a privileged life as a white during the apartheid regime but she chose to risk everything to plunge into the struggle to build a new South Africa. She had a frail look but the soft-spoken, dainty woman had the heart of a lion. This gripping book is a well-deserved tribute to Eleanor Kasrils, written with love by her husband who also fought for the African National Congress (ANC).

While numerous whites were willing partners in the apartheid regime, many whites sympathized with the struggle waged by the ANC. Eleanor too began as a sympathizer but, even as a member of the tiny Liberal Party, was slowly won over by the ANC. She became a secret courier in the ANC at a time when the organization faced the worst oppression in South Africa. Her work in a Durban bookstore her parents owned provided her the perfect cover where messages could be received from and passed on to different actors in the underground. Over time, she also became one of the first women operatives of the ANC’s new military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), better known by its acronym MK.

Luck ran out for Eleanor when an arrested ANC member, to escape torture, squealed names and addresses of the ANC family in Durban to the feared Security Branch. The slender Eleanor, a mother of a young girl from her first marriage, was badly treated in custody. Leading the interrogation was a sadistic officer, Lt Grobler. He not only grabbed her hair and banged her head on the table until she passed out, but on another occasion lifted her bodily out of the chair and slammed her into the wall, knocking the breath out of her. He banged her head several times while she groaned in pain. The aim was to break her, make her talk about absconding ANC activists she knew. But Eleanor surprised the police by refusing to crack.

A frustrated – and defeated – police shunted her to a mental hospital at Fort Napier from where, after winning the hearts of the authorities and taking covert help from two black women, Eleanor dramatically escaped. Thanks to the ANC’s well-oiled network, she moved from one hideout to another even as the stupefied police launched a massive crackdown to track her down. It was very important that Eleanor should remain free. She had been a key secret link and courier between the ANC political leadership in Durban and Johannesburg. Funds and secret documents flowed through her hands. She was a secret agent whose role only a few leaders were aware of. One of them was Ronnie Kasrils, the magnet which drew her into ANC and who later married Eleanor.

It was not easy to provide help to whites on the run because their support base was very small unlike in the case of blacks and Indians. What helped Eleanor was that she was a natural underground operative as she was so unobtrusive and showed an evident knack for it. Yet she had to resort to disguises: first as a boy and then as an Indian Muslim woman – in Punjabi clothing, costume jewellery and earrings – before she finally made it to Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). Two Indian comrades adept in ferrying people across the border accompanied her in the final leg of her daring escape.

Then began years of involved work at the ANC office in Dar es Salaam which won universal admiration. Ronnie, her husband, went off to Moscow for nine months for military training. During rare free time, she would watch Indian movies, “enjoying the melodrama and musicals from the subcontinent”. She had already met Nelson Mandela, a week before his arrest in South Africa, and met in Tanzania Joachim Chissano, future President of a liberated Mozambique.

Eleanor eventually lived in exile in London for 26 long years – from 1965 to 1991 in a modest, low-budget apartment. It took a long time for her only daughter who had been left behind with her parents in Durban to join her. The threat from South Africa’s security services and spies was ever present. On occasions, the Scotland Yard was called to inspect suspicious looking objects delivered to her home. While working for the ANC, she taught a younger generation of revolutionaries the skills of clandestine work and disguise. Her tormentor in prison, Lt Grobler, killed himself while she was in London – her escape from South Africa was a blot in his career.

When South Africa became free, Ronnie Kasrils – the author and Eleanor’s husband – was named the Minister for Intelligence Services. Eleanor’s role in South Africa’s transformation can be appreciated fully only when one recognizes that the ANC was, for 30 years, dependent on its underground structures to keep the movement alive in the face of merciless repression. No wonder, when Eleanor died at age 73, memorial services took place in both Cape Town and London. Moving tributes came from President Jacob Zuma and former President Thabo Mbeki. Messages poured in from Algeria, the US, Britain, China, Cuba, Holland, Palestine, Russia, Scotland and Ireland. The London Guardian referred to her as “a staggeringly courageous woman … who will not be forgotten.” The book captures Eleanor’s fascinating personality like a Belgian mirror.

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