Interviewed by Charl du Plessis and Tanya Goodman
Published in Playboy South Africa January / February 2012
Warrior, lover, spy. He served in Mandela’s Cabinet and grew in stature as a revolutionary associated with the armed struggle, who came in from the cold to bring water to the masses under Mbeki. One theme underpins Ronnie Kasrils’ life – champion of the underdog: a self-described “white Jewish boykie from Yeoville” who dedicated his life first to fight for Black Liberation and now for Palestine. He went into exile in 1963 with the late Eleanor by his side. A woman no less remarkable than her partner, Ronnie recently won the 2011 Sunday Times Literary Award for his ode to her in his book The Unlikely Secret Agent. His latest brag is the achievements of his children. In a PLAYBOY first of interviewing both father and son, our 20Q features famous DJ “The Admiral,” Andy Kasrils.
PLAYBOY: You joined Umkhonto we Sizwe [the armed wing of the ANC, known as MK] in the early days and soon became heavily involved. When did you realise you were going to have to go on the run?
RONNIE KASRILS: The first time was in 1963. I had joined the movement after Sharpeville in 1960. Things were happening so fast and Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and others decided to launch MK. I was young, only 22, and recruited into MK at its inception. At the time I was working for Lever Brothers in their film production division. Believe it or not, I was preparing for the Comrades Marathon (I was obviously ready to be on the run) and the Special Branch had started identifying who were the really militant activists. I was on their list. Soon enough, the Special Branch came knocking. Eleanor, my girlfriend at the time and later my wife, had great nerve when she faced them at the front door. She simply told them we’d broken up because she was fed up with my politics. Meanwhile, I was under the floorboards. It was at this point that I realised my legality in South Africa was over. I would now have to be an underground freedom fighter on the run. And, sure, this was very exciting for a 22-year-old boykie from Yeoville. They published posters calling me “Armed and Dangerous.”
PLAYBOY: What was it like living underground as a spy?
RONNIE KASRILS: Some of it is quite challenging, but there are a few basic things you need to know and do as a spy. The first is to establish a network of safe houses, safe cars, and sympathisers. Secondly, you need a disguise. Nowadays everyone wears a baseball cap and that’s a quick and easy disguise. The law of disguise is that you must dress in a way contrary to the way people think of you. For example, if you typically wear a suit and tie, you become a jeans, sweater and baseball cap kind of guy. If you have a moustache, you shave it; or if you don’t, you grown one. You should always wear glasses that you can see through. Dark glasses back then made you look suspicious. I often used to joke about my Groucho Marx clip-on nose and moustache. And yes, you can certainly do those things, but the finesse factor is very important: wigs, false moustaches, changing the way you walk.“
There is also a difference between whether you are simply a person in a safe house waiting to leave the country, or if you need to move around. That’s where very sophisticated disguises come in. In those cases, a disguise might involve capping for teeth, padding the body, and changing the shape of the face. Eleanor was a master of disguise, especially for photographs and passports. And actually, I am the author of a chapter on disguise for the SACP (South Africa Communist Party) manual on Secrets of Underground Work.
PLAYBOY: Tell us more about the clandestine Operation Vula in 1990, when you had to go on the run again and make use of disguise?
RONNIE KASRILS: The second occasion I went on the run was when I returned to South Africa after being in exile. I had been doing clandestine work for the ANC and was inside South Africa in 1990 from Easter, just after Mandela’s release. Mac Maharaj and Siphiwe Nyanda had been underground inside South Africa since 1987, which was a significant feat. With Maharaj and Nyanda, we were tasked to keep our underground structures going as we did not know if we could trust De Klerk.
Receiving indemnity along with all members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, Maharj and I surfaced in June 1990 to work at the ANC’s Joburg HQ. At the end of July he was arrested. On that day I was fortunate to have flu and was out of the office visiting a doctor when I heard the news. So, again I went underground. There was a question about whether I should leave and go cool my heels or stay and work. But there was a very urgent need inside the country and we could not be sure that the regime would negotiate in good faith. We needed to keep our weapons and some underground network in the country. At the time there were major attacks on ANC, many Third Force activities, and much violence between the IFP and ANC.
PLAYBOY: How did you sneak back into South Africa without being discovered by the Special Branch? Surely you were on a watch list?
RONNIE KASRILS: I was adept at changing appearance as I had been working on the borders of South Africa – Maputo, Swaziland, Botswana. I had friends who provided a passport from a not-to-be-mentioned “acceptable” European country. It was very cleverly forged. I was an Italian businessman. I’m not saying it was an Italian passport – just that I was an Italian businessman. I had a wig, glasses, trimmed eyebrows, a moustache. I looked pretty different. I wouldn’t have been recognised by my mother.
PLAYBOY: Can you remember your name?
RONNIE KASRILS: Gosh, I had so many names… Franco Rosetti, I think.
I had help from Eleanor. I went from Lusaka to London and had her assistance there. Then I went from London to Italy and Greece and there I changed my appearance. And then I left on a flight from Rome to Jo’burg as this businessman. It’s pretty scary going through customs in disguise. I prefer to cross borders jumping fences and being out there in the night.
Someone once told me about a Russian solution: swallow a quick 100 millilitres of vodka; it’s the easiest way to calm your nerves. On that flight, I slept so well that I only woke up when I heard the pilot announcing our imminent landing at Joburg airport and had to quickly knock back the vodka, which at that time of the morning was revolting!
I came through immigration and gave them my passport. “Buongiorno, buongiorno.” I get through and I get to customs. And then there’s a young pimply kid and he stops me. It must have been his first day. I open my briefcase, show my laptop. And what do I have in my briefcase? Real estate brochures from Pam Golding, letters about looking for property, South African magazines… And I remember him asking, “Are you concealing a PLAYBOY magazine?”
PLAYBOY: Tell us about your own military training?
RONNIE KASRILS: Back in 1961 we had to train ourselves. Among those I trained with, two South African World War II veterans, Jack Hodgson, who had been in the army, and Harold Strachan, who had served in the air force, taught us how to make weapons. There we were, sitting in a garage or kitchen grinding gunpowder to make bombs.
After this period, we were outside the country and into exile. Along with Joe Modise and Moses Mabhida and about 200 others, I went to train in Odessa in the Soviet Union. We wore the Russian uniform and boots and hats and they put us through all sorts of guerrilla and mainstream training. We learned how to drive Russian tanks, about small arms and, of course, the AK47.
Many of us went on to specialise, some as saboteurs, some as radio signal operators, or in artillery, engineering, and intelligence. I later went to Moscow in 1983 when I was appointed as Head of Military Intelligence and I did a six-month course with their military, not the KGB. I remember well how the South Africa newspapers loved to create the fiction that Joe Slovo was a Colonel in the KGB. Slovo liked to joke that he was one of the only colonels in any army who remained a colonel for 20 years and was never promoted.
PLAYBOY: What were some of the most important MK actions you took part in?
RONNIE KASRILS: The proudest operation in my life was with Eleanor. There were guys in Jo’burg who were smuggling a few sticks of dynamite out of the mines at the time and we decided we had to do better than this. So, we found a construction site and stole a ton of dynamite and fuses and detonators.
Initially, we went to investigate the site as a romantic couple picnicking in the bush near where the dynamite was stored. It had formidable stockade fencing and Eleanor was amazing… she managed to get a look at the padlock brand and number and she said all we had to do was go and get a padlock with this number and we’d have the right key.
We made a bet as to whether she’d be able to find it – just a drink. In the meantime we were preparing to make a raid on this place. Eleanor kept looking and she said she’d find the key. One evening we arranged to meet at our favourite hotel. She walked in and set the key down on the table and simply said, “Make mine a double G&T.” That was Eleanor; it took her a few days and she found it.
When we got out there we were still gobsmacked when the key fit, though we did still have to use tools to jimmy open the safety containers within the stockade.
With the dynamite, we cut pylons around the Durban area in 1962 at the time when there was a major wrestling bout. We also attacked some very important railway lines and some pass offices.
PLAYBOY: What was the lowest point in the armed struggle?
