Ronnie Kasrils and Operation Vula
POM - O Malley, South African History Archives
MM - Mac Maharaj
POM I'm conscious of the time.I won't say the story was so funny but since you'd said, or recounted last week, that is the entry of Ronnie Kasrils into Vula because I had just finished going through Armed and Dangerous again and there is a slight disjuncture between your account of his entry and his movements and yours. If you could just tell it the way you told it the last time, we'll edit it down. It was just so funny.
MM We'll see how we'll use it at the end. I don't think that the purpose of any writing should be to destroy a person.
POM But it's funny.
MM The question of Ronnie joining the team was settled.
POM You were looking for Jacob Zuma.
MM I had recommended that they give us Jacob Zuma knowing that Chris had been earmarked from the start of Vula for Cape Province and knowing Natal and the problems in Natal also I thought that Jacob Zuma was the right person. In my meeting in Moscow with OR, OR explained to me that he could not release Zuma. He was one of the few Zulus in the leadership and by that time he was heading the ANC Intelligence section and he had just been brought in as head of ANC Intelligence, so he could not spare him. The upshot of that discussion was that he and I and Joe Slovo agreed that he would release Ronnie Kasrils. So in Lusaka Joe Slovo, Ronnie and I, Joe Slovo had obviously told Ronnie already that he is selected. By this time OR had his stroke. Whether OR called in Ronnie, as he said, and spoke to him I don't know but I know that Joe Slovo was certainly one more person and that I am introduced to Ronnie in Lusaka as having been informed by Joe Slovo. That's where we discussed that I had been at home all this time, that Ronnie has now been selected to join me and the team at home, and I had already stipulated that if Ronnie is to be sent I don't want him to go for any further training. My view was already very firm that all the training we were receiving while at a rudimentary level was useful, I don't believe that the application of that training could be taken further by more intensive training abroad, we needed training on the ground to come to grips with the realities here.
So the first issue that arose was how then we were to prepare Ronnie's legend and how we were to prepare his entry and within what time frames. From my point of view it needed to be done tomorrow because there's no further training. We agreed to meet within a day or two where Ronnie would have thought through and mooted some proposal about his legend of disappearing and how he would enter the country. When we met him next time we tossed around and concluded on a legend which would be that he was going to go to Vietnam on a visit and that it would be reported that he's met an accident in Vietnam while travelling around Vietnam seriously injured and therefore hospitalised. We thought that we would be able to find a convincing legend on that basis because he would have to fly to Vietnam, through Moscow and could disappear anywhere on that route and Vietnam being so remote an outpost it would be possible to sustain that later.
The question of entry home became problematic and became quite a tussle because the mechanisms that he was advocating were very complex and required enormous support structures. Finally I challenged him by saying that you've got forged passports, you've used them for travelling in and out of Swaziland, do you have any that you can use for SA? And he had. I then said, "Fly into Jo'burg airport." He was sceptical of it until I said, "But how am I here? I do two things. I cross on foot otherwise I fly in and out of Jo'burg airport. That's how I do it." He insisted then that if it was to be by flying in that the critical question was who would be there to meet him and the condition he put in that discussion was that I should personally be there. I found that very difficult because I found that completely contrary to the underground rules. Here was a person known outside coming in, he could lead to us and there were we, a network inside the country, up to that stage undetected by the regime. So any element that would bring instability and detection would come from that side, from his entry, rather than from our side and our protection should be to protect first the network and then secure his entry. But he insisted that I should be there. He felt he wouldn't be safe unless I'm there. And we agreed on it.
Part of the agreement was that he would give me the day he would be coming, the airline he would be coming and the time of arrival so that I could ensure that there is surveillance and protection at Jo'burg airport. As it happened we knew he was coming in through, I think, Austrian Airlines, the last leg of his flight was going to be from Vienna and it would have probably been Vienna or Egypt, he could have taken a hop to Egypt and come in on Al Italia. We didn't get the precise date. We got the airline as far as I recall but we didn't get the date and time of arrival. This meant that we had to go to Jo'burg airport two or three days running, taking the enormous risk of my own exposure to receive him.
