As Nelson Mandela Turns 93, a Discussion with Anti-Apartheid Freedom Fighter Ronnie Kasrils
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We turn to South Africa, which today celebrates the 93rd birthday of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader, the former South African president. He’s expected to spend the day with family in his childhood village in the Eastern Cape. The country’s 12.4 million schoolchildren are planning to sing to him simultaneously this morning. President Barack Obama congratulated Mandela on the eve of his 93rd birthday. He called Mandela, quote, "a beacon for the global community and for all who work for democracy, justice and reconciliation."
We turn right now to another member of the ANC. I met up with him recently in London. His name is Ronnie Kasrils, leading anti-apartheid underground activist, was on the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress for 20 years, served as minister for intelligence in post-apartheid South Africa from 2004 to 2008. And I started by asking him about his wife, because he has just written a book about Eleanor, a Scottish South African anti-apartheid activist. Ronnie Kasrils’ book is called The Unlikely Secret Agent.
RONNIE KASRILS: She was a wonderful person. She did extraordinary things. She never sought the limelight. When people heard of the things that she had done, her exploits from 1960 after Sharpeville, when I first met her, right through her life, they would be very surprised. She was an elegant, very refined, modest person, and people just didn’t think that she could have done the very dangerous things during that apartheid time, those terrible times, when she was an underground agent for the movement, for the ANC, and also carried out spectacular operations with myself and others, sabotage operations. She was arrested. She was interrogated very brutally. And she managed to turn the tables on the security police by escaping from their clutches.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us exactly what happened. Tell us the time, where she was, what she was doing, and what happened to her.
RONNIE KASRILS: So, the book starts in 1963 in a bookstore in downtown Durban, and the security police come in. She tries to make a run for it, because she knows they’ve come to arrest her. And, of course, they manage to detain her. They take her off to an interrogation center.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s 1963. Mandela was captured then also.
RONNIE KASRILS: It’s the time, very tense time in South Africa. Mandela has been captured. He’s going on trial that year with other leaders, face possibly a death sentence. There had been sabotage actions under his command after the Sharpeville massacre, in which he had participated.
AMY GOODMAN: The Sharpeville massacre being...?
RONNIE KASRILS: Of 1960, 1960.
AMY GOODMAN: Remind people.
RONNIE KASRILS: When 69 unarmed Africans protesting against the past laws that they had to carry were shot down outside Johannesburg. The ANC was banned. People were imprisoned. And it was a very, very difficult and dangerous time in South Africa. So, they arrived to arrest her—
AMY GOODMAN: Eleanor was there?
RONNIE KASRILS: She was in South Africa at this period. And the story opens, in the book, with her being arrested in the bookstore, and that’s in 1963. A lot of what I’ve just said one sees in flashback, as she’s sitting through detention. After being very brutally interrogated day after day, she goes on a hunger strike. And she’s got tremendous amount of secrets that she’s got to keep under her chest, and she’s terrified that she might break and provide the information, which is what the Special Branch are looking for. They initially are wanting her to lead them to me and a wanted person. I’m on the run with others. So that’s the book. It deals with that particular period.
AMY GOODMAN: What were you doing at the time?
RONNIE KASRILS: Well, I was engaged in underground activities for the ANC with others. We had survived the arrests, and we were determined to carry on the struggle.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you get involved with the African National Congress?
RONNIE KASRILS: I got involved after the Sharpeville massacre as a young student, same time as Eleanor. And it was out of shock and revulsion for what had happened at Sharpeville and just the general revulsion against the apartheid system. I sought the ANC out. It was not that easy. They had been banned. But, of course, one had friends and contacts, and I got deeply involved very quickly.
AMY GOODMAN: You were white. You were Jewish.
RONNIE KASRILS: Yes. South African, and born and grew up in South Africa of Jewish background, but I would say a less Jew. I was much more South African in my identity. And in terms of coming to terms with being a white South African, it was about whether I would stand with the black oppressed, and in that sense be truly a South African.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you meet Eleanor?
RONNIE KASRILS: I came down to Durban, where she lived, and happened to stay with friends who were next door her. She had just broken up a marriage, separated from her husband. She was very young, and when I met her, she was a single parent. She had a little girl aged three, who features very strongly in the story, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: Was she active at the time?
RONNIE KASRILS: She was actually a person of conscience like me, but who was connected to Alan Paton’s Liberal Party. And I had joined the more militant, mass-based African National Congress and managed to convince her—it wasn’t difficult—that this was the place where we could really change things.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Eleanor was a member of the ANC, as well?
RONNIE KASRILS: Oh, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, go back to the bookstore.
RONNIE KASRILS: So, there she is, trying to keep up appearances in a bookstore, a bookstore which has become very central to the survival of a number of us who are in hiding. And it’s through her and that bookstore that we managed to communicate messages going through her. This is one of the aspects of her role at that particular time. They weren’t aware of that. They wanted to take her in, and they wanted to intimidate her into giving me away, because they knew that they would find me through her, if they could make her talk.
AMY GOODMAN: What prison was she in?
RONNIE KASRILS: Well, she was taken to an interrogation center outside Durban. And she was then kept in Durban’s central prison. They would take her for interrogations at night and day from that prison.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to her exactly?
RONNIE KASRILS: She went on hunger strike. And they were actually in a quandary, because they didn’t know how to handle a white woman who was defying them. They were rather petrified that she would die on their hands and subsequently brought a psychiatrist in to assist her. She began to feign a mental breakdown. And the psychiatrist happened to be quite a sympathetic human being, and he stressed to the security police that she would die if she wasn’t transferred to a hospital.
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.
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.
So, the next morning, Eleanor is waiting for the cell to be unlocked. The nurses do the rounds. The patients then go to the bathroom and go to breakfast. She used the lipstick, rouge on her cheeks. She was a very fair woman and very pale—I mean, to the hunger strike and incarceration. So she rosied her features up. She made the eyebrows very dark. And she had the dress on and had this scarf, managed to get down the passageway to this back door without being seen. And the nurse, the black nurse, had left a basket at that door for her, because all the staff, whether in uniform or in civilian dress, carried these baskets. Eleanor came down the passageway, and there was the basket. And she just hoped and felt the door must be open. And she opened it, and indeed it was.
And that’s how Eleanor Kasrils escaped. Ronnie Kasrils describing the escape of his late wife Eleanor from a mental institution in 1963. She, like Ronnie Kasrils, was a clandestine agent for the ANC, arrested by the secret police in the Durban bookstore where she worked, a year after Nelson Mandela was arrested. Soon after she escaped, she met up with her partner Ronnie Kasrils. They would marry. And for the next 30 years, they would organize inside and outside South Africa.
Ronnie Kasrils has just written a book about his late wife called The Unlikely Secret Agent. Before that, he wrote his own memoir called Armed and Dangerous, which was the sign that the apartheid police put up all over South Africa, looking for Ronnie. He served as chief of intelligence under Thabo Mbeki and deputy defense minister under Nelson Mandela. Yes, the Kasrils were allies of Nelson Mandela. Today has been declared International Mandela Day. It’s Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday.