DM: One of the things that struck me from early in your book (Get Up! Stand Up!) is that you place an enormous emphasis on education. Was that a powerful influence for you from the start, and one of the reasons you fought for it?
Mark Heywood: Yes and no. I think you’re right in as far as the quality of my education, ironically a private school education, introduced me to what is beautiful about human civilisation, human beings, and human potential.
In the context of inequality it made me committed to the fight against inequality. Which in my youth was the fight against apartheid. Great literature always tends towards issues of social justice or injustice, and I couldn’t read literature in a passive way.
From that I got involved in struggles for many years. But it was only when we set up SECTION27 in 2010 that we started to work on the rights to basic education. It was then that I started to join the dots between the quality of my education and the inequality in education that I was now looking into much more deeply. For example, I never thought of a toilet as being central to quality education, until I dealt with Limpopo school toilets and Michael Komape and so on. I never thought that I would ever have to fight for something as basic as decent sanitation in schools.
So yes, there is a connection but it’s been a long, steady process of waking up.
Interesting phrasing. It echoes the style of your book, that conversational flow that runs between literature, music, conversation, life events – that eventually knock humans into the shape we are. And that’s almost the process you are verbalising now, that steady waking up through experience.
Yes. What I found amazing about working on social justice and human rights is that you are continually learning. You have to learn in order to rise to the next issue you are dealing with, make connections that you didn’t make before. For example, despite all my years of studying Marxism and Trotskyism, it’s only recently, reading Piketty’s Capital, that the impact of issues of wealth inequality and income inequality are really hitting home. It’s strange to think: Jesus, I’m 53 years old and I thought I spent all my life thinking about these things, and I’m only just getting it now.
I’m trying to rehumanise activism in the book. It’s not something conducted by robots. It’s conducted by people who are angry, offended all the time by the immorality that surrounds us. It’s an appeal that you have to keep your humanity alive. When you become wedded to ideology you’re lost, useless. What mobilises people in this line of work is people issues.
You’re essentially issuing a call to people to get up, stand up. What do we do about protest fatigue, scandal fatigue, outrage fatigue?
Fatigue is not new to me. We used to hear a lot of it in relation to Aids. After seven years of fighting, people said there was Aids fatigue. It’s a bit of an excuse. It’s a red herring. It shows that people are not really getting the issues they say they are fatigued about. They have lost the contact, the human parts. It’s easy to get fatigued of newspapers. I’m sick of the newspapers for the most part. It’s such a thin slice of even politics. It’s predictable and there’s very little insight to the human issues raised.
The other real issue with fatigue is that if all you are going to do is march, marching alone is not going to change anything. If your activism is limited to going out on a march, that will not do the job. That doesn’t mean don’t march. But something deep in your brain is telling you that marching is not enough.
So that brings us back to people. State capture for instance is about the case we are about to start, the case for Michael Komape, the damages for his parents. If millions are stolen from the Limpopo education department, the consequence of that is a little boy who drowned in shit.
What were you like as a child?
Mostly quite shy. Although with very strong convictions and developing convictions. I always attached myself to the popular people but I was never the leader, never the most motivated or sporty. I was personally quite shy.
I was always a rebel from a very early age. I was at boarding school, and I caused shit, but for the most part I did it quietly. A bit mad. I drank from an early age, as is British private boarding school tradition. I was very political.
You have strong musical influences. Take us through a condensed life soundtrack.
Bob Marley, John Lennon, and the Sex Pistols.
What have you found most surprising about post-apartheid South Africa?
To be honest I haven’t been that surprised. I think that what I got from the years that I worked with the Marxist Workers Tendency in the ANC and with people like Martin Legassick was an understanding of the class character of the ANC leadership, and an understanding of the limitations of capitalism to deliver on people’s social and economic expectations. Nothing that has happened post 1994 in terms of the failure to meet people’s most pressing social needs or betrayals of ANC leadership comes as a surprise.
However, the depravity of corruption that has come about is a surprise.
The continued dishonesty and callousness of Thabo Mbeki over Aids was a surprise.
The speed of the disconnect between parts of the ANC leaders and ordinary people is a surprise.
But the trajectory is not a surprise. That comes from Martin and company, and studying politics and studying Marxism. Where Marxism got it all wrong, and where I departed from it, was the notion that these contradictions would lead to an uprising of the working class that would quickly overthrow ANC leadership and move into some new sort of politics and bring about the socialist revolution. They were wrong about that, although the analysis, despite its problems, is often quite cogent.
So what do you foresee happening to ANC leadership over the next year?
I think it’s going to split, whether it splits formally or not. It is splitting more every day. We know what the strategy of bad is and who’s bad, more or less, although we don’t know them all.
I think the big question is: what is the strategy of good? We don’t really know who’s good. We know some of the people.
But there is new politics afoot in the world which is both progressive and regressive, both very positive and negative. You know Bernie Sanders and Trump are two sides of the same coin, in terms of reflecting the disaffection with existing political forms.
There’s a huge opportunity here, however, because I still think most of the best people, noble, honourable, visionary people, are linked or associated with the ANC. Not exclusively, they are spread across political parties. But the question is, is the faction of good going to do something different, or is it just crisis managing and going to fall back into old patterns of behaviour?
