This is the video for a Left Forum panel discussion on South Africa organized by Socialist Action. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a contributor to Black Agenda Report, chronicled the EPA’s role in covering for an American corporation’s failure to protect South African miners from vanadium poisoning. Patrick Bond’s presentation focused on the growing class inequality in South Africa, with some eye-opening revelations about how the new housing provided by the ANC leaves something to be desired. Marty Goodman, a Socialist Action member, spoke about the failure of Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders to live up to expectations.
June 11, 2015
May 29, 2015
On Sunday evening the Peabody Award will be presented to Abby Ginzberg for her documentary on Albie Sachs titled “Soft Vengeance”, a film based on his 2011 memoir of the same title. After having watched the film, I can recommend it without any hesitation despite the tendency to skirt over South Africa’s current troubles that some analysts on the left have described as economic apartheid.
Born into a Jewish and Communist family in 1935, Sachs became an activist at an early age. When he was seventeen he took part in an act of civil disobedience by sitting in the “Blacks only” section of a train station. Although prepared to be arrested and jailed, he was sent home because of his youth.
After getting trained as a constitutional lawyer, Sachs became one of the ANC’s chief legal representatives. The apartheid regime, as is the case with dictatorships everywhere, saw such lawyers as being as dangerous or even more dangerous than guerrilla fighters. In 1963 he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for 90 days, a punishment that broke his spirit to the extent that self-exile to Britain was the only way he could regain the spirit he needed to move forward again as an ANC activist.
Despite the prestigious academic career he was pursuing, he never felt at home in Britain and yearned to return home to Africa. On the suggestion of the ANC, he relocated to Mozambique shortly after its independence and plunged himself into drafting laws for the newly liberated state and continuing to provide legal advice to the ANC.
In 1988, as he opened the door of his car to take a trip to the beach, a bomb went off and cost him his right arm and the sight in his left eye. This was around the time that the South African government was embarked on a reign of terror that would cost the life of ANC leader Ruth Furst from a parcel bomb in Mozambique as well. Furst’s parents, like Sachs’s, were Jews and Communists.
The film is focused on Sachs’s life and career with a special emphasis on his efforts to foster a respect for constitutional rights in the new South Africa. He served as a Supreme Court justice in post-apartheid South Africa and helped to assemble the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that some critics fault for its overly generous concessions to the white war criminals and torturers. Sachs insists that South Africa would have been torn apart if vengeance had been sought. If the question is open to debate, it is very much hearing Sachs make the case since he is an eloquent defender of his views and obviously someone who knows from firsthand experience the costs of living in a lawless state.
When I receive word about the film’s screening to the general public, I will update you.
November 9, 2014
Cosatu CEC November 7, 2014
Numsa GS Presentation
I stand here as the General Secretary of the biggest affiliate of this federation, as a founding member at the Congress of 1985. I will be reminding comrades here of our common history.
I stand here because the Central Executive Committee of this federation has offered Numsa an opportunity to explain to you why we should not be expelled or suspended from this organisation. I am going to fulfil that task thoroughly. I will explain in great detail exactly why Numsa should not be expelled or suspended and why, instead, this federation should obey its own constitution and allow workers, as owners of the federation, to decide on its future. When we founded this federation, we were wise enough to foresee that there might be political conflict in the future. We put in place a rule to cater for that eventuality. The rule says that if one-third of the affiliates of the federation ever think that there are issues that require the consideration of a Special National Congress, they can require the President to call that congress.
What kind of issues would require such a special congress? There are two powers of a National Congress which no other structure has.
o It makes policy
o It elects leadership.
The purpose of the rule is precisely to deal with conflict over policy and leadership. Right now, we have a crisis of policy and leadership. The reason that Cosatu is paralysed by this dispute, resorting to the courts and expensive lawyers to decide our future, is that we have refused to decide it for ourselves. We have committed the most heinous sin against the spirit of the founding fathers of this federation. We have refused to decide our own future.
In order to abandon this responsibility, the leadership of this federation has chosen to break its own rules. To violate its own constitution. As so often happen with corruption, when it starts, it doesn’t stop.
oThose who break rules have to defend themselves against those who challenge them for that act.
oThe leadership of this federation knows that it will be defeated in any National Congress of the federation. Whether that is a Special National Congress or an ordinary national congress. It can’t have a Congress because it will lose.
o So it must try to ensure that by the time it gets to a Congress it can win. o That is the reason for these expulsion hearings here today.
But underneath that, is a profound political division.
oIt is a division between those who recognise the political bankruptcy of the ANC / SACP government and those who don’t.
oBetween those who support the interests of the working class, as our Constitution requires us to do, and those who are prepared to sacrifice those interests for a class alliance.
December 8, 2013
by Ashwin Desai (Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg)
Nelson Mandela’s best-selling autobiography, published in 1994, is entitled Long Walk to Freedom. It tells the powerful story of the journey of a rural Transkei boy who was a cow-herd and son of a deposed tribal chief, to guerilla fighter to decades-long prisoner on an Island fortress and then to the first Black and democratic president of his nation, South Africa. This story came at a time when the world was witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union, the toppling of statues of many socialist icons and the quagmire of many post-colonial states in Africa. Mandela’s story was rightfully seen as one example of vindication for resistance, righteousness, principle and steadfastness. With the African National Congress’s victory seen as a rare move forward during the 1990s, it reminded us all that to sacrifice for justice will finally find redemption. Often written out of this story are the sustained rebellions by millions of South Africans that were to lead to Mandela’s release from prison. The 1973 Durban workers’ strikes, the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement, the 1976 Soweto student uprising and the rebellions of the 1980s, all put the regime on the back-foot. The international sanctions movement caused a run on the banks in 1985 that contributed to white business breaking with Pretoria and exploring terms with the liberation movement. Reeling from resistance and economic crisis, the apartheid regime opened talks with Mandela. It was one of the ironies of the mid-1980s that those who marched in the streets of South Africa saw non-collaboration as a central plank of resistance. For them, negotiation with the regime was outside of any genuine liberation movement’s organisational mandate. By agreeing to meet with representatives of the regime, Mandela was already playing a lone card. Many in his own exiled movement were shocked by this move.
Running through the speeches and banners of the internal rebellion was a sense that apartheid and capitalism were feeding off each other, and that the destruction of the former would “grow over” and destroy the latter. Our theories posited the existence of a strange and unique creature, racial capitalism. Our strategy was that an obsidian knife in the heart of apartheid oppression would cause the dragon of capitalism to slowly disintegrate. It was a time of monsters, tyrants, insurrection and the seizure of state power.
Nationwide, there were marches, protests, and consumer boycotts. In the economic heartland of the country, the Vaal triangle, unions and community organisations united in a three-day stay-away in 1984, catalyzing wave after wave of mass strikes and protests. The 1980s were a heady time: through the states of emergency, tens of thousands took to the streets to destroy state attempts at co-optation through the tri-cameral system, which sought to bring Indians and Coloureds as junior partners into the system, as well as the Black Local Authorities run by puppets in the African townships.
This was my generation, which knew mass organisation, the constant fear of imprisonment, the sense of a regime unable to quell rebellion, of all things possible.
In 2013, it is difficult to capture the impact of the 1980s on a whole generation of activists. Apartheid could not imprison us. Cross-racial alliances, reading groups, all night meetings, building one street at a time. These were part of everyday life.
During this period, Mandela’s clandestine talks with the regime continued. He was moved from Pollsmoor to Victor Verster with his own cook and swimming pool. He was taken for walks on the beach, as the regime prepared him for release. These talks with the regime took place behind the backs of his closest comrades, who were cut off from him.
