Usually I tend to discount back-cover blurbs but concur with John le Carré on The Unlikely Secret Agent: “This is a wonderful book about a courageous and extraordinary woman who was highly principled, yet endowed by nature with all the clandestine skills. Her exploits recall the heroism of the great Special Operations Executive women agents of the Second World War, yet the values she fought for so intrepidly are still in the balance today.”
Her husband Ronnie Kasrils wrote the book on the occasion of her death from a stroke at the age of 72 in 2009. So overwhelmed was I by his literary skills and political insights that I could not resist reading Armed and Dangerous, his own memoir published in 1993. Much of the story about Eleanor’s escape from a South African mental hospital appears in his memoir but in a much briefer version. Suffice it to say that if you are part of the left these two books will be deeply rewarding. The story of young people resisting an evil system is compelling in its own right but Ronnie Kasrils’s ability to convey psychological and political complexities in riveting prose elevates the two books to the status of instant classics. While their story is focused on the experience of the South African Communist Party and its milieu, there is something universal about the transformation that led the two of them to risk their lives fighting oppression.
Eleanor Logan was born in Scotland but moved to South Africa with her mother as an infant, joined by her father a few years later. While not wealthy, they enjoyed a life of privilege. Eleanor was working at Griggs bookstore in Durban, a counterpart to forward-thinking institutions like the 8th Street bookstore in NY or City Lights in San Francisco in the early 60s. These were the sorts of places where you had to go to get a copy of something written by Che Guevara or Allen Ginsberg.
Ronnie Kasrils entered Eleanor’s life in 1960 shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre. For many people now in their late 60s to mid-70s, including me, the early 1960s were time of great ferment—both cultural and political. For Ronnie and Eleanor, the walls between Che Guevara and Allen Ginsberg were highly porous. The two met in early 1960, just after the Sharpeville Massacre. His description of one of their initial encounters sounds novelesque but is all the more compelling because it describes the complex interaction of the political and the personal between two real people:
She soon found him frequenting Griggs Bookshop but thought nothing unusual in this. He was clearly keen on purchasing good books. On one occasion, spotting him in the store, she told him that Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was available and he promptly bought a copy, which he later came in to discuss with her.
Yes, he argued, it exposed Stalin’s brutality as she had said when he purchased the copy, but why was the author being lauded in the West? Because he was a great writer, she responded. He conceded this but maintained it was largely because he undermined Soviet rule, which he defined as worker and peasant power, rather than the power of the capitalist class, which he referred to as the bourgeoisie. They agreed to continue the debate over coffee, and for a time she felt he was too earnest, too propagandistic for her liking. But nevertheless she could feel a tingling attraction building up inside her, uncertain whether it denoted a response to charm or challenge.
The slim, blonde and tough-minded young woman had a tingling effect on Ronnie as well. And just as importantly, she had access to writings that were as dangerous to the system as a well-placed bomb, including Che Guevara’s new book on guerrilla warfare. When Ronnie asked her to order 20 copies, her only response was to laugh and say, “You like to do things in a big way.”
Before long Eleanor agreed to allow Griggs to function as a drop box for top-secret ANC communications. Given her disgust with the white power structure, her willingness to risk arrest was both heroic and natural. This led her to take the next step in becoming Ronnie’s partner in urban guerrilla warfare. In one of the most visible counter-attacks against apartheid, the two went out and blew up a key pylon that caused a major blackout in Durban. Kasril describes their keen anticipation of the consequences:
They were back in the house with twenty minutes to spare. They sat in the small sitting room, starting a game of chess, anxiously counting down the time. Suddenly the cottage was plunged into darkness. ‘Christ, we’ve done it,’ he whispered triumphantly, embracing her. They rushed outside to assess the extent of the power failure. The entire street was in darkness, not a home or building in light. They walked, almost ran, up the hill to the park at the top of their road with its panoramic view of Durban. The darkness was dense and all-pervading. The busy city centre, normally bright with its lights glowing, was lost in the black void. They hugged each other and walked swiftly back to the cottage, knowing that before long the Special Branch would arrive to check if they were at home.
That evening Ronnie narrowly escaped arrest but Eleanor was not as lucky. On August 19, 1963 the cops came to Griggs and arrested her under the draconian detention laws intended to break the back of the ANC-led resistance. After taking Eleanor into captivity, Lieutenant Grobler, the leader of the raid, threatened to “break her or hang her” unless she revealed the location of Ronnie Kasrils and other leading ANC operatives.
