Reporter’s notebook: Ronnie Kasrils, the man

By Stephen Grootes 5 October 2011

I’m a political reporter. But my life story and background are very different from most of our political class – the whites-only school (until very late), the comfortable background in the then white suburbs etc. You probably know this about me. So it’s not very often I get to do a political interview with someone who went to the same school as I did, who has the same in-jokes, and considers the First XV Rugby Field as a piece of hallowed turf. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

I’ve always known that Ronnie Kasrils went to King Edward the VII School. It’s in, gasp, Houghton, about as politically distant from the politics of Red Ronnie as you can get.

Kasrils has always exerted a strong grip on my political imagination. When I was in Grade 11, or Standard 9 if you’re old enough to be reading this, a political leader called Nelson Mandela visited our school. It was an incredible day in 1992. Judge Richard Goldstone was about to investigate the Bisho Massacre, an event in which Kasrils had played a central role. Our headmaster would have been less than human if he hadn’t pointed out that Goldstone had been Kasril’s prefect back in the 1950’s. It wasn’t a fact a young boy like myself was likely to forget.

Kasrils himself is unprepossessing; he happily wanders about the hall of the Sandton Convention Centre politely inquiring if he’s in the right place. And when a rude hack like myself hauls out a microphone, he’s very gracious, a firm handshake, a robust pat on the shoulder, a how are you and a nod of the head. Like so many former politicians, he doesn’t forget the social niceties. He’s also not afraid of your space, standing up close, but not intruding.

But that’s not why you’re reading this. You want to know what he thinks about our intelligence services.

He’s quickly on the offensive. He doesn’t miss a trick, stating early on that “I’m going to defend myself here”. Polokwane “was disastrous for the ANC…and I don’t just say that because before it I was on the NEC, and after it I wasn’t”. He’s saying it because for the first time, people used state resources, spies, to fight their political battles. Polokwane was also a “generational shift, but we didn’t know it at the time”. Kasrils wants it on the record that he didn’t know people were using his intelligence services for various factions within Luthuli House. It was all about the botched surveillance on Saki Macozoma which brought to light the fact that spooks were spying for the Zuma faction. Kasrils sacked the people responsible. If you think this sounds like it happened last month, you’d be right. Gibson Njenje left the National Intelligence Agency after a fall out with his boss Siyabonga Cwele.

Kasrils won’t talk about Cwele, and the drugs mule wife, saying “I don’t want to talk ill of my successor”. “Reverting to whatever other examples one might have in mind, and they are numerous, I would say we unfortunately have what has been the case for many years, which is a sort of cold war paranoia, which is about suspicions and seeing conspiracies everywhere and using state resources to deal with them”. Cynics may be forgiven for remembering that paranoia was a hallmark of the President that Kasrils served.

His main bugbear is the Mathews Report. Around 2006 he realised there was a problem with the politicisation of the intelligence services. And he actually tried to do something about it. He instituted a commission, chaired by Joe Mathews. It recommended big changes to the structure of the service, which Kasrils presented to the Cabinet in 2008. A couple of days later, the “Recall” happened. And Kasrils is “shocked to see that nothing has happened… it was waiting there to be used”. You can hear the quiver in his voice when he talks about it. “And until that report is acted on, you will only solve problems piecemeal”.

Of course, that leads to a question about whether there is the political will to get it done. It’s a question really about President Jacob Zuma. It’s a longish answer, but it’s clear Kasrils believes the political will just isn’t there. It’s hard to blame him.

It’s also easy to have some sympathy with him on how he sees the ANC nowadays. “I’m a loyal ANC member, I didn’t join Cope, I will always be loyal, but I am allowed to criticise”. He’s fascinating when he says, “People who learnt their politics at Polokwane, a younger generation, how can you blame them? Who believe that that’s the way you then operate? And we’ve seen this throughout the ANC, the provinces, the Youth League and so on. And this is actually a legacy of Polokwane”. Hard to argue with, that.

And then there’s the Dalai Lama. Most of us have a very hard and fast view on this. Not many people will stand up and say government did the right thing. Kasrils won’t either. But he’s nuanced. He’s not anti-China, he’s very much against a “feudal religious” way of doing things that the Dalai Lama does, contrary to his press, represent. For Kasrils, Chinese rule of Tibet, while having huge problems, has also “done away with illiteracy, bringing education, equality for women etc”. But the Dalai Lama has now “retired, he’s no longer there, symbolic of the priesthood and feudal rule. But that’s besides the point. Here is a man, respected around the world who is a great friend of our most wonderful Archbishop who’s 80th birthday it is this week… I think it’s incredibly mean and silly to take this position.”

It’s a criticism all the more sharp for its nuance. It’s got real thought behind it. And it comes from a long-time ANC member.

Kasrils is, in a way, your typical KES boytjie. Confident like Graeme Smith, well mannered like Gary Player, thoughtful like Judge Goldstone. He’s one of those people who is comfortable in his own skin. At the end, when asked “is there anything else you’d like to say”, he replies, with a big smile and says, “No…you’ve had quite enough already”. And shakes your hand, gives you another pat on the shoulder, and ambles off in the hope of finding a quiet holding room and a cup of good coffee. DM


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