There’s a famous quote that goes “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing”, and listening to Ronnie Kasrils talking about the path that led him to join the anti-apartheid struggle, this saying makes perfect sense. Speaking of the inspiration behind his recently published book, Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel, Kasrils talks about how people have always asked the question, “What would make a white boy from the suburbs leave behind a life of privilege to go on the run from his own government?”, and the simple answer is that he could no longer sit by idly and watch evil triumph.
While Catching Tadpoles looks at Kasrils’ youth, his political journey started a bit later, in his very early twenties in Durban. Following the events of Sharpeville in 1960, Kasrils went to Durban to visit his cousin, Jacqueline Arenstein, a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and defendant in the 1956 Treason Trial. He knew that the time had come for him to join the struggle, and wanted Jacqueline’s help. It was on this trip to Durban that Ronnie met Eleanor Logan, a friend of his cousin, and a member of the SACP. Eleanor Logan would go on to become Eleanor Kasrils when the couple married in 1964.
Ronnie and Eleanor made for a formidable team. The pair joined the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), when the organisation was first formed in 1961, and were involved in the first MK sabotage acts which took place in Durban on the 16th December 1961:
“It took 20 kilograms of Jack’s mixture”, recalls Ronnie, “to make four bombs…..We neatly wrapped each bomb in Christmas paper and delivered them to different combat units”
On the morning of the 16 December posters appeared in the streets of the city announcing the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe
The time comes in the life of any people when there remain two choices: to submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We will not submit but will fight back with all means at our disposal in defence of our rights, our people and our freedom.”
The time had come to take a stand, and Ronnie and Eleanor were prepared to do what it took. By 1963, Ronnie had become the Commander of the Natal Regional Command of MK, and had come to the attention of the Security Police, having received a five-year banning order in 1962.
In 1963, Eleanor became the second white woman to be detained under the General Law Amendment Act, commonly known as the 90 Day Act. She was held in solitary confinement at Durban Central Prison, where she was interrogated daily, but eventually managed to escape the clutches of the security police by feigning a mental breakdown. She was transferred to Fort Napier, a mental asylum, from which she subsequently escaped.
With Ronnie now in Johannesburg, flouting his banning order which had limited his movements to Durban, and Eleanor on the run from police, it was decided that the couple should carry on their work in exile, which they did for the next 27 years. No-one chooses to take up arms out of choice, or to leave their home country and everything and everyone they know behind, but a time comes when you have no choice but to act. As Kasrils quotes in his latest book, “You can have your foot stamped on 999 times without reacting, but the 1000th time can result in a deadly outburst”:
Catching Tadpoles, Chapter 22: Sharpeville
March 21st, 1960
While I was busy grappling with philosophical questions about the individual, 21 January 1960 witnessed a dramatic outburst of violence in the Durban township of Cato Manor. The police were on a campaign to destroy the home-made beer production of African women, which provided some income for them. In the course of a brutal raid angry women, and their menfolk in support, rose up and nine policemen were hacked to death. In the subsequent trial of those involved in the attack, the advocates for the defence stated that you can have your foot stamped on 999 times without reacting but the 1000th time can result in a deadly outburst.
Ronnie Kasrils will be in conversation with Yumus Carrim on the 26th November at the Msunduzi Municipal Library for the launch of Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel. To RSVP please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Mlungisi on 033 394 6830