Q&A with Ronnie Kasrils

by Oct 17, 2011All Articles

An ANC and SACP member, Ronnie Kasrils joined the fight against the apartheid regime, in 1960. A founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and former minister of intelligence from 2004 to 2008, Kasrils served from 1985 to 1989 on the ANC’s Politico-Military Council. From 1990 to 1991 he worked underground for the ANC in South Africa, during Operation Vula. Kasrils resigned in 2008 and is now actively involved with the Palestinian political struggle, among many other battles.

Amandla! (A!): You have just received the Alan Paton Award for your recent book, The Unlikely Secret Agent. What is the book about? Can you share with us the experience and process of writing it, and the way in which it has been received both in South Africa and internationally?
Ronnie Kasrils (RK): It was a book I simply had to write, both for personal and political reasons. It is about a musket bearer in the freedom struggle and is set in 1960–63. It is about an ordinary, young white woman, a single parent, who was prepared to sacrifice dubious privilege for her belief in a just cause. She was probably the first woman combatant in MK’s ranks, and displayed remarkable audacity and courage. She was arrested, brutally interrogated, outwitted her SB tormentors by feigning a nervous breakdown, wheedled her way into a mental hospital, was locked up with the criminally insane, and pulled off a daring escape. She showed that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things. Her story reminds us that those who joined the struggle in those dangerous times did not do so for personal gain, and that countless unsung heroes and heroines like her, in small and big ways, helped topple apartheid.

I am talking about my late wife, Eleanor Kasrils, whom I met in Durban in those dramatic days. We escaped together to Dar es Salaam and married there. She remained involved in the struggle right through to freedom – and beyond as wife of a government minister (in this last respect she was an impressive informal ambassador for our country). In exile, she had continued to work discreetly for the underground. I refer to her as an ‘unlikely secret agent’ because people did not imagine that such a refined and elegant woman could be involved in subversive activity. [In the Arts and Culture section on page 35, Kasrils discusses his recent book in more depth.]

A!: South African politics and the struggle for liberation have been central in your life and engagement. What is your assessment of the situation today within the ANC, with the Youth League disciplinary hearings and more?

Whatever way we look at the current situation, we need to accept that the transfer of power in April 1994 represented a momentous change. I used to invoke Lenin during the struggle, and still do, when he said that ‘a socialist character to the outcome of the national liberation struggle would depend on the extent of the involvement of the working class’. Class forces, pre- and post-1994 are battling for hegemony. We were rather naive to expect that there would be a bias towards the working class and socialism owing to the existence of the Soviet Union; the eminent role of the SACP; the traditions of militant trade unionism in our country; an anti-imperialist, left-leaning ANC. We underestimated the power of capital and its influence on our people and on leaders in power – particularly with the fall of the USSR and the emergence of the uni-polar world order (i.e. capitalist world). The neoliberal agenda was hardly noted pre-1994 except by a handful of our academic theorists. There has been an acceleration of movement to the right since Polokwane, owing to the lack of leadership, cow-towing to the coalition of forces that led to the removal of Mbeki, and ascendancy of elitist acquisition and corruption – which permeates the state and private sector. Polokwane has come to symbolise the acceptability of factionalism, abuse of state resources to settle scores, politicisation of intelligence and security forces – and opened the space for all manner of demagoguery and opportunistic alliances. Current leaders of the ANCYL learnt their ‘politics’ through the Polokwane process and have come to believe they can behave any way they like. They can hardly be blamed alone for this. The origin lies in poor political leadership from the senior body; failure to apply discipline from the start; but particularly owing to the lack of political education for the youth – and in fact generally for the post-1994 membership.

A!: Has the ANC taken a reversible step towards authoritarianism, as illustrated by the Protection of Information Bill and other popular initiatives of the Zuma administration?

I would think so. And I am glad to note that you have not used the term ‘irreversible’, because my view is that we must resurrect the best values of the liberation movement. My experience as intelligence minister was that the security and intelligence community were hopelessly politicised. This was made worse by a culture of secrecy, paranoia, conspiracy theory and authoritarianism. The Protection of Information legislation is an illustration of this. My impression is that it has more to do with concealing graft and corruption in high places than with national security. Note its obsession with threats that would emanate from whistle blowers and the media with exceptionally heavy sentences. Yet over recent years, arguably the biggest threats to national security have come from disinformation generated by the intelligence services. I refer to the Meiring Report of 1998, which claimed that a coup was being hatched by Winnie Mandela, General Siphiwe Nyanda, Bantu Holomisa and Robert McBride; and I refer to the hoax email saga of 2005 which was designed to establish a political conspiracy against Jacob Zuma by the Mbeki circle – it was this that culminated in the Polokwane process unseating an incumbent president both of the ANC and the State. Note that the soon to be enacted Information Bill has no clause deeming it irregular for a member of the intelligence community to generate false information! The current debacle within the intelligence services regarding disputes between the Security Minister and the top directorship, as reported in the media, is the latest worrying sign that power disputes continue to rage. This is extremely serious and a grave threat to our infant democracy. I am on record as urging government to implement the 2008 Matthew Commission Report and recommendation for the reform of the intelligence services. Yet that Report has been totally ignored.

A!: Do you foresee big divisions and further splits within the ANC in the lead-up towards the 2012 conference?

Well the conditions that Polokwane gave birth to certainly continue to exist and indeed have been exacerbated.

A!: Clearly the issue of Palestine is very close to your heart. Is the South African government doing enough to support the struggle for a free Palestine?

Far from it, I’m afraid. As recipients of international solidarity and sterling support of the anti-apartheid movement, our struggle for liberation was greatly strengthened, racist Pretoria isolated and its overthrow made much more possible. We should be the standard bearers, the global champions for the Palestinian cause. Given the moral high ground this country occupied from 1994 we could have spurred the rest of the world on to greater efforts. We should have taken the lead in severing all relations with the Zionist state, and imposing the kind of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) that had been successfully applied against apartheid South Africa. The history of colonial dispossession of land and birthright by foreigner, which was our indigenous people’s fate, is reflected in the imposition of racist Israel on indigenous Palestine. Such similar history needs our government and people to wake up to the reality of what is happening to the Palestinians and to support to the full their just cause. The manner of the peaceful transition to a unitry state of all our people is a clear example of the possibility of Christians, Jews, Muslims – and those of no particular religious belief – to live together in peace and harmony.

A!: You will be a central figure in the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP). What is the tribunal really hoping to achieve?

Well I am a member of the jury and attended the first and second hearings in that capacity in Barcelona and London. This is a People’s Tribune that hears evidence from the victims of racism, brutality and occupation – evidence from international experts examining Israel’s abuses of international humanitarian law and war crimes. It holds responsible those states, international institutions and transnational corporations co-plicit in Israel’s crimes. It presents such evidence and findings by the jury to the Palestinians and international community, including Israeli peace groups, so that they can better pursue their cause for justice – and seek to isolate Israel. The Cape Town hearings will consider the international crime of apartheid and consider to what degree this can be applied to Israel. The eyes of the world will be on Cape Town (5–6 November) and on the venue for the hearings which is the District Six Museum – so symbolic of South African apartheid and our triumph over injustice. Many leading figures and activists from around the world will attend, including Palestinians and Israelis. We look to our people to attend these hearings and give their full support to the Russell Tribunal. We need volunteers to assist us and we need donations to help cover the considerable costs.

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