Review of: The Unlikely Secret Agent

It’s a cliché that people don’t know how strong they are until they’re in a bind, but it’s also true, and Ronnie Kasrils’ loving tribute to his deceased wife, white anti-apartheid freedom fighter Eleanor Kasrils [1936-2009], proves the point.

Eleanor was the daughter of liberal Scots who immigrated to South Africa shortly after her birth. They reared her to love books and intellectual banter but were not themselves activists.

This was not enough for Eleanor and as she came of age she sought to become a participant in political life. After meeting Ronnie Kasrils—he was a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe [Spear of the Nation, or MK], the military wing of the African National Congress—she became increasingly involved. As one of the few female members of MK, she eventually became a courier for the ANC and took part in several dramatic acts of sabotage.The Unlikely Secret Agent opens with her 1963 arrest.

The account is riveting. In it, readers meet Lieutenant Grobler of the hated Security Branch [SB] and several other law enforcers including one who is described as “a burly policeman with a Hitler mustache.” Grobler was particularly nasty and grilled Eleanor repeatedly about Ronnie during her incarceration. “We want you to confirm whether he’s a Jew,” Grobler demanded. “Is he a Jew? … Tell me, missus, is your man circumcised? Where is Kasrils? Where is the Jewboy?… Who did you see in Johannesburg when you traveled there? Who were the Jews there?” Anti-communism meets anti-Semitism in this horrifying chronicle of the SB’s abusive tactics.

Eleanor, of course, refused to talk, and ultimately went on hunger strike. After six days without food, her health became compromised and she was transferred to a psychiatric hospital at Fort Napier. There she befriended both staff and patients and quickly ingratiated herself by offering to teach art classes to the highest functioning women. Her eventual escape is the stuff of spy novels—amazing in its audacity, simplicity and sheer chutzpah.

That the plan worked—she basically walked out of the hospital in plain sight, replacing her hospital gown with street clothes provided by a Black ANC supporter who worked on her ward-—is thrilling. So is her life after breaking free, a life that took her first to Zambia and subsequently to Tanzania and England where she worked for the cause. She and Ronnie married in 1964 and had two sons before moving back to South Africa post- apartheid. In 1994 Ronnie became a government minister—in the departments of defense, water affairs and forestry, and finally intelligence. And Eleanor? “She was an outstanding representative of South Africa on ministerial visits abroad or when needing to entertain important guests at home,” Ronnie writes.

It seems like a shocking step back for a woman who had once been so vigorous and brave. Sadly, Eleanor died of a stroke at the age of 73 and her truths about life, marriage, motherhood and revolution died with her.

Still, The Unlikely Secret Agent is an engaging biography, one that situates heroism in social and political context. Eleanor Kasrils lived in a time and place of stark choices—you were either a supporter of racial equality or you supported apartheid. Her earliest actions defied expectations and went against the grain of white female propriety. Likewise, her fire and vigor—and her seemingly natural ability to engage in successful clandestine activities—are awe-inspiring.

The book leaves open the question of what commitment to social justice means and implies that it is something each reader must determine for him or herself. For Eleanor Kasrils, it meant armed struggle and her memorial lauded her as a brilliant strategist and warm, caring human being. Bill Anderson, another member of the ANC underground, paid tribute to Eleanor’s handling of reconnaissance missions, calling her “an indispensable part of the skeleton on which the political body flourished.” Humble and humane, she did what she thought was necessary to create the world she wanted to live in.

Ronnie Kasrils has written a portrait of a woman who took risks but wasn’t reckless, a woman who was driven but not impulsive. It’s a powerful example.

Eleanor Kasrils, presente!