After the South African general election in 1948, the National Party, an Afrikaner political party that supported increased racial segregation and apartheid legislation, took increasingly authoritarian measures to combat any forms of resistance against the government. Under apartheid legislation, the South African government greatly limited the ability for anti-apartheid organizations to perform strikes and campaigns. Many organizations, such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), were banned entirely and declared illegal, causing many of their members to become detained, tortured, or even killed under suspicious circumstances. As a member of the SACP and the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the militant branch of the ANC, Eleanor Kasrils was one such resistance fighter detained under the government’s cruel and authoritarian legislation. After aiding her future husband, Ronnie Kasrils, in the bombings of key economic and infrastructural buildings, Eleanor was arrested in 1963 and sent to Fort Napier, where she underwent psychological analysis after the police’s failed interrogation attempts. With the help of her SACP and MK comrades, Eleanor escaped her detainment and fled to Bechuanaland, where she successfully sought political asylum through the United Kingdom. Although the narrative of Eleanor’s detainment and escape is relatively obscure and unknown, select historical context and firsthand testimonies can be used to create a definitive account of her abuse in detainment and her struggle in exile as a female agent in the uMkhonto weSizwe.
In order to understand the full significance of Eleanor’s arrest and escape from her detainment at Fort Napier, the events leading to the ANC’s decision to take militant action, the creation of MK, and the South African government’s retaliation to the resistance against its legislation must be explained in thorough detail. Since its founding in 1912, the ANC chose to resist through non-violent campaigns, protests, and demonstrations. However, after the events of the Sharpeville massacre, a horrendous tragedy resulting in the deaths of over fifty South African protestors in 1960, many members of the ANC believed that passive resistance was no longer a viable option against the authoritarian apartheid government. According to Bernard Magubane in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, “the ANC’s institutional commitment to non-violence was deep-seated and long lasting,” but this resolve withered as, “pressure to move in [the] direction [of armed struggle] had been mounting since the Sharpeville massacre.” By 1961, “the balance was tipped in favour of violent resistance by the bloody repression of ANC-led stay –aways,” and the “issue of armed struggle was not a question of whether, but when.” Thus, the ANC created the uMkhonto weSizwe, or “Spear of the Nation,” leading the anti-apartheid movement into a new path as hopes for peaceful alternatives dwindled.
Although the creation of MK was a significant development against apartheid, the South African government took increasingly drastic and ferocious measures to keep its opposition suppressed, including both legislative and emergency powers to remove any potential dissidents of the state. In 1960, after the events of the Sharpeville massacre, the South African government officially banned the ANC along with several other congresses. While the SACP was suppressed earlier in the 1950s, the government continued to detain members of the ANC, its rival group, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and many others. Furthermore, according Arianna Lissoni, the ANC, “although never completely, ceased to function in South Africa (where a large portion of its leadership languished in prison).” This development was due to a significant increase in police raids and investigations by the state, which “led to the smashing of virtually the whole of the underground network.” As a result, many anti-apartheid organizations were forced into exile, “MK fighters were being sent back to camps in Tanzania,” and interior operations in South Africa were reliant on underground cells with covert members. The South African government was an effective and cruel police state, but the brutalities it imposed on resistance fighters only made their struggles radiate in the darkness of the apartheid era. Despite the tremendous risk of isolation and death, many citizens and political activists continued to oppose the unjust regime of the apartheid government, including Eleanor Kasrils, who spent nearly a third of her life in the service of MK and SACP.
Eleanor was detained on August 19, 1963 in Durban under the suspicion of aiding her future husband, Ronnie Kasrils, in the bombings of several key infrastructural buildings, making her vulnerable to any number of harsh treatments and cruelties by the apartheid government. Eleanor’s arrest was executed through the unjust Ninety-Day Detainment Act of 1963 and the Suppression of Communist Act of 1950, but she was not detained without suspicion. Eleanor had helped Ronnie by finding the key to an explosive depot, and she “acted as a get-away driver for [an] MK unit [participating] in attacks on a Special Branch office.” Furthermore, Ronnie was an already established communist supporter and vehement apartheid resistance fighter, and both he and Eleanor were marked from the evidence collected during the infamous raid in Rivonia a month earlier. In an interview with Eleanor in The Road to Democracy: South Africans Telling Their Stories, Eleanor herself states, “there were a number of things that led to my arrest,” ranging from “the Rivonia arrest in Johannesburg” to the “copy of the Freedom Charter that had dropped off the wall” in her Durban home. Although Eleanor lied to the police about her disinterest in Ronnie, her actions were enough to warrant further investigation. However, the most condemning evidence against her was the testimony of Bruno Mtolo, a senior member of the MK cell in Natal, who “split the beans about” Eleanor after he himself was arrested.  By the time the police arrested Eleanor, they had enough evidence and every legislative means necessary to condemn her. Unable to escape her arrest through any physical means or legal grounds, Eleanor departed with the police from her bookstore in Durban to an interrogation center in Wentworth.
