Book Review – By Eric Singh, ANA Senior Editor

The Unlikely Secret Agent – By Ronnie Kasrils
In the Dark with my Dress on Fire – By Blanche La Guma/Martin Klammer

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Both books published by Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd – South Africa

These recent works concern the role of two women in the liberation struggle in South Africa – the unsung heroines of the fight against racism and injustice. They are just two of thousands of women who carried the struggle on their shoulders in various ways.

I am thinking here of the women left behind with children, when their husbands, sons, daughters were imprisoned, forced into exile, or as in the case of Vuyisile Mini, who together with two others, was hanged in 1964. Mini had a number of children. Many years later, in December 1986, one of those children, Nonkosi (MK name Mary) was gunned down by apartheid forces in Maseru/Lesotho.

In response to my question during an interview I did with Mary at the ANC Mission in Berlin, as to why she joined MK, the reply was swift and unambiguous – “I came to pick up the spear that my father dropped”. What do we know about Mini’s wife? How did she raise her children? What help did she receive? There are questions galore that need answers. That sister has left this earth and we are poorer for the fact that she took everything with her. Her experience would most certainly have enriched our history. Such cases can be multiplied in thousands. It is my sincere hope that our historians and researchers get into action – NOW.

This is precisely my beef and that is why it is so important that we jot down our experiences which Nelson Mandela suggested in his introduction to “Shades of Difference – Mac Maharaj and The Struggle for South Africa”. (Viking 2007) He wrote in the foreword: “There is a need for foot soldiers to tell their stories too….There is pressing need for the people who played a role in the struggle to have their stories told in their own voices. New nations in particular must have a memory bank in order to establish a strong sense of collective identity . We deposit our stories into the memory bank and draw on our collective account in moments of uncertainty or crisis, or to remember who we are and how we got to where we are”.

These two books are a valuable contribution to Madiba’s appeal. The Unlikely Secret Agent is written by Ronnie Kasrils* in a dedication to his wife Eleanor (9 March 1936 – 8 November 2009). It’s a pity that she did not write the book herself but I have no doubt that Ronnie has reproduced almost verbatim what Eleanor would have told us about her life in the struggle. One would never have believed that this frail, gentle and for ever smiling woman played such a vital role in the underground apparatus as a go-between the leadership in Johannesburg and the area command in Durban.

Eleanor Anderson, a saleswoman in a big bookshop in Durban, was arrested on 19 August 1963 by the South African Security Police (SB). This was indeed a big blow. She carried a very heavy weight. Eleanor was “highly pregnant “ with information concerning the underground which would have been explosive in the hands of the enemy.

Apart from being the courier, she was an active member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), military wing of the African National Congress (ANC) and involved in acts of sabotage against regime installations. The enemy knew that and wanted all of it. She was betrayed by a fellow saboteur who began singing like a nightingale from the moment he was arrested. Alternatively he was planted by the SB.

The SB lost no time in being nice. They went on the attack and the person set upon her was a guy called Lieutenant Groblar. This was a brutal man. The treatment meted out to her is well described in the book especially the role of the ‘nice’ guys Lieutenant Wessels (the gentleman) and the Chief of the SB Major Frans Steenkamp (the aristocrat who was said to a golfing partner of the Prime Minister).

Groblar was responsible for the torture and sentencing to long terms of imprisonments of many freedom fighters. I have no doubt that many of these comrades, given the chance with only one target, would have had Groblar in their sights.

I understand what Eleanor went through. I had to go through the same guys when I was arrested a year later and the SB was forcing me to be a witness for the state which I refused. That’s when I saw Steenkamp’s proper face. That bastard would have gladly murdered me for defying his wishes. In my case it was Groblar who was the ‘nice’ guy.

Comrades could not understand this. Nor do I.. Maybe it had to do with my detention a year earlier (was released the next morning). I was very ill. Sinus was killing me. No sooner he saw me, Groblar personally took me to the doctor. Only later did I discover that the guy also had terrible bouts of sinus. Could there be a connection? I don’t know.

Ronnie Kasrils previous book “Armed & Dangerous” (Heinemann 1993) mentions how Eleanor managed to hoodwink the brutes but without details. The problem was, how long could she hold out. Eleanor feigned a mental breakdown and landed in a psychiatric institute near the provincial capital Pietermaritzburg,
about 40kms from Durban. It was a desperate move but this was the only chance she had to escape and not betray the valuable information to the SB. From the moment she landed there, Eleanor began to plan escape and we are given details of how she went about it. She would have made a fantastic actress after reading her exploits.

The plan worked. The underground machinery went into action and Eleanor simply walked out of the institution, and within two months after her arrest, she and Ronnie (who was hiding out in Johannesburg) landed in Tanzania. They married in Dar es Salaam before moving over to London a few years later. Eleanor became very active in ANC and Anti-Apartheid-Movement affairs until they returned to South Africa when the apartheid wall finally fell.

In the Dark With My Dress on Fire is the story of Blanche La Guma (30 November 1927-) a mid-wife and a revolutionary. With the help of Martin Klammer, Professor in the Africana Studies Department, Luther College, Iowa she has given her own account of life in the struggle against the obnoxious apartheid regime. She avidly describes the poverty of the Cape in which she grew up which at the same time helped to raise her political awareness of the harsh racist system. As a member of the Coloured Section ** of the South African community she suffered one discrimination after another simply because her skin had the “wrong” colour. In South Africa, it was a ‘crime’ not to have a white skin.

