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.
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: Is he the guy who was teaching in the camp?
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.
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.
RK: And that’s where things go wrong in terms of the way socialism came to be practiced in what I do feel, in hundreds of years’ time, looking back people will say, “Well that was vital to understand what was needed, and it was in a primitive period of the 19th and 20th century.” And this is what we need today. We see a world torn apart very much like Engels wrote about the coming catastrophes [of] early 20th century Europe.
RK: It’s very similar. The ruthless struggles for ascendancy, the rivalries, the aggressive wars, and so on. That huge confusion and tumult of capital, and now finance corporate capitalism—we see people in the millions, as we speak we see the people of Istanbul ...
RK: ... suddenly pouring out and emulating Tahrir Square in Egypt. It’s a Turkish Spring suddenly on our radar. But it’s not just there. We’ve seen millions in Occupy Wall Street and Washington, D.C., and Minnesota, in the Occupy movement in London, in, a few years back, the anti-war movement, which engaged 10, 15 million just in the advanced capital countries. So, you know, we see the anger, the rebellious spirit of people not wanting to live in the way we’re being forced to live at present. But the question of how to come together, and the way ahead, and clarifying the enemy, is at present something we’re just striving for. There are obviously groups of revolutionaries and rebels and anti-war groups around the world, but what’s lacking is the ability to, to define what it is that needs to be replaced, and to define that for the vast multitudes, not just for those who are convening movements and protests. So we, looking at the phase now which Marx and Engels talk about, and Lenin himself, and that’s the question of the corporates coming into being, the vast differences, the gulf of poverty and wealth, the concentration of power, controllers of productive forces in fewer and fewer hands. So the 1 percent—which in fact when we analyze 1 percent it’s far less than 1 percent, it’s a fraction of 1 percent. Because, you know I was told this on a plane from Chicago to New York by a professor at one of the universities who I was chatting to, and he said, “You know, Mr. Kasrils, I’m actually, in definition, I’m actually part of the 1 percent because I earn more than $350,000 a year, but you know the real 1 percent are the people with billions. The real fraction, the real controllers of the media, of the corporate wealth, and behind the wars of aggression.” So rebels are needed, and rebels are detonators in terms of getting other people to understand what we’re up against and how we should be organized, and that’s where the Communist International of Marx, and then later with the 1917 revolution, emerged as a major tool in opposition to imperialism and developed as an anti-imperialist movement, socialist, and anti-imperialist movement: rise of Cuba, and, you know, the heyday of the ’60s, the ’70s. Decolonization, and today we see the re-colonization of Africa and the rest of the world.
CH: Is this, have we reached a point, when Marx talked about unfettered capitalism as a revolutionary force that has built within it the seeds of its own destruction, that within capitalist economies that were actually contained within national states, you could build competing power movements like labor unions, for instance, but now you can’t, because they play one country off of another. Are we reaching, do you think, that stage that Marx talked about?
RK: I think it is that. I think it is that. You know we call it today globalism ...
RK: ... and give it the name of the neoliberal agenda, but that’s exactly what Marx is talking about, you know, so globalism isn’t something that’s just emerged. There’s been the forces toward globalism on the basis of the replacement of feudalism into first industrial capital, which was the building up of separate empires. And obviously state powers, and empires, and interfinance capital, and the imperialism that we have today.
CH: And Marx is quite clear that the fuel for the industrial society came from the pilfering of the resources. I mean, I think at one point ...
CH: ... it [was] the Inca leaders’ gold that paid for [the imperial expansion by European states and the Industrial Revolution]—
RK: Uh-huh, yeah. Of course.
CH: I mean that—the whole system is built on theft from its beginning.
RK: Yeah, coming into being with bloodied tooth and claw and so on. And of course the rise under capitalism of Western Europe is directly as a result of the ability, time and place to colonize the, what we call the developing world today: Africa, Asia, Latin America. And it’s on that basis that the empires of Europe, and then of America—North America—grow.
CH: What about fear? We are a country utterly riven with fear, and the security and surveillance state is becoming ever more intrusive. We’re being stripped in America of our civil liberties. You know, the FISA Amendment Act, the Espionage Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, on and on and on. How effective, I mean there’s a kind of paralysis. I mean, people are not happy, the approval rating for the Congress is 9 percent. People are angry. But the security and surveillance state has imposed a system by which they keep people contained and frightened. How do you address that?