Under interrogation, Eleanor experienced the horrors of detainment under apartheid firsthand, detailing how her captors often attempted to abuse and shame her into coercion through debasing treatments and cruelties. Although Eleanor did not describe her experiences at Wentworth meticulously in her interview, she shared many details with Ronnie after her escape from Fort Napier, which he then detailed in his book about her life, The Unlikely Secret Agent. Claiming to come directly from Eleanor’s account of her experiences during her detainment, Ronnie’s book reveals the true conditions and treatments South African detainees faced under the apartheid government. These cruelties were demonstrated when Eleanor, having been thrown into a dark, small interrogation chamber, was assaulted by Lieutenant Grobler, an agent in South Africa’s Special Branch. Grobler yelled at Eleanor, saying repeatedly that he was going to “break or hang” her during interrogation. Eleanor was subsequently “pushed, pummeled, disorientated and well-nigh crushed into submission,” so much that she “lost all sense of time.” Eleanor valiantly endured all these hardships while undergoing a hunger strike, and she faced a great number of abuses commonplace for women under detainment. According to a report issued in 1989 by the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), women under interrogation often faced not only “insulting and threatening language,” but also the fear of “being raped or sexually abused,” making them feel “more powerless” as time progressed. Furthermore, most women also suffered from “dizziness, headaches, and nightmares,” similar to the health issues Eleanor faced at Wentworth. However, Eleanor had the rare opportunity to escape her captors, and the unjust treatment of detainees during apartheid would continue long after her arrest in 1963.
Despite her harsh treatment and abuse by the Special Branch agents, Eleanor succeeded in her hunger strike and was transferred to Fort Napier, an old British fort converted into a mental institute, where she made a daring escape after spending weeks under psychological analysis. Eleanor’s interaction with the apartheid police was reduced considerably, but the unfamiliar setting was still unnerving. Furthermore, Eleanor knew that her time at the institute was only temporary, and despite any “fears she may [have] had of Fort Napier, she was convinced it offered a way out.” Nevertheless, Eleanor was still under constant surveillance, and she was only able to contact her MK comrades outside the facility through sympathetic visitors. After learning that the police intended to extract her from Fort Napier on September 21, Eleanor, with the help of an African nurse named Precious, decided to escape the following morning. Before Eleanor got out of her room for routine breakfast, Precious left one of the facility’s doors open, allowing Eleanor to escape before the other nurses discovered her disappearance. She disguised herself as a common visitor, using clothes from a basket Precious had left by the door’s entrance. Upon reaching the fort’s courtyard, Eleanor proceeded through the main gates, where the guards hardly noticed her. Once she reunited with her comrades in Pietermaritzburg, Eleanor was officially free on September 22, nearly two months since her detainment by the police and Special Branch agents. Eleanor then quickly reunited with Ronnie at Johannesburg, where they then planned their escape from the country.
Although Eleanor’s escape was an incredible success, it was so subtle that it was barely noticed in any publications, historical texts, or newspapers. Ronnie included the episode in his later publications, but it never obtained the same amount of attention as other prison escapes. Notable examples include Harold Wolpe, who escaped Johannesburg prison in 1963, and Tim Jenkin, who successfully escaped Pretoria prison in 1979. Both these men took extremely dangerous risks and successfully fled to safety, much like Eleanor herself, but their exploits can be found through all kinds of articles and editorials. Escaping apartheid prisons was by no means a competition amongst activists, but the fact that Eleanor’s escape is rarely detailed in publications is baffling. In fact, South African newspapers hardly mentioned anything about the escape at all. In his book Armed and Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to Freedom, Ronnie recalled “[glancing] through the Sunday newspaper” on the day of Eleanor’s escape, but it had “only briefly indicated Eleanor had been in police custody but had disappeared.” Perhaps the nature and swiftness of Eleanor’s escape was too perplexing for the newspapers to publish a reliable narrative, or they faced censorship from the government. Nevertheless, without several key firsthand sources and testimonies, Eleanor’s escape from Fort Napier would have continued to remain nothing more than a headline.
