Ronnie Kasrils thinks shit’s about to get real.
On a recent Monday, we sat on the verandah of his new house in Greenside, overlooking a modest garden that had already submitted to winter’s cold hand. Fraying plant life aside, the killing of South African citizens, insisted Ronnie over a glass of premium tap water, had already begun. His house was a classic Johannesburg bungalow, and we were within view of a small office that bore an unfortunate resemblance to the room in Mexico City in which Leon Trotsky was wacked with an ice-axe. That act of counter-counter-revolutionary trephination would come to symbolise the factions that eventually rip all movements apart, only for the remnants to be rearranged into a simulacrum of what came before.
Did Ronnie genuinely fear the coming of the ice-axe, or were his mantic revelations just the rumblings of an ex-spook entering his dotage? “Look, I’m 78,” he said, “I’ve lived a long and interesting life. I’ve got nothing to fear because I’m fine with my conscience. If they want to come for me, they know how to find me.”
Who is they? Ronnie was referring to the buffoonish securocrats and their minions that form President Jacob Zuma’s factional forward army. As useless on paper Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko, Minister of State Security David Mahlobo, and Directorate for Priority Crimes (or Hawks) head Major-General Mthandazo Berning Ntlemeza may appear, there can be no denying that Zuma has built around him a security cluster that is puppy-dog slavish, and who by convention wield the state’s monopoly on violence. Ronnie believes that they will soon get the opportunity to wield it at will. He wanted me to think of the killings of ANC members in KZN, of the Glebelands hostel murders in Umlazi, of the armed raid on the Helen Suzman Foundation offices, which saw hard-drives and other data removed during what appeared to be an organised robbery perpetrated by folks who organise robberies.
“I think people need to be afraid,” said Ronnie.
Ronnie, people are afraid.
* * *
If you’re unfamiliar with Ronald “Ronnie” Kasrils, we should probably begin by acknowledging that he is “no angel” — his description. But he is a committed commie badass, and one of the very few members of my tribe that refused to collaborate during the thousands of Shabbats that constituted the apartheid regime. He was radicalised by the bloodletting at Sharpeville, joined the ANC in 1960, and helped found the party’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), in 1962. During the exile years he traipsed across the usual hotspots, and in the early Sixties met a young comrade from Kwazulu-Natal, about whom he has had much to say of late.
The big black mark on Ronnie’s career – besides his Stalinism, depending on how you look at these things – is the Bisho Massacre, during which 28 ANC members were killed by forces loyal to the Ciskei Bantustan chieftain Oupa Gqozo. Ronnie was criticised by the subsequent Goldstone Commission for leading 80,000 marchers into an episode that was almost certainly not going to end well. But people die in revolutions, as Ronnie knows only too well. “If they come back at me with that,” he said of his former homies currently holding office in the Union Buildings, “I know how to defend myself.”
After the regime fell, Ronnie marched his way into the Transitional Executive Council’s Sub-Council on Defence, and from there he became the Deputy Minister of Defence, the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, and ultimately, in 2004, the Minister of Intelligence Services. He lasted in that post until President Thabo Mbeki’s ousting in September 2008, and was privy to much of the filth that proliferated during that unhappy family war.
Now, Ronnie is a pensioner who has stumbled back into the landscape of his youth – he’s not getting along with the authorities. He has lent his voice and his presence to the re-upped Unite Against Corruption collective, a loose affiliation of unionists, religious leaders, ex-ANC stalwarts, civil society organisations and Cape Town picnickers who are trying to form a coherent and vocal mass movement.
So far, they’ve failed.
I wanted to know whether he was wasting his time. At the ribbon cutting of this new collaboration, which occurred last week on the steps of Constitution Court, we were promised a “rolling plan of action” that included, among other things, “conversation”. In my experience, governments aren’t typically conversed out of power. Ronnie shrugged.
