Minding Ronnie

roncartoon />When the TV newsreader warned that three ‘armed and dangerous’ terrorists were on the loose in South Africa, one of the fugitives was watching the news with a journalist and his wife, David Niddrie tells of his involvement with Ronnie Kasrils, the elusive ’Red Pimpernel’

It’s 26 years this month since the English-language channel of South Africa’s state broadcaster, the SABC, broadcast a bizarre news item in its early evening broadcast, declaring the ANC’s Kasrils and three others were “armed and dangerous” terrorists on the loose.
The item, accompanied by pictures of Kasrils, was brief, but delivered with appropriately autocratic gravitas: “The police are appealing to members of the public for assistance in locating Ronald Kasrils and three other members of the African National Congress and South African Communist Party,” the anchor intoned. “The four are wanted in connection with Operation Vula, the plot to overthrow the government by force.”
The ‘news’ wasn’t bizarre because it was comprehensively inaccurate – that wasn’t uncommon for SABC news items by 1990. But it was bizarre because one of the four fugitives was dead – and the police knew it, having murdered him four months earlier and dumped his corpse into the Tugela River near Durban. And it was bizarre because, although Kasrils was armed (with a pistol he didn’t always carry with him) and, for an apartheid administration with its back to the wall, he was arguably dangerous, at that time it would have been difficult to find a single South African TV viewer who didn’t know the police were hunting him and his two surviving comrades. It couldn’t conceivably be considered news.
By then Kasrils, the intelligence head of the ANC’s combat wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) and its commissar Chris Hani had been avoiding arrest for four months. Kasrils’ immediate superior, Mac Maharaj, was already in detention – despite an indemnity from prosecution granted to all three to allow them to take part in negotiations for a truce between the ANC and the apartheid government. By November, Kasrils’ defiant response to the manhunt had earned him the nickname, “The Red Pimpernel” in hundreds of newspapers throughout the world.
At home in Johannesburg, my wife Collette and I missed that bulletin – we were putting our sons to bed. But we caught a repeat at 10 pm, when we watched it in our dining room – along with Kasrils, whom we had been “minding” for the previous four months.

Covert plan
The “Operation Vula” to which the SABC had referred was to a covert project, called Operation Vulindlela (“Open the road” in Zulu), that had been launched in the late 1980s by the then-outlawed ANC to infiltrate senior exiled officials back into South Africa to coordinate political and insurrectionary campaigns to overthrow the apartheid government.
Vula operatives also smuggled and hid large quantities of weapons into the country for use in the growing insurrection. It also made early use of telephone lines – well before the dawn of the internet – to transmit encrypted digital communication between South Africa, Zambia and London to allow near-instant command and decision-making in the fight against apartheid. The system allowed secret consultations between the exiled ANC leadership and Nelson Mandela, who was still jailed, although living in a warder’s house in the grounds of Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town.
The first Vula operative to re-enter South Africa in 1987 was Janet Love, a former white student activist with whom I had shared a house in the late 1970s before she went into exile. Love, who was initially responsible for setting up safe houses in Durban and Johannesburg, avoided capture for four years. Others quickly followed, linking with local underground networks, one of which was headed by current South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, and began to build the command and control structures the ANC needed to direct its revolution.
Several high profile ANC leaders – most of them also members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) – infiltrated back under Vula, after elaborately constructed alibis had been made for their absence from Lusaka and London. The cover for Mac Maharaj – Vula commander and veteran of Robben Island prison, where he transcribed most of Mandela’s memoirs – was that he’d suffered a medical collapse and had left for treatment in the USSR (detoxification, according to the Lusaka scuttlebutt). Soon afterwards, we heard that Kasrils had gone to Vietnam for treatment for a serious leg injury after a car crash. Collette and I, veteran Lusaka watchers, wondered at the coincidence of two close comrades, integral to the ANC’s underground activities, both leaving Lusaka at the same time. But we seemed to wonder alone, for subsequent events demonstrated that apartheid’s supposedly infallible intelligence system had completely bought the cover stories.
Chris Hani, a growing legend among rank and file South African exiles, whose assassination in early 1993, while general secretary of the communist party, triggered the final push in negotiations to end apartheid, was part of the Vula network. Even current South African President Jacob Zuma made a token appearance. At the time, Zuma was head of ANC intelligence, where he had acquired a reputation for extremely rough treatment of suspected apartheid spies, and a partner to fellow president-to-be Thabo Mbeki in secret talks with apartheid’s chief spy Neil Barnard.

