Newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela has appointed to his Cabinet a longtime Jewish political activist who says he was inspired in part by the Jewish underground in pre-state Palestine.
Member of Parliament Ronnie Kasrils, former head of intelligence of the armed wing of the African National Congress, was appointed deputy minister of defense in South Africa’s Government of National Unity.
Kasrils is the second Jew to be appointed to the new South African Cabinet. He joins Housing Minister Joe Slovo, with whom Kasrils was closely associated during the anti-aparthied struggle.
Both men also hold high office in the South African Communist Party, which as part of its ideology sought full human rights for all South Africans.
Kasrils, a controversial and flamboyant figure in South African politics, has been a member of the ANC since the 1960s. During that time, he took part in sabotage operations against the apartheid regime before escaping into exile.
Based in London, he operated throughout Africa and took part in the training of ANC soldier in Cuba, the former East Germany and the Soviet Union prior to returning to South Africa.
He then served undercover before being granted immunity by the governing authorities.
Kasrils said in an interview that one source of inspiration while serving in the underground came from reading about the Jewish underground operating in Palestine during the years of the British mandate.
“We read those books about the Irgun, about Menachem Begin,” Kasrils said. “It’s one of those books we studied in the early 1960s in the (resistance) camps.”
During Kasrils’ period in hiding, police called him one of South Africa’s most wanted men. The media dubbed him “the Red Pimpernel” because of his penchant for surfacing periodically to make statements to the news media.
CRITICIZED IN SYNAGOGUE FOR BEING A COMMUNIST
Kasrils made headlines shortly before South Africa’s first all-race elections, held in late April, when he was the Friday night guest of a Johannesburg rabbi and attended a service at a local synagogue.
He said he was disillusioned by the reaction of some congregants, who criticized the presence of “a Communist” at the synagogue.
Kasrils, who was born in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Yeoville in Johannesburg and had his Bar Mitzvah in the Yeoville Synagogue, comes from a strong Jewish background.
“My initial political consciousness in a sense stemmed from the (second world) war and from being Jewish, but that was coupled with the suffering of black people in this country.
“I was aware that there was a war going on and that Jews, particularly, were suffering in Europe,” Kasrils recalled.
“I was bringing home questions about the Nazis,” he said.
“My mother explained to me why the Jews were being persecuted and I drew the analogy with the suffering of black people in this country and racism.
“My mother was not a political person, but she agreed that black people were being treated in an inhuman way — and there was the paralled with anti-Semitism and the suffering of the Jews in Europe,” he said.
“It is clear that I inherited what I can now identify as a Jewish humanist tradition,” said Kasrils.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.