Ronnie Kasrils was always something of a Joe Slovo Junior or Chris Hani Mini-Me to me.
Like JS, “Red Ronnie” was a potent combination of socialist, soldier and spy. He put his whiteness aside, embraced the struggle for liberation, sacrificed his privileges and risked his life as part of the fight to bring about the freedoms we all enjoy today.
Like Hani, he was a socialist to the core and a principled freedom fighter. He embodied the interface of political and military theory that brought Apartheid to its knees and enabled us to join that beautiful long queue as first-time voters on 27 April 1994.
Personally, I’m disappointed that Kasrils has now put all that aside and called on us to waste our votes on 7 May 2014. I think it’s a mistake, and one he may come to regret.
But I’m just as disappointed at the way some of the leadership in the ANC and its Alliance have rounded on Kasrils and questioned his principles and his contribution to the struggle for a better life for all.
Equally disappointing is the silence among some of the people who fought alongside Kasrils – whether in Angola, in Operation Vula, in the self-defence units of Thokoza, on the streets of Bisho or in post-Apartheid intelligence structures – but, now that they enjoy the privilege of government office, seem to have lost their voices, their courage, their commitment to speak truth to power. And to defend the man they called their commander.
Instead, they allow others to get personal about cadres whose personalities and histories are richer, prouder, and much closer to the DNA of the real ANC than they could ever be.
The crudest of criticisms came on Wednesday from the general secretary of the SACP, Minister Blade Nzimande, who tagged Kasrils’ “Vote No” movement with that beloved ANC smear of “a factory fault” and accused Kasrils of not having principles.
“Every production process produces its own factory faults, so that’s what they are,” was Minister Nzimande’s blanket condemnation of the no-vote campaigners at a joint SACP-Cosatu press conference on Wednesday. “Some of them are well-known factory faults, old factory faults,” he was quoted by SAPA as saying.
Ever since I first met Ronnie Kasrils – in the back office of a video store in Harare in 1986 – I was in awe of his presence, his courage, his determination, and his vision of a truly non-racial, non-sexist South Africa.
I had joined the fight against Apartheid earlier that year, at a time when you didn’t actually join the liberation movement – you were recruited. You were hand-picked, cross-checked and tested before you entered the dangerous world of the then-banned ANC and the SACP. You had to qualify. You didn’t pay R12 a year – you paid with your life.
Lest we forget: Kasrils joined the ANC and SACP in 1961, soon after they were banned, when I was just one year old and Blade Nzimande had just celebrated his third birthday. Kasrils was a founding member of the banned People’s Army, Umkhonto weSizwe, and became commander of MK’s underground Natal Regional Command in 1963. He did his military training in the USSR in 1964 and then, based in London, formed a special covert committee that developed underground networks inside the country between 1966 and the Soweto uprising in 1976.
Later, he became a member of MK’s High Command. He was appointed Chief of MK Intelligence in 1983, served on the ANC’s Politico-Military Council from 1985 to 1989 and worked inside the country as part of Operation Vula between 1990 and 1991. He certainly was no “factory fault” then.
By contrast, I was merely a bit-player activist in the late 1980s and early 90s. Sure, I was a member of one of the many underground MK political units that reported to Kasrils in the “forward areas” through a complex system of dead-letter boxes, encoded messages and other John le Carre-type techniques. In between, I helped a few mass democratic movement formations to produce propaganda – the United Democratic Front, the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee, the End Conscription Campaign, Cosatu, Cosas, the South African Youth Congress (effectively, the internal wing of the ANC Youth League), and countless civic organisations engaged in the struggle against Apartheid. And a bit of “Free Mandela” and MK propaganda in between.
Fortunately, through this work, I and many other “internal deployees” interacted with a lot of brave, selfless activists: Jay Naidoo, Sydney Mufamadi, Peter Mokaba, Rapu Molekane, Nomazizi Mtshoshisa, David Webster, Murphy Morobe, Harry Gwala, Mohamed Valli, Jessie Duarte, Steve Tshwete, Matthew Goniwe. We were privileged to be in the same space and struggle as so many principled freedom fighters.
And then, when the SACP and ANC were unbanned and our leaders began to return from exile or from Robben Island, we were privileged to meet other leaders of calibre and stature: Gill Marcus and Pallo Jordan, with whom we worked on establishing ANC publicity structures across the country; Jeremy Cronin, Charles Nqakula, Joe Slovo and Thenjiwe Mthintso, with whom we worked on relaunching Umsebenzi and the African Communist inside the country. And the Island Royalty themselves, enjoying the freedom of the new ANC head office at Munich Re (or, as it now is, Luthuli House): Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Andrew Mlangeni.
Somehow, though, I don’t remember ever coming across the name Blade Nzimande. But maybe I was just moving in the wrong circles.
Perhaps that is why I struggle today to understand why Honourable Nzimande is so personally insulting when it comes to the very real legacy – and the principles — of Ronnie Kasrils.
Describing Kasrils as a “factory fault” is not just an insult to this brave former MK combatant, who did what he could to build a post-democratic intelligence framework with integrity, who stood up for the people of Palestine, and raised very real concerns about the Protection of Information bill.
It’s an insult to the entire factory, and all the people whose names I’ve inserted in this article so far.
My knowledge of the means of production may not be as developed as some recent converts to communism. But my understanding is that only faulty factories can produce factory faults. So if there is something wrong with Kasrils, there is something wrong with the factory he worked in, and the factory that produced him.
In that factory, thousands of activists handcrafted the freedoms we enjoy today. They paid with it with their personal freedom, their dignity, and in many cases with their lives.
Sadly, it appears that same factory does not build freedom fighters, or freedom, anymore: it builds the million-rand BMWs that ministers travel around in, and the hundreds of million-rand cattle kraal and firepool that grace the lawns of Nkandla.
Sure, Kasrils is wrong to call for a spoilt vote. Rather than continue to fight for change from within the ANC – as fellow veterans Trevor Manuel, Pallo Jordan and Mavuso Msimang have chosen to do – he has moved outside the movement and positioned himself as an external critic. In the thin-skinned and hyper-defensive realm that is the ANC today, he has committed organisational treason.
I’m also not saying we shouldn’t ask questions about why someone with Kasrils’ history chooses to do what he does, why he does it now, and why he chooses to do it the way he has chosen.
But does it give anyone – including ANC Johnny-come-lately’s – the right to rubbish Kasrils’ history, or his principles, in an attempt to further embed themselves in the current circle of power?
It makes you wonder: who’s the real factory fault here? DM
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