The regime believed that, unlike those who marched in the streets and faced the barrage of bullets and lengthy periods of detention, Mandela was a man they could talk to. While he stuck to ‘one person, one vote in a unitary state’ as a bottom-line demand for democracy, he appeared open to keeping the fundamentals of the accumulation system intact and the preservation commanding heights of the economy. The dragon would get a make-over.
There were imponderables. What was the ANC in exile thinking? Big business seemed to be sure of the ANC’s commitment to a deal. They led the way, meeting the ANC in exile in 1985, soon realising that it was an organisation they could do business with. Gavin Reilly, Chairman of Anglo-American Corporation, led a delegation of top representatives of South African monopoly capital to Lusaka to talk with the ANC leadership. He reflected on that meeting, that ‘he had the impression the ANC was not ‘too keen’ to be seen as “marxist” and that the ANC leaders had a good understanding “of the need for free enterprise.”’ Reilly’s summation was to prove incredibly insightful, if you replace the words “free enterprise” with “prerogatives of monopoly capital”.
There was another imponderable. The internal insurgency had the potential to derail the Afrikaner regime and white capital’s best laid plans. The benefits of free enterprise did not feature in their vocabulary. But, in that crucial period between Mandela’s release in 1990 and the elections of 1994, the ANC skilfully absorbed the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM). COSATU, the main labour federation, acknowledged the ANC as the leading force in the alliance that included the South African Communist Party. Both these organisations were allowed to nominate a slate of members to be put on the ANC’s election list. Many of these representatives were to become notorious for their embrace of macro-economic conservatism and overseeing the privatization of state assets.
The internal regiments who tipped the balance in the liberation movement’s favour were outflanked. The pace of liberation set in the townships streets of the 1980s was been slowly moved into the boardroom. The balance of forces was shifting. The ANC was eating away at the Nats apartheid machine. At the same time, Capital, outside of the calculations of the MDM in the 80s was eating into the ANC.
The long march to freedom was gathering speed, but what was its direction?
The ANC was to produce stability for capital – and a consequent 10 percent decline in the ratio of wages to profits – during the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies. This, the apartheid regime could not offer. There were moments when the carefully crafted script called for ad-libbing. But the ANC was able to turn on the tap of mass mobilization to release tensions and then turn it off. The April 1993 assassination of Chris Hani was one particular moment. But the ANC shrewdly managed this potentially explosive event. Mandela was key. He writes in the Long Walk to Freedom: ‘We adopted a strategy to deal with our own constituency in the ANC. In order to forestall outbreaks of retaliatory violence, we arranged a week-long series of mass rallies and demonstrations throughout the country. This would give people a means of expressing their frustration without resorting to violence. Mr de Klerk and I spoke privately and agreed that we would not let Hani’s murder derail the negotiations.’
Why Mandela? We wanted a messiah to give us direction and hope, after the years in which life was tenuous, fragile, suspended on the edge of disintegration. We wanted to believe in good men, in just policies, in a caring, inclusive society. At the tip of Africa, where for so long we had been imprisoned by race, where ceilings were placed on what we could achieve because of the colour of our skin, and our imaginations had been ground down by both subtle and crude repressions, it seemed we could now sweep these barriers away.
With Mandela at the helm, we were on the move. It was a time of embracing, of grand gestures, of style and the possibility of everyday freedom, whatever the structural and historical constraints. For those of us who had lived under the stop-watch of race, whose fathers and mothers knew only stigmatisation, our lives compressed into tight racial corners, we too it seemed were released from long-term imprisonment.
The first years after the Mandela release were electrifying. All over people who felt trapped by apartheid, by the immediacy of making do or destroying the system, now felt they were living in history. Madiba magic touched us all releasing the spell cast over us for so long
Much was initially promised. Nelson Mandela’s short walk through the gates of Victor Verster prison meant more than the beginning of the defeat of apartheid. Mandela symbolised the hope that society could be organised differently, humanely and nobly. This, at a time also when there was talk of one world order, and one in which amoral markets alone held sway. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the welfare state was in retreat, the market economy had gone global and the shining light of capitalism, it was written, had arrived and was banging at the doors of state regimentation and control.
Mandela, in his first speech in 1990 in Cape Town, promised that the ideals of the Freedom Charter would illuminate the way to a new South Africa. The 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) would serve as the ANC’s campaign plan to redress past inequities, as those who suffered under the yoke of apartheid would take their place as fully fledged citizens, under a new flag and national anthem, guided by a new constitution in a new South Africa. Mandela marked the closure of one long terrible world-wide history, defined by colonial dispossession and racial oppression. He signaled an opening; of a time when all South Africans would be free from racial and economic exclusions and marked the foundation of the Rainbow Nation of God.
Openings would be the operative word. Our economy, which for so long had operated behind protectionist barriers, was thrown open to a feeding frenzy by global sharks, as we lost one labour-intensive industry after another to East Asian competitors. As South Africa sought to negotiate its way onto the global stage and a unipolar world, concessions were quickly made and the adoption of a people-centred economic path jettisoned. We, who marched in the 1980s behind banners that read ‘Forward ever, backwards never’, were flummoxed. Rather than Mandela illuminating the path to freedom from poverty and inequality, the first years of the ANC government were marked by a series of policy U-turns.
It was a time in which erstwhile revolutionaries and left intellectuals confused realism with conformism and surrender with fighting back.
Exchange controls were relaxed in 1995 and then crucially in 1999, Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel allowed big business to delist from Johannesburg and relist on the London Stock Exchange. Some of the country’s biggest companies decamped with apartheid’s plunder: Anglo American, De Beers diamonds, Investec bank, Old Mutual insurance, Didata ICT, SAB Miller breweries (all to London), and Mondi paper (to New York). The $25 billion apartheid debt, odious in law, was to be honoured. Foreign policy embraced Suharto (Mandela gave the butcher the highest honour for a foreigner, The Cape of Good Hope Medal), and after an $850 million IMF loan in late 1993, Bretton Woods Institution diktats were slavishly followed. The final U-turn was signaled without warning. The RDP was replaced by a series of neoliberal White Papers in sector after sector, culminating in the 1996 homegrown Growth, Employment and Redistribution structural adjustment policy. This became the ruling mantra and codified liberalisation as the official ideology of Mandela’s government.
Battles were lost. We were designated a ‘transitional’ country not a ‘developing’ one by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), opening ourselves up to cheap imports and dumping, and we foolishly agreed to lower our tariffs faster than the WTO deemed necessary. Our manufacturing industry was decimated as a result. Teaching at the Durban Workers College at the time, I saw a swift change in the role of shop-stewards. Where a few months before they were pushing back the frontiers of control on the shopfloor, organising mass marches, and confronting the bosses, now they were spending time negotiating the retrenchments of hundreds of workers, while at the same time preaching discipline and order in the workplace. Overnight, unions were working with the bosses to encourage international competitiveness, as if 50 years of protection could be made up for in a year.
COSATU promoted a ‘Buy South Africa Campaign.’ Yet, because of the influence of COSATU stalwart turned Minister Alec Erwin, the union movement had signed on to the lowering of tariff barriers. Now it insisted that South Africans buy more expensive local products as their patriotic duty. At one union rally, when workers realised they were wearing T-shirts made in China, they took them off and ripped them up. At least the seams came apart easily.
While it may have seemed a futile gesture, it was a window into the effects that the summary embrace of economic openness had produced without concomitant state support or a coherent industrial policy. We, who had been isolated from the world during apartheid, were now rushed at breakneck speed into the embrace of global competitiveness. People who bore the crushing weight of apartheid were now asked to bear the burden of shock capitalism. Once more, the call went out from on high; patience and discipline.
