Rusty's review of "Armed and Dangerous" by Ronnie Kasrils


You can cover the whole history of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in the life and adult adventures of Ronnie Kasrils. When it was formed in 1961 he was in the ranks of its first Durban unit. When it consolidated and began its campaign of sabotage he was in the Natal Regional Command. When it suffered virtual suppression in the post-Rivonia period, he was wanted and on the run into exile. He became an essential cog in the slow reconstruction directed from London, Dar es Salaam, Lusaka and Maputo.

He was amongst the first guerrillas to be trained in Angola and in Eastern Europe; planned and promoted the first attempts at armed guerrilla incursions into South Africa; became a key organiser of the MK infiltrations from the Front Line states which re-established an armed MK presence inside South Africa. He crossed and re-crossed borders, legally, in disguise and illegally; and finally returned the MK and ANC exiles from abroad after the de Klerk reforms. He was one of the leaders of MK’s last stand, Operation Vula, when MK and the ANC were already legal but Vula's Maharaj and Kasrils remained at the head of the police "Wanted" list.

Or, to put it another way, the story of Ronnie Kasrils post 1961 is the story of MK, and of the clandestine cloak-and-dagger side of the South African liberation struggle. It starts at the very beginning of armed and violent struggle by the ANC and its allies, and ends appropriately in the negotiating team at the CODESA talks when a new South African constitution and state is being born.

He was in the very centre of the underground, in the hub of the terror with its raids, ambushes and assassinations by the South African security Services, police and military. He bore a charmed life, surviving to observe all - and now to tell all - while hundreds around him fell into the hands of the jailers, assassins and torturers, and others were 'turned' by the enemy through a combination of bribery and physical pressure. Inevitably as his exploits became known, Kasrils the survivor was nicknamed by the South African press and public as "The Red Pimpernel."

It is something over fifty years since I last came across a description of his predecessor, the Scarlet Pimpernel. My memory tells me that he was a supercilious and hidebound aristocrat, deeply conscious of his racial superiority to those villainous enemy French; that he was nevertheless, almost bloodless and endowed with the stiffest of British stiff upper lips. Perhaps the memory is false. But there is not the slightest resemblance between Kasrils and that stilted character of fiction except that they both operated within a national revolution, and both were exceptionally brave and daring. And, one might suggest, exceptionally lucky to have got away unscathed.

Kasrils tells his tale simply, straightforwardly and well. He emerges as the very antithesis of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He is the authentic "cheeky chappie", shown characteristically on the front cover of his book with both arms raised aloft in triumphant salute, with hammer-and-sickle and the slogan "Build the Party" emblazoned across his chest, and grin a mile wide across his face. And well he might grin, for he and his colleagues and their cause came out triumphant from a thirty-year battle against the vastly larger, better equipped and better resourced enemies in the state security battalions. Though those were thirty years of constant threat, constantly hunted and in dire peril, it seems to have been a life he revelled in; at least in retrospect.

Kasrils, I think, loved all the clandestinity, the daring-do, and all the physical and psychological challenge of confronting Goliath armed only with a sling. Perhaps more importantly, he loved the comrades of all colours and races who joined him in his peripatetic life in the underground. Over the years, as many of them fell in the struggle, he must often have felt "there but for the grace of God”. Deep dedication to their cause made it possible for the survivors to carry on without losing that feeling of excitement and adventure

"Armed and Dangerous" is his account of high adventure accompanied by suffering, sacrifice and endurance. It never dramatises the negative sides of violent political activity, but it underplays the tensions and perils, and concentrates on the dramatic events. It is an adventure story of a real life, of real skulduggery, of espionage and counter-espionage, told with no holds barred.

It can now be told for the first time because the underground struggle has given way to the open political contests of CODESA and the first ever non-racial election campaign, and there is no longer good reason to conceal names, dates, places or even operational details. Kasrils conceals nothing of his own operations or of those with which he was associated. Some have been reported before in less detail; fro court hearings and security briefings. Some have been the stuff of unconfirmed rumour; and some have never before even been rumoured. Together they add up to a classic true-life thriller, which it is impossible to put down, told by a somewhat larger-than-life revolutionary who it was; and is impossible to keep down.

When he was high on the South African state Wanted List. Kasrils and his colleagues were portrayed as stereotypes - like escapees from the mythology of Day of the Jackal or the "master terrorist" Carlos. But there is a deep divide between the fictional - or perhaps even real - terrorist on the one hand and the freedom fighter on the other. As in the fictions, Kasrils went about armed. Unlike the fictions, only once (if I counted right) did he ever fire deliberately, in anger.

Unlike fiction, his story has no gratuitous account of violence, no glorification of the power that comes “Through the barrel of a gun",' and no voyeuristic lingering over injuries or pain or death. His main concern is for the life of his comrades and for their concerns with families and communities and nation. His story is concerned with the cause they all upheld; rather than with a desire to shock. These were freedom fighters, ready when necessary to kill violently, but never in thrall to violence to people inspired by ideology.

"Ideologies are ideas which organise people's behaviour and conduct. It is generally difficult to make any distinction between the philosophies through which people understand the world, and the practices through which they operate in it” - Professor Stuart Hall, in the Guardian. 24.11.93

This is why the Jackal, a man without ideology, remains a fictions and a terrorised, why Kasrils “Armed and Dangerous” is the autobiography of a freedom fighter. Yet it is a thriller, but not a conventional thriller. It is also an historic record, but not a conventional history. For history asks a host of questions which Kasrils neither asks nor answers. History asks not only what happened, but why? Was the course chosen justified by the situation, and its conduct vindicated by the outcome? Could it have been done differently, better, and with different endings? Was it necessary? Kasrils allows himself no such questioning. He sticks strictly to the record - except for an occasional expression of regret for over-reliance on Soviet precept and experience; and even that stated rather than explored.

Which is not to imply, as reviewers sometimes do, that the writer should not have written this book, but something else instead. Kasrils should have written this book, because, perhaps no one else has such an intimate knowledge of the facts, or could recount them with such exuberance. He fills a vital gap in all our knowledge of events in the underground life of our country, in our time.

But now that the facts are on record, there is also a need for clear and thoughtful assessment, to draw out whatever lessons the past shape the future. On April 27th next, a new South African state and government should be coming into being. It will need to turn urgently to the very questions of military postures and strategies which the history of MK can illuminate. It will need to regulate in a new way the relations between the state and its military/police apparatus. It will need to create a new modus of political and democratic control over the states secret intelligence apparatus. It will need to guard against the constant threat, that even the best-intentioned democratic initiatives can give rise to brutal and authoritarian practices if the right organisational and administrative measures are not taken.

There is a great deal of experience but almost all negative to be learnt from the SADF and state intelligence services. It will be tragedy for South Africa if that negative experience is the only guide for the new South Africa simply because no one in the ANC or MK who has the knowledge of their very different experience takes the time to analyse and lay bare the many positive lessons that can be learnt from and the few negative ones to be avoided.

L. Bernstein, 26.11.93

ARMED AND DANGEROUS. My undercover against struggle against apartheid, by Ronnie Kasrils, is published by Heinemann