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Boeke | Books > Kennisgewings | Notices > English

Former Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, and upcoming young novelist, Sifiso Mzobe, honoured with Sunday Times Literary Awards


Winning authors Sifiso Mzobe (left) and Ronnie Kasrils (right)
Photo: Kevin Sutherland (Sunday Times)

JOHANNESBURG, June 26, 2011 – Former Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, and upcoming young novelist, Sifiso Mzobe, last night emerged as the country’s new Sunday Times Literary Award winners and both authors received R75 000 for their wins. South Africa’s literary giants celebrated the announcement of the Awards at the stylish Summer Place in Hyde Park, Johannesburg.

Ronnie Kasrils was honoured with the prestigious 22nd Alan Paton Award for The Unlikely Secret Agent (published by Jacana), a memoir, based on the life of his late wife, Eleanor Kasrils, who was a leading figure in the anti-apartheid struggle.

The Fiction Prize, celebrating its 11th year, was awarded to the young word magician from Kwazulu-Natal, Sifiso Mzobe, for Young Blood (published by Kwela), a novel based on a seventeen-year-old who is caught up in a world of car theft, money, alcohol and greed in Umlazi, Kwazulu-Natal.

Dr Xolela Mangcu, chairman of this year’s Alan Paton Awards judging panel praised Kasrils and had the following to say about his accomplishment: “The Unlikely Secret Agent is a moving testimony and a wonderful tribute to a courageous woman – a white woman of privilege – who chose to listen to her conscience under the most trying of circumstances. We as judges were moved by Kasrils’s touchingly told story.”

When asked what he’d hope readers would take from Eleanor’s story, Kasrils replied: “The Unlikely Secret Agent is a testament and a tribute to Eleanor and that is what drove me to write this book. I wanted people to realise who she was and what she had done. I also wanted South Africans to realise what our people are like and how the ordinary, average person has within themselves the most amazing qualities. People should understand that Eleanor symbolises what thousands of people did in both big and small ways for a just cause.”

Kasrils was born in 1938 and educated in Johannesburg at the King Edward VII School. Prompted by the Sharpeville massacre, he joined the ANC in 1960. He became a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe at its inception in 1961 and participated in many sabotage operations, some of which were with Eleanor. Pursued by the police, the couple fled into exile in 1963 after Eleanor’s daring escape from detention. Exiled for 27 years, Kasrils worked underground for the ANC in South Africa during Operation Vula as he tried to smuggle freedom fighters into the country.

Kasrils wrote the book soon after his wife died in 2009. “After the initial grieving of Eleanor’s death, I felt like I had to write her story and I wrote it in three months during the awful Cape winter, where I was in this house of our dreams on my own, with the South-Easter and the grey skies,” says Kasrils.

“So I just wrote it, feeling like Tchaikovsky or something - demented with this composition. It was a fantastic story to write and it made me feel so close to Eleanor.”

To choose a winner for the Fiction Prize was a challenging task, but Mzobe’s compassion, elegance of writing and intellectual and moral integrity made him stand out above the rest. This is the view of Michiel Heyns, who headed up the English Department at Stellenbosch University and who is chairman of the 2011 Fiction Prize judging panel.

Young Blood is a tale of carjacking and car theft that announces the arrival of a major new talent on the local literary scene. The judges commended the novel for the manner in which it sketches the social milieu and the way that ‘street slang and thieves’ argot are very convincingly rendered.”

“Umlazi is the car-stealing capital of KwaZulu-Natal and I thought it was an interesting thing to look at, to see how the conditions under which people live make them come to such a tough decision – to take something that is not theirs. So the story is based on incidents that were happening around me in the township and I thought it would be interesting for readers to get an insight into this crime,” says Mzobe.

When asked what the people of Umlazi thought of his book, Mzobe says, “They think I am Superman for putting these issues in book form because they think of writers as older white people, academics and so they are really proud to see themselves in the book.”

Mzobe had the following to say on his win: “I am surprised and incredibly grateful for both this award and for the amazing response I’ve received from the book. The support has been overwhelming and, after Young Blood’s success, I’ve already starting working on my next book – readers can expect something early next year...”

“I am sure it must have been an extremely challenging task for both judging panels to select a winner for each award,” says Tymon Smith, books editor of the Sunday Times. “To select two winners seem so unfair, as each writer has made an important contribution to the South African literary landscape.”