The former Intelligence Minister in the ANC government, Ronnie Kasrils, argues that in this crucial early period, ‘the battle for the ANC’s soul got under way, and was eventually lost to corporate power: we were entrapped by the neoliberal economy – or, as some today cry out, we “sold our people down the river”’ (The Guardian, 24 June 2013). This Faustian pact, he suggests, meant the ANC could no longer hang on to its revolutionary ideals.
Today, the ANC is a very different organisation to the one that existed in 1990. The composition of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC), once the preserve of working-class exiles and former political prisoners, is now populated by CEOs, millionaires and billionaires. Take for example, the newly elected Deputy President of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa. One time general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), he is now one of South Africa’s richest men. The speed at which he entered the billionaire class is astounding, making Afrikaners like the Ruperts, who became billionaires post-1948 seem pedestrian.
In one of those typical South African ironies, Ramaphosa became a key figure in the massacre of 34 workers at the Marikana platinum mine owned by Lonmin, in which he was the largest local shareholder. Ramaphosa was in constant communication with the mining bosses and the state during the August 2012 strike. In one of his emails on August 15, he wrote to Lonmin’s Albert Jamieson: ‘You are absolutely correct in insisting that the Minister, and indeed all government officials, need to understand that we are essentially dealing with a criminal act. I have said as much to the Minister of Safety and Security. I will stress that Minister [Susan] Shabangu should have a discussion with Roger [Phillimore, Lonmin chairman].’
In making these emails public, the lawyer for the arrested mineworkers, Dali Mpofu, illustrated how the past lives on in the present.
It’s a long line of emails under, in the same vein, effectively encouraging so-called concomitant action to deal with these criminals, whose only crime was that they were seeking a wage increase… At the heart of this was the toxic collusion between the SA Police Services and Lonmin at a direct level. At a much broader level it can be called a collusion between the State and capital and that this phenomenon is at the centre of what has occurred here.
This collusion between State and capital has happened in many instances in this country. In 1920 African miners went on strike and the government of Jan Smuts dealt with them with violence, and harshly, and one of the results of that was that they reduced the gap between what white mineworkers were getting and what black mineworkers were getting, and the pact that had been signed in 1918 of introducing the colour bar in the mines was abandoned. That abandonment precipitated a massive strike by the white mineworkers in 1922 and that strike was dealt with by the Smuts government by bringing in the air force –and about 200 people were killed. This is one of the most important happenings in the history of this country, and in 1946 under the leadership of the African Mineworkers Union, the African workers, 70 000 African workers also went on a massive strike and the government sent 16 000 policemen and arrested, like they did to our, the people we represent, some of the miners under an act called the War Measures Act.
So this has happened, this collusion between capital and the State has happened in systematic patterns in the history of, sordid history of the mining industry in this country. Part of that history included the collaboration of so-called tribal chiefs who were corrupt and were used by those oppressive governments to turn the self- sufficient black African farmers into slave labour workers. Today we have a situation where those chiefs have been replaced by so-called BEE partners of these mines and carrying on that torch of collusion.
Mandela, too, was showered with a small financial fortune by friendly tycoons after his release from 27 years of prison in 1990, sufficient to amass a $10 million asset base in six short years, as revealed in his ugly divorce proceedings with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. In the year that Thabo Mbeki fired Jacob Zuma as Deputy President, Mandela rewarded Zuma with a R1 million cheque. Jacob Zuma, now President, also has his tycoons. Particularly significant is the notorious Gupta family. They have extensive business dealings with Zuma’s family and the close connection has given rise to a new word: the Zuptas.
Union general secretaries now earn more than cabinet ministers, and unions have investments in the very enterprises they try and organise. The racial geography of our cities remains intact. The commanding heights of the economy and control of the land remain largely in white hands, while government attempts at redistribution are paltry.
Almost two decades into the transition, one has a sense that all the solidity of the anti-apartheid struggle has melted into air. The long walk to freedom has been interrupted by ubiquitous toll roads. The lights that illuminated the march to freedom have slowly dimmed as electricity prices have escalated. The thirst for freedom has been parched by water that demands cash before delivery. An economy that was supposed to deliver more and more jobs sheds them everyday. A state that promised to progressively redress apartheid’s legacy allows inequality and poverty to deepen. The trade unionists of yesteryear occupy the boardrooms of corporate capital. Big capital, the lynchpin of our economic competitiveness, has left the country; Black capital is no more than its’ coat-tail, exposing the poverty of the idea of a Patriotic Bourgeoisie. Instead of over-turning the tables of the money-lenders (finance capital), the new messiahs have given them license to turn a fast buck out of the poor.
What about the other parts of the Alliance? To read the SACP is like reading a Monty Python script. It claims that it is deepening the national democratic revolution as an advance towards socialism. But it never fights an election on its own, instead feeding off the ANC slate, which is a party committed to deepening capitalist social relations. COSATU claims to advance the cause of the working class and sees the best way of doing this by attaching itself to the apron strings of the ANC, whose economic policies throw more and more people into the unemployment queue. The ANC touts non-racialism but is becoming increasingly captive to a visceral racial nationalism alongside its crony capitalism. The early U-turns, it would appear, have produced an Alliance of dead-ends. It is no wonder then that for many South Africans, the early optimism has now been tempered by Kafka’s refrain, ‘there is hope, but not for us.’
The ANC government was determined that Nelson Mandela’s failing health would be well choreographed. After all, he is a global icon and the media would be on high alert. But almost immediately, the script started to fall apart. The ambulance that took him to hospital broke down en route from Johannesburg to Pretoria. As speculation about his health enveloped the nation, the Mandela family entered into an unseemly spat between themselves. It revolved around the bodies of Mandela’s kin that had originally been dug up in Qunu and spirited off to Mvezo, where Mandla Mandela, his grandson, held the chieftainship. A coterie of family members insisted that the bodies be returned to Qunu. They rushed to court and won an urgent court order to have the bodies exhumed and re-interred in Qunu.
As if to compound the surreal nature of these events, it was reported that the South African currency that profiled Mandela’s image could easily be copied. On cue, two women in the Transkei were arrested for allegedly being in possession of counterfeit Mandela banknotes.
At the heart of the matter is the question of who owns the Mandela legacy? Is he the Father of the Nation, above and beyond party politics? Clearly the children and grand-children want to own this legacy, cashing in on the largesse and already splitting into factions. And the ANC needs Mandela as it prepares for an election battle. If there were tensions while Mandela lay in his hospital bed, one can only imagine how many times his legacy will be dug up only to be recast, reformed, rebranded and renamed in the years ahead.
Mandela’s bravery, mistake, wisdom and retreat are what they are. He did what he thought he needed to do. The conditions under which he made his compromises are past. The things to gain will never come. His time, and all it symbolised, is over.
Anthony Sampson, in his biography of Mandela published in 1999, entitles one of the chapters ‘Man and Myth’. If it is difficult to read Mandela, it is as difficult to write Mandela, as man and myth have converged. While Mandela appeared to be accessible, reading the man was another matter entirely. Richard Stengel, ghost-writer of Mandela’s autobiography, wrote of “the man and the mask as one,” while Ahmed Kathrada, who had been with him in prison for twenty-five years, revealed: “He’s impenetrable”. We will probably never know what Mandela really thought, what the inner workings of his mind were, or what regrets he really had. There are no intimate diaries like Gandhi’s for instance, and there have been no critical contemporary biographies of Mandela’s years in power. To date, they have mainly been sycophantic. In time this might change, if Kasrils’ coming out is an indicator.
As early as 1992, just after the Bisho Massacre of 30 people by apartheid’s homeland army, Mandela warned: ‘we are sitting on a time bomb…The enemy is now you and me, people who have a car and have a house. It’s order, anything that relates to order [that’s the target] and it’s a very grave situation.’
