Jamie Claassen was guided by love, humility and humanism | by Brian Ashley

by May 23, 2012All Articles

This contribution is drafted with Hamied Mahate that together with Jamie and myself constituted an almost 30 year collaboration. The three of us were a tripod. Now one leg has gone and we are shaky and destabilised.
Jamie had three passions his family – Bronwyn, Lauren in the first instance, sport and politics.  The latter two dominated our relationship.
Jamie, through his father’s influence supported the All Blacks. I supported the Springboks. Hamied was agnostic. In the early days, before he came to grips with the racism of the Aussies Jamie gloated over the Aussie’s cricket supremacy while I had to try and extol the virtues of Jacques Kallis and Alan Donald against Mark Waugh and Shane Warne. Hamied supported the Sri Lankans. Both Jamie and I would take pity on him until Sri Lanka won the world cup. It did not end there, Jamie was just as passionate about the Reds, that is Liverpool whereas I had to find surrogates to support as my team Leeds United languished in second tier football. Hamied remained mostly agnostic. Anyone who knows Jamie will therefore know this was a relationship born in heaven.
How could we find time for politics, you may well ask? Because whenever we met the first part of the meeting, telephone call or sms chat was prefaced by an analysis of what was happening to the war being fought on the playing fields.
Our attitude to sport and the teams we supported was well captured by Bill Shankly former Liverpool manager when he said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
But who Jamie supported had strong political overtones: The All Blacks were the antithesis of the racist boers and he could never bring himself to support the Springboks. The Reds were not just red in what they wore but was led for many years by the very same Bill Shankly one of the very few top tier football managers that was a socialist: To quote: “The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.” Bill Shankly.
And that was Jamie, a lifelong socialist committed to the struggle of working people and the poor to overcome all forms of oppression and exploitation rooted in capitalism and patriarchy.
I first met Jamie when he was in Matric and he joined the political movements that we were building in response to the rise in the 1980s  of the student and worker movements that were on the ascendency and in opposition to the attempt of late Apartheid to reform the system. We journeyed together in SOYA – the Students of Young Azania, the Cape Action League, the National Forum and  the Workers Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA). Here we collaborated producing publications like Free Azania, Solidarity, Workers Voice writing and illegally distributing pamphlets agitating for strikes, stay-aways and mass protests, organising civics, youth even soup kitchens and children’s groups in an effort to reach the grassroots.
After 1994 realising that socialists faced new fundamental challenges given the collapse of the Soviet Union that undermined the credibility of socialism on a world-wide scale, the rise of globalisation, which was restructuring economies, not least the South African economy, leading to the triumph of free market capitalism, and the advent of the ANC to power in a non-racial democratic constitution – something we never thought possible outside of a revolution, a few of us, Jamie included, started on a long journey to rebuild a socialist politics rooted in the experiences of everyday life of the masses of people that remained socially disenfranchised and dispossessed under post apartheid capitalism.
Together we initiated in 1996 the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) as a place where we could take stock of the huge changes that were occurring globally and were altering the terrain of struggle in SA. In this situation Jamie insisted that we needed to be humble and acknowledge there is much we do not have answers to and we need a space where we could do fundamental research and rethinking, in an open and non-dogmatic way as a means of re-visioning and re-strategising the building of a socialist movement.
Jamie insisted that our task was not in the first instance to build a political movement or party but to help rebuild the mass organisations of trade unions, civics, women’s and youth organisations necessary to defend and advance the interests of the working classes. For Jamie there was no socialism separate and apart from the everyday struggles and movements of the workers and the poor themselves.
In 2006 Jamie, Hamied and a core of other comrades committed to non-sectarian and an open, non-dogmatic left politics founded the magazine Amandla!. Amandla! was initiated at a time when there was growing opposition inside and outside of the Tripartite Alliance to the elite-building politics of Mbeki and Trevor Manuel. We went out of our way to draw members from various political traditions on the left, including the SACP and COSATU, insisting now was the time for the rebuilding of a new left politics. This would emerge out of a political dialogue that was prepared to question all the holy cows of our own political currents and traditions.
After the 2007 Polokwane disaster when the left in the Alliance liquidated itself into the Zuma project and turned its back on building independent working class politics, a period of reassessment was needed in respect to the political strategies we had embarked on since 1994. The advent of the global economic crisis of 2008 and the removal of Mbeki as President of the country inspired us to call together a socialist strategy workshop out of which a process of political regroupment was initiated culminating in the Conference of the Democratic Left and the formation last year of the Democratic Left Front. Jamie was integral to this reassessing on how we go forward under the complex and difficult political situation that we were faced with.