RONNIE KASRILS: It had to have been after the Rivonia arrests in 1963, followed by that of Bram Fischer and other SACP and MK members. It felt as though the underground had been smashed. Hugh Lewin, who had been arrested for sabotage in 1965 and served five years in prison, remembers how when he came out he bumped into the Special Branch who was boasting how they’d destroyed the ANC and worked themselves out of a job.
With the underground having been smashed inside the country, we had large numbers of people leaving and being trained far away in Dar-Es-Salaam and Zambia as well as in the Soviet Union, Cuba and China. There was a big incursion into Rhodesia in 1967 and MK joined ZAPU to take on Ian Smith’s forces and we did do quite well. We lost about 40 or 50 people but we managed to inflict casualties of about 40 to 50 on Rhodesian soldiers and police. But Vorster sent in South African forces and we were blocked.
Then there were the arrests of Winnie Mandela and 20 others in 1969, which showed attempts to restart an underground inside South Africa. Meanwhile, we started receiving people who were searching out the ANC in Zambia. We were getting a few recruits and infiltrating some back into the country.
But in the 1970s, we had the rise of the strike movement and black consciousness. Along with the ripple of black consciousness, liberation theology was starting to bring young white students into the movement. This was a period of renewal and there were big strikes in Namibia as well in 1970 and 1971. When the strikes swept Durban in 1972 along with NUSAS who had been educating black workers, there was an upsurge.
Then, with the liberation of Mozambique in 1975 we suddenly started getting younger people and even older people looking for the ANC.
It was in 1976 that the dam walls breached and we started to get hundreds of people coming out of the country to join us and train. They were infiltrated back in from 1976 to 1989 with scores of operations every week. Some were even being trained in the country. The South African police and military were being attacked, black councillors and informers were being targeted and eliminated and communications lines were being affected. The UDF had been formed. Trade unions had become established. The people were on the rise. The pendulum had swung.
PLAYBOY: You held the position of Chief of MK Intelligence. Can you give us some idea of how many MK soldiers were trained and how many died?
RONNIE KASRILS: One can’t claim to be precise here. We probably trained up to 20,000 cadres outside South Africa between 1961 and 1991. Incalculable numbers were given some form of sketchy training inside South Africa over the years. Some 25,000 people must have died within South Africa during the armed struggle period between 1961 and 1990. There were deaths by hanging and torture, demonstrators killed, MK members slain in combat and large numbers killed in IFP-ANC aligned clashes towards end of 1989 and particularly thereafter. Several hundred MK combatants died in clashes with Ian Smith’s forces (1967-8) and within Angola in clashes with Unita bandits in Angola (1976-1988). Over the time several hundred died of illness, such as malaria, and in accidents throughout Southern Africa.
PLAYBOY Given these numbers of MK soldiers and civilians who died during the armed struggle, was it necessary and what do you think it accomplished?
RONNIE KASRILS: One needs to make the point very clear that the ANC had been involved for many years with and preferred the nonviolent peaceful struggle. With the banning of the ANC and the events of Sharpeville, it was not the young people like me pushing this question, but the seniors, the veterans of the revolution who had arrived at the view that they needed to change strategy. The point was to continue to pursue the objectives in Freedom Charter, but the South African regime had made it impossible to change through peaceful means and measures. The armed struggle became one of the pillars of the freedom struggle.
We saw the following as the four pillars of struggle through which change would come: 1) the unity and determination of the people in struggle; 2) an underground network to provide support for cadres, issue propaganda, and give direction to the mass struggle; 3) the armed actions of MK; and 4) international solidarity through boycotts, sanctions, and policies of isolation, to bring pressure to bear on those supporting South Africa, weaken the regime and strengthen the forces of struggle. It is important to remember that the armed actions of MK were always secondary to the first pillar, which was the mobilisation of the people. But it was believed that these armed actions would reinforce, inspire and strike psychological blows against the Apartheid system and thus weaken it.
It was a low-key armed struggle, unlike Zimbabwe or Angola or Mozambique.
