EXTRACT: Ronnie Kasrils's 'Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel'

In 'Catching Tadpoles', Ronnie Kasrils answers the question that he has been asked innumerable times: “What made a young white boy give up privilege and join the liberation struggle?”

Ronnie Kasrils. Picture: Supplied.

_In his memoir "Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel", Ronnie Kasrils takes the reader on a ride through his childhood set against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa. His family is warm and supportive and teach him to be sensitive to injustice. Ronnie at the age of 21 gives up a life of privilege for one of danger and sacrifice, including 27 years living in exile while working for the ANC. He was also one of the founding members of Umkhonto we Sizwe in Natal in 1961. _

_This is an extract of from the book. _

Chapter 22 Sharpeville
March 21st, 1960

While I was busy grappling with philosophical questions about the individual, 21 January 1960 witnessed a dramatic outburst of violence in the Durban township of Cato Manor. The police were on a campaign to destroy the home-made beer production of African women, which provided some income for them. In the course of a brutal raid angry women and their menfolk in support rose up and nine policemen were hacked to death. In the subsequent trial of those involved in the attack the advocates for the defence stated that you can have your foot stamped on 999 times without reacting but the 1 000th time can result in a deadly outburst.

Within three days a horrific mining disaster at Coalbrook in which 435 miners perished illustrated the appalling safety conditions in the mining industry and the huge profits made on the bones of exploited black miners. The miners were suffocated by methane gas and crushed to death by rockfall. Many miners had attempted to leave the mine at the first sign of trouble but had been ordered back to work.

Two apparently diverse incidents within three days of one another were illustrative of the calamitous situation in South Africa. More epic drama was soon to unfold. The country was a powder-keg with a short fuse. The mood among South Africa’s oppressed was reaching an explosive moment. The rising tension did not reach the white suburbs other than in newspaper reports, which sparsely covered an ANC-organised strike at the end of 1959; news of the PAC’s breakaway at the time; a call by both organisations for mass action against the pass laws with the PAC attempting to outdo the ANC, which believed in proper preparation before action. White South Africa, as ever, was in a state of soporific denial.

There was some tension at Alpha Film Studios when policemen arrived to arrest one of the labourers who it was said had been involved in fermenting riotous behaviour in the nearby township. When I spoke to the workers I learned that the situation was worsening, with police raids becoming more brutal. They showed me some ANC leaflets which had been distributed calling on the people to prepare for the pass-burning campaign. Discussions at drinking sessions and parties with friends from the black media such as writers Lewis Nkosi, Nat Nakasa, Bloke Modisane and Can Themba were becoming increasingly frenetic. The central debate revolved around the rivalry between the ANC and PAC and impending resistance which they explained was responsible for the increased police repression as the authorities sought to pre-empt action. The police were becoming increasingly trigger-happy and were particularly nervous following the Cato Manor killings. A peasant rebellion in Pondoland erupted against government-imposed Bantu chiefs and guns were used by the resistance. The British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, addressing South Africa’s parliament, warned of the ‘wind of change’ blowing through Africa and said his country could not support South Africa’s racist laws.

I was becoming more and more impatient with my circle of friends, black and white, because while everybody decried the state of affairs no one seemed to have any interest in becoming involved in the anticipated storm. The white media, fearing a revolution, felt that the answer was to remove the architect of apartheid, and that was the country’s Prime Minister, Dr Verwoerd. The main mouthpieces of business, The Rand Daily Mail, the Star and The Sunday Times, kept up a concerted campaign under the banner headline: Verwoerd Must Go! It seemed something had to give. Verwoerd survived an attempted assassination when he was wounded by David Pratt, a white farmer, early in April but, like most individual acts, the system survived.

March 21, 1960 started off as a quiet day at Alpha. Nothing spectacular was happening. Then Lee Marcus entered my office, looking pale and drawn.

‘Have you heard about the shootings?’ she asked me, her eyes troubled.

‘No-o-o?’ I replied, sensing something awful.

‘I’ve just heard on my car radio. Dozens of Africans have been shot by the police at Sharpeville…’ Before I could ask, ‘Where is that?’ she added, ‘It’s a township near Vereeniging.’

‘Merde!’ Madeleine Anderson interjected in French which she seldom used. ‘Those trigger-happy bastards.’
I wandered around in a state of rage and shock. We tuned into the BBC for more reliable news. Africans had been demonstrating against the pass laws outside the Sharpeville police station and had been shot down without provocation. The final count was 69 dead and 179 wounded. The victims were men, women and children – all unarmed. Many had been shot in the back as they fled. We could hear and see military spotter planes buzzing about the sky, and this added to my fury. The black workers were standing around, talking earnestly among themselves. I went to commiserate. They told me: ‘This is South Africa. Amapoyisa yi’zinja’ (the police are dogs).

The white studio technicians, English- and Afrikaans-speaking artisans, were all gathered together to keep up the spirit. It was as though everyone realised that we were in the middle of a national crisis and uncertain of the consequences. They grinned inanely at me and jeered: ‘Moenie worry, boetie. You will be in the trenches with the rest of us. Ons wit ous have to sink or swim together.’

In the following days my mood turned impatient. One intense argument followed another with family, friends and colleagues. Although my Hillbrow friends, from Norman to Gloria and Madeleine, were disturbed, I sensed they felt I was going overboard. My friend Vic Katz said I frightened him with all my talk and he didn’t want to get into such discussions. After all, what could be done? Outside my immediate circle, few whites showed any sensitivity – the general view being: ‘We should machine-gun the lot of them.’