In the two books, Lieutenant Grobler functions like Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables but because he is real, he is all the more horrifying and an apt symbol of a decaying system. When he is not beating or threatening Eleanor, he is grabbing her breasts. The interrogations are laced with anti-Semitic diatribes against Ronnie Kasrils:
Grobler had been silently following every word. ‘Look, missis, this is no trivial matter,’ he started. ‘Do you think it’s a coincidence that all these people belong to the Goldreich-Slovo clan? Virtually all their lawyers are Jews – Maisels, Chaskalson, Joel Joffe.’ He said something vulgar in Afrikaans to his colleagues, about ‘n Jood se piel, and they all laughed uproariously.
‘We want you to confirm whether he’s a Jew,’ Grobler demanded, thumping the desk. ‘Is he a Jew?
After her arrest, two thoughts began to consume Eleanor: How could she resist giving the cops the information they seek despite their threats and their beatings? How could she escape and rejoin the movement?
One part a natural reaction to their brutality and one part wile, she feigns a breakdown to get out of jail. Believing that a mental hospital would break a spirit that mental, physical and sexual abuse could not, her captors transfer Eleanor to Pietermaritzburg Mental Hospital, a gloomy warehouse for psychotics that is somewhere in between Bedlam and Bellevue. As bad as it was, the segregated facility was too good for the nation’s Blacks and coloreds.
Once arriving there, Eleanor shows a surprising ability to bind with the patients and to plot an escape. Ronnie Kasrils describes all of this in brisk and often darkly comical terms, especially a dance that the patients are allowed to have on special occasions.
It was good old-fashioned tickey-draai. The male extended his left arm rigidly up and to the side, while holding his partner’s right arm outwards. The woman’s arm would be vigorously pumped up and down as though it was a handle. At the same time the man’s other arm would be pressed into the crook of his partner’s lower back while she clutched his shoulder. In this stylised manner they would stride in stiff fashion swiftly across the floor, striving to keep time with the music. At times when the pace of the music increased in tempo they almost galloped around the hall. At last, when the music ended they broke apart without a word and retreated back to their chairs, waiting patiently for the next dance.
As is the case throughout “The Unlikely Secret Agent” and “Armed and Dangerous”, Kasrils’s prose has a cinematic quality. The chapters taking place in Pietermaritzburg could far surpass “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” given the right screenplay and director. Indeed, one would hope that the Kasrils story will eventually find its way to the Big Screen, if for no other reason than to compensate for some truly awful films about South Africa that amount to ANC hagiography, from “Invictus” to “In My Country”. These two films that depict the ANC in power make it easy to forget that the struggle for power often involved moral and political dilemmas that tested the mettle of even the best of humanity.
That is one of the chief merits of “Armed and Dangerous”. It depicts in unsparing details what it meant to be a leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, also called MK), the ANC’s armed wing. While the armed struggle was a key ingredient of the democratic revolution in South Africa, it was a constant challenge to keep it together against centripetal forces of the sort that Ronnie Kasrils describes with astonishing frankness.
Long before he was dodging SADF bullets, Ronnie Kasrils was like lots of young people around the world in the early 60s who had begun to experiment with marijuana and look to the beat generation for inspiration. What makes his story all the more compelling is that it takes place in South Africa, a country that for all its repression had begun to lose its grip on the young. The scene that Kasril describes in late 50s Cape Town will be familiar to anybody who was reading Jack Kerouac at the time, including me, but with all the attendant risks of living in a police state.
A friendship with an art student had drawn me into a bohemian circle based in the cafe society of Hillbrow, an upbeat cosmopolitan area. By day I had been a lawyer’s clerk, at night and on weekends I listened to heated arguments about art, poetry, literature and music, while swigging wine amid clouds of other people’s dagga(hemp) smoke.
I tried the weed but preferred to keep a clear head. I began writing poetry and prose and was soon meeting some of the creative people from the townships.
Black writers were making an impact through Drum magazine and a wealth of artistic talent was bursting onto the stage, notably through the musical King Kong. Those were the days of swinging multi-racial parties, called jolls, which made the city buzz. If the police raided the premises, all the blacks present grabbed soft drinks because it was illegal to serve them alcohol. There were liaisons across the colour line, which often ended with the unfortunate couples being arrested and charged under an Immorality Act forbidding sex between the races.
Just as the Vietnam War had the effect of transforming bohemians into Bolsheviks, so did the Sharpeville Massacre. Kasrils told his weed-smoking friends that they fiddled while Rome burned. When he poured out his anguish to a leftist acquaintance, he was asked if he knew anything about “the Movement”. His response was to ask what ballet had to do with the Sharpeville Massacre.
Eventually Ronnie was drawn into the underground movement through Rowley Arnstein, a Jewish CP’er and lawyer who he channeled into a safe house. Arnstein remembered Ronnie Kasrils as a young boy from a neighborhood in Durban that sounds a bit like Flatbush in Brooklyn around the same time. While Lieutenant Grobler was obviously a bigot, it was fairly clear that Jews played a significant role in the Communist movement just as was the case in the U.S.A. at the time. In my small town in upstate N.Y., all the “reds” were Jews, who while being nonobservant were certainly proud of their Jewish identity just like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg et al.