The land of apartheid is witness to ongoing class warfare. It is inchoate, disparate and often desperate. But it’s there. Every day. Banging on the gates. For a moment, and with verve and style, Mandela gave us the sense that we were living beyond and above race and tribalism. But now, it seems those old chestnuts too are back.
Nelson Mandela was, if anything, a man sworn to struggle. It only seems like yesterday that he wound the clock and gave us the possibility of new times.
He may be stilled – but that clock is ticking.
October 25, 2012
As is the case with just about everything I do except computer programming, videography is but an avocation. As a highly motivated amateur, I hope that I make up for what I lack technically with a good sense of what people would find interesting.
Given that criterion, I was extremely pleased to discover that a NY Times article on Golden Dawn in Astoria linked to a video I made of a rally against the neo-Nazi group on October 9th. In the paragraph below from the Times article, the “teach-in” link is to my video report on the event.
Because it was not possible to speak in detail about Golden Dawn New York, the gathering became a kind of teach-in, with academics lecturing on Greek history in the post-Nazi era, what was called the failure of European immigration policy and the symbiotic relationship between Golden Dawn in Greece and the Greek power structure.
Just as the prospects of a rally in Astoria against Golden Dawn suggested to me that something newsworthy was afoot, I was fortunate enough to follow my instincts and go to a book party for Ronnie Kasril’s “The Unlikely Secret Agent” last Monday night armed with my trusty JVC GY-HM150U camcorder that can best be described as a mixture of the professional and the amateur—just like me, come to think of it.
I was really looking forward to meeting Ronnie since “The Unlikely Secret Agent” that deals with his wife’s escape from a South African mental hospital in 1963 was about as great a read as I’ve had this year. So great in fact that I wasted no time and followed it up with Ronnie’s memoir “Armed and Dangerous”. I reviewed both books here.
I was not disappointed. Ronnie Kasrils is not only an important veteran of one of the greatest freedom struggles of the past 50 years but gifted with an ability to write and speak about his experiences in a completely riveting manner. And even more importantly, he is one of the highest profile veterans of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party to have mounted a critique of governmental abuse of the very people who were instrumental in bringing it to power.
While I am sure that Ronnie would have been compelling in his own right, the evening benefited by his interaction with interviewer Danny Schechter who has known and worked with Ronnie ever since the days he was a student at the London School of Economics. Ronnie’s role there was as an “outside agitator”, reminding me of my own interventions at Harvard in the early 1970s.
Schechter is a masterful interviewer, a craft developed over the years in both television and radio. In the 1980s he produced South Africa Now, a weekly show on WABC TV that ran just after Gil Noble’s show. It was some of the best TV that could be seen at the time and a crucial aid in the fight against apartheid.
For those puzzling over the crisis in South Africa today, I can think of no better introduction to its origins than this conversation between two seasoned activists. Send a link to this report far and wide since it deserves the widest attention. Hear that, NY Times?
September 26, 2012
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of “Dear Mandela”, a documentary now showing at the IndieScreen Theater in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn through tomorrow evening. After a decade or more of Hollywood movies like “Invictus” or “In My Country” that can best be described as public relations for the ANC, a fierce documentary directed by Dara Kell, a South African now living in the U.S., and Christopher Nizza, finally catches up with reality–a system of economic apartheid has replaced one based on race.
Just as the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 helped galvanize a movement against racial apartheid, the slaughter of 36 miners in Marikana creates the political context for a new freedom struggle based on class. To understand how South Africa has entered a new terrain of struggle, there is no better introduction than “Dear Mandela”, a film that focuses on the struggle against slum clearance in the name of “development” that took place in the outskirts of Durban. We meet three young activists of Abahlali baseMjondolo (Residents of the Shacks) who are committed to the rights of the poor to live in informal settlements. Despite the promise of President Nelson Mandela that every South African would have the right to a decent home, the new ANC pushed through legislation that would give the government the right to demolish the shacks that the poor were forced to live in. Each day “Red Ants”–work crews in red coveralls–come to the slums and raze their shacks to the ground and each day community members rebuild them. They had learned that ANC promises to build new homes were empty.
The only solution was to challenge the constitutionality of the law that allowed the state to rob the poor of their only shelter. Minister of Housing Lindiwe Susulu is heard defending the law and expressing surprise at the movement of slum dwellers against it. As the daughter of Walter and Albertina Susulu, she is about as apt a symbol of the ANC’s degeneration as can be imagined. When I visited the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia in 1987, I met Albertina Susulu whose husband was serving his 24th year in prison at the time. Like most activists opposed to apartheid, I never would have dreamed that 20 years later their daughter would defend a law that could have been written by the De Klerk government.
The three main protagonists of “Dear Mandela” are Mazwi, a high school student, Zama, a mother and university student, and Mnikelo, a shopkeeper and activist who I had the good fortune to interview this morning while he was in New York for a nationwide tour coinciding with the film’s debut.
In the film, Mnikelo goes to recently evicted slum dwellers with a copy of the South African Constitution to tell them about their rights. When he and other members of the movement boycott national elections under the slogan “No Land, No House, No Vote”, he becomes a target of the ANC.
The relationship between the ANC and such activists provides the central dramatic tension throughout the film. In one of the more memorable scenes, Mazwi speaks to a rally of slum dwellers and leads them in chants directed against rightwing parties that they eagerly take up. But when he yells out “Down with the ANC”, he is met with stony silence. Later he explains that the old folks still have a fondness for Nelson Mandela that is expressed in his portraits seen on the walls of many shacks. Some, however, have grown tired of this nostalgia as demonstrated by their willingness to deface graffiti from decades past. They have crossed out the word “Free” in “Free Nelson Mandela” and replaced it with “Hang”.
You can understand the rising anger. In one of the more terrifying moments of the film, activists scatter for their lives as a group of armed men invade the community with the intention of killing people like Mazwi, Zama, and Mnikelo. Instead of apprehending the invaders, the cops end up arresting a group of men assigned to provide security for the shack dwellers—a deed that anticipates the Marikana disaster.
When I raised the question of Marikana with Mnikelo, he thought that it marked a turning point for the ANC. When cops can kill miners in this fashion, it shows disrespect for the nation’s laws. A responsible police force might have resorted to rubber bullets to disperse a violent mob, but shooting people in cold blood was an unlawful act. As always, Mnikelo demonstrated his mastery of constitutional law.
For those who have grown disillusioned with the ANC, the film is an inspiring reminder that “the struggle continues” in South Africa. At one point, S’Bu Zikode, the leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo is described as the new Nelson Mandela. It is hard to argue with this claim after seeing “Dear Mandela”. I would add that the three young activists remind me of the young ANC’ers I met in Lusaka back in 1987 before they were born. Their idealism, their intelligence and their willingness to put their bodies on the line are qualities that once defined the ANC. Fortunately for South Africa, a new generation has once again risen to the occasion.
If “Dear Mandela” was nothing but a clumsy Youtube video with zero production values, there would still be a compelling need to watch it as a document about South African reality today, so much so that it would probably go viral in a couple of days. The good news is that “Dear Mandela” is a top-notch production that will certainly earn my nomination for best documentary of 2012. With a superb score by Ted Reichman, who has worked with Marc Ribot and other leading edge musicians, the film’s dramatic moments receive just the right accompaniment. The cinematography stands out as well, a function no doubt of acclaimed Director of Photography Matthew Peterson’s involvement. To his great credit, Peterson worked for free. Funding came from the Sundance Institute, an outfit that I have faulted in the past for its tendency to foist the worst art-house clichés of young narrative filmmakers. But with this brilliant, powerful and timely documentary, I can say all is forgiven.
