Ronnie Kasrils writes lovingly about his wife of 45 years, Eleanor, who passed away in 2009 aged 73. And the picture that comes forth is that of a human being with no airs and graces but one who was comfortable in her own skin.
It is this truthfulness, this lack of pretence about a man telling the story of the life of his one true love that makes The Unlikely Secret Agent (published by Jacana) such a good book to spend time on the couch with. Its honesty struck such a chord that the book made the list of 44 books up for the prestigious 2011 Alan Paton Award run by Johannesburg’s Sunday Times.
The Kasrils memoir tells the story of how Eleanor Griggs used her mother’s central Durban bookshop to run clandestine ANC activities in the early 1960s. Busted, she refused to eat and was in such a bad shape emotionally that it was easy to pretend she had a screw loose in her head. For this she was removed from the hawk-eyed attention of the vile Security Branch – in particular, one Lieutenant Grobler – to Fort Napier, a mental asylum in Pietermaritzburg, about 85 km west of Durban.
It is at Fort Napier that the unassuming Eleanor struck a blow against the system – escaping from their clutches. She and Ronnie were left no choice but to skip the country, exiting through the then Bechuanaland until they reached their destination, the country now called Tanzania.
Just as she’d done back home, Eleanor continued with the underground activities for the banned ANC. She was particularly good at disguise – she and her husband left the country dressed as a Muslim couple. With a few deft touches to her looks, she could easily pass for a young man, something she did to good effect a few times.
She helped other comrades fleeing the vicious apartheid system to conceal their identity too.
In Dar es Salaam, where she married Ronnie in a simple ceremony in 1964, she worked very closely with OR Tambo, who she continued assisting even as the late ANC President returned to South Africa.
It is these “inconsequential” things that former President Thabo Mbeki writes about in the book. Eleanor, Mbeki writes, did ‘little’ things without which victory over the apartheid regime would have been impossible. For the 26 years she lived in exile in Britain, her life was dedicated to the ANC and her family, no doubt in that order.
One of the first women to be recruited into the armed wing of the liberation movement, Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), she was a useful and dedicated cadre. Having left her young daughter Brigid with her parents when she escaped from South Africa – they would only meet after 12 years – she raised her two other children with Ronnie, Christopher and Andrew, in the movement.
This is more than a love story of two hearts joined together by poetry, jazz and the quest for freedom. It is the story of a real person who did not need to shout to be heard. Given her manner and deportment, she was indeed an unlikely secret agent.
© makatilemedia 05/2011