However, the subtlety of Eleanor’s escape became a significant advantage for Eleanor, as she and Ronnie were able to more swiftly flee the country and take refuge in Bechuanaland, from where their lives would change for the next several decades. In order to avoid capture and arrest, both Eleanor and Ronnie decided “they would be disguised as a Muslim couple” while travelling out of South Africa. They were aided in this process through Fatima Adams, an MK comrade living in Fordsburg. Fatima drastically changed the couple’s appearance, and through her efforts, both Eleanor and Ronnie faced little hindrance in their efforts leaving the country. Upon reaching Bechuanaland, they successfully sought political asylum under the United Kingdom, and thus, Eleanor was finally secure from the South African government. In 1964, Ronnie and Eleanor were officially married, but they continued their resistance against apartheid in distinctly different manners. Ronnie went to the Soviet Union to receive military training, while Eleanor left to the United Kingdom to remain in communication with her daughter Brigid, who lived with Eleanor’s parents in South Africa. MK militants were not allowed to communicate with relatives within South Africa, and Eleanor could not bear the “absence of her child.” Despite these complications, Eleanor continued to carry out “important support work for the underground in South Africa,” until she returned there with Ronnie in 1990.
In the decade of South Africa’s transformation into a modern democracy, Eleanor and Ronnie Kasrils returned to the country after joining a reorganized SACP, and both their lives would finally settle after years of conflict. In 1993, Eleanor revisited Fort Napier, where “she [relived]” her escape “as though it had been yesterday.” She recounted the kind nurse, Precious, and the frightening risk she had taken three decades earlier. Although Eleanor would likely carry the burden of her experiences during apartheid for the rest of her life, she was able to live with Ronnie and all her children into 1994, witnessing the liberation of her country after nearly a century of bloodshed. Despite spending several decades in the United Kingdom, Eleanor continued to live in South Africa with Ronnie, who would become the Deputy Minister of Defense in the new government led by the ANC.
As the ANC government sought unity within South Africa, both of the Kasrils would be subject to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a committee tasked with addressing crimes against the government and humanity, and they applied for amnesty based on the political motivations of their crimes. Since Eleanor had assisted Ronnie in multiple bombings, had participated in the theft of dynamite, and had illegally escaped her detainment at Fort Napier, the TRC required her to testify for her actions against the South African government. Eleanor testified that she committed these crimes through the authorization of MK, which itself was acting on behalf of the political objectives of the ANC. Furthermore, Eleanor had the chance to detail her abuse and mistreatment by the Special Branch agents, which only reinforced the validity of her crimes against the apartheid government. In 2000, the TRC granted Eleanor Kasrils amnesty not only for the assistance of multiple bombings, but also for her “[escape] from custody at Fort Napier, Pietermaritzburg, during September 1963.” Free from apartheid and any legal complications, Eleanor lived peacefully in South Africa until 2009, when she died of natural causes.
Spending nearly half her life against the National Party’s government, Eleanor Kasrils was an extraordinary figure in MK and SACP whose character deserves more publicity than currently offered. Not only was she a female participant of MK, but she was also one of the few members with non-African descent. Eleanor joined MK through her association with Ronnie, and although she did not participate in military training, Eleanor was “trained to do courier work” as was common for many females members. Furthermore, women in MK could not “have positions of leadership,” but Eleanor spent a great amount of effort educating and training MK members from her experiences while she lived in London. She may not have had a direct role in the uMkhonto weSizwe’s decisions, but Eleanor certainly influenced several others on the path of South African liberation. Perhaps Eleanor was not an amazing general or president of a major political party, but her position should not detriment the importance of her accomplishments against the apartheid government. Few people were able to escape the wrath of the National Party’s oppression, but Eleanor underwent the atrocities of apartheid and lived to see it abolished all within one lifetime. As a result, Eleanor Kasrils historical presence is undeniably significant.
In conclusion, the sources detailing Eleanor’s experiences were extremely limited, but they provided sufficient historical content to compile a complete narrative of Eleanor’s life from detainment to a free citizen in post-apartheid South Africa. Eleanor Kasrils was courageous woman who experienced the horrors of apartheid firsthand and lived to see its complete destruction. From her arrest in Durban to her exile in the United Kingdom, Eleanor continued to resist the National Party’s regime through any means possible, all while facing many emotional and physical hardships. She was a female MK agent, an anti-apartheid resistance fighter, and a survivor of one of the cruelest authoritarian governments. Eleanor lived to see the freedom that hundreds died for, and through her experiences, people can better understand the atrocities that occurred during the apartheid era. While Eleanor’s historical presence is relatively unknown, key historical context and primary sources allow a comprehensive narrative to be created, detailing her experiences of abuse and struggle as an MK female agent under detainment and exile.
This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project
 Thozama April et al., “The Turn to Armed Struggle,” in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Vol.1 [1960-1970] (Cape Town, South Africa: Unisia Press, 2008), 53.
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Wolpe was a member of the SACP who escaped captivity in Johannesburg prison after bribing a guard. He immediately fled to the United Kingdom but returned to South Africa in 1990. Jenkin was a member of the ANC who escaped Pretoria prison after making wooden keys to unlock the prison’s doors. He also sought asylum in the United Kingdom until he returned to South Africa in 1991.
 Ronnie Kasrils, Armed and Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to Freedom (Auckland Park, South Africa: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, 2013).
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