Jeanette Eleanor Kasrils

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Biographical information

Photograph of Eleanor and Ronnie on a recent visit to 1485 Radio Today Studios in the Rose Garden (circa 2008)

Synopsis:

ANC, Congress of Democrats, SACP and Umkhonto we Sizwe member, geologist

First name: 
Jeanette Eleanor
Last name: 
Kasrils
Date of birth: 
09-March-1936
Location of birth: 
Scotland
Date of death: 
08-November-2009
Location of death: 
Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

Eleanor Kasrils was born in Scotland in 1936.  She came to Durban as an infant. In March 1960, Ronnie Kasrils, later, her husband, visited Durban, to visit his relative Jacqueline Arenstein, a member of the Communist Party of South Africa, when he first met Eleanor. 

Eleanor joined the underground SACP in the late 1950s. She was among the first women to join the ranks of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the ANC's armed wing in 1960. She was part of a Natal MK network that included the late Billy Nair and Eleanor's future husband, Ronnie Kasrils. She joined the Congress of Democrats in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre.

In 1961, Eleanor was working in a bookstore in Durban when Ronnie got her to help him distribute ANC pamphlets in Durban against the Nationalist Government’s declaration of South Africa as a republic.

By 1961, Eleanor as part of the MK team comprising Ronnie Kasrils, Billy Nair, Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim et al assisted in identifying sites in Durban where dynamite was being stored. She secured a key which Ronnie was able to use to get into a storage facility at a local quarry to steal dynamite. Eleanor drove the getaway car, after Ronnie and his unit had attached the dynamite explosives, in the first MK sabotage acts in Durban in December 1961.

Together with Phyllis Naidoo, Theo Kloppenberg and others Eleanor was involved in assisting banished persons in Natal.

When Rowley Arenstein, a Communist Party member, received a dusk-to-dawn house arrest order, Eleanor, Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim and Barry Higgs (amongst others) staged a solidarity demonstration outside his house.  They were arrested and fined for causing a public disturbance.

Once, in 1963, when Ronnie was under house arrest, the Security Police went to their house at 2 a.m. in the morning.   Eleanor helped Ronnie escape through a trapdoor, under their bed, into the floor of their bedroom. 

Eleanor was instrumental in setting up an underground base for Ronnie and other MK cadres in Kloof when they were forced to go underground.  The late MP Naicker sent Eleanor to Johannesburg to obtain funds for Ronnie’s group. In Johannesburg, Eleanor reported to Bram Fischer, the Communist Party leader.

The unit then moved to another safe house in Kloof.  Eleanor, on her way back from Johannesburg, again on another errand for Ronnie’s unit, learnt of the arrest of Bruno Mtolo, a member of the unit.  She then drove the unit to Pietermaritzburg to another safe location.  By now, Eleanor was the unit’s only link with the outside world. 

Her comrades in Durban thought she was at risk and wanted to send her out of the country.  In the wake of the Rivonia arrests, Bram Fischer, asked her to consider remaining in Durban where she could play a role in the reconstruction of the underground movement.  Eleanor agreed to this request.

The Communist Party then ordered Ronnie to move to Johannesburg.  In 1963, Eleanor was detained under the 90 Day Act, the second White woman to be detained under the Act.   She was held in solitary confinement at Durban Central Prison and interrogated daily.  She eventually managed to escape from the Security Police by getting herself admitted to Fort Napier, a mental asylum, she feigned a mental breakdown.  From there she smuggled out a letter to Ronnie warning him that Bruno Mtolo had broken under interrogation.  Later Bruno would be used by the Security Police as an expert witness in political trials.

Eleanor planned and executed her escape from Fort Napier and the police.  The police set up roadblocks around Pietermaritzburg in the wake of her escape but she was not recaptured.  She made her way back to Johannesburg disguised as a boy where she reunited with Ronnie.  

Eleanor and Ronnie escaped into Bechuanaland (now Botswana).  Babla Saloojee, later murdered by the Security Police in Johannesburg, drove them to the border.  Eleanor was disguised in a traditional Muslim outfit and Ronnie as an Indian businessman. In October 1963, with Julius First, who was brought to the border by Molvi Cachalia, the trio made their way safely across the border.  They were granted political asylum in Bechuanaland.

