Here is the story of a life. My life… One man’s life in the twentieth century… Sometimes I have taken for a fact what was no more than a probability, but — and this is crucial — I have never put down as true what I knew to be false. I present myself as I was — vile and contemptible when I have behaved in that fashion; and kind and generous and selfless when I was so… You may groan at my unbelievable blunders… and blush to the whites of your eyes at my confessions — but — can you wonder, can you really put your hand on your heart and say “I am better than he”? — William Boyd, Confessions
Ronnie Kasrils’ Armed and Dangerous begins in 1989 as he is about to board “an international flight… destination Johannesburg. After 27 years in exile, over half my life, I was homeward bound. I was just over 50…” In the next few pages, Kasrils takes us through his old stomping ground of Yeoville. And so begins Kasrils’ riveting account of three years as an ANC operative, hunted by the Security Branch, living as he puts it “in no-man’s land, caught up in a hinge of history, between two distinct eras”.
In his most recent book, Catching Tadpoles, Kasrils takes us back to the first 20 years of his life in Johannesburg and then in Durban where he joins uMkhonto weSizwe and is forced to flee the country. Many from his unit would spend long years on Robben Island.
How do you break up a life into bits and pieces? Do you not remember to fit the present circumstance? In the way Kasrils pigeonholes his life into periods, one cannot help but think about JM Coetzee’s Boyhood and Youth. Like Kasrils, a life story is broken up into different eras. In Boyhood, John Michael Coetzee, the protagonist, is eight years old, living on a farm in Worcester. It is a bleak upbringing summed up by Coetzee’s lament:
“Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting teeth and enduring.” By the time Coetzee is ready to leave Worcester aged 13 he is “surly, scowling, dark”. He is young but “his heart is old” made “of stone”.
Kasrils’ childhood is far from bleak and there is no gritting of teeth and enduring. In the Jewish world of Yeoville, family extends its embrace across walls and streets and Ronnie enjoys the warmth of the crooks and the grannies. He is always on the edge of disaster, but somehow always escapes. His father sneezes as he is about to spank him for the first time after he inadvertently set fire to the curtains in his room. Kasrils’ immediate refrain was: “God bless you, Daddy.” His mum burst “into laughter and that was that”. Beyond the good fortune that provided Kasrils an escape on the edge of catastrophe, was this not an early forewarning that arson was not Kasrils’ forté?
Boyhood edges into Youth with Coetzee attending the funeral of his Aunt Annie who expressed her worry to him: “So young and you know so much. How are you ever going to keep it all in your head?” Like Coetzee, Kasrils reads voraciously, but does not want to keep things in his head. He wants to convince people to act. Sharpeville erupts and Coetzee leaves for London while Kasrils explodes. He is angry, wanting to do something, cajoling his friends to the extent they begin to shy away.
In comparing the responses of John Coetzee and Kasrils one is reminded of Jean-Paul Sartré’s comment that while Paul Valéry “is a petit-bourgeois intellectual… not every petit-bourgeois is Valéry”. We are not prisoners of economic and social categories, but have the space to make choices — and Kasrils made his with a bit of homespun wisdom as motivation:
My grandmother Clara, when talking to me about the tadpoles and memory, would put the question to me: “If I am not for me, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” She would tell me to know myself if I wished to do good in the world. From her and my mother the golden rule of morality was often quoted: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That, they would tell me, was what my Jewish heritage really amounted to. In my own time I came to discover that it meant a universal human heritage far beyond my ethnic origin. It also answers a question that is invariably put to me by so-called “born frees” – black and white youngsters who never knew apartheid – but also an older generation, who want to understand why I gave up white privileges for a life of danger and sacrifice.
It’s instructive that after all the reading of the Marxist texts it is really our mothers and grandmothers that we remember as capturing our sense of why we are. And that is the beauty of Catching Tadpoles. It is filled with the adages of a mysterious Jewish household peopled by women clairvoyants with a wicked sense of humour. There is always also the proud mother:
My mother (René) lived to the ripe old age of 94, remaining steadfastly loyal to me. She was very proud that I had become a government minister and was always reassuring me that my father would have felt the same way. She voted ANC in the two national elections that took place before her death.
Was she voting for the ANC because her son had a top job? My mother would have been so inclined. Remember the joke about the Jewish mother whose son was drowning, screaming for help: “My son, the doctor, is drowning.”
In feasting on Kasrils’ early years one cannot help but think of the words of the US poet Karl Shapiro:
“As a Jew I grew up in an atmosphere of mysterious pride and sensitivity, an atmosphere in which even the greatest achievement was touched by a sense of the comic.”
