Maverick Life


How the Sharpeville moment compelled Ronnie Kasrils to channel his anger into action

How the Sharpeville moment compelled Ronnie Kasrils to channel his anger into action

In Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel, Ronnie Kasrils answers the question that he has been asked innumerable times: ‘What made a young white boy give up privilege and join the liberation struggle?’ He takes the reader on a rambunctious ride through his childhood, set against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa.

In the following excerpt, Kasrils considers a question that bothered him from his formative years – how can happiness in life be shared? This, he says, had occupied his mind since the initial moment he saw a black child prohibited from enjoying playground activities alongside him.



March–April 1960

Just as the Sharpeville moment of 21 March 1960 saw South Africa at the crossroads, I found myself at a crucial point in my life. While the massacre hit me with shock force, like being struck by a mighty electric bolt, I was desperate to channel my anger into some form of action. The bolt did not turn me into a Captain Marvel of my youth but I certainly had reached a major turning point in my life.

Sharpeville sparked me into realising the limitations of existentialism and individual pursuit of freedom. I decided that I must make a clean break and go in search of practical action in co-operation with others. Philosophical readings can be difficult, dense and complex. I found when I was isolated from people actively trying to change things it was easy to descend into depression and despair and be overwhelmed by complex detail. I came to see existentialism as highly individualistic and negative, in contrast with my short interaction with the members of the ANC, which had the opposite effect. The thought of involvement in an organisation of like-minded people striving against the most difficult of odds for change had an alluring impact on my mood. Art and literature, rather than dry philosophical treatises, can hit the mark. I had been reading all of Samuel Beckett’s novels, and attended a public reading of his Waiting for Godot, a classic of existentialist theatre. It is about a couple of tramps awaiting the arrival of a mysterious person called Godot. They wait and wait but whoever they are waiting for never materialises. Their fate is to be trapped in their helpless and hopeless existence.

The reading took place at the Montparnasse Café, with a formal discussion of the play afterwards – which was when I got into a huge row. Virtually everybody saw in the play a reflection of the human condition. I vehemently disagreed and goaded them with reference to what had happened to the people of Sharpeville waiting outside the police station. Life – and Death – presented for those people a very different Godot. At the mere mention of the word Sharpeville an irate voice shrieked out, “My God! What the hell’s Sharpeville got to do with this event?” That opened the floodgates. I was scoffed at. Didn’t the fate of the people at Sharpeville prove Beckett’s outlook? No, I responded. African people were rising up all over the country to change their conditions. They might face death but they were quite aware of the circumstance.

Another person, in a very supercilious tone, argued that if one wished to use a political perspective, the blacks were in fact waiting for their leader as represented by Godot, but their deliverance never materialised because all leaders everywhere in the world were either unreliable or downright imposters and couldn’t be trusted. The blacks would go on and on awaiting deliverance which would never come.

I contested that and said history had shown otherwise, from the French Revolution to the way the Russians had defeated Hitler, that people could bring about radical change. That brought out more jeers about the Robespierres and the Stalins who consign millions to their deaths and “even consume their own children”, as someone put it – meaning that they go to the guillotine or get purged. I accepted that leaders could betray the people but countered by claiming that it was the people who drove history. That solicited another derisory response with someone jeering, “The people, the people, who are the people?” I tried to respond to that but my voice was drowned out. No use trying to argue that all of us present were pale faces who benefited from the system whether we voted for Verwoerd or not and that the people I was referring to were the oppressed Africans. Only they had the potential to fundamentally change things.

Debate within my inner circle continued afterwards. Gloria and Madeleine remarked in a not-unfriendly way that I sounded like a communist. But I didn’t even know what communism was, I retorted, lamenting that when one spoke out against tyranny everyone interpreted that as communism. The Montparnasse debate was heated and emotional but it helped to clarify my thoughts and confirmed my realisation of the immense gulf between myself and even fairly liberal-minded people. That was the first time I had spoken in public, although it was a small audience of a few score. I was rather nervous when I first raised my voice in the debate but I discovered that when you argue from the heart your confidence rises and you find your voice.

My emotions were in turmoil and that night I could not sleep. One of the books Larry had left me was the collected plays of an American playwright named Clifford Odets. I had noticed that one of the plays, written in 1935 – well before Beckett had written his Waiting for Godot – was entitled Waiting for Lefty and I raced through it. It is about workers engaged in a debate about whether to strike or not, being misdirected by crooked union leaders secretly in league with the bosses intent to subvert a “yes” vote. The workers insist on waiting until Lefty, a leader who champions their rights, arrives. As with the Godot play the would-be saviour fails to appear and it is only learned at the end that he had been assassinated on his way to the meeting. The workers had in any event decided they would not wait for him any longer and decided to take charge of their destiny by opting to strike.

That play gave me the encouragement I required. It enabled me to see the contrast between existentialism and political activism – Marxism, if you like. The one based on individualism and despair about human destiny; the other a belief in people’s power and the possibility of change. If I needed theory to persuade me rather than simply my gut feeling, Waiting for Lefty was further motivation.

It was Easter, just over a week after the Sharpeville massacre, and I was able to take a short break from work. Patsy readily agreed to my proposal that we travel to Durban where we arranged to stay with our friend Wendy Beckworth, who had been jilted by her partner and had changed jobs and abode.

My aim was to connect with my mother’s cousin Jacqueline Arenstein who would surely be able to put me in contact with the ANC. I could still be diverted by other interests. Wendy announced that the Royal Ballet company from London was in town and owing to her connections she could get tickets for us to attend a performance that very evening, after which there would be a party at the home of Durban’s leading art fundi Neil Sac. We accepted the offer with alacrity, adored the performance and had a heady time interacting with the dancers afterwards. I am ashamed to say that with all that revelry the pain of the country was a million miles away. The ANC would have to wait until the following day.

Cousin Jackie, an impressive woman, cool and thoughtful, was relieved to receive me. We met in the Indian area of town at the apartment of a close friend of hers, Vera Ponnen, a tough British communist from London’s working-class East End who had settled in South Africa, marrying a prominent trade unionist, George Ponnen. Jackie had a subversive sense of humour but seldom smiled, reminding me of the Parisian beauties in Norman Seeff ’s book. She soon put me in touch with her husband Rowley, a people’s attorney, who was immensely popular with his black clients, from whom he hardly took a penny. Rowley was a leading Marxist theoretician and activist, outwardly an extremely gentle person but intellectually as tough as iron bolts. He was in hiding from the police. Since I had not been politically active, I was an unknown entity to the security police who were hunting him and others, and could safely act as his and Jackie’s go-between. I arranged safe accommodation for Rowley with my former boss John Goldblatt, who was working in Durban. I borrowed a car to drive Rowley around. He was a great teacher and answered many of the questions I had been grappling with, reinforcing my determination.

Patsy appeared content to spend time with Wendy and some fun-loving hedonists from the Royal Ballet who remained in Durban for a holiday break. We accompanied Rowley to Johannesburg where he reconnected with the Communist Party’s underground leadership. It was a real-life adventure being with him as I suddenly found myself in the deep end of clandestine life, from the disguises an artistic Patsy fashioned for him to the remote rendezvous points and secret meetings I delivered him to. One such venue straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock film was a Persian carpet emporium in Johannesburg replete with a solemn-looking custodian not unlike Sydney Greenstreet. Another was being picked up by a short man with dark glasses, hat and raincoat who thought he had mistakenly allowed two tramps from the library gardens into his vehicle at the pre-arranged rendezvous point. He became a lifelong friend and was one of those who had painted up the AN ATTACK ON COMMUNISM IS AN ATTACK ON YOU slogan in Yeoville ten years previously – Wolfie Kodesh.

The time spent in Rowley Arenstein’s company at the onset of 1960 gave me my initial grounding in Marxism, the South African struggle and international events. In lengthy discussions with him he helped sort out all the problematic questions I had been wrestling with over a year or more. When we discussed the issue of existentialism versus Marxism and I mentioned the two plays I had read, he found that extremely amusing and took great pleasure in unpacking all the negative features of the Godot play, which he did with ease. I was intrigued to hear his views of Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism. Although he felt that Sartre had exonerated himself by supporting the Algerians in the struggle for national independence and courageously exposing France’s colonial brutality and criminal use of torture, he criticised Sartre’s world view. He did concede that his philosophy was more progressive than the obscurantism of the central school of existentialists bogged down in the search for the elusive “meaning of life” and their ultimate pessimism, owing to their fear of the masses. He debunked my former guru’s appropriation of Marxism. He termed this “fancy sophistry” which led people down a cul-de-sac. He called it “an appropriation of Marxism” which emptied it of its core, which was class struggle, with the working class the leading class at the helm. He termed Sartre a liberal which, as I came to know Rowley, was a term he used to describe any theory or individual whose position was devoid of class content. In the final analysis all such philosophies propped up bourgeois class rule, he explained. In my brief meetings with his wife Jackie I gained from her a need to be sceptical of all things and that inherent to Marxism was never to stop raising questions.

I cannot say that I developed a refined understanding of Marxism at that stage but Rowley strove to make sure that I grasped the full meaning of what is referred to as Marx’s key proposition: “The philosophers have hitherto attempted to interpret the world. The point, however, is to change it.”

Was that the answer to all the fuss and bother of my adolescent years? Was that what my search for the elusive “meaning of life” was all about? Some say the answer lies in the path to God and the hereafter. As we have seen, the existentialists focus on the individual who must exercise his or her will. Not to say that there is no overlapping. The hedonists are fixated by the pursuit of pleasure; narcissists are pathologically in love with themselves and devoid of feeling for others; pessimists say that life has no meaning so don’t even bother to ask why we are here.

Followers of Monty Python will laugh in agreement and add that life’s just a bad joke, as depicted in The Life of Brian. Ditto the nihilists, without the humour. Marxists will inform you of a reality that focuses on the material productive condition and necessities of life. Unless reasonably satisfied, all other pursuits and the prospect of happiness is severely limited. When such conditions develop, those in a position to benefit are able to lead meaningful lives. If you do not have the material means to sustain life – the necessary food, shelter, health care, clothing, employment, education there’s not much quality of life to enjoy. And the only point to your life is a struggle to survive. Scant happiness or a meaningful life for the slave under the Romans, serf under the aristocracy, mine worker at Coalbrook, the forced labourer on the Bethal potato fields. The question which bothered me from my formative years was the wish for such happiness to be shared in the initial moment of seeing a black child prohibited from enjoying playground activities alongside the likes of me. My conscience and the circumstances I encountered led me to make the choice of joining with others to make that better life happen for all. ML

Ronnie Kasrils is author of the best-selling memoir Armed and Dangerous, which has been translated into German, Russian and Spanish; A Simple Man; and the Alan Paton Award-winning The Unlikely Secret Agent, which has been translated into French. A commander in Umkhonto weSizwe from its inception in 1961 until 1990, he served in government from 1994 until his resignation as minister for intelligence in 2008. Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel is published by Jacana Media (R280).

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