Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Eleanor Kasrils, the "Unlikely Secret Agent"

I continue being fascinated with the underground struggle against apartheid, partly because it was underground and not much information is available to those who didn't participate. Currently on the bookshelves in South Africa is a book titled "The Unlikely Secret Agent," written by Ronnie Kasrils about his wife Eleanor (2010, Jacana Media). She died on November 8, 2009.

Earlier, Ronnie Kasrils had written his autobiography, "Armed and Dangerous," which apparently became a bestseller. I haven't read that book. Ronnie Kasrils played an important role in the anti-apartheid struggle, the transition to the new democracy and the first years of the ANC government, in which he served as a minister from 1994-2008.

Anyway, the book is a really quick read. The main event described by Ronnie Kasrils is the arrest and detention of Eleanor by the Security Branch on August 19, 1963, in Durban. Under new legislation, Act 37 of 1963, called the "Ninety-day Detention Act," police could arrest and detain citizens without charging them for three months. I believe this period could be repeated, if police wanted to do so.

Eleanor fights bravely against the rude and crude policemen, and she goes on a hunger strike to protest her detention. Eventually, she manages to get admitted into Fort Napier, a state psychiatric institution, from where she escapes. Kasrils details their exit from South Africa to Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (now Tanzania).

For me, the book falls flat after their arrival in Tanzania. I understand that Ronnie Kasrils wanted to focus on the Fort Napier incident, but in his eulogy to Eleanor (also included in the book), we learn that she was the first women to join the ANC's military wing, that she worked closely with Oliver Tambo, and that she lived and worked for many years in exile in London. Instead of all the detail included in the arrest and escape of Eleanor, I think the book should have covered more of her life but in less detail.

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