Dec 5, 2013
Chris Hedges Talks With Ronnie Kasrils (Full Transcript and Audio)
Posted on Jun 24, 2013
Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges interviewed Ronnie Kasrils in New York during a visit there by the author, former South African government official and onetime warrior against apartheid. Among other things, they talked about what it means to be a rebel. Below are an audio file and a transcript of the interview. Click here to read the column that grew out of the meeting.
Listen to the interview in the browser:
Chris Hedges: What is it that makes a rebel? In your own case, you were young, you were 18, white. What is it, what’re you, what’s the common denominator that you find within a rebel?
Ronnie Kasrils: Well, I, certainly it’s a question of compassion, and I think it’s a question of standing up for the underdog. I think that young people, children, in their purity, tend to see these things pretty easily, but that it tends to be blocked off by the type of socialization from family to school and society. Otherwise, I think there’d be an incredible number of rebels in this world. There have been, in fact, time to time. But it has that, that inner core to it, I believe, certainly in my experience for myself and the way I see the reaction of others. So it’s compassion, concern for others. And if we take it through to biblical origins, or the way they wrote the Bible at certain times—and I refer particularly to the Christian narrative of Jesus, and I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect other belief systems—and certainly most belief systems, the Jewish prophets, the Hebrew prophets ... who speak about doing unto thy neighbor what you wish to be done to you. So I think that’s deep within humanity. I’ve got a positive view of humanity. I know that human beings can be incredibly cruel, but environmental factors create that. I don’t believe that the genes do. The genes certainly speak to us about surviving, for sure, fighting at times, or taking to flight at other times, that sort of thing. Yeah, so I would say it’s that, but it’s, as one grows and you use your eyes and your mind and your heart and you look around and that feeling for other human beings hasn’t been expunged—and I believe it can be easily snuffed out by socialization and environment and family—then those are the kind who rebel. And, to be sure, they appear to be quite a minority at any stage in history. In the book [Kasrils’ autobiography] that you’ve just bought, for the princely sum of $99, I think it is, yes, in that a real sage of the South African struggle, a great, learned man and fighter for freedom, an academic and one time activist called Jack Simons, who is a great writer of the South African struggle and history.
CH: When he was in [his] 70s?
RK: Yes. Right. He died in South Africa back in ’98, ’99. [Simons died in 1995.] But, I, you know, he stunned me on one occasion, talking about dissidents, including in the Soviet bloc, which ...
CH: It’s in the book, yeah.
RK: ... assisted us so much, and you know he regarded it in the highest possible way, um, as communist.
RK: And talking about the dissidents ... he said to me, “People like us,” he and myself, “would have been burned at the stake in the Middle Ages ... “
CH: That’s right.
RK: “... and ended up at the gulag,” and so on. Actually at this point in time in our beloved South Africa where we’ve been, and need to be, rather critical of the government, I’ve become quite critical of two organizations—ANC and Communist Party—which I’ve been members of for 50 years, and I find that I have to speak up. So it’s deep within me.
CH: Let me ask a question.
CH: Because, wouldn’t it be true, I, I, because you have done that, which I think is a complete continuity with who you have been. Doesn’t that mean that the rebel is perpetually alienated from power, or not?
RK: Yeah, it’s quite a thought. Take Che Guevara. I wouldn’t say alienated from Cuba, but he had to go on leading revolution. But then, Fidel Castro had remained in power, in a sense he continued to rebel, so let me amend myself there. Unlike Che, who was not of Cuban roots, actually. So of course, Fidel had to remain at the helm. I regard him as one of the world’s greatest rebels. And yes, he went on rebelling and talking truth to power, as the Irish poet says. So, there is an element of this that needs to be explored. I would tend to agree that even if you come to power that there is that element, then I’m talking about a person who uses power in the best possible sense.
CH: Well let’s—
RK: I, I don’t go along with the idea that all power corrupts absolutely. I go along with the view that when you have power, that, that tells about what you really are. And ...
CH: Well, let’s—
RK: ... and whether you are genuine in wanting to use the power in service for people, or whether you start using it in an abusive way.
CH: In order for [Nelson] Mandela to take power, in order for Vaclav Havel to take power, they had to make concessions with Western capitalism, that deeply betrayed the stances that they took. I mean, I would look at Mandela and Havel and great dissidents, but not necessarily great rulers, because as you have spoken out about, the inability to confront economic exploitation, as in the United States, functions as, it, as a kind of soft or insidious form of racism. And so that’s the question: So if you have a figure like Mandela, or you have a figure like Havel, once they assume power, I mean Havel’s supporting the war in Iraq. And he was a great dissident in the way Mandela was.
RK: Mandela never supported the war in Iraq.
CH: No, I know, I know.
RK: No, no, but that does say something—
RK: About the difference because I think this is where Havel betrays what he really should have stood for if he had been through and through, and through and through and to the end ...
RK: ... a rebel in the sense that we’ve been using the word “rebel.” One needs to come back to that. Whereas Mandela continued to voice disapproval of the invasions in the name of Western civilization.
RK: So he stood true to that.
RK: Um, he can be criticized in terms of accepting the conditions for power in South Africa, which was very pragmatic, in a mistaken belief that we had run out of gunpowder, in a sense.
