THE UNLIKELY SECRET AGENT
By Ronnie Kasrils Monthly Review. 183 pp. Paperback, $14.95
On Aug. 19, 1963, in the midst of apartheid South Africa, a squadron of the government’s reviled Security Branch burst into a Durban bookstore to arrest the owner’s daughter, a seemingly meek, 27-year-old white woman from Scotland. Her name was Eleanor Kasrils, and, in true John le Carre style, she became one of South Africa’s most famous clandestine anti-apartheid activists.
Before her arrest, in the three years that had passed since the Sharpeville Massacre on March 21, 1960 — when South African police opened fire on a crowd of black demonstrators, killing 69 — Eleanor, along with her future husband, Ronnie Kasrils, had been working on behalf of the African National Congress against the government and its brutal oppression of blacks, orchestrating operations of guerrilla civil disobedience. Ultimately imprisoned by the Security Branch, Eleanor feigned a mental disorder and managed to escape, living in exile until the end of apartheid, working tirelessly against the injustices of her adopted country from afar. When she died in 2009, she had become nothing short of a cult figure, an avatar of freedom who never sacrificed her elegance and her poise even in the face of the darkest institutional evils.
In “The Unlikely Secret Agent,” Ronnie Kasrils, who served as South Africa’s minister for intelligence services, remembers his late wife and the remarkable life she lived. He paints his portrait with the honesty of a good biographer but always with the bittersweet memory of a great love lost. “It is a huge testament to her inner strength and will,” he writes, “that she remained staunch and true to her principles and commitment through the decades.” And it’s a testament to his that he was able to sculpt his recollections into such a poignant and beautiful book.