In all the twists and turns of rebuilding and renewing a socialist politics that was relevant for the 21st century Jamie never lost his humility, intellectual rigour and commitment and willingness to sacrifice his personal comforts for others. This can only be understood and fully appreciated in respect to the political principles that drove Jamie’s life.
First and foremost Jamie was an anti-racist who stood implacably for non-racialism. Not the non-racialism that is today increasingly deformed into a multi-racialism. No Jamie totally rejected the concept of race as a scientific or biological category. For Jamie there was one race only and that was the human race. Jamie’s non-racialism was shaped by his teachers at Livingstone, schooled in the politics of the Unity Movement and influenced by the writings and teaching of Neville Alexander with whom he had a long collaboration in CAL, WOSA and the HEWSA Trust. Jamie would never accept the Apartheid epithets and categories of Apartheid. For Jamie the terms Coloureds, Indians Africans and Whites were constructs used by apartheid to divide and subjugate. He rejected their use in Post-Apartheid South Africa and saw it as crucial to unfold nation-building projects to overcome racial consciousness and national division.
Jamie’s socialism was captured in one of the first slogans we took up in our initial political journey together in student politics, that is, WE ARE OUR OWN LIBERATORS. This was when we were active in the SOYA, the Students of Young Azania which consciously took its name from the earlier student youth movement attached to the Non European Unity Movement, Sons of young Africa.
It must be obvious to anyone familiar with socialist politics that this slogan “we are our own liberators” was about the assertion of independent working class politics and modelled on Marx when he insisted “THE EMANCIPATION OF THE WORKING CLASS MUST BE AN ACT OF THE WORKING CLASS ITSELF.”
It is only through their own experience in the course of their own revolutionary praxis that the exploited and oppressed masses can overcome both the external circumstances that chain them (capital, the state) and their previous mystified consciousness. In other words, the only GENUINE FORM OF EMANCIPATION IS SELF-EMANCIPATION.
I wish to quote Michel Lowy, a Latin American revolutionary who Jamie met and admired which sums up Jamie’s own politics.
“In Marx’s vision there is no room for any kind of enlightened despot, whether individual or collective, no Caesar or Tribune of the People. The doctrine which substitutes the party for the proletariat and imposes its “leading role” from on high, as well as the ideology of the infallible leader, omniscient and benevolent, are a complete rupture with the most profound elements of the philosophy and revolutionary theory of Marx.
To find the historical origins of Stalin’s, Mao’s, Kim il Sung’s or Ceaucescu’s “personality cult” you have to search through religious history or through the customs of oriental despotism. They cannot be found in the thought of the author of The Communist Manifesto.”
From this it is easy to understand why Jamie was not drawn to the politics of the South African Communist Party and its invoking of itself as the vanguard of the working class and the embodiment of Marxism Leninism.
No, Jamie’s Marxism has (forgive me for the use of the present tense) nothing in common with repetitious incantation of a few quotes from Marx or Engels in the style of a typical prayer. It consists of a method of critical thought about the social reality with the aim of its revolutionary change. The Marxism that appealed to Jamie was the Marxism that Marx described as his method namely the RUTHLESS CRITICISM OF ALL THAT EXISTS – even and especially ourselves.
Many people have commented on Jamie’s humanity and humility and this was at the root of his socialism. He rejected the idea that the end justify’s the means, he rejected the idea of state socialism as a contradiction in terms. For Jamie, socialism meant freedom. Full stop, no ifs or buts. He hated the tendency of socialists to suppress differences and to suppress self-doubt. His socialism was of the utopian kind – not idealism but rooted in love for humanity and a desire to root out all suffering of the people.
There is a final virtue I want to mention of my dearest friend and comrade. He was non-sectarian. He worked with all regardless of their political affiliation as long as Jamie could see their commitment to the struggle of the workers and the poor. He was non-sectarian in the sense that he believed we must work in and with all movements and organisations that have a mass following of workers. He was not afraid to engage comrades linked to the ANC, SACP or COSATU because he knew socialism only had a future if rooted in mass working class formations. He understood that for a whole number of historical factors the overwhelming number of workers in SA supported these movements – and hence as socialist we need to work with them and not set ourselves apart from them.
Jamie loved Che and loved quoting Che when he said “At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love.”
Let me conclude by quoting one of South Africa’s most heroic revolutionaries.
I can imagine my friend Jamie echoing the words of Solomon Mahlangu as the cancer took him to his gallows:
Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.”
Jamie we shall love and treasure your legacy
Hamba kahle
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