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Madibaland World Literary Festival: Ronnie Kasrils

Ronnie Kasrils, was born in Yeoville, Johannesburg, in 1938. The family origins were in Lithuania and Latvia at the time of the Czarist Russian Empire

Kasrils matriculated at King Edwards Boys, where he developed a passion for history and athletics. The latter talent stood him in good stead for running from the police. A drop- out from Wits law school, he worked in a film studio as a script writer, and skipped the country in 1963, the police hot on his tail, after involvement in sabotage operations for uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC). He became MK’s military intelligence chief, and held high office in the ANC and SACP, clandestinely operating in the Front-Line states, and in spare time writing "struggle" poetry under his nom de guerre "ANC Khumalo". He slipped into the country as part of the ANC's underground "Operation Vula" machinery, on the eve of negotiations, and was again on the run when the project was uncovered by the Special Branch. After gaining indemnity in 1991 he worked in the ANC Organising Department, and when the movement came to political power, served as Deputy-Defence Minister (1994-99); Water and Forests Minister (1999-2004); and Intelligence Minister (2004-2008)., resigning from office when Zuma ousted Mbeki. Over the years he became increasingly critical of the Zuma kleptocracy and was called a traitor by the man's henchmen and women. Apart from his social activism, he has been extremely outspoken in criticising Israel as an Apartheid State, and leading solidarity protests in support of the Palestinian cause; again being assailed as a "traitor", but this time from his former those within his "tribal bubble" as he refers to his communal background.

During the exile years he co-authored works on Bertrand Russell, [Dear Bertrand Russell; and a two-volume work Bertrand Russell’s America; and wrote extensively for the African Communist. He married fellow saboteur Eleanor Logan, originally his comrade-in-arms, from Durban. She set up home in London and became the family breadwinner. After her death in Cape Town in 2008, Kasrils wrote a book about her, titled The Unlikely Secret Agent, which won the Sunday Times, Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction (2011). He married Amina Frense, a journalist, and they live in Johannesburg. He has two sons and a granddaughter.  

Some testimonials about his latest book: “Catching Tadpoles – the shaping of a young rebel (Jacana 2019):

“Ronnie Kasrils latest memoir—a prequel of sorts to his three essential accounts of his years in the Struggle—is a picaresque trawl through his  apartheid-era boyhood, and a sublime one at that. Kasrils’ early radicalisation poses an important question: what makes a young Jewish man, surrounded by privilege, give everything up in order to fight systemic injustice? Catching Tadpoles doesn’t just answer this question, but poses another one: how can we be free when our neighbours are in chains? Occasionally hilarious, often terrifying, sometimes gossipy, always engaging, Catching Tadpoles is a brilliant account of a child growing up in a brutal, unfair system, and at the cusp of adulthood saying: no way, not me, damn their eyes.” – Richard Poplack

“Ronnie Kasrils gives us the first 21 years of his life with all the elements that have made him beloved of freedom-fighters and book-readers alike: his dash, his cunning, his humor, his humanity, and - most of all - his irrepressible joie de vivre. He comes of age, he comes to political consciousness, and he brings his early worlds - from Jewish Yeoville to Bohemian Joburg - to life. Unputdownable.” – Mark Gevisser

“Ronnie Kasrils is one of the those very rarest of birds maybe doomed to disappear in our peculiar environment of moral pollution, struggle betrayal, pooh-faced denialism, cynicism, one-thought imperative, general plundering, feeding the sweet corruption and closet lekkerkry racism of the previous masters: an honest and committed and experienced and radical militant for social justice and, yes, true libration. But more — and maybe worse — than this anomaly, is that he is a genuine writer of insight and unflinching self-questioning. Perhaps he will join the aviary of similarly afflicted birds. I have in mind Hannah Arendt, Victor Serge, Henri Alleg, Nazim Hikmet… among others. Luckily there are enough of them to restore and keep alive, often at a high cost to their lives, our faith that the alternative IS possible, that we don't HAVE TO go down like drunken cattle in this slaughterhouse of inhumanity of our own making. In this new work we get closer to the boykie who grew up whitish to become the man we have come to respect for his steadfast political and existential courage, for his integrity, for his wit and humour, for his fierce commitment to apparently lost causes, for his ability to think and act and engage beyond the limitations of self and of tribe and political expediency and interest. All of the foregoing — and then to be a true writer as well! From this apparent contradiction he has forged a dialectic for decency.” - Breyten Breytenbach:

“Ronnie Kasrils’ manuscript arrived while I was reading Orwell’s 1984 (2019 marks the 70th anniversary of its publication):  ‘The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command’. Kasrils, the once Party commissar, Minister of Truth sorry Intelligence cocks a snoot at this command. If the goal of Newspeak was to impoverish language, Kasrils brings it to life, evoking at once wild imaginations and sombre, haunting reflections. It ranges from Grandma Clara’s adage ‘If I am not for me, who is for me? And if I am only for myself what am I?’ to the poignancy of the loneliness of the 1955 880 yard champion replete in Tony Curtis haircut. Catching Tadpoles is beautiful because Kasrils is impossible; disarmed but more dangerous with pen than a rusting Makarov.” Ashwin Desai

Catching Tadpoles - The Shaping of a Young Rebel (Jacana 2019)

A memoir of Ronnie Kasrils’ childhood to late teens (1940-60) in his most page-turning prose yet of those boisterous and brutal years of his coming-of-age.

A racy and insightful narrative that is incisive and fascinating not only about the author but the nature of our country from World War Two to the onset of Apartheid that fashioned his rebellious uncompromising spirit.

Compelling questions as to what turned a white youngster from a modest background into a life-long rebel of note have been increasingly raised by black born-frees and whites whose minds and interests were long imprisoned by race and conformism. A tiny minority who abandoned a life of privilege were the antithesis of conventionality and toeing the line. What made those such as Kasrils break all the rules and confront white power with such breath-taking courage, unbridled spirit and yearning for the truth?

This is a challenging and fascinating conundrum but Kasrils will claim he is no aberration of history no matter how unique he may be viewed. The answers to that question which unravel through twenty years will beguile readers in a non-didactic, flowing, witty, shocking and irreverent manner as he peers back with endearing frankness into the origins and experiences of his formative years.

A Yeoville-born boykie with Yiddish roots; heartfelt empathy for the underdog; an instinctive rejection of authoritarianism in school and wider society were influences informing his adult life as revolutionary activist. With a remarkable memory and flair for the written and spoken word the narrative revels in the social, sexual and political awakening of a roguish boy’s adventures with girls, rock music, bohemian culture and leaping across the colour barrier. Climaxing with the Sharpeville Moment of March 1960 Kasrils holds a mirror up for South Africans of all ages and colour to understand themselves and their country.

Kasrils’ tadpoles of the memoir’s title represent the submerged often illusive tracts of memory he searches for as he delves into the mystery of his metamorphosis. This is a fascinating stylistic element that adds to the creativity of this fourth memoir – the previous three have been best sellers. All four stitch together a masterful tapestry of an extraordinary individual’s progress and have earned for the author a Lifetime Achiever’s Award in Writing and an Alan Paton Award for non-fiction.      

Books & Publications

  • “Dear Bertrand Russell”; A selection of his correspondence with the general public 1950-1968; edited  with Barry Feinberg; Allen & Unwin 1968; Houghton Mifflin 1969;
  • “Bertrand Russell’s America” Vols. 1 and 2; co-author B.Feinberg; Allen and Unwin 1973 and 1984;
  • “Armed & Dangerous – From Underground Struggle to Freedom”; autobiography; Heineman 1963; updated Jonathan Ball 1998 and 2004; 4th edition Jacana 2013;
  • “The Unlikely Secret Agent”, Jacana Media 2010, about late wife Eleanor; winner Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for best non-fiction 2011;
  • “A Simple Man: Kasrils and the Zuma Enigma”, Jacana Media, 2017;
  • “ Catching Tadpoles – the shaping of a young rebel” a memoir, Jacana 2019.
  • Poems (aka ANC Khumalo); “Poets to the People” edited by B.Feinberg; Heinemann 1980;
  • Numerous articles on Politics, Defence, History, Water, Forestry, Intelligence, Palestine and Israel; Tributes/Obituaries – Andrew Mlangeni; Denis Goldberg, George Bizos, John Nkadimeng, Ruth First;  published in a range of South African and international newspapers and journals.