RK: Well, every single dictatorship builds up the surveillance mechanisms and the control system of its society, of its people. Right throughout history—from ancient times—it becomes absolutely necessary the moment the state based on classes emerges. So the slaves are kept under control, fear is put into their hearts on a minute-to-minute basis. The sword, the ax, is always over your head, and that applies in modern times where it’s not just the club over your head but it’s also the other threats of losing job, losing profession, of being ruined or being thrown onto the streets. But the question of, the use of, rather, of the Hezbollah, as the Arabs come to fear the word, their military intelligence machine to keep them in a state of fear. We’ve seen how dependent those oil states have been in relation to that. Comparing, certainly, in essence what’s happened all over the world, we’ve seen … [the] savage[ness] ... [of] the Gestapo-type states, the police states and so on. And of course people fear what they see emerging, and it has happened before under McCarthyism, communist witch hunting in Europe, Britain, yeah. So, to keep people in line, whether it’s schoolboys under disciple or sailors on the deck of a ship, or the unemployed, or the factory worker, there’s always been that element of fear to control, to reinforce the control through socialization, education and the hegemony of ruling-class thought, prayer, religion and so on. But in history, as Spartacus or any rebel movement shows, and as we’ve seen in the Arab Spring—Tunisia, and Egypt are the particular models—the point comes when people lose fear, and that emerged very starkly in the police state of [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak, where fear was everywhere and people didn’t dare to speak or to step out of line. The few rebels were always crushed on the torturer’s wheel, their tongues cut out, metaphorically, sometimes actually in reality. So the contradictions of the few ruling the many in terms of injustice brings to my mind the great lines of Shelley, the poet, at the time of the Peterloo Massacre, 1819 thereabouts: “Rise from your slumbers like lions, we are many they are few.” [Paraphrase.] And, you know, when I read that I was amazed at the similarity in South Africa when in 1976 young people, 12-year-olds, teenagers in the schools, rose against the apartheid police state, with all of the fear factor, including that of the myth of white supremacy, and were prepared to take it on in the streets and were prepared to die, and those who weren’t shot down were prepared to look for the organizational form to fight back and instead of stones to seek guns and bullets, and the ANC was the organization that they turned to because it had always been the rebel organization. It had never died, it was always there and always strove to resist. So, fear, as we’ve seen, can keep people in check for many, many years. Decades. And there comes a time when, when the weakest link snaps, and people suddenly lose fear and find courage and stand up. And that’s what we’re seeing.
CH: That’s what we’re seeing now.
RK: We see—.
CH: What is the trigger, what do you think? What is it, is it a mysterious force, what is it that—?
RK: No, it’s not mysterious, but it’s, it’s certainly complex in the sense that what might have triggered it is something simple like simply lighting a match, a single spark ...
RK: ... starting a prairie fire. So I recall in the long, dark years of our struggle against apartheid where we were being hammered, or imprisoned, or we were in exile, and we would always speculate what would start the fire again. And it’s like what’s happened actually as we speak in the square in Istanbul. Quite a small, insignificant square which was the only parkland with trees in a huge district. And young people and old people wanted to defend this park as one of their lungs. We’re reading about it as we speak, yeah, and seeing it on our TV screens this very day. That’s, that’s a kind of poetic beauty about rebellion and revolution, that it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, it’s that dialectic—the drip of water that wears away a stone, and what is it, this is where you use the term “mystery,” it’s happening over many, many years and it’s wearing away a chain that’s imprisoning people. But it’s, it’s, it’s melting somehow, it’s breaking the fetters. And that happens suddenly from a trigger like the demand, the protection of the park, and the Turkish despot, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, saying, “No matter what you do or say, the development of the shopping area on your blessed park is going ahead.” And that’s just one bridge too far.
RK: So I think the only way this can be understood is in that Marxian sense of dialectical materialism, ... often the unseen, complex forces of society just as the forces of nature of the drops of water cracking a stone in the end, turning rock into beach sand over so many millennia. But it’s that that happens in society, and there are laws, this is where one sees in Marx the best explanation for the forces of change in society, historical change coming out of class struggles and the struggles for ascendancy and contractions that bring this to a head. So it’s contradictions, this is why, for me, if we go looking at the planetary, the global system now, how is it possible, it cannot be possible that a 1 percent, or a fraction, can go on concentrating wealth into their hands and the billions now starving ...
RK: ... without. It’s not possible. There’s got to be a break at some point. So there’s a simplicity in that arithmetic, or math, but of course the complexities are enormous within, because human beings in society are incredibly complex now.