Lifting 29-year ban on ANC
Then came FW de Klerk’s announcement on February 2, 1990 that his government was lifting the 29-year ban on the ANC and other black political organisations. Still unsure of how seriously to take De Klerk’s apparent olive branch – subsequent events would demonstrate the wisdom of this caution – the ANC decided to keep its underground structures, especially Vula, in place. So Maharaj, Kasrils and other leaders who were involved in Vula had to covertly leave South Africa so that they could openly “come home” as part of the ANC group granted indemnity from prosecution to participate in negotiations.
When Kasrils flew back into Johannesburg, I was at the airport, as a journalist, to meet him. We sat to chat for a few minutes, Kasrils with a walking stick to support the “injured” leg for which he’d received treatment in Vietnam. I surreptitiously checked the metal foot of his walking stick: it was virtually unmarked, confirming my assumption that he’d been in South Africa all along. By then, Collette and I knew that Maharaj had been back in the country, and we knew a little about Vula itself (although it would remain unknown to the security apparatus for another six months). For, in late 1989, Maharaj had made contact through Janet Love and came to our house and involved us on the fringes of Vula.
Collette and I were already ANC members – we had travelled to London to join the organisation in 1976 – at a time when membership earned a minimum of five years’ South African jail time (Robben Island if you were black, Pretoria Central if you were white) with some torture thrown in. White members at that time probably numbered fewer than 100 but, after the student rebellion of June that year, ANC ranks began swelling as hundreds, then thousands, of young black rebels left the country to join MK, along with a small, but steadily growing, flow of white democrats.
In late 1977, Collette and I returned to Johannesburg, having received rudimentary communications training, some useful counter-surveillance techniques, an explanation of a conceptual framework called MCW (Military Combat Work} which had been adopted from Soviet experiences. I was 24, Collette two years younger; we got day jobs – we were both journalists – and settled down to become underground operatives.
Underground work is best summed up by that adage about war: Interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror. We had some real missions – we did a fair bit of the reconnaissance for Operation Green Vegetables, an ambitious military plan that was eventually decreed by ANC President Oliver Tambo to be impractical. But most of our work was in was collecting information and writing reports – our night jobs were pretty much like our day jobs, except we worked wearing kitchen gloves, which made it infinitely more tedious.
We wrote in the middle of hot, sweaty nights, on manual typewriters, wearing kitchen gloves to avoid fingerprints. Then we burned the original reports after encoding them, using number groups from book codes (a page number, a line number, then count the words until the one you want), after which we photographed each page, and developed the negatives. Then we inserted the negatives into an innocuous item to be posted to a cover address, initially in London, but later in Zimbabwe.
When you don’t have nimble fingers, and are further encumbered by yellow kitchen gloves (we tried condoms, but they kept slipping off), inserting a few 35mm negatives into a box of tampons, resealing the box, and re-sealing the cellophane packaging can take hours. A box of chocolates, or the sealed end of a toothpaste tube, is equally challenging.
Mind-numbing tedium doesn’t begin to describe the process, especially when you add in the time and difficulty of caching and retrieving a typewriter (as identifiable as fingerprints), and the need to get everything done in one night so there is nothing incriminating lying around for accidental discovery. And, although preparing pamphlets – we did quite a few – doesn’t require inserting negatives into packets of domestic consumables, the inevitable kitchen gloves added hours to writing, inserting in envelopes and posting.