Although “Dear Mandela” runs only through tomorrow in Brooklyn, a national and global roll-out might bring it within nearby viewing distance. Check the schedule on the film’s website and make sure to put it on your calendar if it is coming to your neck of the woods.
August 17, 2012
South African Official Defends Police Killing of 34
MARIKANA, South Africa — South Africa’s police commissioner on Friday defended the actions of officers who opened fire on miners a day earlier in an episode that she said left 34 people dead and 78 wounded during a wildcat strike at a platinum mine, a sharply higher toll than the immediate reports had forecast.
The commissioner, Riah Phiyega, described a desperate struggle by the police to contain the machete-wielding crowd of thousands of angry miners who broke through two lines of defense, leaving officers with no choice but to open fire with live ammunition.
“The militant group stormed towards the police firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons,” Ms. Phiyega said at an emotional news conference here, using an extensive array of aerial photographs and video to demonstrate how the violence unfolded. Previous attempts by the 500-strong police force to repel the crowd with rubber bullets, water cannons and stun grenades had failed, she said.
* * * *
“A senior police official said: ‘I don’t now know how many we shot.’ He is reported to have added: ‘If they do these things they must learn the hard way.’ Earlier, South Africa Air Force planes flew over the trouble spot in a show of force. But the Africans ignored all orders to disperse.”
From The New York Times account of the Sharpeville Massacre, March 22, 1960 (Posted by Jeff Goodwin to the Marxism list today)
August 16, 2012
August 6, 2012
Usually I tend to discount back-cover blurbs but concur with John le Carré on The Unlikely Secret Agent: “This is a wonderful book about a courageous and extraordinary woman who was highly principled, yet endowed by nature with all the clandestine skills. Her exploits recall the heroism of the great Special Operations Executive women agents of the Second World War, yet the values she fought for so intrepidly are still in the balance today.”
Her husband Ronnie Kasrils wrote the book on the occasion of her death from a stroke at the age of 72 in 2009. So overwhelmed was I by his literary skills and political insights that I could not resist reading Armed and Dangerous, his own memoir published in 1993. Much of the story about Eleanor’s escape from a South African mental hospital appears in his memoir but in a much briefer version. Suffice it to say that if you are part of the left these two books will be deeply rewarding. The story of young people resisting an evil system is compelling in its own right but Ronnie Kasrils’s ability to convey psychological and political complexities in riveting prose elevates the two books to the status of instant classics. While their story is focused on the experience of the South African Communist Party and its milieu, there is something universal about the transformation that led the two of them to risk their lives fighting oppression.
Eleanor Logan was born in Scotland but moved to South Africa with her mother as an infant, joined by her father a few years later. While not wealthy, they enjoyed a life of privilege. Eleanor was working at Griggs bookstore in Durban, a counterpart to forward-thinking institutions like the 8th Street bookstore in NY or City Lights in San Francisco in the early 60s. These were the sorts of places where you had to go to get a copy of something written by Che Guevara or Allen Ginsberg.
Ronnie Kasrils entered Eleanor’s life in 1960 shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre. For many people now in their late 60s to mid-70s, including me, the early 1960s were time of great ferment—both cultural and political. For Ronnie and Eleanor, the walls between Che Guevara and Allen Ginsberg were highly porous. The two met in early 1960, just after the Sharpeville Massacre. His description of one of their initial encounters sounds novelesque but is all the more compelling because it describes the complex interaction of the political and the personal between two real people:
She soon found him frequenting Griggs Bookshop but thought nothing unusual in this. He was clearly keen on purchasing good books. On one occasion, spotting him in the store, she told him that Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was available and he promptly bought a copy, which he later came in to discuss with her.
Yes, he argued, it exposed Stalin’s brutality as she had said when he purchased the copy, but why was the author being lauded in the West? Because he was a great writer, she responded. He conceded this but maintained it was largely because he undermined Soviet rule, which he defined as worker and peasant power, rather than the power of the capitalist class, which he referred to as the bourgeoisie. They agreed to continue the debate over coffee, and for a time she felt he was too earnest, too propagandistic for her liking. But nevertheless she could feel a tingling attraction building up inside her, uncertain whether it denoted a response to charm or challenge.
The slim, blonde and tough-minded young woman had a tingling effect on Ronnie as well. And just as importantly, she had access to writings that were as dangerous to the system as a well-placed bomb, including Che Guevara’s new book on guerrilla warfare. When Ronnie asked her to order 20 copies, her only response was to laugh and say, “You like to do things in a big way.”
Before long Eleanor agreed to allow Griggs to function as a drop box for top-secret ANC communications. Given her disgust with the white power structure, her willingness to risk arrest was both heroic and natural. This led her to take the next step in becoming Ronnie’s partner in urban guerrilla warfare. In one of the most visible counter-attacks against apartheid, the two went out and blew up a key pylon that caused a major blackout in Durban. Kasril describes their keen anticipation of the consequences:
They were back in the house with twenty minutes to spare. They sat in the small sitting room, starting a game of chess, anxiously counting down the time. Suddenly the cottage was plunged into darkness. ‘Christ, we’ve done it,’ he whispered triumphantly, embracing her. They rushed outside to assess the extent of the power failure. The entire street was in darkness, not a home or building in light. They walked, almost ran, up the hill to the park at the top of their road with its panoramic view of Durban. The darkness was dense and all-pervading. The busy city centre, normally bright with its lights glowing, was lost in the black void. They hugged each other and walked swiftly back to the cottage, knowing that before long the Special Branch would arrive to check if they were at home.
That evening Ronnie narrowly escaped arrest but Eleanor was not as lucky. On August 19, 1963 the cops came to Griggs and arrested her under the draconian detention laws intended to break the back of the ANC-led resistance. After taking Eleanor into captivity, Lieutenant Grobler, the leader of the raid, threatened to “break her or hang her” unless she revealed the location of Ronnie Kasrils and other leading ANC operatives.
In the two books, Lieutenant Grobler functions like Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables but because he is real, he is all the more horrifying and an apt symbol of a decaying system. When he is not beating or threatening Eleanor, he is grabbing her breasts. The interrogations are laced with anti-Semitic diatribes against Ronnie Kasrils:
Grobler had been silently following every word. ‘Look, missis, this is no trivial matter,’ he started. ‘Do you think it’s a coincidence that all these people belong to the Goldreich-Slovo clan? Virtually all their lawyers are Jews – Maisels, Chaskalson, Joel Joffe.’ He said something vulgar in Afrikaans to his colleagues, about ‘n Jood se piel, and they all laughed uproariously.
‘We want you to confirm whether he’s a Jew,’ Grobler demanded, thumping the desk. ‘Is he a Jew?
After her arrest, two thoughts began to consume Eleanor: How could she resist giving the cops the information they seek despite their threats and their beatings? How could she escape and rejoin the movement?
One part a natural reaction to their brutality and one part wile, she feigns a breakdown to get out of jail. Believing that a mental hospital would break a spirit that mental, physical and sexual abuse could not, her captors transfer Eleanor to Pietermaritzburg Mental Hospital, a gloomy warehouse for psychotics that is somewhere in between Bedlam and Bellevue. As bad as it was, the segregated facility was too good for the nation’s Blacks and coloreds.
Once arriving there, Eleanor shows a surprising ability to bind with the patients and to plot an escape. Ronnie Kasrils describes all of this in brisk and often darkly comical terms, especially a dance that the patients are allowed to have on special occasions.