These are countries that are suited for guerrilla struggle, with jungles and forests where you can really build up forces. And unlike Algeria, with its desert and borders with Tunisia and Morocco. Or, Cuba where you had mountains with thick vegetation. In some of these cases, people had trained in the military prior to their struggles. And many of these places had undeveloped infrastructure. But South Africa had very advanced infrastructure, a lack of vegetation, a powerful army, tip-top communications technology. What that meant for us was that we did not see the armed struggle ever getting to the stage of a guerrilla war. It was always secondary to the mass struggle of all kinds. We always knew that the armed struggle would be mainly urban because of terrain, and at a low scale. These small actions would always be magnified because simply by opposing white rule with weapons, it would inspire the black population to resist.
So the armed struggle was a lot about committing psychological blows against the Apartheid system and white supremacy. It struck tremendous fear in their hearts; they knew that black people were militant and numerous and if they were on the warpath, you’d better watch out.
PLAYBOY: What was the turning point for the regime?
RONNIE KASRILS: It is interesting to see how, 29 years later, the regime finally, after years of suffering, realised it was impossible to run this country on the basis of white supremacy. Ironically, we could have had this change 29 years earlier.
In 1960, the balance of forces clearly rested with the Apartheid government: there was a powerful state supported by Western powers, friendly neighbours, and a strong military. By the end of the 1980s, however, MK was strong and carrying out small, yet numerous blows; and some were very powerful, like the attacks on Voortrekkerhoogte, Sasol, and others.
We also saw the mobilisation of people inside South Africa, through the UDF, the churches, and the trade unions. All of these efforts had grown, especially among the workers, youth and women, and crossed social and cultural divides. The masses were engaged in protest and by 1990 had forced the Apartheid regime to lift the ban on outlawed organisations and free Mandela and other political prisoners. It was the masses who unbanned the ANC and forced the regime to finally understand that which we had wanted them to understand in 1960 when we weren’t strong enough yet as an organisation.
The battle for Cuito Cuanavale in Angola [between 1987 and 1988] was an important turning point. The former SADF generals and some Apartheid-era politicians in Parliament have tried to claim it was their victory. The salient fact is that the SADF strove and failed to take Cuito Cuanavale, which was a strategic objective. Their generals claim they only lost some 34 troops in the process before their advance ground to a halt. Those were the white soldiers. They fail to mention their Unita surrogates who died in their hundreds. Whilst an impasse developed at Cuito Cuanavale, the Cubans, with Angolan government forces and SWAPO combatants, were able to advance along a 1,000km front right up to the border with Namibia. Their jet fighter planes dominated the skies and the battle for southern Angola and consequently Namibia was over with the liberation forces as the benefactors.
So it was a combination of efforts: a military one as well as the rise in international solidarity, along with growing domestic militancy… people’s power.
PLAYBOY: After liberation, you moved into a new era where you achieved what you set out for originally: the opportunity to govern. You must have had high expectations and ambitions. Looking back, how successful do you think the ANC has been as a government so far?
RONNIE KASRILS: It’s easy to knock the present government or any of the governments of Mandela, Mbeki or Zuma. It is very difficult to take over a country that has been so skewed in terms of wealth and education and skills. The biggest problem we face is that we lack capacity and skills. We have the best Constitution on paper. And yet, take education. I heard Finance Minister Pravin answer a question about why the state is not putting enough money in. He laughed; we put more money into education than anyone on earth. The problem is capacity. We just don’t have the teachers
We have great achievements – our people have their dignity, we do have a democracy, everyone has the vote. And there has been significant delivery in terms of housing, electricity, water… But, at the same time, yes, there have been huge disappointments. We cannot make excuses. And, of course, the dignity of the unemployed and the very poor is diminished.
PLAYBOY: What is the biggest problem in South African politics today?
RONNIE KASRILS: The biggest problem, along with unemployment and inadequate education, is corruption and greed. We shouldn’t be surprised: we have a full-blown capitalist system. It’s all about greed. The hegemony of capitalism has overpowered the idea of self-sacrifice and service. The generation of Sisulu and Slovo and Luthuli was replaced by the likes of Hani and Mbeki and later Trevor Manuel and Cyril Ramaphosa and others, who were still committed. But since Polokwane, the floodgates were opened to this idea of winning at all costs and access to wealth became paramount. And with it comes the principal of the looking after one’s own group and then cronyism. So many have become obsessed with feathering their own nests …
PLAYBOY: You have lived a heroic life. You have been involved with influential people and travelled all over the world. What spaces are available for young people these days to make a difference and to live similar heroic lives?