Our Kasrils’ connection
We’d worked for Kasrils (our first instructor in London) and Maharaj, and knew them both fairly well by 1989. At the time Collette was running a consumer complaints supplement for City Press, the Johannesburg Sunday paper, while I was a freelance journalist, writing for local weeklies and foreign dailies, and laying out and sub-editing the communist party’s Umsebenzi monthly newspaper. I was also involved in organising a campaign to stop the De Klerk government entrenching its control of the SABC as a propaganda organ for the minority government.
In July 1990, with negotiations for political integration inching forward, security police in the coastal province of Natal, captured two ANC operatives, Charles Ndaba and Mbuso Shabalala, and accidentally stumbled onto the Vula operation. They began rolling up parts of the network, capturing Gebhuza, the network commander in Durban. (Gebhuza was the nom-de-guerre of Siphiwe Nyanda, later South Africa’s Minister of Communications from 2009-10 and chief of the national defence force (SANDF) from 1998-2005.
Alerted to this – in addition to its pre-internet digital communications network, Vula made extensive use of pagers for secure messages – Kasrils and Maharaj dashed to Durban to immunise their networks. They were largely successful, but not before the police found documents setting out Vula’s objectives and identifying Maharaj, Chris Hani and Kasrils as part of the leadership. The network went to ground and waited. With their indemnity from arrest, the leaders decided to brazen it out. But three days later, the police grabbed Maharaj as he left the Johannesburg ANC offices. Hani, fortuitously, was in the Transkei – a notionally “independent” bantustan ruled over by a military government headed by ANC sympathiser Bantu Holomisa. He was thus at least partly safe. And when the police got Maharaj, Kasrils was also away from the office. Alerted to Maharaj’s arrest, he made his way to our house.
In his book, Armed and Dangerous (the title was taken from the SABC news item), Kasrils used our noms-de-guerre, “Sarah” and “Errol.” He even did the same for our dog, a diminutive-but-assertive mongrel with enormous eyebrows, which we named Frank. In Armed and Dangerous, Frank makes a brief appearance as “Max” (another of Kasrils’ cover names).
Kasrils had secure transport – he’d never used his own car when there was a possibility of surveillance. But he needed a safe hideaway, so spent the next few days with us. The first problem was that he was due to address a dinner of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association the following day. Kasrils thought he’d have to cancel; we argued that he didn’t need to, and it was important that he didn’t – De Klerk and his ministers were telling anyone who would listen that Vula was a communist party initiative intended to derail peace negotiations and seize power. It was important that someone in Vula was free to counter the propaganda.
We didn’t think the police would charge into the FCA lunch to arrest Kasrils (too much adverse publicity), so getting him in and out safely was the issue. Getting into the restaurant, located in a turn of the 20th-century mansion with parking shielded by many high trees, would be easy: lying on the floor of someone’s car, the police wouldn’t see him. But getting him out would require a bit of misdirection to get the police to follow the wrong vehicle – they wouldn’t have the resources to follow 50 journalists’ cars.
It worked perfectly. With the help of a friendly journalist, Amina Frense, a South African working as a producer for a German TV channel (she would, many years later, become Kasrils’ second wife), we got Kasrils into the restaurant and out again. I was waiting a few blocks away; Kasrils jumped out of his exit car, into mine, and the police didn’t even know he’d gone – the helicopter hovering above the restaurant didn’t spot a thing.
The foreign journos loved the deception and immediately dubbed him “The Red Pimpernel.” A week later we used a similar deception to get him in and out of the FNB football stadium – 20 years later it hosted the World Cup Final – where the communist party was relaunching. The 50,000 supporters attending loved it.