Blanche’s “fate” was sealed when she married Alex La Guma. Alex became an internationally known author and winner of various literary prizes. These include the Lotus Prize of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association which he received in New Delhi in 1970 from the hands of the Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

Alex was a member of a very pronounced political family. His father Jimmy La Guma (1894-1961) was already very active in the trade unions in his early teens. Jimmy La Guma was very involved in the political struggle right up to the time of his death. Alex followed in his footstep ably supported by his wife Blanche.

Here Blanche describes the various aspects of the political struggle which saw Alex being arrested in 1956 and charged with 155 other political leaders and functionaries, which included such high profile names like Nelson Mandela, Chief Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, with High Treason. They were finally discharged in 1961.

Alex’ arrest during the State of Emergency following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 was also quite a challenge. The authorities deliberately shifted the detainees to prisons very far away from Cape Town. Some many 100s of miles removed from the city. Such moves placed a financial and moral strain on the families outside. They were allowed a visit once a week lasting 30 minutes. You dare not be a minute late. Then the trip was in vain.

The La Gumas’ were constantly harassed by the SB. Arrests and detentions were no strangers to them. Even when Alex was placed under 24-hours a day, they did not stop their political activities. Blanche managed to eke out a living and by this time there were two extra mouths to feed – their sons Eugene (1956) and Barto (1959) entered the picture. Since Alex was not allowed to leave the house, more and more political responsibilities fell on Blanche.

Towards the 1960s, the Movement realised that its programme of action of facing the enemy with peaceful means was misused by the enemy. Examples were the show of force by the apartheid regime in 1958 when the ANC called for a national 3-day strike to challenge the all-white elections in April that year.

This was followed by the wanton killing of unarmed people at Sharpeville in 1960 and the declaration of a State of Emergency thereafter when 1000s of us were arrested and some spent the whole five months in detention.

The biggest display of state armed power came in April 1961 when the 3-day strike called by the ANC in protest against the declaration of a South African Republic by the regime. Armed forces were let loose in townships of every major city in South Africa and formed to go to work at the point of a barrel.

With the struggle in Algeria as a model, our own people became restless. The leadership was divided on this score. Some in favour and others against including Chief Albert Luthuli, President of the ANC. The only way was to resolve this was to get together. That was easier said than done. Most of the leaders and functionaries were banned and restricted to particular areas and the others were watched very closely.

Nevertheless, a clandestine meeting was held in Stanger (now KwaDukuza).This is a small town north of Durban surrounded by sugar plantations . It was chosen so as to enable Chief Luthuli to attend. The Chief was banned and restricted to the Stanger area. It was attended by representatives from all corners of South Africa many of whom were not supposed to be there. This is where the final decision was taken to change tactics but outside the orbit of the ANC.

It can safely be said that this gathering was the mid-wife of the birth of Umkhonto We Sizwe. I heard a lot about this meeting from comrades who were there many years later in exile. What I did not know is that Blanche La Guma was one of those who represented the Cape Region. What a fantastic woman!

The period in exile was also not a bed of roses. London and Havana were a challenge that had to be met and the death of Alex in 1985 was one hell of a loss.

It is impossible for me to go into details of these two books and that is why I will recommend they be read. They are very informative. Especially for scholars and historians.

But I will be failing both these two great revolutionaries if I don’t quote from Blanche and her disappointment, a sentiment shared by thousands of comrades who were involved in the struggle to liberate our country – South Africa..

Blanche emphasizes the importance of the periods 1950/60 which really laid the foundation for the final nail in the coffin of the regime. She also talks of the solidarity that was the norm of the day. We did not work for any benefits. Our reward was persecution and hardship. We stood by each other. Many a night your scribe walked home between 6-7 miles for the simple reason he had no bus fare after a hard day’s work.

Speaking about her encounter with the ANC after returning from exile, Blanche writes: “I realised then that the first phase was over: we had won the battle against apartheid. The next generation must take over the work. Times had changed, and methods of operating had altered. It was difficult for me to fit in with this new lot. I still came with my old hardliner attitude. I saw people too lax, with the sort of easy-going nonchalance”. (P 209)

My interpretation of this (is) that the ANC of today is not that which we know from our young days, for which thousands sacrificed and even gave up their lives. There is too much greed and arrogance. Corruption is written in huge bold letters. And yet, the majority of our people are living in dire poverty. It is not seldom one hears that it was better under the apartheid regime. This is a very serious indictment.

As a diehard veteran of the Movement I can say that we are deeply rooted within the masses. The ANC can take the support of the people for granted. But for how long? We are falling terribly short in our delivery to the people who need us most. It is very painful to be reading almost every day that the dirtiest three-letter word in South Africa is A N C.

Let us be aware that here will come a time when the people will make their presence felt. When that happens it will be most unpleasant. Konrad Adenauer thought his CDU in West Germany is invincible as did his fellow party colleague Helmut Kohl. Erich Honecker and his SED (Socialist Unity Party) in East Germany also did not heed the rumblings of the people.

What is happening in the northern part of our African continent at the moment is food for thought. It is not too late for our movement to act decisively. Let the examples of Eleanor and Blanche be our guiding light. We would like to be proud of our ANC like we did in yesteryears.

*Ronnie underwent military training in various countries and became a senior officer of MK. He occupied several posts in the Mandela/Mbeki cabinets. His last posting was Minister of Intelligence Services.

** Generally referred to the mixed race people of the Cape. Today we are South Africans irrespective of pigmentation. Good so.