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A Wife Remembered in The Unlikely Secret Agent by Ronnie Kasrils

The Unlikely Secret AgentIt is 1963. South Africa is in crisis and the white state is under siege. On 19 August the dreaded Security Police swoop on Griggs bookstore in downtown Durban and arrest Eleanor, the daughter of the manageress. They threaten to “break her or hang her” if she does not lead them to her lover, “Red” Ronnie Kasrils, who is wanted on suspicion of involvement in recent acts of sabotage, including the toppling of electricity pylons and explosions at a Security Police office in Durban.

Though she comes under intense pressure during interrogation, Eleanor has her own secret to conceal. She has been acting as a clandestine agent for the underground ANC and must protect her handlers and Ronnie at all costs. Astutely, she convinces the police that she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and, still a prisoner, is sent off to a mental hospital in Pietermaritzburg for assessment. It is here that she plots her escape …

The Unlikely Secret Agent is the remarkable story of a young woman’s courage and daring at a time of increasing repression in apartheid South Africa is told here for the first time with great verve and élan by Eleanor’s husband, Ronnie Kasrils, who eventually became South Africa’s Minister of Intelligence Services in 2004. He is the author of a bestselling autobiography, Armed and Dangerous.

“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 SOE women agents of the Second World War, yet the values she fought for so intrepidly are still in the balance today. Ronnie Kasrils tells her story with humility and a pride that the reader only share.”
– John le Carré

‘This “little” book about an “ordinary” woman with the heart of a lioness confirms the truth that our freedom was not free. From its pages rings out another truth that among the outstanding heroines and heroes of the South African struggle were those who did not set out to perform heroic deeds. These are the heroic combatants for freedom like the Unlikely Secret Agent, Eleanor Kasrils, the subject of this engrossing “little book”, who did the equally “little” things without which victory over the apartheid regime would have been impossible … Eleanor’s story also poses a question about the future – what are the “little things” each one of us should do to win the new struggle for the further entrenchment of democracy and the defeat of poverty and underdevelopment, acting as our own liberators.’

– Thabo Mbeki

About the author

Ronnie Kasrils started off as a script writer for a Johannesburg film studio and then for Lever Brothers, as Television and Film Director for their advertising division in Durban, until 1962. In 1960 he was prompted by the Sharpville Massacre to join the ANC, where he served as the secretary of the ANC-aligned Congress of Democrats in Natal until it was banned in 1962. In 1963, Kasrils became Commander of the Natal Regional Command of MK. Exiled for 27 years; he was based in London, Luanda, Maputo, Swaziland, Botswana and Lusaka.

He worked underground for the ANC in South Africa during Operation Vula. After the first democratic elections in South Africa, Kasrils was appointed Deputy Minister of Defence from 1994-1999. He then became Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry from 1999-2004 and was appointed Minister of Intelligence Services until he submitted his resignation on 23 September 2008 following former President Thabo Mbeki’s resignation in the same month.

Ronnie Kasril’s extraordinary wife, Eleanor died last year at the age of 73.

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