The Unlikely Secret Agent
Reading like a spy thriller, this biography tells the remarkable story of a young woman’s courage in apartheid-ridden South Africa. As the book opens, in 1963, South Africa is in crisis and the white state is under siege. On August 15, the dreaded security police swoop down on Griggs Bookstore--Durban’s finest literary haunt and a place where African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party comrades frequented to receive or deliver messages and money to advance the cause of the struggle--to arrest Eleanor Kasrils, the manager’s daughter. The police threaten to "break her or hang her" if she does not lead them to her lover, Ronnie Kasrils, who is wanted on suspicion of sabotage for setting off explosions and toppling electricity poles. Though she comes under intense pressure during interrogation, Eleanor has her own secret to conceal. She has been acting as a clandestine agent for the underground ANC, utilizing the books as a means to deliver documents: "If the contact was delivering a document it was handed to her with a book for purchase. Similarly if she had a document that the courier was collecting, it would be hidden within the pages of a book already packaged and handed over as a purchase." Always, the transfer of secret documents could only take place once the recipient whispered a code: "Well, let me take both books." In order to protect her handlers and Ronnie at all costs, she astutely convinces the police that she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and, still a prisoner, is sent off to a mental hospital in Pietermaritzburg for assessment. It is here that she plots her escape and--pursued by the police--flees with Ronnie into exile.