The African workers at Alpha struggled to hide their anger. It was some consolation for my sense of frustration when they showed me ANC leaflets denouncing the shootings and calling for nation-wide protests and pass burnings. There were photographs of Chief Luthuli and Nelson Mandela burning their passes. This made me feel part of some cause aimed at challenging the injustice, but I felt the impotence of the spectator. A march of 30,000 Africans on Parliament in Cape Town, apparently inspired by the PAC, resulted in the government announcing the temporary suspension of the pass laws. Lee Marcus interpreted this as a panic-stricken measure and for the first time I had the glimmer of what mass protest could achieve. However, within a day, as though to compensate for the sign of weakness, a state of emergency was declared, followed by the banning of the ANC and PAC. Robert Sobukwe, the PAC leader, and 30 of his followers were arrested and soon thereafter leading ANC people were pounced on. I watched British-made Saracen armoured cars racing through the streets to nearby Alexandra township while aeroplanes continued to buzz overhead.

What could be done? I was dismayed to discover that there were no answers forthcoming from my circle. The one change was that the drinking got heavier. I accused my friends of ‘fiddling while Sharpeville and Alex burned’. I realised I had been fooling myself. It was not possible to live life as a free and independent agent within a system that produced atrocities like Sharpeville. I felt I’d been basking in self-indulgent luxury. I cursed myself for not having responded to Robert Resha and Duma Nokwe to give the ANC some of my spare time. The newspapers spoke of thousands of arrests throughout the country, including leading members of the ANC-led liberation movement. What could be done? What could I do? Even if it was the small task of sticking up posters which I had previously thought made no difference? Now with the country burning and people in jail any act of defiance, no matter how small, had some meaning.

From the time I had left Marks and Kaplan I don’t think I had donned a suit and tie once. Now I stood outside the magistrate’s courts in formal business attire carrying my old briefcase. From a safe distance I was eyeing Chancellor House, the offices of Mandela and Tambo. The news had reported that the latter had slipped abroad on ANC orders to mobilise support from abroad and that the former had been detained. But no news, as far as I could tell, about Robert Resha. I had decided therefore to seek him out at the address he had given me.

To my dismay there was huge activity outside Chancellor House. There must have been six police cars parked outside the building. A large crowd had gathered and at least a score of policemen, some in plain clothes, were keeping onlookers at a suitable distance. Cars were being prohibited from using the street. But there were no police in the vicinity of the alleyway to the rear of the building which led to the back rooms that Resha had directed me to. Should I risk going around the block and enter from that direction? Then I saw the policeman who had arrested me outside the cinema after the Bill Hayley movie – Van Schalkwyk. To me that seemed to have taken place ages ago. I opted for boldness and walked confidently in his direction. He recognised me immediately, clearly thinking I was now an attorney. He was effusive in his greeting and asked how I was getting along. I told him fine though very busy indeed. He told me I couldn’t be as busy as they were with all the nonsense that the ‘ANCees’ were up to. He pronounced the word as though the ‘ANCees’ were a collective noun for persons.

‘And what’s going on here?’ I asked him.

He puffed out his chest and, giving me a broad wink, explained that they had escorted ‘the top oke’ of the ANC from die tronk in Pretoria to wind up his office.

‘Which oke is that?’ I asked.

‘The Agitator-in Chief – the bliksem Nelson Mandela,’ he replied. ‘And what happens after that?’ I asked.
‘Back to the cozy cells of Pretoria where the rest of his crowd are being entertained courtesy of the state.’

That was all I needed to know. For sure Resha and Nokwe must have been detained as well. In fact that was the case and although they were being held under the emergency regulations, they were also the last remaining group still facing trial for treason.

I couldn’t help noticing a huge, bull-necked policeman smirking with his cronies. Not the kind of man you would like to get stuck in a lift with. His close-cropped red hair was as distinctive as his girth. Van Schalkwyk noticed me looking at him and remarked: ‘That’s our secret weapon to smash the communists. Rooi Rus Swanepoel. The oke knows all about the Russians. He can knock down an ox with a single blow.’

The brute loped over, sizing me up and down. Van Schaikwyk told him I was an attorney. He looked at me with cold eyes, nodded, and left us, an unsmiling psychopath. Shelley’s lines from his ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, about Lord Castlereagh, the perpetrator of the Peterloo massacre, ran through my mind:

I met murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked yet grim;
Seven blood hounds followed him.

The man became the most vicious interrogator as the liberation struggle intensified. I personally knew comrades who died at his hands.

As I was leaving Van Schalkwyk asked whether I was still rock and rolling. I said no, but that anyway the new dance craze in America was the Twist. I told him it would probably take a year before it reached South Africa. He showed a surprising sense of humour. ‘Whatever the case, Mr Kasrils, don’t twist too much,’ he advised with another huge wink. ‘Best to keep to the straight and narrow.’

Ronnie Kasrils' memoir Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel will be launched at the following venues across the country:

Exclusive Books Hyde Park, Johannesburg – 7 November 2019
Kalk Bay Books, Cape Town – 12 November 2019
The Book Lounge, Cape Town – 14 November 2019
Exclusive Books Nelspruit – 19 November 2019
Fogarty’s, Port Elizabeth – 20 November 2019
Adam’s Bookshop, Pietermaritzburg – 26 November 2019
Ike’s Books, Durban – 28 November 2019
Love Books, Johannesburg – 3 December 2019
Arrival for all launches is 6pm.