RONNIE KASRILS: I would encourage young people to get involved in any choice of activity where one can make a difference: politics, education, business, the environment, civic activities, community work and upliftment, sports and culture, peace and security, international solidarity, etc and not to simply aspire to personal wealth and power. Where we see that happening, we must struggle against all odds to maintain that healthy commitment to political service and not allow it to descend into personal acquisitiveness and bloated egos.
It doesn’t have to only be in politics that one can make a difference. In my time, there was little but politics you could do to get involved. But wherever inequality of any kind – racism, sexism, exploitation, and poverty or deprivation – exists, those are the places to get involved and be of some service to our people.
PLAYBOY: You wrote a beautiful book on the late Eleanor, this amazing woman who was your partner. Would she have described you as an easy man to live with and a good partner?
RONNIE KASRILS: It’s tough to speak on another person’s behalf. I think she certainly would have said I was a good partner because we had a good relationship.
Nowadays I’ve mellowed, but we had a very tough life together and for a lot of the time we were apart. But the relationship we had was one that was very deep and sustainable.
She adapted very well to the life we led and the sacrifices entailed because of her dedication to the struggle. But when you live apart from each other for six months at a time, it’s not easy to just pick up. Like all couples, we had our problems obviously, in our case, exacerbated by long periods of separation. She was more sedate than I, who would invariably be the one to stumble at times and need to be forgiven.
I appreciate women; I believe that women are the stronger and the more worthwhile of the sexes. I say that without being patronising but based on the experience of a long life. I have more women friends than male friends. I admire women, I love to look at women and I think they are charming and the more attractive, though not in a sexist way. Although even at my age a pretty face and figure turns my head.
Eleanor would always joke with me because of the way my head turned. She would always tease that she was going to go first and I would hook up with some sweetie. I think she was more easily hurt. I would express myself more easily and sometimes in a more hot-headed way. But I could cool down very quickly and forget. But for her, it would stick longer and be more difficult for her. So that’s when I would have to use all my charm to appease her when I wronged her.
PLAYBOY: Tell us about your son, The Admiral, one of Joburg’s top DJs.
RONNIE KASRILS: Only if I can tell you about all of my children… Brigid now lives and works here in Cape Town in Public Health as an economist. When Eleanor died in 2009 it was wonderful having these children and their support, as well as the support of other family members. We had to leave a very young Brigid behind when we went into exile. Eleanor managed a daring escape but it was impossible to take Brigid. The hope and expectation was that she would have access to Brigid in a year or two. But Eleanor’s parents did not want to let go of her so Eleanor and I didn’t see her for 12 years. She really suffered. Brigid lost her mother. That’s the one regret we had. Fortunately we came together. When she left school she joined us in London.
My younger son Christopher is a media officer and trade unionist in London. He is a writer, like me, looking to study in South Africa and to come and live here. Most recently his interest is in environmental studies.
Then, Andrew is my eldest. He was very drawn to music and to reggae from early on because his mother loved it. He mixed a lot with West Indian kids growing up in London and they gave him the name Admiral. He joined MK and served in Angola. Later, Andrew gained a diploma in Sound Engineering. Back in South Africa he joined Foreign Affairs. Andrew had a secure and promising career with our government’s Foreign Affairs Department but yearned to try his hand in the entertainment world where his budding talents inexorably drew him. When he tentatively expressed a desire to change vocations I was not going to be an obstacle and the possible cause of frustration. Both his mother – before her untimely death – and I have been proud and delighted at the success he has made of this career. He puts on stunning gigs on Thursday nights at the Bassline, teaming up with JahSeed and others. He’s done so well on many TV programs, especially on funny ones, and does successful cinema reviews. He has written and produced an outstanding short film entitled Miss Sgodiphola, redolent with his sense of humour, and has been working on a script for a full-length feature film. I like to fantasise about him as an up and coming Hitchcock or Tarantino. To use a phrase popular in our family “Well, you never can tell!” When he was first in the country he would go into townships, and they would ask him if it is true that Ronnie Kasrils is your father. Now they ask me, is it true that Admiral is your son?