CH: Let me ask a question about Marx, because Marx put his faith for revolution essentially in the working class, in the factories, in the industrial working class, not in the Lumpenproletariat, and now we have a situation where, in this country, we virtually have no labor unions, we don’t make anything except weapons anymore. What’s manufactured is manufactured in Dickensian sweatshops of prison-like conditions in China, Vietnam, Philippines, Bangladesh, and what we define as the working class is essentially the service sector—often with more than one job working hours a week. As Barbara Ehrenreich says, you know, being poor in the United States is one long crisis, one long emergency. It’s a different kind of organizing. How do you, how do you build consciousness and how do you build an organization when the indigenous mechanisms that were there during the Industrial Revolution are no longer there?
RK: Well, you know Marx lived 150 years back, and one doesn’t use him as the mantra.
CH: Right, right.
RK: So please don’t misunderstand me. I’m using their example. I’m saying there are incredible elements there of a scientific approach of how we should seek to understand the forces of change, the mechanisms of change, the motor forces of history, the class forces. And, he was studying society and capitalism at a particular point in time. Lenin came upon the scene decades later and actually made Marxism look again at a particular fact. You remember that Marx and Engels thought that socialism would come to the most advanced capitalist countries ...
CH: Right, German, that’s right.
RK: ... that they thought it would come in Britain.
RK: It was the revelation that the poorest, and the most backward ...
RK: Sure, so it’s not just one man or a couple of men or women who have the answers.
CH: But it is that problem ...
CH: ... of how—.
RK: No, definitely, I agree, and you know so we’re living at a different time and of course it’s even more complex, and our society is much more complex. So where is it the force is coming, and how to organize, but at the same time, as you say that industrial organization is on the decline—Britain, the unions were crushed, the USA, South Africa’s going that way now.
CH: Is it?
RK: Our unions are shrinking, our industrial base is shrinking because of the market fundamentals that we shouldn’t be producing textiles and clothing in South Africa because it can be produced more cheaply in China and India. But that’s not going to last. And, you know, I’m no economist, not even for my own country, which is why I made mistakes by the way, really what is happening in terms of production in American and in Europe, what are they going to have to do to arrest the current crisis of the financial sector and the economy of Europe, Western Europe, particularly, from Greece through to Portugal and Britain and the banking system and here, they’re in profound crisis. So I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to declare an end of an era ...
RK: ... of the need for industrial production, and or unionism. Tell me about Minnesota, and what happened there, because I see it from a distance.
CH: They were service sector unions.
RK: It’s service sector.
CH: So they were government employees.
RK: Yeah, and what happens as the new giants, as the new kids on the block emerge from the East. What happens then in Europe and America in terms of having to keep up industrially, in terms of productivity. How long can service-based employment last for a country on its own with everything else becoming negligible.
RK: So there’re forces in the world that they don’t have control of in terms of capitalism, otherwise they wouldn’t have their, their boom and bust all the time.
RK: And the huge, unpredictable down surge, the meltdown of 2008. So, we’re obviously moving through quite a transitionary period, I would think. And maybe that’s making it much more difficult to discern what’s at play, what’s coming into being. That was, again, the genius of Marx and Engels, of what was becoming outmoded and what was coming into being. Not everybody saw this ...
RK: ... in relation to capitalism, in relation to industrial proletariat, on a worldwide basis. So I don’t claim to have the answers to rather difficult questions you’re putting to me about the economics of this present era, and do the economists have it?
RK: Very, very few. They’ve got more opinions than lawyers on a case.
CH: Let me ask about—when someone such as yourself decides to rise up and become a rebel or a revolutionary, when you go back, do you do it because it’s a moral imperative, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re going to achieve your goal, or do you have a kind of belief in historical inevitability?
RK: Not initially. Initially there’s emotion, there’s passion, and I do believe that the youth are a factor in this, that one does change through the years. The old English saying, that if you’re not a communist by the age of 20, you don’t have a heart, but if you’re still a communist by the age of 30 you don’t have a mind. Now that was told to me by my boss when I worked in an advertising agency for Lever Brothers. I was absolutely shocked and I was 23 or something. I was shocked because I thought, “This guy is saying he can understand,” and I wasn’t a communist, by the way, “he can understand why I would be a communist. This Lever Brothers chief from England.” But, at that particular stage, it certainly wasn’t determinism, historical determinism—which I still argue against, by the way—I’ve just been with a friend of mine, upstate New York, who I write about in the book, “Armed and Dangerous,” the American guy, Larry—.