We still have a lot of opportunity in this country, because of our Constitution, to turn things around pretty quickly, and start to get things right. But that would take very visionary and brave leadership. But to get back to politics, we are really going to be in shit. This country will be getting very bloody and very messy if somebody doesn’t break out of the mould.
What are the chances, though?
I think there is a chance, but I’m not really seeing it at the moment. I don’t think there is enough bravery. In individuals there’s a bravery, for example Makhosi Khoza, but I don’t think that a solution and that bravery is going to come from within political parties. It’s going to come from civil society which will have to have a knock-on effect. We won’t see the leadership coming out of political parties. We need to see more bravery across the board in political parties.
Sticking to political parties, I don’t think those claiming to be on the side of good in the ANC factions are doing enough to dissociate themselves from what is vile, to choose a different path, although I am loath to use names. That’s why I think it is more likely to come out of civil society, but civil society is too fragmented and silo’d. They continue to operate within their silos. That’s the challenge with civil society, if we don’t break our own causes. That impotence, ultimately – we will also just keep chasing our tails.
What’s our biggest fight coming up?
Part of the power of the fight against HIV/Aids is that it was more a fight for something. The strength of TAC was that it was not against Thabo and against denialism, it was a fight for affordable medicines and a health system. That was the key to successful mobilisation. Steven Friedman did a study on TAC quite early on. He pointed out that it was its moral authority that gave it a lot of its strength. If you look into the future, if we keep being against-against-against, against mobilises outrage but doesn’t know where to take it.
I’ve just read Naomi Klein’s No is not Enough. She makes a very powerful argument. We of the left have got to start saying what we are for, how we are going to get to it, and why it is possible and believable.
What are the issues? Narrowly, corruption. We don’t understand the parallel universes we are now operating in. You and me, in a world that respects the law and human rights, and then the universe of people who really run the world and think, “you stupid fucking idiots”. Because they do not pay any heed to our rules of law and our human rights. I don’t think we understand how pervasively that minority has its grip on the world. There are rising powers we don’t understand, including religion. We think religion is just a concern in its extreme form, but it’s here in SA, if you look at the power of some of the charismatic churches, and some of them have very corrupt leaders.
And yet when one wants to take these issues on you have to be realistic about the power of organisations like SECTION27.
Looking back on your career, what stands out for you that an outsider might never realise would be important to you?
An important moment for me was speaking at the Barcelona Aids Conference in 2002, the same day or the day after the judgment in the TAC case on mother to child transmission. In a room of a thousand people we got a standing ovation that we had won that case.
But in my experience a moment like that is a welling up of the process that we went through to get to that moment, and the people involved. So for me the greatest influence and greatest joy has always been the teams. We play a role as an individual, but the strength is the team. The beauty of TAC was the team that emerged, and it’s still there. It’s not all the same people, but the team is there. Last night I looked at the team at a get-together and thought, gee, these people, we have got somewhere. They are fascinating, diverse people who are becoming human beings in something much more.
What inspires you?
The thing that keeps me going is people, always. Not as an abstract term. The people I meet. This person has good ideas, this person is lovely. Although we are not in a nice place, the thing that always makes me think we can get to a better place is I always see more inspiring people than otherwise. My life was always circumscribed; I was always narrower in my ideas when I was a Marxist. And Aids was so daunting. But I’ve been lucky in the last five or six years… now that I’ve broadened into social justice, you see it constantly in many different spaces. You meet people and you think shit, this thing is worth fighting for.
What’s on your bucket list?
To be strong enough to get 20 Comrades (marathons). I have two more to do. I’m finding it more and more difficult, but I can manage another two. I want to do more mountain bike racing. I did the Joburg to Sea, which was an example of what we were just saying – I met fascinating people. If I could, I’d do a year of riding races and running marathons.
What comes next for you?
As you know, I’m standing down. We’ve just completed the advertising process. That will end 23 years of continuous work in the Aids Law Project and SECTION27, that period of continuous employment. It’s a huge change. I’ve done it because I think we have to make way for a generation of leaders who will carry this forward for the next decade and beyond. I believe in SECTION27, and outside it those leaders are putting their hands up and old farts must not occupy positions eternally.
I actually don’t know what I am going to be doing in terms of employment yet. I do know that I will continue work on social justice. I would like more time to write or think about where the knots and barriers are, perhaps play more of a role in trying to get civil society to work off a common page. Which doesn’t mean homogenising civil society, because its strength is its heterogeneity…
So I’m exploring, although there is still so much work here [at SECTION27].
Do you ever look back on your life and think – how and when in the heck did all of this happen?
Yes! I was at Oxford, then I joined the Marxist Workers Tendency, and I worked in the ANC till 1994, and I thought I’m done with political activism, now I’m going to become a writer. I signed up to work for the Aids Law Project for three months. Three months became 23 years, literally. And now I look back and think what the hell? I know we did a lot, but it all went very fast!
Tell us a little known fact about yourself.
Other than running and riding, which you know about, the main thing I want to do when I grow up and be remembered for is being a poet. I have one published collection of poems, but sadly SA doesn’t have much appetite for poetry beyond the already converted. This collection of mine, I write what I fight, was produced and published by a friend of mine, Ella Scheepers. The few people who have read it seem to think highly of it. DM
Mark Heywood’s book Get Up! Stand Up! is published by Tafelberg
Photo: Mark Heywood
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer