- Interview by
- Marcus Barnett
After the South African police murdered scores of black people at Sharpeville in 1960, the 21-year-old Ronnie Kasrils joined the illegal South African Communist Party (SACP), becoming a militant in the African National Congress (ANC) and its military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK). After fleeing the country in 1963, he became one of the leaders of the armed struggle against Apartheid, and later became an ANC government minister.
Kasrils’ new book Catching Tadpoles describes the twenty-one years that made him. Growing up in the 1940s in the Johannesburg Jewish neighbourhood of Yeoville, the Holocaust cast a shadow over his youth. So too did the rise of the Nationalist Party which came to power in 1948.
In befriending bohemians, artists, and people from across the racial divide, Kasrils attempted to escape the suffocating environment of Apartheid. His taste for rock and roll and jazz music led to his breaking the law and even physical confrontation with the police. He also began to dabble in existentialist literature and philosophy.
However, the increasing violence of Apartheid brought him to conclude that real freedom could only come from the system’s destruction — and its replacement with socialism. Tribune Associate Editor Marcus Barnett spoke to Kasrils about Catching Tadpoles, as well as his thoughts on the current state of South Africa and the road to international socialist renewal.
In your book, you describe the Yeoville you remember in great colour. What sort of political flavour did the neighbourhood have?
The amazing thing about Johannesburg is that it’s the city of gold. In African languages, it is named after gold, which was being discovered there as late as 1886. As the gold wealth accrued, you had this melting pot of immigrants coming in from Britain and Europe, as well as a lot of Jewish immigrants and those from the Indian subcontinent. The Jewish immigrants, mainly from Tsarist Russia, escaped pogroms and poverty for greener pastures, and helped make up the population of the city, with its enormous slums, its areas of the emergent middle class, and the houses of the ‘randlord’ mining magnates.
I was born in 1938 in Yeoville. I used to think that because of the mix it was like Brooklyn, but I later found it was more like the Bronx. My one set of grandparents were Latvian, the other Lithuanian; they were typical of Jewish immigrants coming into South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century — one of my grandfathers came out looking for diamonds that were being found in Kimberley.
I grew up in a building called Albert Court, made up of nine apartments. There’s a story I love about the communist leader Georgi Dimitrov. When he was sent by the Comintern somewhere and was arrested, he had a fake identity they were very suspicious of. To survive, he used his knowledge of the town he was brought up in and remembered every single shop. When they asked him about people in this particular place, he gave legends about each family — I can do that in Albert Court, from flat one to flat nine. It was a community.
What sort of presence did the labour movement have there? What sort of esteem was the Communist Party held in?
Around us was the Sachs family. The three Sachs girls taught me how to dance; their father was a communist, and in the parlour they had Stalin’s picture. That was a typical family, and that socialist background you could find among some of the Jewish immigrants. Old Man Sachs, who was about 40, was one of the truly working-class guys around.
I remember in 1948, when I was 10 and Israel was on the horizon, many young Jews were getting into Zionist organisations. I was attracted to one where you wore uniforms — Betar, which was [right-wing Zionist leader Ze’ev] Jabotinsky’s outfit. We could march in these uniforms and go up on the koppies [hills] with pellet guns. The Sachs sisters were horrified, and told me to join Hashomer Hatzair, the more socialist one orientated towards kibbutzim. In Yeoville, it attracted the fewest kids of all — there were about 20 or 30, compared to a couple hundred in Betar and about 500 in the mainstream one, Habonim.
In terms of the milieu, Joe Slovo and Harold Wolpe grew up in Yeoville, although Joe was 9 when he came to South Africa with his parents. They opened a grocery on the main street in Yeoville, where most of the shops were Jewish, the cafes were Greek and Lebanese, and there were one or two Indian tailors. In the period I’m talking, there was a small Labour Party of South Africa. One family at 1 Albert Court, the Weinbren family, their uncle was a one-time communist who moved towards the Labour Party, which was led by Alex Heppell — his son, Bob Heppell, was arrested at Rivonia. In the early fifties, my mother, who I didn’t think was that political, worked at an election in a school where votes were being cast, wearing the red rosette of the Labour Party!