It was good old-fashioned tickey-draai. The male extended his left arm rigidly up and to the side, while holding his partner’s right arm outwards. The woman’s arm would be vigorously pumped up and down as though it was a handle. At the same time the man’s other arm would be pressed into the crook of his partner’s lower back while she clutched his shoulder. In this stylised manner they would stride in stiff fashion swiftly across the floor, striving to keep time with the music. At times when the pace of the music increased in tempo they almost galloped around the hall. At last, when the music ended they broke apart without a word and retreated back to their chairs, waiting patiently for the next dance.
As is the case throughout “The Unlikely Secret Agent” and “Armed and Dangerous”, Kasrils’s prose has a cinematic quality. The chapters taking place in Pietermaritzburg could far surpass “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” given the right screenplay and director. Indeed, one would hope that the Kasrils story will eventually find its way to the Big Screen, if for no other reason than to compensate for some truly awful films about South Africa that amount to ANC hagiography, from “Invictus” to “In My Country”. These two films that depict the ANC in power make it easy to forget that the struggle for power often involved moral and political dilemmas that tested the mettle of even the best of humanity.
That is one of the chief merits of “Armed and Dangerous”. It depicts in unsparing details what it meant to be a leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, also called MK), the ANC’s armed wing. While the armed struggle was a key ingredient of the democratic revolution in South Africa, it was a constant challenge to keep it together against centripetal forces of the sort that Ronnie Kasrils describes with astonishing frankness.
Long before he was dodging SADF bullets, Ronnie Kasrils was like lots of young people around the world in the early 60s who had begun to experiment with marijuana and look to the beat generation for inspiration. What makes his story all the more compelling is that it takes place in South Africa, a country that for all its repression had begun to lose its grip on the young. The scene that Kasril describes in late 50s Cape Town will be familiar to anybody who was reading Jack Kerouac at the time, including me, but with all the attendant risks of living in a police state.
A friendship with an art student had drawn me into a bohemian circle based in the cafe society of Hillbrow, an upbeat cosmopolitan area. By day I had been a lawyer’s clerk, at night and on weekends I listened to heated arguments about art, poetry, literature and music, while swigging wine amid clouds of other people’s dagga(hemp) smoke.
I tried the weed but preferred to keep a clear head. I began writing poetry and prose and was soon meeting some of the creative people from the townships.
Black writers were making an impact through Drum magazine and a wealth of artistic talent was bursting onto the stage, notably through the musical King Kong. Those were the days of swinging multi-racial parties, called jolls, which made the city buzz. If the police raided the premises, all the blacks present grabbed soft drinks because it was illegal to serve them alcohol. There were liaisons across the colour line, which often ended with the unfortunate couples being arrested and charged under an Immorality Act forbidding sex between the races.
Just as the Vietnam War had the effect of transforming bohemians into Bolsheviks, so did the Sharpeville Massacre. Kasrils told his weed-smoking friends that they fiddled while Rome burned. When he poured out his anguish to a leftist acquaintance, he was asked if he knew anything about “the Movement”. His response was to ask what ballet had to do with the Sharpeville Massacre.
Eventually Ronnie was drawn into the underground movement through Rowley Arnstein, a Jewish CP’er and lawyer who he channeled into a safe house. Arnstein remembered Ronnie Kasrils as a young boy from a neighborhood in Durban that sounds a bit like Flatbush in Brooklyn around the same time. While Lieutenant Grobler was obviously a bigot, it was fairly clear that Jews played a significant role in the Communist movement just as was the case in the U.S.A. at the time. In my small town in upstate N.Y., all the “reds” were Jews, who while being nonobservant were certainly proud of their Jewish identity just like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg et al.
In 1963 Ronnie Kasrils went to Odessa in the USSR for military training. His account of the time spent there is far more interesting and far better written than the heavily hyped “Red Plenty” by Francis Spufford.
Although much of the housing was inadequate, we understood that this was a result of wartime destruction, and an ambitious construction programme was taking place before our eyes. Housing rent was less than five per cent of wages, and the cost of heat and electricity was barely one per cent. There were no beggars and few idlers on the streets, although there were plenty of hand-drawn cartoons and posters lampooning drunkenness. It was the older generation that looked as though it had experienced hardship, and there were many legless war veterans, propelling themselves about in antiquated wheelchairs. We saw alcoholism as a legacy of the war and the exceptionally low price of liquor. It was only later, when I became less naive about social problems in the Soviet Union, that I realised the extent to which boredom and frustration were contributory factors.
This single paragraph gave me more insights into the problems of the USSR than the entire 362 pages of “Red Plenty”.
While Kasrils makes no bones about his commitment to the South African Communist Party’s ideology, there is a constant engagement with the ideas of its opponents, including Pallo Jordan who is described as “a fiercely independent thinker” and who was also described by those “who could not match his intellect” as a “Trotskyist”. When he applied for membership in Mayibuye, a cultural group, some hard-liners opposed his admission because of his independence. Kasrils fought on his behalf whether or not “he accepted the Moscow line”. He recounts a “fierce row” one night with Jordan over George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, a book that Kasrils regarded as crude, anti-Communist propaganda. Frankly, if I had been there that night, I might have sided with Kasrils.
Some of the more psychologically and politically complex topics covered by Kasrils involve his relationship with impetuous and in one case mutinous MK enlistees. They chafe at the discipline of the training camp and the length of the training program that they see as an impediment to fighting the South African cops and army. As an official at the training camp in Angola, Kasrils is determined to maintain discipline even if it involves severe punishment—including the firing squad—of those who refuse to take orders. Those who have read Che Guevara’s memoirs will understand the need for discipline in such conditions.
‘Comrades,’ I began, drawing a line in the dust with my boot, ‘the difference between anarchy and order is as easy as crossing this line. You have to decide on which side of the line you want to be.’
I spoke about the need for discipline and order in the ANC and MK, which we had often discussed in class, pointing out that this was not like the orders from the racists, intended to keep people suppressed. I spoke about the fourteen sitting in the tent, defying orders because they wanted to go home to fight. I pointed out that they had no hope of surviving the journey without adequate prep-aration. It could be frustrating waiting to return home after training, but the leaders had made no secret of the prob-lems. We were not like the Zimbabweans, with a single border to cross from a friendly state. We were very far from home, and had to move secretly through several countries. I concluded by pointing out that if only some of us followed the rules we would have confusion.
‘With confusion and anarchy we will never succeed in our aims. No army or organisation can win unless there is discipline and order in its ranks.’
Back in the 60s most South African CP’ers thought that the war against apartheid would be over in 10 years at most, including Kasrils. Such heady optimism was not that different from that which most 1960s radicals felt around the same time. He of course would live to see victory after 30 years while those of us living in the belly of the beast have been pretty much on the defensive all this time.
Since the book ends in 1993, there was obviously no reason for the author to deal with the ANC’s current problems symbolized most of all by Jacob Zuma’s obvious flaws. His empty populist promises helped him to outmaneuver Thabo Mbeki but the lives of ordinary South Africans have not changed at all.
Zuma obviously meant something a lot different to Ronnie Kasrils than he did to the average citizen. He was a comrade in struggle who could be counted on for clear-headed and decisive action under fire. I was deeply surprised to see this aspect of Zuma’s personality revealed.
Kasrils describes Zuma as a young factory worker with no formal education when he joined the ANC in the early 60s. After being arrested in 1962, he spent 12 years on Robbens Island where he taught himself to read and write English and master politics.
One night in 1980 Zuma and Kasrils were climbing a fence that separated Swaziland from South Africa proper (Swaziland was basically an internal colony.) Burdened by a heavy bag of pistols and grenades for his comrades, Kasrils fell clumsily from the fence and tore a ligament in his ankle. Zuma stood by his comrade.