Kasrils is often angst-riven but is always on the lookout for redemption. There is a wonderful account of his love affair with a boeremeisie, Francina.
Francina and I had the sweetest little relationship… It was my good fortune to bump into her over three decades later when I was back home from exile and visiting a friend in hospital. I was told that the matron in charge wanted to greet me. She was still tall and slender with a marvellous figure and the sweetest of smiles… ‘Well, Mr Kasrils,’ she said, ‘you have led quite a life, haven’t you?’ And then she added in Afrikaans: ‘Do you remember me?’ When I said, ‘Of course I do, Francina. How could I ever forget nearly killing you in my MG?’ she doubled up with mirth. ‘You always knew how to flatter a meisie,’ she retorted.
Can you imagine meeting an old love 30 years later? How lucky can you get? But then, as Kasrils tells us, for most of his life he has been “swimming with dolphins”. Was his close comrade of the exile years, the ever-smiling Jacob Zuma, also a dolphin? Maybe this is where the comic-tragic naiveté of the Yeoville boykie swirls; mistaking the fin of a shark for a dolphin.
An old comrade of Kasrils through the years of exile and the very first years of power told me (they have since fallen out):
“Ah, Ronnie, his biography is always changing.”
Should our biographies remain the same for all time? It was Freud who warned that the present can change the past. As a Polish wit once said:
“We have no idea of what our past is going to be.” It can change in a matter of days. Ask Gwede Mantashe. Adding to changing circumstance to re-think the past, memory, as Kasrils tells us, is as slippery as tadpoles.
A common problem with autobiography is that while it often explores the impact people had on you, it very rarely explores the impact you had on other people. Can Kasrils, in embracing the somersaults post-1990, ever understand the impact that the stances he took had on those wanting a more radical outcome, but who believed that people of his pedigree would never sign on to Faustian Pacts?
“At 80,” Kasrils tells us, he is “a bullfrog swimming in an ocean of hope.” He is in extra time. But he is still setting the pace, jinking down the left-wing, calling out the SACP on its cowardice and revolutionary tailism. The African bullfrog feeds on tadpoles and one cannot help but wonder what a meal Ronnie in his prime would have made of the minnows occupying the Charterist pond in this day and age.
There is a steely tenderness to Ronnie. This is a man who survived an assassin’s bullet on the streets of Durban in 1961 (it grazed his cheek) and a poisoned umbrella on the streets of London. Talking about umbrellas, there was a joke we loved to tell about Ronnie in the minuscule circles of the Trotskyite Left in the 1980s:
Red Ronnie was goose-stepping around one of the MK camps in Lusaka in 1981, holding an open umbrella. An aide cautiously asked him: “Comrade Ronnie, why an umbrella, it’s not raining in Lusaka.” Red Ronnie replied: “It’s not raining in Lusaka, yes, but it is raining in Stalingrad comrade.” Ah, the days when Josef was all the rage in the Central Committee of the SACP. I am sure that Ronnie, too, is happy that the Alliance cesspool has been cleared of some of its ideological scum.
John Coetzee in Youth gets more and more cut off in London, icy, telling us:
“If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it easier; life, love poetry. But warmth is not his nature.” He desires words that reflect “cruel precision”.
In his moving tribute to his wife Eleanor, Kasrils ends the book by quoting a friend who tells Kasrils that Eleanor is an example that contradicts WB Yeats’ line, “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart”.
Ditto Ronnie. For all the years of exile, the losses of family back home, comrades killed by the apartheid regime, the wooden phrases and poetry published in the African Communist written under the pseudonym A.N.C. Khumalo, it did not kill off his ability to write with power and beauty. His heart will never turn to stone, but keep ticking with Grandma Clara’s biblical advice. And in Catching Tadpoles, Ronnie Kasrils is at the height of his game.
“You may groan at” his “unbelievable blunders”… “blush to the whites of your eyes at” his “confessions — but — can you wonder, can you really put your hand on your heart and say ‘I am better than he?’ ” Boyd challenges in the epigram.
In the political choices Kasrils continues to make, in the frank and unpretentious way he allows language to ripple across memory, few from his generation can say that they have given account of themselves as he has done. His books are finally balanced. Ronnie’s repute, as always, will be earned, not bought.
Ronnie Kasrils is 81 years old. He lives in Greenside, Johannesburg. He writes with the verve and optimism of boy of 15 running around Yeoville with a Tony Curtis haircut.
Till the day he died, his father Izzy probably thought: if only I had not sneezed. DM
Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg. Catching Tadpoles is published by Jacana.
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