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As Nelson Mandela Turns 93, a Discussion with Anti-Apartheid Freedom Fighter Ronnie Kasrils

Kasrils has just written a book about his wife Eleanor, a Scottish South African anti-apartheid activist, with whom he organize inside and outside South Africa for three decades.

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AMY GOODMAN: What did she do to feign a mental breakdown?

RONNIE KASRILS: Well, it wasn’t difficult, because she was on a hunger strike, so she was weak and she was in a bad state. She was being brutalized, brutally treated by then, beaten, hair pulled, thrown to the ground, all sorts of things. And it was easy for her to turn on the tears. In that situation, she made it worse and worse, and they really just couldn’t handle it. So they agreed to take her to a mental home.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did they take her to? What mental institution?

RONNIE KASRILS: They drove her out of Durban to a place called Fort Napier, which had been a British military garrison from the previous century in the Zulu wars. It had been turned into a mental asylum. And they took her to this place. She was feeling elated, because she felt she would be able to escape far more easily from a hospital than from a prison. And this is what she was planning. They came to this very foreboding Victorian garrison with high walls, with gates with sentries. And as they arrived, the Special Branch mocked her, and they said, "You think you’re clever coming to a place like this, but there’s a prison within this place, and this prison is for lunatics, criminally insane, and that’s where you’ll be detained. And in no time, you’ll be wailing for your nice, cozy cell back in the Durban prison." They went into this place, and a vast setup, a kind of asylum where ordinary mental patients were recovering or being treated. And, you know, they would have families coming and going and so on. They came to what obviously had been the penal center during the British garrison days, a place with metal doors, with barred windows, a real prison. And they came to this place and handed her over to the superintendent of this place for assessment.

AMY GOODMAN: So what happened then?

RONNIE KASRILS: She was absolutely terrified when she went into this place. We’ve all seen One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This was much more backward. This is Durban, 1963. Of course, there were all these muscular nurses around in starched white uniforms. And this was a center for women who have been confined there in some cases for 20 years, women who have carried out misdeeds like murdering their husbands or boyfriends or burning down a house with their children in, women who have mentally broken down, been sentenced to this place rather than to the normal prisons. And she sees at once that these people are just heavily, heavily medicated. They’re frightening. They’re all wearing grey smocks. There are the headbangers. There are the droolers. There are the people who look like zombies, very stiff-limbed. There’s a woman crying out, "They’ve killed my baby! My baby’s been killed! They murdered my baby!" That night, from her cell, she hears the same woman crying, "They killed my baby! Baby Jesus! They put him up on a cross!" So it’s this kind of situation taking place. They’re very heavily medicated. This was the only way that they’re kept in place.

But she pulls herself together, and she realizes these are victims. These are poor, wretched women who are suffering, and she shouldn’t be afraid of them. And she comes to terms with the place, and she soon interacts. They’re very interested in her. They’re constantly touching her and feeling her hair and so on. She’s in her ordinary civilian clothing; she hasn’t been sentenced. And she comes across a group of women who, like her, are in civilian dress. And she discovers these are women who aren’t mentally disturbed, but they’ve been incarcerated in this place by their families to dry out. They’re alcoholics. And she interacts with them. They’re working-class white women, backward in terms of politics. But Eleanor can get on with them. And she settles down in this place and in no time is assisting the staff in handing out the towels to the patients, in clearing tables, and stuff like this. So she gets to grips with this particular point, this particular place.

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