‘Should we continue or go back, umfowetu [brother]?’ Zuma asked anxiously. We were due to be picked up on the road only a few kilometres away from where we were crossing, and we had an important meeting to get to in Manzini with comrades from home.
I tried standing on my foot, thankful that the rain which was pelting down afforded good cover, and insisted that we continue. I hobbled along until we arrived at our rendezvous point. We were thoroughly soaked by the rain and sat shivering in a cold wind for over two hours. It was a wicked night and it became obvious that our lift was not coming. We waited another hour fend decided to return to Mozambique. By now my ankle had got much worse. I was in excruciating pain.
Zuma considered for a moment. ‘Just hold on to my arm, umfowetu, nobody’s out in this rain. We’ll take a chance and just walk through the village.’
In 1987 I visited ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia along with four other Tecnica members where we met with Thabo Mbeki and other leaders. I might have run into Ronnie Kasrils just by accident then in the same manner that I crossed paths with Oliver Tambo who was chatting in a relaxed fashion in the courtyard one morning when we were there. We had the opportunity on that trip to discuss politics with young ANC’ers and at least one SACP’er who held out great hope for the future. He and our delegation felt that an ANC government could help to galvanize the entire continent in a revolutionary direction.
The actual results have been a disappointment, even if the smashing of de jure discrimination is as important to South Africa as the end of Jim Crow was in the U.S.A.
My friend Patrick Bond, who is a long-time critic of the ANC based in South Africa, wrote an interesting piece on Ronnie Kasrils for Counterpunch back in March 2012. I was pleased to see that Patrick was as big a Kasrils fan as me:
Like most who meet Kasrils, it took me only four discussions to depart so charmed as to confess I will now blindly follow him on any madcap adventure – albeit one in September 1992, when he marched 80 000 protesters to the ‘Ciskei’ government’s doorstep, left dozens to return home in coffins, after pro-apartheid armed forces opened fire. But dangerous as he has been, armed or not, this is the kind of mensch who would have us cracking up on our way to the gallows, more gregarious and fun-loving than any lefty I’ve ever known.
As it turns out, Kasrils broke with Zuma politically despite the great trust he once put in him. It also would appear that he tired of the ANC’s performance just as had so many people in the grass-roots movements. Bond explains:
Kasrils was quite right to finally quit the Pretoria regime, as he witnessed extreme abuses of power within his beloved ANC, and on occasion was attacked – without merit, he insists – for allegedly being a guiding force in the network of Mbeki supporters trying to halt Zuma’s presidential push.
The worst of it, he recounts, was when in early 2006 the Young Communist League leadership accused him of setting up a ‘honey trap’ for Zuma, who was accused of rape a few weeks earlier by an openly HIV+ lesbian known as Khwezi. The future president was acquitted after a trial in which misogynist patriarchy by Zuma and his supporters was on blatant display.
Kasrils had known the 30 year-old victim for a quarter of a century (as had Zuma) because her parents provided a safehouse during anti-apartheid military missions deep in Durban’s townships. He was drawn in against his will in a peripheral way, making clear that Khwezi should sort out the charge with professional aid, not old family connections to the Minister of Intelligence. But that moment was when the break with Zuma became irreparable.
There’s a lot more in Patrick’s article that I recommend as must-reading in tandem with the wonderful books under review here. Some of it is quite unflattering, as you might expect from a long-time left critic of the ANC. In trying to put Kasrils into context, Patrick states that as Marx put it in Capital: ‘Individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of particular class-relations and interest.’
So for Patrick Ronnie Kasrils functions as a kind of symbol of South Africa’s new dominant political class with all its sordid ties to global capitalism. While I cannot take exception to the dossier he has assembled in his article, there is another dimension that he might have missed.
For me one of the more important dimensions of Ronnie Kasrils career was his ability to function in the mass movement. As a critic of sectarianism in the Trotskyist movement, I have often found great value in memoirs written by veterans of the Communist movement because they understood what it meant to have responsibility for the lives and future of millions of people. The role of the SACP in toppling de jure segregation in South Africa cannot be minimized even if economic apartheid remains a major challenge to all revolutionaries.
You can read many attacks on the ANC and the SACP in the left press but they fail to account for its enormous success. Studying the leadership examples of people like Joe Slovo, the Kasrils and Ruth Furst can help us in a way that the negative criticisms cannot.
Given the glaring contradiction between the mass suffering experienced by millions of the unemployed in the U.S.A. and Western Europe today, the development of both the ANC and the SACP into true vanguards cannot be discounted. I say this as someone who has written every bit as harshly of these groups as Patrick Bond.
Finally, the kind of left we need to build must be able to include the new Eleanor and Ronnie Kasrils that are emerging all across the planet as the contradictions of capitalism begin to produce the same kinds of political awakenings that the Sharpeville Massacre produced in 1960.
As chronicles of the struggle in South Africa, one of the greatest in 20th century history, these two books by Ronnie Kasrils deserve your attention both as personal drama and as political instruction. These literary treasures will enchant all readers, especially those who make this blog a regular guilty pleasure.
May 6, 2012
Michael Urmann, the founder of Tecnica, one of the important Nicaragua solidarity organizations of the 1980s, is dead.
Michael Francis Urmann Nov. 20, 1944 – Apr. 28, 2012 Resident of Berkeley Michael F. Urmann, died April 28 of heart failure. Born Nov. 20, 1944, son of Frank and Katherine (Donovan) Urmann, he grew up in Pasadena, earned a B.S./M.A. (1968) in Economics from UC Berkeley, and Ph.D. at University of Utah. He taught economics for 20 years. He founded TecNica Volunteers, a nonprofit that sent supplies/technical volunteers to Nicaragua, expanding to Africa. He was active in the Free Speech Movement (1960)s, and worked tirelessly for peace and economic justice. He is survived by wife Mary Engle (Berkeley); sons David Urmann of India; Daniel Urmann (Salt Lake); son and daughter, Reed and Lily Urmann (Berkeley); mother, Katherine Urmann and sister, Nancy (Jack) Butler of Gig Harbor, WA. A celebration of his life will be held in June in Berkeley.
I first got word from his cousin, who had read my article on the death of Tecnica volunteer Paul Baizerman that had mentioned Michael. In a chilling coincidence, both Paul and Michael died of heart disease.
I was very close to Michael for about 3 years when we worked together on the project that he founded and where he served as Executive Director. As president of the board, my major responsibility was recruiting volunteers on the East Coast and serving as Michael’s chief adviser. In his trips east, he always stayed at my place and I always dropped in at his rented house in Berkeley when I was in the Bay Area.
Unfortunately, we became estranged after I voted with the rest of the board to remove him as executive director. A couple of years after the event, I wrote a letter to him trying to mend fences. I got an angry reply from Mary Engle telling me how betrayed they felt and requesting that I never write them again.
When I spoke to Hari Dillon, who had replaced Michael as executive director, a few days after my article on Paul Baizerman was posted, he told me that he had hoped to get in touch with Michael who he hadn’t spoken to since Tecnica days. I asked Hari to broker a reconciliation with Michael, if things worked out between the two of them. I was planning a trip out to San Francisco in May and looked forward to seeing both Hari and Michael.
Looking back at the board meeting that resulted in Michael’s firing, I regret having voted with the rest of the board. If I had voted against it or even abstained, our friendship would have continued. Would it have been wrong to vote against the wisdom of the board? I suppose so but sometimes friendship trumps duty. Tecnica did not have much of a future after the FSLN was ousted in 1990 but at least I would have been able to maintain ties with a valued colleague and comrade who came out of the same sectarian crucible as me, but in his case the Maoist Progressive Labor Party rather than Trotskyism.