In 1963 Ronnie Kasrils went to Odessa in the USSR for military training. His account of the time spent there is far more interesting and far better written than the heavily hyped “Red Plenty” by Francis Spufford.
Although much of the housing was inadequate, we understood that this was a result of wartime destruction, and an ambitious construction programme was taking place before our eyes. Housing rent was less than five per cent of wages, and the cost of heat and electricity was barely one per cent. There were no beggars and few idlers on the streets, although there were plenty of hand-drawn cartoons and posters lampooning drunkenness. It was the older generation that looked as though it had experienced hardship, and there were many legless war veterans, propelling themselves about in antiquated wheelchairs. We saw alcoholism as a legacy of the war and the exceptionally low price of liquor. It was only later, when I became less naive about social problems in the Soviet Union, that I realised the extent to which boredom and frustration were contributory factors.
This single paragraph gave me more insights into the problems of the USSR than the entire 362 pages of “Red Plenty”.
While Kasrils makes no bones about his commitment to the South African Communist Party’s ideology, there is a constant engagement with the ideas of its opponents, including Pallo Jordan who is described as “a fiercely independent thinker” and who was also described by those “who could not match his intellect” as a “Trotskyist”. When he applied for membership in Mayibuye, a cultural group, some hard-liners opposed his admission because of his independence. Kasrils fought on his behalf whether or not “he accepted the Moscow line”. He recounts a “fierce row” one night with Jordan over George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, a book that Kasrils regarded as crude, anti-Communist propaganda. Frankly, if I had been there that night, I might have sided with Kasrils.
Some of the more psychologically and politically complex topics covered by Kasrils involve his relationship with impetuous and in one case mutinous MK enlistees. They chafe at the discipline of the training camp and the length of the training program that they see as an impediment to fighting the South African cops and army. As an official at the training camp in Angola, Kasrils is determined to maintain discipline even if it involves severe punishment—including the firing squad—of those who refuse to take orders. Those who have read Che Guevara’s memoirs will understand the need for discipline in such conditions.
‘Comrades,’ I began, drawing a line in the dust with my boot, ‘the difference between anarchy and order is as easy as crossing this line. You have to decide on which side of the line you want to be.’
I spoke about the need for discipline and order in the ANC and MK, which we had often discussed in class, pointing out that this was not like the orders from the racists, intended to keep people suppressed. I spoke about the fourteen sitting in the tent, defying orders because they wanted to go home to fight. I pointed out that they had no hope of surviving the journey without adequate prep-aration. It could be frustrating waiting to return home after training, but the leaders had made no secret of the prob-lems. We were not like the Zimbabweans, with a single border to cross from a friendly state. We were very far from home, and had to move secretly through several countries. I concluded by pointing out that if only some of us followed the rules we would have confusion.
‘With confusion and anarchy we will never succeed in our aims. No army or organisation can win unless there is discipline and order in its ranks.’
Back in the 60s most South African CP’ers thought that the war against apartheid would be over in 10 years at most, including Kasrils. Such heady optimism was not that different from that which most 1960s radicals felt around the same time. He of course would live to see victory after 30 years while those of us living in the belly of the beast have been pretty much on the defensive all this time.
Since the book ends in 1993, there was obviously no reason for the author to deal with the ANC’s current problems symbolized most of all by Jacob Zuma’s obvious flaws. His empty populist promises helped him to outmaneuver Thabo Mbeki but the lives of ordinary South Africans have not changed at all.
Zuma obviously meant something a lot different to Ronnie Kasrils than he did to the average citizen. He was a comrade in struggle who could be counted on for clear-headed and decisive action under fire. I was deeply surprised to see this aspect of Zuma’s personality revealed.
Kasrils describes Zuma as a young factory worker with no formal education when he joined the ANC in the early 60s. After being arrested in 1962, he spent 12 years on Robbens Island where he taught himself to read and write English and master politics.
One night in 1980 Zuma and Kasrils were climbing a fence that separated Swaziland from South Africa proper (Swaziland was basically an internal colony.) Burdened by a heavy bag of pistols and grenades for his comrades, Kasrils fell clumsily from the fence and tore a ligament in his ankle. Zuma stood by his comrade.
‘Should we continue or go back, umfowetu [brother]?’ Zuma asked anxiously. We were due to be picked up on the road only a few kilometres away from where we were crossing, and we had an important meeting to get to in Manzini with comrades from home.