Some of the whites in the area were Labour people, trade unionists, and a smattering of communists around. A fellow traveller was Teddy Gordon, who became my history teacher at high school. It was a turning point in my life when he taught us the French Revolution. I had only been interested in sport, but my mind was opened by the French Revolution — I became an A+ student. He’d take me through the Robespierre period, the really left-wing stuff.
Meanwhile, I used to play football on these fields, and a slogan on the wall — ‘AN ATTACK ON COMMUNISM IS AN ATTACK ON YOU’ — branded itself into my mind. I was about 12 when that slogan went up, when the Nationalists came to power and the Communist Party were banned. It was done by Percy Cohen and Wolfie Kodesh. I would later meet them — Wolfie in the underground, and Percy in Golders Green, where he became my dentist.
As a kid I kept wondering about it. Why is it an attack on me? They had put the slogan up in such a clever way: it was on a granite wall, with acid or something in the paint, that meant every time the authorities tried to wash it out, it would start coming out again from the stone.
Much of the period you describe is immediately after the Holocaust, and you touchingly describe the various refugees and Holocaust survivors in Yeoville. As a thoughtful Jewish boy watching the Right take power in your own country, to what extent was recent history playing on your mind?
When I was little, I would go to what we called the ‘bioscopes’ to watch the Saturday matinee. Once, they must have forgotten it was a matinee, because suddenly all of us kids got a glimpse of concentration camps, and we were horrified and started screaming. We raised this with our parents; of course, you were aware your parents were talking about someone called Hitler. I worked out where I would hide if Hitler came to Johannesburg to look for us Jews, these two brilliant hiding places — one was my bed, and the other was in the bedroom closet.
When I was 7, I saw white hooligans virtually beat to death a black man in a central street in Johannesburg. None of the whites did anything to lend a hand. My mother yanked me away. When a white woman screamed at these thugs to stop, they turned on her in the coarsest way. Near us, a white man said the man deserved it, that ‘black people shouldn’t be on the pavement anyway’.
I said to my mother, ‘is this what is happening to Jews in Germany?’ And she said, ‘Well you know Ronald, our people were put into gas chambers. That’s not happening here, but it starts that way.’ The Sachs sisters told me that if the Nationals won the election, they will put blacks into concentration camps and chase us Jews out of the country.
Your book talks about music a lot, and how rock and roll and jazz were routes for young people to break Apartheid laws that created widespread disorder between working-class youth and the police. Could you perhaps describe the sense of liberation that came from these subversive cultural forms?
Although rock and roll originates from African American music, its appeal in South Africa was more to working-class and rebellious white kids like myself. The genre which appealed to both whites and blacks — but separately — was jazz. The liberation of jazz was very appealing to urban Africans and mixed-race people. It was shebeen music, it was in the taverns. Shebeens were always called that, it came from Irish immigration to Johannesburg — Africans liked the word and used it for their own speakeasies, which were always raided by police. Some police were kept away by shebeen queens — women who ran these bars — who paid off some policemen, who were really at the bottom of white society, like the police are all over the world. In these shebeens, jazz became more Africanised. It developed a particular beat, and elements of black music — one of which is kwela, another is pata pata — was there alongside American influence.
But living in a stultified colony, where kids grew up in a situation of heightened authoritarianism in their schools, families, and government, rock and roll also appealed. You could just break out. At dancehalls we were ripping up the floors with rock and roll. There were cinema newsreels showing riots in Liverpool and Manchester as young people came out of seeing the Bill Haley and the Comets film, so we counted the days and weeks for Rock Around the Clock to arrive. When it did, the moment the music started, something happened that had never before happened in a South African cinema — we jumped into the aisles and started rocking and rolling.
When it ended, we headed out onto one of the main streets, and the police are there in force to block these hundreds of wild kids. They just rip into them, beating them up and smashing shop windows. I got beaten up and found myself in prison for that whole weekend. This was the effect rock and roll had — to this day, I still love to rock and roll!
