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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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She speaks to this one woman, this alcoholic, who is very responsive to her. They play cards. And she says she’s got to get a letter out to a young student who lives in that particular town. Would this woman write to him and ask him to come and visit her, an anonymous woman? And Eleanor dictates a letter to this guy, simply saying, you know, "I’m a lonely woman here. I need to meet people, and I need somebody like you to come and talk to me. I need to talk to someone of your faith. And if you can’t make it, send someone else of your faith." And Eleanor knew that this particular guy—Rob, by name—would be very curious and would come, particularly because of that phrase. And—

AMY GOODMAN: What was his faith?

RONNIE KASRILS: His faith was he was an ANC member. OK, he was of no faith. He was an atheist, as well. So he walks up there. He doesn’t know Eleanor is there, but of course everyone who would have known her knew that she had been detained. And she writes a couple of letters on very thin cigarette paper. She smoked, like everybody else in those days, like a chimney. And he was in the reception, visitors’ room, meeting with this woman. Nobody else was around. And Eleanor went into this place, tapped him on the shoulder. He nearly collapsed. And she gave him these letters. And those letters were to me and to leaders of the organization, and to this group in Pietermaritzburg, asking for assistance. She said she was going to plan an escape but needed them to help her from the outside.

AMY GOODMAN: So what happened then?

RONNIE KASRILS: She waited for a reply. And the days went by, and it became a week, and more than a week, and she was getting very worried.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you get the message?

RONNIE KASRILS: I did, indeed. And we were planning to assist her, but we were slow about it, so she didn’t hear from us. And one Friday afternoon, a nurse said to her, "Eleanor, why are you looking so glum? You’re usually in high spirits." She couldn’t tell him why. She was just worried about no response. And the nurse said to her, "You know, you don’t have to be so down in the dumps, because the Special Branch police are coming to fetch you on Monday, so we’ve heard." She really freaked out.

There was a black nurse, one black woman, who would come and bring the towels and medication to this center for white women patients. And Eleanor found her in the ironing room and asked her to help. She had befriended her previously. And she said to this woman, "I’ve got to get out this weekend." And this woman said to her, "I can leave the back door of this prison unlocked at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning when the shifts change, but only for five minutes. You’ll have to find your way out of the grounds and through the security gate, and you’re going to need to change your appearance, because people know what you look like." Eleanor said, "Don’t worry about that, just please have that door unlocked."

So, that night, she prepared her disguise. She had a dress that she had never worn, kept it under the mattress, which meant it was very nicely pressed. She had a scarf for her head. She had managed to get a lipstick from somebody. She managed to get a crayon, a black crayon, from an art class, and she had filched a letterhead from superintendent’s office, and a little bit of money, some coins, playing cards with the alcoholics.

 
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