Meeting with foreign journalists
As one of my first tasks while Collette and I were hiding Kasrils, I had to arrange a meeting between Kasrils, Slovo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu about the exposure of Operation Vula, and how to handle President De Klerk’s resulting attempt to drive a wedge between the ANC and its communist party ally.
We couldn’t use our house as a venue, so I “borrowed” the home of a colleague, John Matisonn, NPR’s local correspondent, who was out of town for a few days. Our child-minding arrangement fell through at the last minute, so our boys – Luke and Cai – came along to the meeting.
We had a few worrying moments, disaster was narrowly averted when a bit of fast talking kept a security company’s armed response team (inexplicably dressed in red overalls) out of the property after we’d mis-keyed the alarm pad. At the same time, bodyguards accompanying Mandela and Sisulu were checking out the garden, armed with AK-47s. They hadn’t been back in South Africa for long, and wouldn’t have responded well to seeing pistol-waving men in red overalls storming down the driveway.
We managed to keep the competing arsenals apart and the meeting went ahead with only minor mishaps. Mandela, I suspect, regretted telling Collette that “You people didn’t know how to cook our food.” Having prepared dozens of meals for striking trade unionists and in-hiding activists, Collette knew full well how to prepare appropriate meals, and bluntly rejected what she described as Mandela’s racist stereotyping. Mandela ate every morsel she put on his plate.
A few minutes later he invited our son, Cai, not quite two and well overdue for his afternoon nap, onto his lap. Cai climbed up, then immediately vomited on to the great man. He still dines out on his contribution to the Mandela legend.
Kasrils was re-connected to the ANC leadership, but the police were still hunting him. He stayed with us for the next few weeks, venturing out regularly to nurture underground networks and who-knows-what-else. He particularly enjoyed phoning journalists from call boxes to offer unsolicited interviews in which he contested the apartheid government’s interpretation of events, challenged inaccurate media analysis, and generally mocked the regime’s inability to catch him.
Having engaged in endless debate about the relative merits and class bases of football and rugby (he is a lifelong Arsenal supporter and, until then, a class snob about rugby’s origins), we arranged for a friend to take him to Ellis Park to watch a provincial rugby game. The resulting media coverage – Kasrils told several journalists about having been to the game – was probably the high point of his “armed and dangerous” period propaganda. The rigorously pro-apartheid Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport ran a cartoon of him, with trademark bushy eyebrows, dressed as a woman with enormous balloons under his dress, chatting to a policeman as he searched the stadium for “the Red Pimpernel.” Even apartheid’s own media were mocking its efforts.
As the De Klerk government furiously withdrew the indemnity granted to Kasrils, Maharaj and Hani, we moved Kasrils to different safe houses – he stayed with a group of nuns, with several journalists, with the parents of a friend of my son Luke, a banker, and an archaeologist.

Ronnie Kasrils

Ronnie Kasrils

Attempt to split ANC and communists
The November “armed and dangerous” TV piece was linked to the decision to charge Maharaj and Gebhuza in court – a crass and clumsy attempt by the right-wing securocrats who dominated De Klerk’s government to force a split between the ANC and the communist party. The initiative was never going to work, despite what appeared to be some covert approval by associates of Thabo Mbeki, who later succeeded Mandela as the country’s president.
Kasrils kept himself as busy as he was able, phoning journalists, making his way to a rendezvous with Hani in the Transkei, developing a manual for the ANC-aligned “self-defence units” in black townships, and other activities that he didn’t share with us. But the months dragged on. And, with 30-odd years of intense, continuous activity behind him, Kasrils was getting antsy. It manifested, whenever he came or stayed over, in his consumption of vast amounts of whisky. Like most professional spooks and politicians, his capacity was apparently open-ended. Mine wasn’t.
Collette thought the writing of his autobiography would be an effective outlet for Kasrils’ energy and quietly set about nudging him into thinking it was his idea. She did, he did, and an early draft of the first few chapters of Armed and Dangerous was the result.
By 1991 it was clear our task of minding Kasrils was winding down when the case against Maharaj and Gebhuza collapsed, and De Klerk’s attempt to cast Vula as a “Red Plot” ran out of steam. Then, in March that year, I attended a press conference at Mandela’s Soweto home, where the president-in-waiting introduced to the public the formerly covert leadership of the Vula network. A few days later, the operatives were granted indemnity from prosecution, and Kasrils and Maharaj’s previous indemnities were reinstated.
In closing, it is essential to note that our experiences, however intense, were not typical of the thousands of South Africans who lost their lives or liberty – or of the hundreds of thousands who risked doing so – in the struggle to topple apartheid. As white South Africans, we had that first layer of protection: we didn’t look like the enemy.

David Niddrie is a Johannesburg-based former journalist, now working as a media consultant

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of ColdType magazine – http://coldtype.net – For a free subscription to ColdType, email editor@coldtype.net

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