The second thing was that in the arrangements we had said that he would have to find his own way by public transport with those courtesy coaches to get to Sandton Holiday Inn and that he would find under his door that night a message saying where and what time he should be at some other spot the next day. That such a message would be put in if conditions are safe. If conditions are not safe, if we have detected detection of him and any danger signals then in the absence of a message he should simply get out of the way to Botswana and live there quietly while we re-establish contact to get him in safely.
We see him arrive, we see him go to Holiday Inn, we see that everything is safe and we slip a note to him that the next day, I think it was about 10 – 11 in the morning, he should find his way from Sandton by taxi to Hyde Park and then he should walk down Jan Smuts Avenue heading towards Randburg. If you are heading from Hyde Park to Randburg he should walk, it's a dual carriage highway, and he should walk on the pavement on the right hand side. That is the pavement where the traffic was coming in the opposite direction. This would help him with regards to any surveillance and it would help us if we detected surveillance how to get him away because any surveillance by a vehicle would be moving down the opposite lane, any surveillance by foot would be very easily detected because it's a gentle downhill. After about two kilometres walk he would come to a spot where he would see a Wimpy Bar across the road. Now this Wimpy Bar is situated on a hill so that when you're in the Wimpy Bar you're looking out into the whole road with a broad view. So in that Wimpy Bar he would find a person and make contact with him.
But again he had stipulated that I should meet him, so it became my job to meet him. I didn't want to expose him to others so my surveillance of him, my own security was very limited to people. I think Gebhuza was in Durban at that time and I didn't want people to know it's Ronnie Kasrils. But as I drove down on the opposite lane and came up in different routes I saw that his walking behaviour was such that it already looked like a person who feels he's doing something shady, constantly looking over his shoulder. There are none of these shop windows, it's just bare veldt besides there and a few buildings, deep recessed buildings, houses, etc., and some office blocks, but none of them with windows on the pavement that he can use and this James Bond thing where you look in the window and you can see the back and you're not turning around. But here he was constantly looking over his shoulder and I came to the conclusion that this was becoming too risky. So I drove on the lane on his side, coming up towards him. I was alone in the car driving, drove up in the car and pulled up directly next to him and leaned over, opened the passenger door and asked him to jump in. He was taken aback and it's only when I talked to him that he began to recognise my voice. I said, "Get in, get in! Don't waste time."
So he jumped in the car, I took him to this hideout in Rosebank, the garage, not the one where the trap door is, the garage with the Canadian couple, said to him, "Now look, Ronnie, we live in this garage. It's got a shower, kitchen, all the basics of life, nothing luxurious." An old car garage converted into a bed sitter, a kitchenette, a toilet and a shower and opening out into a back yard, garden. I said, "The front house is occupied by a foreign couple." I think I must have mentioned the Canadian couple. "But they don't know my identity but they are comrades whose job is to secure us renting places, but they don't know our identity and we stay away from them so that if anything ever went wrong no intimate relations can be established to have existed between us", and, as I've explained earlier, I'm just a tenant who had responded to a newspaper advert. I might have even said that they were members of the Canadian Communist Party. I said to him, "Now relax, you've travelled, you've been living under some tension. Here you can relax, be in the garden, everything is there. I'm going out on work, I'll be back later in the afternoon."
When I come back in the afternoon the couple in the front house are excited. I don't think they are doing anything wrong. They say, "This is fantastic", they had been leading a very lonely life. I never sat and even had a meal with them but here they said, "Here's this comrade and he's Ronnie Kasrils, the Ronnie Kasrils." I said, "What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you know about him?" "No he told us"' "When did he tell you?" "No, he's been sitting with us, we've been chatting for hours." Completely contrary to the rules. I go into the garage and I'm already fuming over all this whole build up and I'm due to have a discussion with him, "Why didn't you communicate the information to us so that we could do the operation meeting?" And when I walk in I find tins of mussels open, empty, he's eaten. Now these were not in the storeroom. I said, "Where did you get that?" He's excited, he says, "I've had a wonderful meal." "But where did you get these mussels from?" "No, I went out and shopped."
