The Unlikely Secret Agent

The Unlikely Secret Agent

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by Ronnie Kasrils
     
 

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Reading like a spy thriller, this biography tells the remarkable story of a young woman’s courage in apartheid-ridden South Africa. As the book opens, in 1963, South Africa is in crisis and the white state is under siege. On August 15, the dreaded security police swoop down on Griggs Bookstore—Durban’s finest literary haunt and a place where

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Overview

Reading like a spy thriller, this biography tells the remarkable story of a young woman’s courage in apartheid-ridden South Africa. As the book opens, in 1963, South Africa is in crisis and the white state is under siege. On August 15, the dreaded security police swoop down on Griggs Bookstore—Durban’s finest literary haunt and a place where African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party comrades frequented to receive or deliver messages and money to advance the cause of the struggle—to arrest Eleanor Kasrils, the manager’s daughter. The police threaten to "break her or hang her" if she does not lead them to her lover, Ronnie Kasrils, who is wanted on suspicion of sabotage for setting off explosions and toppling electricity poles. 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, utilizing the books as a means to deliver documents: "If the contact was delivering a document it was handed to her with a book for purchase. Similarly if she had a document that the courier was collecting, it would be hidden within the pages of a book already packaged and handed over as a purchase." Always, the transfer of secret documents could only take place once the recipient whispered a code: "Well, let me take both books." In order to protect her handlers and Ronnie at all costs, she astutely 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 and—pursued by the police—flees with Ronnie into exile.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
…Ronnie Kasrils…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.
—James McAuley
Publishers Weekly
In 1963, officers of the South African Security Branch arrested a white woman, Eleanor, from the bookstore where she worked for her father. Under the new Ninety-Day Detention Act, they could hold and question her, without attorney or trial, almost indefinitely. The officers only suspected the extent of Eleanor’s activities: a member of the African National Congress rebel movement, she had imported banned books, organized unions, stolen and placed explosives, and delivered secret messages. Winner of South Africa’s Alan Paton Award, this loving portrait written by Kasrils, Eleanor’s husband and later the country’s minister of intelligence services, tells the harrowing and exhilarating story of her arrest and escape. Eleanor’s strength and resolve enabled her to negotiate a transfer from prison to a mental institution, from which she broke out. With the help of the ANC underground, she and her soon-to-be-husband, Kasrils, left the country. Unfortunately, Kasrils avoids examining the ANC’s tactics in light of either historical movements or current geopolitical contexts, and resists analyzing the sacrifices Eleanor made for the cause—living in exile for most of her life and separated from her young daughter for 12 years. Rather, the book is an extended eulogy for an activist whose perseverance inspired the ANC movement. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
A husband tells the story of his wife's detention and their daring escape into exile from apartheid-era South Africa. On Aug. 19, 1963, police from South Africa's notorious Security Branch entered a bookstore in Durban and arrested Eleanor, the daughter of the owners. This book, which won the prestigious Alan Paton Award, tells the harrowing story of Eleanor's arrest, detainment and escape into exile. At the time Eleanor was dating Kasrils (Armed and Dangerous: My Undercover Struggle Against Apartheid, 1993), the book's author who was the Durban Security Police's target at the time of the raid on the bookstore. They hoped she'd give them precious information leading to the arrest of Kasrils and his colleagues. Little did they know that Eleanor had been quietly operating in a series of sabotage campaigns against the government. The book covers a brief period of time, reconstructing Eleanor's arrest, detainment in a Durban jail and the menacing questioning she endured, her placement in a mental institution after she engaged in a hunger strike and her subsequent escape and flight into exile to Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana) and then Tanzania. As readers will learn in the book's appendix--a touching memorial to Eleanor, who died of a stroke in November 2009--the couple soon moved on to London where they became prominent members of the African National Congress in exile. They returned to South Africa in 1990, and Kasrils served in a number of cabinet positions in post-apartheid governments. The book serves as something of a valentine to the author's beloved wife and a useful reminder of just how draconian the apartheid state and its security apparatus could be. A thriller-like look at one of the harshest periods in South African history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781770098909
Publisher:
Jacana Media
Publication date:
02/01/2011
Pages:
192
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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