RK: And I don’t mean by that armed struggle. That Western imperialism was too strong, the neoliberal global economy market fundamentals were here to rule the roost. You know, and here we are 20 years later, and what a failure it is.
RK: Uh, at that stage, a true rebel would not have accepted that. Che Guevara, Jack Simons, no way. Jack was quite critical of the way we were going at that point in time, as were some other people as well. I think I failed because perhaps I was a bit younger, and was in a position where Mandela put me into an important portfolio, and that was deputy minister of defense, and I felt, perhaps as a rebel, that this was something that I could focus on and make a big difference to making the big change from a white supremacist army into a military that would serve democracy, but I took my eye off the ball in terms of the economic factors, which we all virtually did.
CH: Did [Joe] Slovo, too?
RK: Oh, definitely.
CH: He did?
RK: Oh yes. He did, too. It was incredibly overpowering given the nature of the South African struggle of being able to topple white supremacy, white domination in every respect, and feel that, well, let’s, at least we’ve got now the basis for political power and an overwhelming, as we knew we would get, majoritarian vote. But of course this is quite another area.
RK: Just to say on being a rebel, it’s, people use it, and I’ve found this in discussion with a very engaging young American, who was, had asked me for some assistance—he happened to have South African roots—and was doing a thesis recently, and the term “rebel” kept coming up. And I found this with a lot of young Americans who regard me as a rebel—you’re not such a young American—so I think that for me “revolutionary” is the more accurate. And I think that we use “rebel” in the sense of, um, as perhaps it was used here—of not accepting a particular authority and standing up against that particular authority. Perhaps “rebel” is a more figurative term than “revolutionary,” which is more scientific.
CH: I use them like this: A rebel is somebody who always stands outside systems of power; a revolutionary seeks to replace a system of power.
RK: All right, yes, well then we are on the right wavelength together.
CH: But, I mean you have not—you have kept your distance. I mean, as a critic, as you said, you have remained a critic, which is, for me, the role of the rebel, even though you fought most of your life to bring this to fruition.
RK: But, I’m critical because of the particular trajectory the South African revolution has taken, and if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t be critical.
RK: So, in that sense, I’m not a universal rebel.
RK: I’m a revolutionary, and what I’m searching for in South Africa, and had been, is the revolutionary change—not just in the political realm, but in the social and economic.
CH: You have a situation in South Africa that’s replicated the United States, where in essence you have powerful, in essence, corporate forces ...
CH: ... that dominate our economic system and our political system, and this is much more insidious to fight, because instead of that white face of the brute, it’s faceless. And yet, I think we could argue, certainly within the United States, we’ve undergone kind of a coup d’état. We are a corporate state, Obama serves corporate power assiduously, we are being stripped of our civil liberties, one in six people in this country are on food stamps, a hundred million people live in poverty or near poverty, we’re creating an oligarchic, neofeudal society, and yet you don’t have—how do you, how do you struggle against those forces. Is it harder, I think it is harder, but is it, because you don’t, it’s hard to name the enemy. It’s hard to see the enemy. Does that make sense?
RK: Oh, of course. It’s much harder to understand the enemy as well. And it takes me back to another anecdote. When I arrive in London from Dar es Salaam in exile in military training for the ANC, back in ’67, I meet this engaging young communist, league organizer in Britain. And we get into lots of chats, and so on, and I said to him, “I think it’s harder to be a communist in Britain than it is in South Africa,” and he couldn’t understand it. And I said, “Well, it’s because it’s so much clearer, the struggle there at that stage—”
CH: Right, right, right.
RK: The black-white factor, using not necessarily racial skin but metaphorical, very clear. And that was the case for us. He couldn’t understand this. And to this day, we still argue the toss on this. Uh, and he couldn’t understand it because of the bloodshed factor in South Africa—the risk and the dangers. And I said, “Yeah, well that’s one thing, and that’s very physical—as well as requiring mental courage.” But very often, and I found this for myself, that to take a choice that isn’t physical but is a choice of debate, of a standpoint, can be much more difficult than facing the bullets of an enemy. And that’s when you fall out of step with your own party, your own group, and you become a dissident or a rebel in that internal sense that you’ve used it. And I’ve found that that requires huge courage. So there’s so much to be said for the anger and the courage that drives us for battle, and we can see how this can affect millions of people. But the actual quiet courage out of solitude can actually require so much more courage and inner depth that it’s very, very difficult to even compare. So you come to the faceless enemy of today, yeah this now, at this stage of history, and there’ve been as we know certain real important turning points of history like 1848, 1917, and so on—um, I’m a Marxist, and whatever might be said about the teachings of Marx and Engels and Lenin ... Marx and Engels are more accepted in academia these days rather than Lenin. Lenin’s kind of connected too much to—like Robespierre, you know the actual revolutionary. But the question of Marx and Engels and what they gave to the 19th century, to the rebels and the revolutionaries, was to create, paint a very clear-cut picture, which was very confusing. The evolvement in the revolutions from feudalism and aristocracy into bourgeois revolution into the possibilities of socialism or communist international, etc. [was explained by Marx, Engels and Lenin]. I mean, people have great problems in trying to figure out this tapestry, this maze that we have to go through. And, they illuminated the way. We need something of that nature now. It existed and then petrified, with it on the branch, because socialism is a great idea. The question of its execution is something very different.
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