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How a genteel Scot fuelled revolution in South Africa

She was born into a white middle-class family in Kilmarnock, but when she died last year Nelson Mandela paid tribute to Eleanor Kasrils – the “genteel and elegant Scottish woman” who helped ferment revolution in Africa, establish underground ANC cells in Scotland, and challenged Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s.

Now her husband Ronnie Kasrils, the famed urban guerilla and former South African minister for intelligence, is returning to Scotland to launch a book celebrating his wife’s life and achievements.

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Kasrils will also give the annual Mandela-Tambo lecture at Glasgow University on Wednesday.

Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Herald, Kasrils, 72, paid tribute to Eleanor’s courage and her role in the fight against white supremacy in South Africa. “She was an unlikely revolutionary,” he said. “She was elegant, modest, refined – not the kind the apartheid state would associate with the planned hostility of resistance. She did fantastic, audacious work supporting us.”

At one point in 1963, under arrest in Durban for hiding Kasrils and other ANC activists, she feigned mental illness to be transferred to a lunatic asylum rather than jail. From there she quickly made her escape and was reunited with Kasrils, They then escaped the country dressed as a Muslim couple.

Eleanor was born in Kilmarnock in March 1936. Within a year her mother, Helen, moved to South Africa. Her engineer father, Jimmy, joined them a few years later. She grew up with frequent reminders of her roots – Jimmy would write her letters quoting Robert Burns.

Her mother’s brother, Jack, was an RAF pilot in the second world war. He was killed over Nazi-occupied Europe.

“This type of courage and Scots ancestry did enter Eleanor’s psyche to quite a degree,” said Kasrils. “It is always something that touches a youngster and blossoms up later in life when faced with tremendous challenges.”

Like many white South Africans, Eleanor and Kasrils were radicalised following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 where police fired on a crowd of black protesters, killing 69 people.

“It asked us the question of what is to be done?” he said. “Do we simply accept the privileges? If we don’t like apartheid do we just wring our hands and mutter? Or do we do something? She was one of that rare breed of white, relatively privileged South Africans who actually decided to do something and act.”

Following her arrest and subsequent flight from South Africa, Eleanor married Kasrils in Tanzania. Burns’s poem A Red, Red Rose was read at the ceremony. After living in Dar es Salaam the couple moved to London in 1965. Eleanor and their two sons remained there in exile until 1991. While Kasrils, who had been trained by the Russian military in 1964, returned to Africa to work with revolutionaries in Angola and Mozambique, Eleanor helped establish underground ANC cells in the UK.

“She found the time despite the fact she was bringing up the boys and she worked as a geology technician,” said Kasrils. “She recruited people in Britain to assist with underground tasks in South Africa. It stretched to Scotland. She recruited people from the Seaman’s Union, factory workers and ship workers on the Clyde.”

In 1988, the Conservative MP Andrew Hunter outed her in the House of Commons as a “terrorist cell leader”. “She challenged him to say that outside the Commons,” said Kasrils. “But he declined.”

After the end of apartheid and the return to South Africa, Kasrils held posts in both Mandela’s and Thabo Mbeki’s governments. He retired in 2008. Eleanor died following a stroke 11 months later. Kasrils read A Red, Red Rose as her ashes were scattered in Cape Town’s botanical gardens last November.

Kasrils said his book, The Unlikely Secret Agent, shows how important people like Eleanor are to changing the world. He said: “Much has been said about Mandela’s and Tambo’s leadership qualities, their erudition, their drive and commitment. I was wanting to make a link with a foot soldier of the struggle – unsung heroes.

“Eleanor exemplifies the tens of thousands of people of all backgrounds, colours and creeds in South Africa, universally and throughout history, who have resisted oppression.”

Kasrils will be speaking at Milngavie library and in Kilmarnock’s Dick Institute on Tuesday.

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