Red Ronnie’s wife

2010-09-29 00:00

THIS is a brave book. Wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve opens one up to ridicule at the best of times. When the sleeve and heart belong to a prominent political figure it almost invites harsher criticism that might otherwise be the case. Think of the opprobrium that Tony Blair brought down on his head with his recently released autobiography.

Red Ronnie’s book about his wife Eleanor, the unlikely agent of the title, is that much more of a triumph because in the telling, he takes the risk of showing his own emotional vulnerability, something politicians generally shy away from.

The book deals with a brief period in South Africa’s history from August 1963 when the Security Branch arrested Eleanor at Griggs, the bookstore managed by her mother who later founded Logan’s bookshop. Detained under the 90-day Detention Act, she is questioned and beaten by policemen so revolting, so obscene in their conduct and opinions, that one would think them too caricatured were it not for the knowledge that apartheid’s goons were exactly like that. But what one tends to forget in the flush of democracy, is that for individuals to exercise their conscience was hazardous in the extreme. Kasrils muses that perhaps Eleanor was lucky, because the SB bullyboys were uncertain of how to handle a white woman and so did not treat her as savagely as any black activist would have been. Her great dread was not only what might be done to her, but that she would crack, as so many would over the years, and give up her friends and fellow activists. What the SB wanted in particular were more details about who had been involved in bombing the electricity pylons that had plunged Durban and other areas into darkness in a way that made the police look weak and stupid. She and Ronnie had been in the thick of the bombings, of course, and there wasn’t much the police did not know because a fellow bomber had cracked under interrogation, or may have been a sell-out from the start. She manages to keep her role as lock-picker supreme, explosives thief and getaway driver secret.

She goes on a hunger strike and feigns a psychological collapse, doing it so convincingly that she is sent to Town Hill for psychiatric observation. There, among alcoholics, depressives and lunatics, she plots her escape, eventually walking past the security guards to central Pietermaritzburg, and linking up later with Ronnie. They escape to Botswana disguised as a Muslim couple, and then on to join up with the ANC in Dar es Salaam.

As much as this is an account of uncommon heroism, it is a love story, covering as it does the very early days of Eleanor and Ronnie’s relationship. But it is also a tribute to a comrade in arms. Kasrils doesn’t gush, and never tilts towards sentimentalism. But this brief snapshot taken by a husband of his wife is moving beyond its ambition.

It may be unintentional, but Kasrils captures a period in which political activism was imbued not only with conviction, but an almost naïve sense of good and hope. Perhaps it’s Kasrils’ own boyish optimism that informs this mood. Perhaps it’s an implicit criticism of what would come. But as a portrait of a woman caught in the vice of history and doing the honourable thing in spite of the danger, The Unlikely Secret Agent is an inspiration.

• On October 5, at 5.30 pm for 6 pm, there will be a launch of Ronnie Kasrils’ The Unlikely Secret Agent, hosted by Jacana Media, Adams Booksellers and Bookworld Cascades in the first-floor auditorium of the Bessie Head Library in Church Street. The author will be in conversation with Professor Omar Latiff, a former mayor of Pietermaritzburg. Those wishing to attend should RSVP to or phone 033 347 1901. Safe parking will be available behind the library.

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