I said, "Sit down, Ronnie, let's discuss."And I put my criticism, my observations. I said, "I'm making these criticisms that you're now living in the real world of danger, in a real underground. You're not living in Angola, not in Lusaka where you have the government shielding you. Here you are in the belly of the enemy. You are a specialist MCW, you're going to be training other people. How do you handle this? Let's talk about the principles of it. What's the principle in how you came in? I don't want to fight with you.This risk to take charge of receiving you at Jo'burg, but I've taken it, it's a great risk to the structure because if I get caught and I break down under torture I reveal the network. You get caught, you reveal me. Firstly, you didn't tell us the day you were coming, you didn't tell us the time of arrival and you forced us to go backwards and forwards. Secondly, I picked you up in the road because I felt that your conduct was indicative that you were concerned about something. So rather than wait for you to go in the Wimpy Bar and extend the danger I decided to do something by intercepting you quickly. And I bring you here and I brief you and as soon as I go away out you go as soon as the neighbours arrive, you go and talk and you tell them that you're Ronnie Kasrils. Here's all the food, yes it's bread and butter and cheese and tomatoes, but the first thing you think about is your own stomach, you don't think about the security of this place which is my personal hideout. So it's not known to people and by walking, even though you're disguised, what you're doing is you're endangering us, you haven't even reconnoitred, you haven't asked me for a briefing as to what is the way to conduct yourself in this environment. If underground operatives do it this way and you teach them, what happens to the structure? Within days it's gone."
That was a very harsh discussion but the next thing after we discussed that quite harshly and the issue that arose was personally so critical of him, I then said to him that in the light of the situation the plans were that he should now go down to Durban and there he would meet Gebhuza and a fairly viable structure, command structure, political, military, properly constituted military committee and properly constituted political structure, a very good intelligence network, a good propaganda network and a widespread network. So I said, "Now, the idea is that you go down to Durban and you work in those structures for a few months. It's the best way to acclimatise you and get you to grips with the problem." OK, he was very happy because he used to be in Durban years before he left the country in 1964/65, so he was very happy with that prospect.
But then he raised the question of how he was to go down to Durban. I said we'd provide him with a car and he would drive down and he immediately began to raise questions about firearms and escort. So I tell him, "Again, let's go back to your underground rules, you've got a British passport, you're a tourist. Your legend is you're a tourist. How do I give you an illegal Makarov pistol? If you are stopped at any roadblock and they search you, a pistol contradicts the legend of this passport. That's out." And he could not comprehend that at times I would be travelling with no firearm. I said, "But you can't use it. Once you do your legend and have other things on youthat undermine your legend." So his fallback was, "What about an armed escort?" I said, "Where are we living? We're not living in Angola. We're here, there's no space to be moving around in convoys and armed escorts." He found it unacceptable. So I said, "Look, I'll be meeting you there. I'llbe on the road." So he said, "But then somebody must be with me in my car." And the upshot was that I offered him Janet Love. I said, "I'll give you a driver. It'll fit your legend. She's white, you're white. You look like a couple and she has got a legend also that she's a tourist from abroad. She's got passports so she's a tourist, you're a tourist. You've met up and you're travelling as a couple." He was very happy with that when I said Janet would be there.
We made arrangements that we would meet outside the last toll plaza on the way to Durban which is on the outskirts of Durban, called Marionhill, but on the route I said our paths would criss-cross, I would overtake them at times just to see everything's all right and then slow down and they would go ahead but we should not talk to each other or do like we know each other. So we would not be travelling one behind the other. The last time I saw them was at the Harrismith filling station. I had pulled in there and found that they were already there, obviously they were filling up, relaxing, it's an open garage, restaurant, other facilities. I saw them there, I filled up and decided I should leave before they did. I should not be in front of them to see how's the terrain. Before I reached Tugela Pass or after Tugela Pass, either before or after, it's now very open flat terrain, it's the Natal Midlands, you're out of the Drakensberg, and we can see ahead on that road, on that dual carriageway, for kilometres behind you and in front of you and beside of you. No trees, no forest. I'm getting tired, feeling sleepy and decide I'll park on the open road, on the shoulder. They obviously had to go past me. It's so isolated and bare that they would see me and that even if they stopped with concern there would be no risk, they could see whether there are cars behind them, they could see whether there were oncoming cars and they could investigate and that way I would be up.