In the book, you describe your first taste of socialist political education, where you mention books like Harry Pollitt’s Serving My Time and Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty — texts that more typically belong to the Left of the thirties, rather than the post-war generation. Why is this?
As a kid in school, there wasn’t that much leftist literature I came across. I mentioned Teddy Gordon and the French Revolution, but that was all school curricula. There was Percy Bysshe Shelley that got me excited, Charles Dickens, which I loved, and nothing much more. I was very well read, but not in the arena of actual left-wing books until after leaving school.
When I left home, I was running after a very bohemian woman. I was aged exactly 20 and somewhat interested in existentialism. I went to Cape Town in pursuit of her, where I had a cousin who was a doctor, some fifteen years older than me. I came to realise he was a bit of an anarchist, wary of the Soviet Union. But in his bookshelf are these books from the thirties and the forties. I homed in on Serving My Time by Pollitt, and one by Willie Gallacher, a Scottish Communist MP. Pollitt’s description of his upbringing in Lancashire, as well as Gallacher’s book, both blew my mind. That was the communist literature I read.
I ended up connecting with this woman, and we stay in an Irish boarding house. There was this group of people there, including an American called Larry, who was here studying the South African labour movement. He had a lot of leftist literature from the thirties and forties; through him I discovered John Steinbeck, Howard Fast, and Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets. Another guy in the boarding house had a lot of friends who were artists — existentialists mainly, but he had connections with sections of the working class and the intelligentsia, and some of them were communists, so I started meeting people like that — without becoming a communist as such, but I was searching.
It might make sense now to discuss your interest in existentialism, and your eventual development from existentialist to Marxist. Could you trace the historical events — and your own personal experiences — that, at this point, were shaping and developing your understanding of the world?
I was really into Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett’s novels, seeing myself in the individualism of existentialism, which said something about the cooped-up intellectual mood in South Africa. The appeal was to the individual: you can break out by asserting your will, taking your choices. I felt, ‘well, that’s the way I can liberate myself from South Africa.’
I found Sartre quite appealing because there was that element of Marxism, and through him I started reading about the French colonies, particularly Algeria. I also read Simone de Beauvoir, whose writings also attracted me to feminism to some degree. I had a cousin in the Communist Party in Durban, who I had only really known as a kid, but I kind of thought of her when I read de Beauvoir. I thought that I must see her sometime.
So I was looking for these people. And we were also smoking a lot of dope. When we were in Cape Town, people we knew were smuggling dagga into the city with African peasants. I missed the chance to get really engaged with communists because the guy whose home we went to lived off selling and smoking dagga, but his wife was in the Congress of Democrats, and was quite puritanical. We were having a party, and her Communist Party contact came into the house. The alarm was sounded, and we kept them at bay at the front gate while we opened the back windows and burned incense as they came in. I was far too under the influence to pay much attention.
I went off studying law, which I found boring. So I threw it in, and got a job at a film company studio writing film scripts, which was brilliant. South Africa is on the cusp of Sharpeville, and I’m this existentialist, living my life, disobeying the laws of Apartheid, choosing my friends from across the colour line, and even becoming connected with people of the Left, but I’m missing a seriousness.
But Sharpeville shocked me like a bolt of lightning. I found myself angry with my friends, because they denounced what happened, but they just went on drinking and smoking. They wanted to keep on talking. But I’m a doer, I wanted to do something. Friends were saying to me ‘you sound like a communist’. It was a challenge, and I said: ‘I don’t know what communism is. I just know this is wrong. Why is it that when one denounces this kind of thing, people are called communists?’
There was a bar called The Montparnasse where we used to go on Sundays for jazz. We felt like we were on the Left Bank, very existentialist (laughs). They would also put on play readings, and just after Sharpeville they put on Waiting for Godot. There were always these pseudo-discussions after these things. They were going on about what a beautiful play it was, how it was existentialism at its greatest. All of it was absolutely cracked. I couldn’t contain myself: I said, ‘what about Sharpeville?’ And they came down on me like a tonne of bricks.