They later departed for Tanzania in a six-seater aircraft. Their first stop was at Kasane, on the banks of the Zambezi River.  They were forced to spend the night in the police cells as the District Commissioner ‘could not guarantee their safety’.  They eventually arrived in Dar es Salaam where Eleanor and Ronnie worked in the ANC office.

At the end of 1964, Eleanor and Ronnie married in Tanzania.  In June 1965, suffering from repeated malaria attacks she was sent to England for treatment.  She was also expecting a child. In August, the ANC leadership sent Ronnie to join Eleanor in London.  Their son Andrew was born soon after his arrival.  Then on 25 April 1974, after almost 11 years of separation Eleanor was reunited with her daughter from her first marriage, Brigid. Eleanor’s parents had taken care of Brigid when Eleanor was forced into exile.

In 1978 Ronnie left for the MK camp in Angola.   In 1979, The International Year of the Child (IYC), Dulcie September was elected as chairperson of the IYC Committee of the ANC Women’s Section in London, Eleanor was among other members who served on the Committee.  This Committee researched and compiled a booklet to inform the international community of the plight of children under apartheid.  The booklet was published on 16 June, in commemoration of Soweto Day.

By the end of 1989, Eleanor was living in London with the children while Ronnie had been working for the ANC from its Lusaka headquarters. She was active in Operation Vula, and was particularly involved in preparing disguises for comrades about to be deployed into the underground.

Eleanor also worked for the late ANC President Oliver Tambo from 1990 until his death in 1993 when she returned to South Africa.

In November 1992 press reports claimed that she had been the link between the ANC and the Irish Republican Army. These allegations had been previously made against her in the British House of Commons by Andrew Hunter, a Conservative Party Member of Parliament.

The allegations made in a court of law in South Africa referred to statements made during inquest proceedings into the death of the late Bheki Mlangeni, claiming Eleanor had been a link between the ANC and the IRA.  She was prevented from instituting proceedings to protect her reputation as the statements were privileged. Eleanor had reason to believe that the allegations were made in documents emanating from the South African Defence Force that had been leaked to newspapers. She then instructed her attorneys to investigate and if necessary commence defamation proceedings against the persons responsible for those documents.  Eleanor said that the allegation that she was a link between the ANC and the IRA was false and defamatory. 

In the first democratic elections in South Africa, Eleanor, Ronnie and their son, Andrew, cast their votes in Duduza, east of Johannesburg. 

In May 2001, the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town granted Eleanor and Ronnie Kasrils amnesty for: the destruction of electric pylons near Pinetown with David Ndawonde; damage to property; bombing of the Central Post Office in Durban in 1962; and bomb explosion at the offices of the Security Police in Baker Street Durban.  She also applied for amnesty for theft of dynamite near Marionhill and destruction of electricity pylons near Pinetown between 1962 and 1963.

Eleanor Kasrils died on 8 November 2009 at the age of 73 at the Constantiaberg Medi-Clinic in Cape Town.  Eleanor is survived by her husband, Ronnie, daughter Bridgette and sons Andrew and Christopher.


References:
• Dulcie Evonne September from South African History Online [Online] available at: www.sahistory.org.za [Accessed on 9 November 2009]
• Phyllis Naidoo from South African History Online [Online] available at: www.sahistory.org.za [Accessed on 9 November 2009]
• Jones, M.(2009) \'Eleanor Kasrils dies\'. Cape Times [Online]. 9 November. Available at: www.iol.co.za [Accessed on 9 November 2009]
• (2001) The Truth and Reconciliation Commission [Online].  Available at: www.justice.gov.za [Accessed on 9 November 2009]
• ANC Dept Information & Publicity (2000), ANC Daily News Briefing, 30 May [Online]. Available at: https://70.84.171.10 [Accessed on 9 November 2009]
• Kasrils, E (1992). Press Release by Mrs Eleanor Kasrils. 16 November. [Online]. Available at: https://70.84.171.10  [Accessed on 9 November 2009]
• The Truth And Reconciliation Commission (2000). TRC Amnesty Decision. 29 May. [Online]. Available at: www.polity.org.za [Accessed on 9 November 2009]
• Maleka, M (2009). South African Communist Party [Online]. Available at: www.polity.org.za [Accessed on: 10 November 2009]
• Kasrils, R. (1993). Armed and Dangerous. From undercover struggle to freedom. Jeppestown: Jonathan Ball Publishers(Pty)Ltd and Western Cape: Mayibuye Books.

Last updated : 29-May-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011

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