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BOOKS Portrait of the rebel as a young man

MARJORIE MAYO recommends an outstanding memoir from the great South African communist Ronnie Kasrils

Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel
by Ronnie Kasrils
(Jacana, £16.95)

“THIS fine book illustrates that [the] rebel child is father to the revolutionary man,” is how writer and anti-apartheid militant Mongane Wally Serote describes this compelling story of Ronnie Kasrils’s early years in South Africa.

Through this memoir of his childhood and youth, Kasrils explores the experiences that impelled the “boykie” from Yeoville, Johannesburg, to become a bolshevik ANC guerrilla, anti-apartheid fighter and underground operative before becoming a government minister in post-apartheid South Africa.

In what’s an absolutely captivating read, he tells the story of the “cheeky chappie” who grew up to become known as the Red Pimpernel for his exploits in the liberation struggle, evading capture by the South African security forces as he did so.  

Kasrils was born in 1938 to parents who were Jewish immigrants from Latvia. They went to South Africa in search of economic opportunities and to escape from the pogroms terrorising Jewish communities in Eastern Europe around the turn of the last century.

He grew up in a supportive family in a Jewish neighbourhood, where he learned about the horrors of the Holocaust and became only too aware of the continuing impact of anti-semitism.

Although he was initially attracted to zionist youth movements as a result, he came to question the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinians, developing the critical understanding of the parallels with apartheid South Africa that underpins his continuing support for Palestinian rights.

Kasrils’s secondary school was rigid and authoritarian, though he remembers one outstanding teacher who stimulated his interest in historical struggles for freedom, and, excelling at athletics, he loved sports.

But the school’s rigid disciplinary regime provoked feelings of rebellion and anger at injustice and it’s no wonder that he subsequently greatly enjoyed the freedom of life and loves in bohemian cultural circles in Cape Town and elsewhere.

Moving back to Johannesburg and later to Durban, he went on to work in the film industry as a script writer and director.

By this time, he was becoming increasingly interested in Marxism rather than the more individualistic existentialist understandings of freedom that had previously attracted his interest.

The definitive turning point came with the Sharpeville Massacre of 69 unarmed black African men, women and children, and the wounding of 179 others, in March 1960. He realised that it was not possible “to live life as a free and independent agent within a system that produced atrocities like Sharpeville.”

He became the freedom fighter whose memoirs of struggle were recounted in his first book Armed and Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to Freedom. It was published in 1993, the year before his appointment as minister of defence in Nelson Mandela’s first democratic South African government.

The factors that led to his engaging in the armed struggle were initially inspired by the universal morality that had been passed on to him by his mother and grandmother, together with his father’s humane attitude to his Asian customers.

His rebelliousness at school gave him the guts to stand up for his rights, while sport strengthened his stamina and appreciation for teamwork. Friends and relatives encouraged his cultural and intellectual interests, including his developing interest in Marxist ideas.

“And then came Sharpeville… the rest is history,” Kasrils writes.

His remarkable account, told with such humour and style, is perfect reading in these extraordinary times.

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