Like the SWP, the PLP colonized industry with the same pathetic results. Michael worked in a warehouse in the Bay Area organized by the ILWU, a traditionally leftist union. The work was backbreaking and the political payoff practically nil. After dropping out of the PLP, Michael went to the U. of Utah and earned an economics doctorate in 1981 doing a dissertation on the CIO and rank-and-file Communists that could only be written at a place like that. From the Proquest abstract:
This dissertation asserts the view that the organizing activity of rank and file Communists was an important element in the hitherto undescribed and mysterious process that led to the CIO’s rapid growth and was the basis of the strength of the CIO. It then investigates the nature of the activities as well as the character and personal backgrounds that made it possible for them to play this role. This dissertation presents a new interpretation of the role of rank and file Communists in industrial unions; it offers a new explanation for the successful creation of those unions.
In preparing this article, I learned that U. of Utah professor emeritus E.K. Hunt was Michael’s dissertation chairman. When Hunt came to the U. of Utah in 1978 Michael was already a graduate student and had assembled a lot of material about the CP’s role in organizing the CIO but nobody in the Department wanted to touch it because it was favorable to the CP. Hunt, an occasional contributor to “Science and Society”, stepped forward and became his dissertation adviser.
Michael was a graduate teaching assistant in the economics department but never held a full-time academic job until after parting ways with Tecnica. When reminiscing about his time in Utah, Michael hardly ever mentioned the U. of Utah. His shining moment was starting up the first art movie theater in Salt Lake City. When he looked around and saw that there was none, he decided to do it himself.
The same kind of seat-of-the-pants initiative was demonstrated in a trip to Nicaragua with a group of economists around that time. Coming back to the U.S., he went to the airport to change to another flight. When the clerk had trouble working the system, Michael volunteered to come around and help him or her out. Since these were the early days of the revolution, when everything seemed possible, Michael was given carte blanche to change his flight. Flying back to the U.S., he realized that many of the country’s more skilled workers had fled. The light bulb went on over his head. Michael has his own take on the origins of Tecnica in 1984, even though he does not mention the encounter with the reservations clerk.
I should add that Michael’s article appears on a relatively new website titled Tecnica Volunteers that has lots of interesting material including the video “At Work in Nicaragua” that I digitized from a VHS tape some years ago. (Unfortunately, there is no contact information.) The video starts with Mary Engle’s observation that the first thing that hit her when she got off the plane in Managua was the heat.
My first trip to Nicaragua was with a Guardian Newspaper (the defunct American newsweekly, not the British liberal newspaper) delegation in November 1984 when Tecnica was in its infancy. A high school student in the delegation handed me a leaflet at some point with words “Programmers needed in Nicaragua” in 24 point type. That experience left me feeling like St. Paul on the road to Damascus.
As soon as I got back to the U.S., I called the number on the leaflet and volunteered for the next brigade to Nicaragua, which occurred just six months or so later. I quit my job at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and was all set on working in Nicaragua as a volunteer. From the minute I met Michael, I found that we were on the same wavelength. We had been burned by sectarian politics and were committed to the kind of broad revolutionary movement that had toppled Somoza. The best thing we could do in that period was work to build solidarity with Nicaragua to help become part of a broader process of revolutionizing Central America and then the rest of the continent. At the time our hopes were best expressed in Roger Burbach and Orlando Nuñez’s “Fire in the Americas: Forging a Revolutionary Agenda”. (Burbach eventually became a member of Tecnica’s advisory council.)
Michael persuaded me to turn down a job at the Ministry of Construction working on one of the country’s few IBM mainframes, about 1/10th the power of what I worked on at Sloan-Kettering, and returning to New York where I would start a Tecnica chapter. Over a 3-year period, we routinely held outreach meetings that drew over 100 people, many of whom became volunteers. I had missionary zeal around this project, so much so that I would allow nothing to get in the way. One time I went to an IBM PC User’s group and raised my hand during the regularly scheduled Q&A, when the typical question was something about the compatibility of some printer with MS-DOS, and starting talking about programmers being needed in Nicaragua. When the attendees starting guffawing at my intervention, the chairman told them to quiet down and invited me to the podium to finish my remarks. Those were the days.
As passionate as I was about Tecnica, nobody could match Michael Urmann for having the vision that was necessary to move the project forward. When he came to New York on fund-raising trips, he was able to convince some very powerful rich liberals to ante up. I remember his description of meetings with people like Stewart Mott, the GM heir, and Abby Rockefeller whose last name should speak for itself. Michael told me that Mott lived in a Fifth Avenue Penthouse equipped with a greenhouse. Mott had apparently become inured to pitches from the left and could barely suppress a yawn during Michael’s presentation. Abby, on the other hand, was more enthusiastic but spent much of the time hyping her own project, which was some kind of toilet that turned excrement into fertilizer right on the spot. We chuckled about this at the time but probably would have figured out some years later how important such a device would be given what John Bellamy Foster refers to as the ecological rift.
As a personality, Michael was one of a kind. Physically, his legs were disproportionately long and he strode forward on his lean frame as if he were wound up. Wearing a Woody Allen floppy hat in all seasons of the year that somehow worked with a professorial tweed jacket and tan khakis, he made his own style work. Considering the fact that he was lean as a rail, a non-smoker, and athletic (his favorite pastime was surfing), I was deeply surprised to learn that he had developed heart troubles.
Michael had an impish sense of humor that once took me by surprise. In 1987 Michael and I had met with a Cuban diplomat at their Mission in NY in order to discuss expanding the program to Cuba. This meeting apparently gave the FBI the pretext it needed to crack down on Tecnica and led to intimidating interrogations of some of our volunteers at their workplaces. They were told that we running a high-tech espionage network that ran from Nicaragua to Cuba to the USSR and that they’d better cooperate. All that because the Cubans were interested in learning more about PC’s at the time.
Out of the blue, Michael called me at work to tell me that the FBI had my name and was coming to see me at Goldman-Sachs that day. I nearly pissed in my pants. He was only joking as it turned out.
The FBI had to stop its harassment because the media called it for what it was. A Washington Post editorial from May 14 1987:
IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspicesof a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.
In spite of all this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning large numbers of those who have returned from volunteer stints in Nicaragua. More than two years ago, Director William Webster testified that about 100 people had already been interviewed, and the pace has apparently picked up in recent months. The FBI will not discuss the reasons for these interviews other than to say that they are related to “foreign counterintelligence investigations.” This may be so, but in justifying inquiries such as these the bureau has a particularly heavy — and thus far unmet — burden of proof to bear.
Tecnica continued to thrive over the next three years, so much so that Michael decided to expand the program to southern Africa. In late December of 1989, we sent a needs assessment team to Zambia to meet with the ANC that consisted of Michael, Mary Engle, myself, Jeff Klein, and Jeff’s companion whose name—like much else—escapes me now. Jeff was a colorful character in his own right. He worked as a machinist but also had advanced electronic communications skills. As a member of the CPUSA, he became “proletarianized” like so many other members of such groups, except for people like Michael and me. Jeff had studied archaeology in graduate school and even did some field work before getting a job at GE in Lynn, long a bastion of left organizing.
One day we paid a cab driver to drive us around Lusaka to get a feel for the capital city. Michael, who considered himself a specialist in household economics more than anything else, asked the driver why so many office buildings were left unfinished. His answer: you people took the construction equipment with you. Although the cabbie had no idea that we were there to fight against neocolonialism, Michael said that he felt lifted up by his militancy. Like many long-time leftists, his greatest joy was seeing people fight against their oppression.
After Michael returned to the academy, he stayed connected to the left. I never got in touch with him but tried to keep up with his activities through Google. Here he is talking on the economics crisis:
And here he is speaking at a peace rally: