We almost never make it up. Promise.
22 February 2017 10:34 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ayabonga Cawe

Kenny Motsamai, like most of us, is still not free

  • Ayabonga Cawe
    Ayabonga-Cawe-new-photo.jpg
    Ayabonga Cawe

    Ayabonga Cawe is an economist by training, and aside from a short stint as a researcher at a government agency, he has never been a disciple of market doctrine. He speaks and writes on history, political economy and public policy. A pan Africanist, he earns his keep in the development sector as a project manager, but is often found in watering holes of the city, camera in hand holding court with other restless youth of different persuasions.

Very little of the fanfare we saw outside Victor Verster prison on 11 February 1990 was on display when Kenny Motsamai went “home” on Monday. After a 27-year term in prison for killing a white traffic officer in 1989, in what the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) and Motsamai argued was a “politically motivated” act, Motsamai will enjoy a “partial freedom”. He will be free for as long as the sun is out, from early morning, and back in prison in time for the 4pm “roll call”.

There is much confusion about whether Motsamai is truly free or not, but the fact that he will enjoy “day parole” seems answers that question, albeit “legally”. The other interesting question, and point of much debate, is what Motsamai’s “release” means politically. Put simply, what does his partial release mean, in a political environment where the notions of reconciliation are in combat with voices demanding social justice at every turn?

Also, what does the nature of his release (and the restrictive terms of that release) tell us about how we understand our transition, but more important our narrative of resistance and struggle. Which voices matter and are given an audience, and which voices are silenced?

I am no lawyer, but the acts that Motsamai undertook where similar in “criminality” (under normal circumstances) to the activities of Dirk Coetzee, Eugene de Kock and Louis van Schoor. The only difference was that one set of activities were in defence of apartheid, and the other set against it. As Motsamai states, the overwhelming repression of a system that was a crime against humanity made the line between what was criminal versus what wasn’t, a thin and vague one.

Further, it is common cause that the liberation movements were ill-resourced and had to rely on the philanthropy of well-wishers, in the absence of which financing the struggle was near impossible… given the obviously limited resources, any and all means were utilised to ensure the freedom of the oppressed people. Among the avenues used to finance the struggle was what, under “normal circumstances”, could be viewed and considered as acts of criminality, namely theft, car-jacking, plain robbery and armed robbery.

In the context of war, a law enforcement official was a justifiable target. That being said, it goes without saying that white society during apartheid was highly militarised. One need only go to most former whites-only schools, and you would find an “armoury”, this in addition to the local civilian commandos intended to defend against the imminent “swartgevaar”.

So why was Motsamai’s crime viewed as criminal rather than political? Moreover, why is he not free now? Many have suggested that the response to the latter question is as much political as it is legal.

Surely the representations made by the PAC that Motsamai was acting on orders of the military organ, APLA, would be enough to suggest that his activities were politically motivated. Unfortunately, the silence of the political debate on this question has made even the technical and legal justifications something that seldom receives public scrutiny.

His crime morphs in comparison to that of MK operative, Robert McBride, in the Durban beachside bombing that left three women dead and 69 wounded. Nor is his political organisation, the PAC, an imminent electoral threat to the ruling coalition or established elite interests. However, politics are seldom confined to electoral prospects and five-year cycles of power contests. There is something more that Motsamai and his organisation’s ideas represent; an “ideational” challenge. In the first instance, this challenge fires a salvo at one of the moral underpinnings of our transition; the equal treatment of crimes against and in defence of apartheid by initially the TRC, and of late by our collective recollection. Brigadier Dan Mofokeng of APLA placed this on the TRC’s agenda on 7 October 1997:

Whilst we acknowledge with honour the TRC’s mandate to promote national unity and reconciliation, we find it abhorrent that the very system that was intended to bring us freedom, and will have brought genuine freedom to our people, demands that the forces of injustice which perpetrated the atrocities of apartheid, be equated with those of the liberation movements. We are now put in the same dock as the victims and the architects of injustice.

The ANC in its own submissions to the TRC also argued that moral equivalence couldn’t be applied between a liberation movement and an oppressive minority regime with access to the state security apparatus to use indiscriminately. What then could explain why Motsamai is seen as a criminal, even after APLA and the PAC have claimed him as one of their own, following organisational orders? It seems that Motsamai and many other freedom fighters in incarceration do not enjoy the same intellectual cover from this predominant argument within the liberation movement. Why?

One’s initial sense is that Motsamai’s total release symbolically presents the unfolding of numerous questions of possibility. The youth of 2016, faced with numerous challenges, are asking questions about the collective memory and “historicisation” of struggle. To answer, one thinks, the questions of what was and remains possible in South Africa for black people. The clarion call of Izwe (the land), which was heard throughout the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests is an indication of the interactions these youth are having with the ideas that shaped Motsamai’s youth and political development. This symbolic departure from the non-racial “utopia” of rainbowism in the early years of the “new South Africa” unravels the continuities between apartheid and the “new South Africa”. As critical psychologist Derek Hook argues, focusing on the emphasis on reconciliation prior to justice, as embodied in the magnetic persona of former President Nelson Mandela;

.. (it) ceases to be the master signifier that holds together a viable post-apartheid social consensus and starts to represent something different: a misdirected form of political compromise that ensures not so much a break between apartheid and post-apartheid political eras, but rather a stark line of continuity.

Alongside this symbolic reminder of continuity, Motsamai plays another role; contesting the dominant narrative of liberation history at the centre of the ruling coalition’s credibility and legitimacy. It is an interesting case of what Hook refers to as the power of repressed ideas or people as “signifiers” which… make it possible that a number of seemingly isolated political grievances and desires might start to cohere into an overarching political rationality.

This possibility, of raising questions that can probably cohere into a “political rationality” with core demands in different spaces, is a threat to the “social consensus” (or lack thereof) that characterises South Africa in 2016. It also confronts the insistence by white liberals in South Africa for blacks to temper their anger in the midst of continued injustice, and be like Mandela. But Motsamai, like Mandela, has spent 27 years in jail for confronting with force a regime that was structurally and inherently unjust. I agree with those who suggest that it would be to betray Motsamai’s sacrifice to celebrate his “partial” freedom. I agree, because I think they have grasped what Black Consciousness activist and playwright, Strini Moodley, understood about the connections between the prison inside correctional facilities and the one outside, wherein our people have no respite; have no curfew.

So when you ask me that question about going to prison, it’s the continuation of what was happening in the streets – because one of the things we said when we went to prison was that you guys, you must not think that this prison you’re in is not related to the bigger prison which all our people are in.

The contours of enrichment and impoverishment remain uncomfortably alongside each other. Black students sleep in libraries, while their white counterparts campaign for more parking space. Motsamai is still in chains. Albeit with partial “freedom” under surveillance, with an ankle tag and a 4pm curfew. It is this symbolism that Motsamai represents, that shatters the glassy collective memory of a significant rupture in 1994. It may have been for some, but as we clearly see, not for most. DM

  • Ayabonga Cawe
    Ayabonga-Cawe-new-photo.jpg
    Ayabonga Cawe

    Ayabonga Cawe is an economist by training, and aside from a short stint as a researcher at a government agency, he has never been a disciple of market doctrine. He speaks and writes on history, political economy and public policy. A pan Africanist, he earns his keep in the development sector as a project manager, but is often found in watering holes of the city, camera in hand holding court with other restless youth of different persuasions.

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