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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.

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.

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