I was a 20-year-old and out of my league intellectually with this crowd, so everything I said came back with jeers and laughs. But I held my ground, saying things like ‘what about Sharpeville? What’s it saying about that?’ They were responding like: ‘well, what happens in politics? They wait for Godot. These people, you call them the people, who are the people? They go through life, and what are they waiting for? You think those leaders ever come?’ I can remember this one guy screaming at me: ‘with leaders, you’re talking about Stalin aren’t you?’
I realised to myself: what hollowness. This is supposed to be a liberal, emancipated, artistic, white alternative to white authoritarianism. There is no way — it was all pretence and pseudo stuff.
As you look back on your youth, the changes in the world are obvious. But where are the similarities — which injustices remain? What are the challenges for the new generation of young South Africans, who never experienced Apartheid but still face serious levels of inequality, corruption and lack of opportunity?
There are parallels all over the world. The problems of the ANC remind me so much of the Labour Party, this broad church, socialist-oriented party of the working class in Britain. The ANC is a national movement, but it is socialist-orientated, through the Freedom Charter, its alliance with the Communist Party, its massive base and following, and it is experiencing a crisis similar to other movements around the world.
I always see such a reflection of this in Britain’s labour movement. The Labour left, centre, right — what happened from Keir Hardie to Ramsay McDonald, right through to the dreadful Blairite grouping. The struggle within these movements between the Left and the Right is very similar in terms of what the ANC is going through. Nothing is the same, but there are such similarities of experience that when one thinks of these things, you stop thinking of things in South Africa as being so strange and unique.
What’s exceptional about the Communist Party here is that although I have my critique of the Party, and especially its support for the utterly corrupt Jacob Zuma, the Communist Party has remained intact, and has actually grown. A party that started off heavily led by non-black people is now today 99% black. And people are coming back to it, seeing it as an answer to a rottenness and corruption that’s crept into the ANC in power.
There are parallels when you look around the world — in America, India, what happened in former socialist countries and that corruption and bureaucracy, people using positions to further their own interests. We on the left were too naïve about the make-up of our movement, naïve to assume we could just continue a progressive line. There was a belief that once we overcame Apartheid, the road to socialism would be easy-going, without realising how powerful capitalism is in its imperialist stage. It’s very resilient, and we’re paying the price.
Compromises were made, with Mandela, Slovo, and Chris Hani as we came to power in 1994. Mandela said, ‘if we persist with nationalisation along socialist lines, we are going to be totally isolated. We’re not giving up, but let’s tip toe into the future.’ Slovo would make the argument to me that the first objective of any struggle in revolution is to have political power. What can you do without it? Here, we had something we never dreamed would fall into our laps, which we gained through massive struggle and sacrifice. We thought there would be a revolution — Slovo wrote a famous thesis, ‘No Middle Road’ — we thought an armed uprising of the working class would happen.
But it didn’t, because the rulers and the corporate capitalists were very canny with the Soviet Union collapsing — they realised we weren’t going to have that kind of support. They could pull us in, as the British capitalists did with Labour after Keir Hardie, with promotions and positions. When you get political power, the forces of co-option are very strong — if you don’t fight for economic control, you are lost.
That is what happened in South Africa, and that is where corruption arises. I’m not saying you have no defence against it, but you’re not going to win if you allow yourselves to make concessions of that economic kind. I’m not now saying Mandela was wrong — he was a genius in realising there was that opportunity to avoid a bloody civil war, that we could negotiate our way out of Apartheid oppression and get our foot through the front door and come to power with a mass electoral base.
But going forward, we were sucked into the neoliberal global economy, and we share this destiny with everyone else in the world. We don’t at present have that kind of international movement, that solidarity of the past — that’s our weakness. We’ve got to get those social forces internationally to come together again, that alliance of working people, marginalised people, the black people of the world — from the wealthy countries to the so-called developing nations.
The race factor, which is what we understood in South Africa, was also important. In South Africa, the Communist Party knew that it wasn’t just slogans and the strategy of organising the workers for socialism, it was also about linking with the indigenous black majority struggle for national emancipation. Because it realised this, the SACP could strategise more closely with a revolutionary nationalist movement, bringing about Apartheid’s overthrow.
But the big question now is: if the ANC is so rotten, can it be saved?