The story of Eleanor Kasrils: A husband’s tribute to a valiant fighter

Below is an article I wrote for LookLeft magazine last month about Ronnie Kasrils new book about his late wife and her part in the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa. I’ve also uploaded an audio recording of the talk, which was hosted by the Communist Party of Ireland in Connolly Books, Dublin. You can listen to the audio by clicking here.

Sadly, a few days later another veteran of the anti-Apartheid struggle (and one who, like Ronnie and Eleanor, was outspoken in support of the Palestinian battle against Israeli apartheid), Kader Asmal, passed away.

The story of Eleanor Kasrils: A husband’s tribute to a valiant fighter
LookLeft #7, July 2011

Ronnie Kasrils, famed veteran of the South African anti-apartheid movement, visited Dublin to launch his new book The Unlikely Secret Agent, about his late wife Eleanor. ‘Red’ Ronnie’s revolutionary legacy is well known and detailed in his own autobiography Armed and Dangerous; a white South African Jew, he joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) and both the African National Congress (ANC) and its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in the early 1960s. He rose through their respective ranks, eventually serving in several ministerial positions in post-apartheid South Africa and he remains one of the world’s most outspoken critics of modern apartheid as practised by the Israeli state against the Palestinians today.

Yet, as Ronnie pointed out at the launch in Connolly Books, the stories of the many hundreds of thousands of people who formed the backbone of the worldwide anti-apartheid movement often remain unknown. This book about his wife is one such story and is his contribution to the people’s history of this heroic struggle.

 

In introducing the book, he spoke movingly about the “staggeringly courageous” Eleanor who died in 2009 – how she was radicalised by the Sharpville massacre and became an important underground operative with the ANC via her job in Durban’s famous Grigg’s bookstore (an important message-dropping point for wanted activists), and as an active member of the MK armed resistance. He recounted one tale of how her simple ingenuity (along with the help of a shebeen) enabled the MK to steal half-a-ton of dynamite from a quarry for armed operations in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s arrest.

Eventually in 1963, with her lover Ronnie on the run, Eleanor was lifted by the Security Branch (SB) and taken for interrogation at the Wentworth ‘House of Truth’. Here was violently abused by the SB men whose mission was to “break her or hang her” in an attempt to find Ronnie’s whereabouts. What the SB didn’t know was that she was an important MK member herself and if broken could have revealed many destructive secrets. But she didn’t break, instead she “engaged in a personal duel of wits with her brutal captors”, faking a nervous breakdown which landed her in a prison psychiatric unit from which he she promptly escaped. After reuniting with Ronnie, the pair fled the country and continued their struggle from exile.

The book itself – an obvious labour of love – is a ripping read and a fitting tribute to a woman of immense courage, skill and principle. Eleanor was one of the few white South Africans to enter the clandestine struggle at this early period when the ANC’s MK wing had embarked upon a campaign of – literally – explosive resistance to the racist apartheid regime. Her defiance of this state – before, during and after her imprisonment – and refusal to submit to its brutality was nothing short of heroic. Eleanor’s story, like the story of the anti-apartheid movement as a whole, is inspirational, poignant and still relevant.

As Ronnie pointed out while summing up his talk, the importance of the role which the international boycott and solidarity movement played in the eventual victory in 1990 of the South African national liberation movement was immense. Being in Ireland, he specifically mentioned the Dunnes Stores boycott strikers, and personally thanked two veteran Irish anti-apartheid activists present at the meeting. He finished by saying that international solidarity against colonialism and imperialism is not merely something from times gone by, it remains of great consequence to people resisting oppression across the globe today.

Note: This article appeared in LookLeft under the headline ‘The Battle to Free South Africa’.

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