By Elaheh Rostami-Povey
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The Unlikely Secret Agent

This article is over 11 years, 5 months old
Ronnie Kasrils, SA Books, £14.95
Issue 354

The history of national liberation struggles is mainly about men – women are usually invisible. Eleanor Kasrils’s story, written by her lifelong friend, lover, comrade and husband, Ronnie Kasrils, demonstrates that the victory over the apartheid regime would have been impossible without many women like Eleanor.

Ronnie takes us back to South Africa in 1963. For years the anti-apartheid movement attempted non-violent resistance, but it was crushed. Thus the apartheid regime, with the backing of the British and other Western governments, made peaceful change impossible. Inevitably, the leadership turned to armed struggle. Eleanor was one of the leading members of the newly-formed military wing of the African National Congress (ANC).

In order to explode the electricity pylons they had to break into a dynamite store. As the male comrades were engaged in acquiring wire cutters to get through the outer gate, Eleanor was looking in the hardware stores, certain she could find a key to open the padlock. On the night of the operation she handed them the key. They did not believe her key would work and took the heavy wire cutters with them. But when they inserted the key it worked like a charm and the operation was successful. The explosion plunged the whole of Natal into darkness and the apartheid economy suffered massively.

Eleanor was one of the first white women in the country to be the victim of the notorious South African Secret Police. In jail she was tortured and told that her little daughter would be taken away “to be brought up properly by white Afrikaners”. She was threatened with being broken or killed unless she gave information about her lover Ronnie, “the communist Jew who was conspiring to give South Africa to the communists”.

She was frightened for her life, for her daughter and for Ronnie. She was not sure to what extent she could resist and conceal the identities of her comrades. But she survived, and with the help of black women and later her Asian and Muslim comrades, escaped and was reunited with Ronnie.

They had to continue their struggle from exile. They married in Tanzania, then had to live apart in different parts of Africa and in London. But their struggles alongside millions of oppressed people in South Africa ended the racist apartheid system. Under the new government Ronnie served as a cabinet minister from 1994 to 2008. Eleanor was an outstanding representative of South Africa in this period. She sadly died in 2009 but her story is inspirational for all who believe in ending exploitative and repressive regimes.

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