“This emergent left really needs to find its centre of gravity,” he said. (I’d argue that the patchouli stench suggests that the “emergent Left” is little more than the old Left in new T-shirts, as opposed to the Fallists and their ideological kinfolk who are changing stuff.) “It’s rather hesitant.” It has probably occurred to Ronnie that this New Left’s enemies know it better than it knows itself. And that its primary target is nowhere near as dumb as most people assume him to be.
* * *
Ronnie has known all the players bounding about on this Cirque du Soleil set for a very long time. Most particularly, he has known Zuma since the president was a 17-year-old comrade coming up through the ranks, a charismatic man-boy who brought more Natal into what was not quite a broad enough church at the time.
Zuma’s biography has yet to be properly written, but as far as Ronnie was concerned, after the future Prez was arrested in 1963 and exiled in 1975, his personality was all but fully formed.
“There were things that we saw. Certain attitudes to women or ideas about homosexuals – backward not in the sense that he was uneducated, but in how he chose to… be. And although we were not all Cromwell’s Puritans – a wife here, a girlfriend there, it was a hard life. Still.” At first Zuma appeared charming, then he appeared to be a liability. The way Ronnie saw it, this was how most exiles regarded the man. But exile had its own nonrules, and much of the ANC’s core was forged in this necessarily amoral desert. What, Ronnie wanted to know, were he and his comrades supposed to do? “We were dealing with a ruthless enemy and you could be struck down at any time.”
Where in this universe did morality serve as useful?
Ronnie and Zuma worked together in Mozambique between 1980 and 1983, as chair and secretary of the underground committee respectively, side by side within the MK structure. It wasn’t a happy marriage. By the time Zuma returned to South Africa from exile, a man who had always enjoyed a simple lifestyle was, according to Ronnie, “taking and taking and taking. He comes back to the country, he’s avaricious. And it gets him into the well with Schabir Shaik.”
As the proto-Gupta entity, Shaik probably needs no introduction in these pages. There was always going to be SAS (Someone After Shaik, if you’ll forgive the acronym), and the poor Guptas were simply next in line with the cashola.
So, how to best this guy?
“Well, Zuma is kept in power by the National Executive Committee and the general congress of the ANC,” said Ronnie. “But a president can be recalled. So where is the tipping point? Given the huge patronage network, and the people who owe Zuma their livelihoods, it’s tough. The only way is through the law, and we’ll see the so-called Stalingrad offence – and fight house to house. Time does run out on these people. We do have the Spy Tapes issue coming up.”
But, as Ronnie noted, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi are still scampering free. Justice for Zuma must be considered in geological time, and the dude just turned 74, so… yeah. The numbers aren’t good.
Ronnie’s real play, however, and therefore the play of his happy-clappy coalition, was the upcoming municipal elections. He said that should the ANC lose a major municipality, or should the numbers indicate a slip below the 60 percent popular vote baseline? “Then the real fear will hit them. August” – the elections are called for August 3 – “is going to be a really big deal.
“I know the way they see things from inside,” continued Ronnie, “and the pressure from outside counts. Add that to a poor performance in the local elections, and…”
Ronnie said that the ousting, or the attempt thereof, would come at a cost. The pressure would be met by aggression, as it always is. “There are guns out there – there’s ever-present danger.”
Will people get killed?
“It’s very possible.”
But the status quo, Ronnie wanted me to know, was too ghastly to contemplate.
“We didn’t fight for this. What I can’t bear is the comrades who have come in and are milking the people. That I won’t stand.”
There are lots like Ronnie, more every day. For all of them, shit’s about to get real. The Jacob Zuma Ronnie knows does not play fair. But as the author Margaret Atwood once said, with more acid than perhaps even Ronnie can stomach, “I’m an optimist. I like to show that the Third Reich, the Fourth Reich, the Fifth Reich did not last forever.”
Justice, gauged in geological time, is not really justice at all. Ronnie, the ancient spook from a previous age, knows that all too well. His warnings of violence come from a previous age, too. Which doesn’t make them any less sinister. DM
Photo: Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils attends the launch of the “Sidikiwe Vukani! Vote No” campaign at Wits University in Johannesburg, Tuesday, 15 April 2014. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
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