I dropped asleep comfortable thinking I don't need to set an alarm or anything and I woke up late in the afternoon, hours later and nobody had stopped. So I looked at my watch and said, "Good God, three, four hours have elapsed."By now we should have been in Durban. I speculate what's happened, have they been arrested? Have they had a car accident? Are they in hospital? What has happened? So I drive back on this dual carriageway all the way back to Harrismith trying to see whether anything untoward has happened. Then I drive back now on the highway on my side, on the side that they would have been travelling and I return to the spot where I had fallen asleep. No sign of accidents, no sign of any untoward activity. I say to myself, "Bastard, they passed me and they didn't even see me." And if they saw me in my vehicle then I'm even more worried that they didn't bother to stop to check. But now Marionhill is 230 odd kilometres away so they are supposed to be standing waiting there in a very open car park with no restaurants, nothing, it's at the toll plaza. The sort of cars that stand there are somebody who wants to go to the toilet or somebody who wants to stretch their legs because they're tired, but you don't have a car standing there for three, four hours unless it's broken down.
So I now break the traffic rules, speed, am in a hurry to get to Marionhill because it's the next point I'll find out whether there's danger or if something has happened. I get to Marionhill, it's already dark. There's no car there. Now I'm worried about their safety. So I push on to Durban and I go to Mo Shaik, the security guy, the intelligence guy, "Mo, anything unusual, any signs amongst the Security Branch something is happening?" He has his ways to check, he says, "Nothing, Security Branch are going on as normal." Then I say, "Have you heard from Janet?" because Mo and Janet were in touch. He says, "No." No pager messages? No. Those were before the cell phones. Now I say to myself, the house where we were to accommodate him was – a Dutchman had come in and had hired a place. I didn't know the location of the house, so I say, "Is it possible that Ronnie has gone there and that therefore he has made some independent arrangements behind my back with this Dutchman?" That's the only shot I've got, there's no other place where do I find him. If Janet has acquired a pager in Durban I don't know her number to send a pager message to signal to. So in that desperate situation I turn to Mo, "Do you know of a foreigner who is occupying a clandestine house and that house is unused?" "Oh", he says, "Yes, I think there is a house like that. A foreigner, possibly a Dutchman." I said, "Yes." Oh yes, the following address.
So I go it's there after eight at night, eight, nine. I'm taking a chance, I'm exposing myself and in the underground rules what do you do when a stranger walks in and you're hiding, you've got a safe house and a stranger unknown to you walks in and says - has a couple arrived here? Your first suspicion is that these are policemen.Anyway I take the chance, I go there and because I know something of his background I ring the bell and I ask if I can come in and I sit down with him and I spend a few minutes talking to him establishing my bona fides. I then say to him, "Has a couple come through here?" And he says, "Yes." I said, "Where are they?" "Don't know, they went out. I think they've gone to a restaurant." I said, "Do you know a pager number for any of them, where I can reach them?" He says, "Oh yes." So he makes a call on the pager to Janet to call him back urgently and Janet after a few minutes calls and he hands the phone to me and I say, "Where are you guys?" She says, "We're at the beachfront in a marvellous restaurant having a lovely meal." I said, I am now really angry, "I want you to be here in half an hour." "Can't we see you after?" I said, "No ways, you come immediately." And they come. I take them in a separate room away from the Dutchman and I say, "What is this, this conduct? You seem to be unconcerned whether something has happened to me. You seem to be living in a world where everything is running smoothly. Did you ever think that I might have met an accident? We were supposed to meet at Marionhill. I'm not there and maybe you waited for a long time. Don't you think, wait a minute, he's arrested or he's in an accident, he's in a hospital, and if any of those thoughts hit you would you be sitting and eating in a restaurant? Wouldn't you see danger coming to you?" Another bit of discussion. Of course Janet felt shameful and it transpired that all that happened is that they didn't even notice me by the roadside. They had been so interested in chatting with each other and Ronnie so excited to be at home that all the antennae to tell you to look for danger and unusual signs were forgotten.
(Break in recording)