I tried standing on my foot, thankful that the rain which was pelting down afforded good cover, and insisted that we continue. I hobbled along until we arrived at our rendezvous point. We were thoroughly soaked by the rain and sat shivering in a cold wind for over two hours. It was a wicked night and it became obvious that our lift was not coming. We waited another hour fend decided to return to Mozambique. By now my ankle had got much worse. I was in excruciating pain.
Zuma considered for a moment. ‘Just hold on to my arm, umfowetu, nobody’s out in this rain. We’ll take a chance and just walk through the village.’
In 1987 I visited ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia along with four other Tecnica members where we met with Thabo Mbeki and other leaders. I might have run into Ronnie Kasrils just by accident then in the same manner that I crossed paths with Oliver Tambo who was chatting in a relaxed fashion in the courtyard one morning when we were there. We had the opportunity on that trip to discuss politics with young ANC’ers and at least one SACP’er who held out great hope for the future. He and our delegation felt that an ANC government could help to galvanize the entire continent in a revolutionary direction.
The actual results have been a disappointment, even if the smashing of de jure discrimination is as important to South Africa as the end of Jim Crow was in the U.S.A.
My friend Patrick Bond, who is a long-time critic of the ANC based in South Africa, wrote an interesting piece on Ronnie Kasrils for Counterpunch back in March 2012. I was pleased to see that Patrick was as big a Kasrils fan as me:
Like most who meet Kasrils, it took me only four discussions to depart so charmed as to confess I will now blindly follow him on any madcap adventure – albeit one in September 1992, when he marched 80 000 protesters to the ‘Ciskei’ government’s doorstep, left dozens to return home in coffins, after pro-apartheid armed forces opened fire. But dangerous as he has been, armed or not, this is the kind of mensch who would have us cracking up on our way to the gallows, more gregarious and fun-loving than any lefty I’ve ever known.
As it turns out, Kasrils broke with Zuma politically despite the great trust he once put in him. It also would appear that he tired of the ANC’s performance just as had so many people in the grass-roots movements. Bond explains:
Kasrils was quite right to finally quit the Pretoria regime, as he witnessed extreme abuses of power within his beloved ANC, and on occasion was attacked – without merit, he insists – for allegedly being a guiding force in the network of Mbeki supporters trying to halt Zuma’s presidential push.
The worst of it, he recounts, was when in early 2006 the Young Communist League leadership accused him of setting up a ‘honey trap’ for Zuma, who was accused of rape a few weeks earlier by an openly HIV+ lesbian known as Khwezi. The future president was acquitted after a trial in which misogynist patriarchy by Zuma and his supporters was on blatant display.
Kasrils had known the 30 year-old victim for a quarter of a century (as had Zuma) because her parents provided a safehouse during anti-apartheid military missions deep in Durban’s townships. He was drawn in against his will in a peripheral way, making clear that Khwezi should sort out the charge with professional aid, not old family connections to the Minister of Intelligence. But that moment was when the break with Zuma became irreparable.
There’s a lot more in Patrick’s article that I recommend as must-reading in tandem with the wonderful books under review here. Some of it is quite unflattering, as you might expect from a long-time left critic of the ANC. In trying to put Kasrils into context, Patrick states that as Marx put it in Capital: ‘Individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of particular class-relations and interest.’
So for Patrick Ronnie Kasrils functions as a kind of symbol of South Africa’s new dominant political class with all its sordid ties to global capitalism. While I cannot take exception to the dossier he has assembled in his article, there is another dimension that he might have missed.
For me one of the more important dimensions of Ronnie Kasrils career was his ability to function in the mass movement. As a critic of sectarianism in the Trotskyist movement, I have often found great value in memoirs written by veterans of the Communist movement because they understood what it meant to have responsibility for the lives and future of millions of people. The role of the SACP in toppling de jure segregation in South Africa cannot be minimized even if economic apartheid remains a major challenge to all revolutionaries.
You can read many attacks on the ANC and the SACP in the left press but they fail to account for its enormous success. Studying the leadership examples of people like Joe Slovo, the Kasrils and Ruth Furst can help us in a way that the negative criticisms cannot.
Given the glaring contradiction between the mass suffering experienced by millions of the unemployed in the U.S.A. and Western Europe today, the development of both the ANC and the SACP into true vanguards cannot be discounted. I say this as someone who has written every bit as harshly of these groups as Patrick Bond.
Finally, the kind of left we need to build must be able to include the new Eleanor and Ronnie Kasrils that are emerging all across the planet as the contradictions of capitalism begin to produce the same kinds of political awakenings that the Sharpeville Massacre produced in 1960.
As chronicles of the struggle in South Africa, one of the greatest in 20th century history, these two books by Ronnie Kasrils deserve your attention both as personal drama and as political instruction. These literary treasures will enchant all readers, especially those who make this blog a regular guilty pleasure.