Speaking from Johannesburg, leading anti-apartheid activist and former South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils discusses the evolution of the African National Congress’ economic views from its time as a liberation movement to leading South Africa after the fall of apartheid. Kasrils says the ANC was forced to make a "Faustian pact" with neoliberalism in order to bring apartheid to an end and avoid civil war. He also discusses recent reports that Mandela was a member of the South African Communist Party. Kasrils was on the National Executive Committee of the ANC for 20 years, serving as minister for intelligence services from 2004 to 2008.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ronnie Kasrils, you mentioned this whole dynamic of those few white South Africans who joined with or became part of the ANC. I’m wondering how extensive was the involvement of white revolutionaries and radicals in the movement. Did you have the kind of tensions within the ANC that obviously developed in the United States and other parts of the world as the Black Power or Black Consciousness Movement developed? Were there splits that began developing between the white comrades and the African or black comrades? And how did you work those out?
RONNIE KASRILS: OK, I think there’s quite a lot of similarities, to a degree—obviously, no places are the same—between America’s experience—and I’m thinking of the Deep South, the struggle against slavery and for civil rights and those experiences of African Americans that I’ve referred to that faced people in South Africa.
And then, in terms of the nonracial nature of the struggle, the numbers of whites who became involved were really few. They were exceptional people, people of great quality and education and bravery, like Bram Fischer and Ruth First or Joe Slovo. They had been in the Communist Party, which started off in the 1920s as basically a—basically white involvement of a few hundred people. It was never big. And they tended to come from the British trade union movement, on the one hand, and, as in America, as immigrants out of Eastern Europe, and particularly Tsarist Russia, a lot of Jewish people who had some background with the Mensheviks or the Bolsheviks or the Jewish Bund of the Russian Empire. So, it was a party that starts off that way.
But by the '30s and the ’40s, with the large influx of black workers, it begins to change. And black workers, like Moses Kotane, J.B. Marks, Duma Nokwe, come to the fore. They also are African nationalists. And the thing is, they were able to also be members and became leaders, with the likes of nationalists like Mandela and Tambo of the African National Congress. So, initially, in the period of the ’40s and into the ’50s, there was quite a lot of tension. And Mandela is a perfect example or reflection of this. As an African nationalist, he is a bit weary of the communists, and particularly those with the white skin. He regards Marxism in that early period as something that's outside of Africa, and therefore foreign. And he’s very typical of African nationalism with those particular fears. There’s a white Liberal Party led by Alan Paton that tends to be anti-communist, that is not as active as the white communists and, in terms of its goals, doesn’t even accept full universal franchise. So, as the African National Congress, under Mandela and Tambo, into the ’50s begins to become very active, highly militant, and mobilizes by the tens of thousands, the African people of whom huge percentage tends to be people from labor, working-class people, and so the character of that African National Congress and its leaders, like Mandela, begins to change.
And the big error that Afrikaans nationalism makes is that it deals with the communists, black or white, and the nationalists, the African nationalists, in the same way, and they repressed, and they banned, and they house-arrested, and they imprisoned. So, the two come together. I—instead of going for the black-white race aspect, let’s think of South Africa as having two deep cleavages: that of race, the black-white divide, and that of class, capital and labor. And these two divides—one which gives rise to trade unions, to socialists and the Communist Party; the other, the race divide or national oppression of black people—gives rise to the African nationalism, under the repression of apartheid and backed up by its courts and jails and judges and, of course, the brutality of its police and army. So the two cleavages—the divides and those who reflect them—come closer together. And I would say that’s a period when Mandela casts off his suspicion of the communists and even an element of anti-communism, and a tremendous unity emerges in the struggle of the ’50s.
The defiance campaign, defiance of unjust laws, some have similarities with the American civil rights movement, where blacks and whites, volunteers led by Mandela, would go and occupy whites-only spaces in the post offices, in the railway stations, the park benches—all these everyday manifestations of apartheid. People were thrown into jail, and very, very seriously—very serious laws were passed, like five years’ jail sentence for a black man sitting on a white man’s bench in a park, and vice versa. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie Kasrils, let me ask you—
RONNIE KASRILS: —this leads to—yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Was President—did Nelson Mandela become a communist?
RONNIE KASRILS: Well, you know, this, at this particular point in time, has become something of an issue because of a book written by a British observer called Stephen Ellis. I’ve just been checking the book again. And I would say that there are pretty strong clues to indicate that for a short period, possibly in the late '50s into the early ’60s, that Mandela was very impressed with people like Slovo and Mick Harmel and Ruth First and others. And what I had understood as a young person joining the Communist Party, becoming very close to Joe Slovo, particularly, that people like Walter Sisulu and him, as with Somora Machel or any leader in the African armed struggles, wanted to know what Marxism was about, what was there from this revolutionary theory and programs of action that they could learn. So, it's a very short period when there is, I would say, a closing of Mandela’s connection, or of, rather, perhaps coming about.
Mandela, however, has denied it. And I think whatever—there are a couple of people who allege such from our movement, who say that, "Well, he was in the Communist Party." There’s no documentation. He certainly became close in that period. But, for me, since Mandela has stated many times that he wasn’t formally a member, I think we’ve got to accept that. There’s no other real conclusive proof. But even if he had been, the point is that it was a brief period. Now, as someone in that Communist Party, I wouldn’t make apologies. You know, Sisulu, Mandela—there were great people who joined, like Govan Mbeki and Walter—and Moses Kotane. But Mandela certainly showed that he was sympathetic. He was very full of respect for those communists, who he—
AMY GOODMAN: The South African Communist Party, Ronnie Kasrils—
RONNIE KASRILS: —famously said were the ones—
AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie, the South African Communist Party last week said at his arrest in August '62, Nelson Mandela was not only a member of the then-underground South African Communist Party, but also a member of our party's Central Committee. We have to break, so just a 30-second response.
RONNIE KASRILS: Well, OK, sure thing. Sure thing.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll break, and then we’ll get your response. Ronnie Kasrils, leading anti-apartheid activist, was a top military official under President Nelson Mandela, served on the African National Congress Executive Committee for 20 years, was underground for some quarter of a century. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re spending the hour with Ronnie Kasrils in Johannesburg, South Africa. President Nelson Mandela lies in state in Pretoria at the Union Buildings. Thousands upon thousands are waiting hour after hour to be able to pass by his open casket. That will go on until Friday, and then the funeral, the state funeral for Nelson Mandela, is this weekend, along with his burial in Qunu, where he was born. Ronnie Kasrils, leading anti-apartheid activist, met Nelson Mandela in 1962 in the underground. Ronnie Kasrils remained in the underground for a quarter of a century, until 1989. He served on the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress for 20 years, went on to be a top military official under President Nelson Mandela, and then onto intelligence minister under President Thabo Mbeki. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Ronnie Kasrils, yes, we had—Amy had asked you a question before the break, but we’d like to—if you could answer that quickly, but we—in the few minutes that we have left, we also are very interested in your assessment of what has happened in South Africa since the end of apartheid, because you have been highly critical of what the revolution did not accomplish. And you talked in an article in The Guardian earlier this year about the Faustian bargain that you believe that the ANC—that you and the other leaders of the ANC engaged in with the leaders of not only South African capital, but the world capitalists and governments who were putting pressure on you at the time of the transition to a majority rule. So, I’m wondering if you can answer briefly the—this issue of whether Nelson Mandela was a leader of the Communist Party of South Africa, but also spend most of the time talking about your assessment of the problems that still remain to be solved in South African society.
RONNIE KASRILS: Sure, sure. Well, let me just deal with Amy’s point. Sure, Communist Party certainly makes that claim a week or so ago. I was in the party from 1961. I was in the leadership at a very high level in the Central Committee for many years, very close to Slovo and Mabhida and others. None of them ever made that claim or statement that he had been a member, other than that he had been close and that there had been some educational lessons in Marxism. Now, maybe he had been. It’s possible. But there’s no documents to actually prove that conclusively. So, for me—and it’s not a question of wanting to cover up or be embarrassed whatsoever; it’s that Mandela never acknowledged it. And because there’s no real conclusive proof, I think it’s got to rest, in a sense, there, because it doesn’t really do very much.
The fact is that if Mandela had a Marxist orientation, which he certainly did, I would say, for some time, that was dispelled when he emerges from prison 30 years or so later, where he immediately, in a major—his first address to our people, he commits himself to the socialist-inclined Freedom Charter and the clause, that is quite emphatic, although it doesn’t use the word "nationalization," that says that what we committed to is the control of the hearts of the economy, the mines, the banks, the monopoly industry, and it’s inconceivable that that will change. Right.
Two years later, he shows a totally different view on the economy by going to Davos, 1992, July, very impressed, clearly, as he was in South Africa, by the voice of monopoly capital. I’m not saying he bows down to it, but he is certainly impressed in terms of what they’re able to do, and comes back from Davos and says that for growth of the economy, we’ve got to look to the private sector. And he says that it’s clear that if we go for radical, socialist approach—he uses the term "nationalization"—we’re not going to get the foreign investment from the capitalist world that we need to make the country run and to overcome our poverty. So it’s a total change.
And this is where I say our Faustian pact or bargain stems from. It stems not just from Mandela, who is making this announcement and is following this through, but Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils, the left wing of the ANC, which was predominant, our whole Communist Party. There’s no real debate or argument about this. Mandela really is the icon, which he shouldn’t have been, for his fellow revolutionaries. He is a leader amongst other leaders. He’s always about a collective. But Mandela is very firm on a course of approach once he’s made up his mind. And I note that people like Joe and others actually go along with him, now the reason being that the political kingdom is coming close, and of course this is a very big issue. We could have had a civil war at the time. There could have been enormous bloodshed. There was tremendous threats from the third force, the police, the soldiers, operating undercover and with all sorts of right-wing elements from the Afrikaner extremists. And we were very concerned. Would we be able to move through that situation smoothly and get to a democratic election and form a government based on the people’s will? Now, that’s an enormous attraction. And that’s where Mandela’s greatness shows. But I would say, at the same time, we push the economic issues onto that back burner, and they successively become distant, so that nationalization, command of the hearts of the economy, this becomes a no-no. And once that sets in, and you get the gates open for a nouveau comprador bourgeoisie to come to the fore, junior partners of big capital and the corporates and the international connections, then we embrace the neoliberal economy of the world today, with all its corruption, with its cronyism, as it’s [inaudible], its patronage.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ronnie Kasrils, we just have about 30 seconds left.
RONNIE KASRILS: And you—in the—and then you’re in the clutches of what we’re all in the clutches of, the 1 percent, the corporate world that runs the economy of this planet of ours and is doing so much harm to it and begins to undermine the political sovereignty and independence of nations. That’s the point we’re at. That’s why we’re facing such scandals and corruption with our political elites.