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Jacana

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A “Dynamite” Launch for Ronnie Kasrils’ An Unlikely Secret Agent

Ronnie Kasrils & Brigid Strachan

At the launch of The Unlikely Secret Agent by Ronnie Kasrils The Book Lounge was, once again, filled to capacity. Proprietor of the store, Mervyn Sloman, said that the fabulous turnout was a testimony to the deep regard so many people held for Kasrils and his late wife, and the deep affection the couple inspired. He also noted that the subject of the book, Kasrils’ late wife Eleanor, was working in a bookshop as the story opens. “Naturally, those of us working here, all fell in love with her immediately.”

Pallo Jordan paid tribute to the contribution that Eleanor Kasrils had made in the struggle for liberation during her life time. He said the book shone a light on her “practical-mindedness”. She was somebody who could have chosen a life of relative comfort, though coming from a working class background, her parents had made a success of things. She saw fit, however, to take up the cudgels and do something about the state of the country. She took a decision and never turned back.

He welcomed this latest biography as one of a string of recent publications that filled in the gaps of our recent history. “Up to now we’ve seen a number of biographies about the prominent personalities and high-profile leaders. Increasingly we’re seeing biographies produced by the foot soldiers of the revolution, which offer a very different dimension of what it was like to be actively involved.”

He said that in recent years too many tomes had cast doubt on the struggle for freedom, calling into question the motives of those involved, accounts which were suffused with a misunderstanding of the ethos, morality, camaraderie and fellowship that evolved in the course of the struggle. “Ronnie brings these elements out very well in relation to himself, his late life partner, and the other comrades and workforce,” said Jordan.

Pallo Jordan & Ronnie Kasrils Ronnie Kasrils Pallo Jordan

Kasrils said that the writing process had been therapeutic. “I worked like a man possessed,” he said, “like a demented composer.” Reflecting on Eleanor’s childhood, he said, “She was born in Scotland, and came from an interesting ancestry of Scots who came up the hard way, working class people who through education strove for higher levels. There was a love of books and Robbie Burns, and the aesthetics of life that also clearly moulded her. On fishing trips as a 10-year-old she learned from her father how to bait hooks.”

When the theft of dynamite was being planned, it was her savvy and practical approach that superseded the men’s macho idea of breaking in with crowbars. She got a glimpse of the padlock, noting the make and the number. She simply went off to a hardware shop and bought the right padlock and key.

Terry Bell, Ronnie Kasrils & Barbara Bell Alec Irwin, James Ngculu & Ben Turok

In a similar vein, it was Eleanor’s level-headed pragmatism that ensured that the transportation and storage of half a tonne of stolen dynamite did not end in catastrophe. “In Durban, you sweat,” said Kasrils. “Eleanor suggested we go to Durban Central Library and look under ‘mining’ or ‘engineering’. One book advised, ‘When you move dynamite, you mustn’t travel at more than 15 mph. Store it in a cool area with proper ventilation. Use a fan for cooling to prevent combustion.’

“Soon after that we started stashing it in deep depots around the Durban area, digging deep down putting it in proper containers. Then Joe Modise arrived from Joburg and wanted half. Immediately, we had to dig it all up again. He was the commander and we handed it over to him. Next thing there was horse-trading of detonators for dynamite sticks which meant that home-made explosives were a thing of the past and seriously dynamite attacks of railways and pylons began. Ben Turok, one of the first MK people who was captured, had been making chemical bombs prior to this.”

Kasrils recalled the time while he was the Minister of Intelligence, liaising with various intelligence “spooks” in the UK. He was offered the opportunity to meet with John le CarrĂ©, who had exposed all sorts of “skullduggery” in the MI6. Eleanor was thrilled to meet him. Kasrils welcomed the great author’s support and encouragement – in the end, le CarrĂ© blurbed his book. Kasrils also paid tribute to his editor, Russell Martin, who had gently encouraged him to “trust the reader”.

The evening concluded with a lively exchange of questions from the audience.

The Unlikely Secret Agent

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