[review published in Socialism and Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1 (March 2013)]
Ronnie Kasrils, The Unlikely Secret Agent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010)
Massachusetts Global Action, Boston
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.” 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…
Read the entire review in Socialism & Democracy