Winner of South Africa’s top literary prize, the Alan Paton Award, The Unlikely
Secret Agent tells the thrilling true story of one woman’s struggle against the
apartheid system. It is 1963. South Africa is in crisis and the white state is
under siege. One August 19th, the dreaded Security Police descended
on Griggs bookstore in downtown Durban and arrest Eleanor, the white daughter
of the manager. They threaten to “break her or hang her” if she does not lead
them to her lover, “Red” Ronnie Kasrils, who is wanted on suspicion of
involvement in recent acts of sabotage, including the toppling of electricity
pylons and explosions at a Security Police office in Durban.
But Eleanor has her own secret to conceal: she is, like Ronnie, a
clandestine agent for the underground ANC and must protect her handlers and
Ronnie at all costs. Astutely, she convinces the police that she is on the
verge of a nervous breakdown and, still a prisoner, is relocated to a mental
hospital in Pietermaritzburg for assessment. It is here that she plots her
This remarkable story of a young woman’s courage and daring at a time
of increasing repression in apartheid South Africa is told here for the first
time with great verve and élan by Eleanor’s husband, Ronnie Kasrils, who
eventually became South Africa’s Minister of Intelligence Services in 2004.
In 1963, officers of the South African Security Branch arrested a white woman, Eleanor, from the bookstore where she worked for her father. Under the new Ninety-Day Detention Act, they could hold and question her, without attorney or trial, almost indefinitely. The officers only suspected the extent of Eleanor's activities: a member of the African National Congress rebel movement, she had imported banned books, organized unions, stolen and placed explosives, and delivered secret messages. Winner of South Africa's Alan Paton Award, this loving portrait written by Kasrils, Eleanor's husband and later the country's minister of intelligence services, tells the harrowing and exhilarating story of her arrest and escape. Eleanor's strength and resolve enabled her to negotiate a transfer from prison to a mental institution, from which she broke out. With the help of the ANC underground, she and her soon-to-be-husband, Kasrils, left the country. Unfortunately, Kasrils avoids examining the ANC's tactics in light of either historical movements or current geopolitical contexts, and resists analyzing the sacrifices Eleanor made for the cause living in exile for most of her life and separated from her young daughter for 12 years. Rather, the book is an extended eulogy for an activist whose perseverance inspired the ANC movement.