RK: He’s still fixated on determinism, and he fights with his girlfriend who’s an activist here and was in the Washington Occupy movement who believes in free will. I was trying to get a balance between them, which is a wonderful, old—Engels, I think, wrote, and Marx wrote about men, obviously meaning men and women but you know this was the language, tend to determine their answers, their solutions, but they do so on the basis of the conditions which they’ve inherited, you know. And I promised to find the quote for him, by the way. So, I would think in the main, and it’s my experience and my views of seeing others change, whether you’re in a factory, whether you’re a slave on the plantation, whether you’re a young student, or a rebel like myself who is a white person in a situation where it’s black people being oppressed in South Africa, that it’s your emotions that really are to the fore, and your hatred, if you happen to be that way inclined, and we dealt with perhaps why we are that way inclined, that you, your hatred of oppression, of seeing people beaten down all the time. Certainly for me this was something that came to dominate my life from my early teens, because it was so visual in South Africa, to a point where when people were being shot down at Sharpeville, I couldn’t live with myself without doing anything. OK, so perhaps it’s the rebellious factor. It’s only after that that you start asking the questions. What would be put in place? Well, perhaps the first question is, OK, we stand and we protest with a placard, and then if we’re beaten we fight back with stones and if there’s no possibility of change, then, like [John F.] Kennedy says, “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable,” which is a quote I love, because I use it so often with young Americans who come to South Africa. And you then start asking those questions, and that’s what a revolutionary movement’s about. How to harness the energy and the passion and the emotion, and how to signpost the way ahead, how, which comes to, you’ve got to be organized, and you’ve got to have a program of action and you’ve got to have a strategy and your tactics and who is the enemy, and what are you going to replace the system with? These basic questions come to the fore, and it’s that, then, that gives you your worldview an your deeper understanding. There are a few people who are born intellectual, who somehow figure this out. You get the quiet boy at school who doesn’t seem to have any passion and you later meet a guy like that and he’s emerged, or she’s emerged as quite an outstanding theorist who has come to realize that the philosophers have hitherto changed, attempted to analyze the world or understand it and the point is to change it. You know there are a few people like that, but in the main it’s the conditions of life, isn’t it, for the vast multitude, so if you’re working on the land, or you’re working in industry, or down the mines or in the factory, your conditions bring you along that path if you are going to follow the revolutionary path, and not just in terms of basic trade union protection of your condition of work, or amelioration of your position on the land. Of course for intellectuals it’s a different journey, and there the rebellious factor becomes very profound because, you see, if you have to do it, it you have to struggle because of the conditions of your life, because you’re downtrodden, or you’re racially oppressed or you’re economically oppressed on the land, or in the industry, in the mines, if you’re Nelson Mandela—I nearly said this early, but I thought we’d come back to it—is he a rebel, is that a rebel? Or is the rebel the person who actually just despises no matter what his or her condition of life—you see very often a rebel is a person who enjoys certain of the liberties. I think that’s more the rebel, who’s prepared to give up his class or her class, or tribe, coming to Jews in Israel now, I think that’s more the rebel. I don’t see Mandela as the rebel. I see Mandela as standing for his people, having to be very brave and courageous, and lead, but he, what else is there for Mandela to do?
CH: Well, there weren’t very many Mandelas, though.
RK: OK, yes, no, but whether it’s Mandela or the people with him, so put aside the actual quality of leadership, the person on the shop floor, or down the mine, shoveling the coal, or with a pickax breaking the earth, at a certain point can’t take this any longer and if they’re going to survive they have to stand up against the club. But the person who could escape all that and have a privileged or comfortable life—isn’t that the rebel, the John Browns? Why does John Brown raise the flag of rebellion? So, for a rebel, the officer in an army who certainly stands up and says this army is standing for the wrong thing, we want to stand for the freeing of the slaves, I find this the more fascinating area in terms of rebellion, not that I find it more satisfying or important than understanding why the worker stands up against the boss. I mean, that’s the motive force of revolutionary change, not the rebels’ role. Not my role. And I think this is what Jack Simons was saying to me that we would have been burnt at the stake, and that’s the dissident factor, and I find this on the question of having been Jewish born but standing for Palestinian rights, so there you need such courage to stand up against your tribe, and in South Africa I see so many people now who were oppressed before, and now have a chance to advance in life and become ministers, or government officials of various kinds and mayors, or—through black empowerment—heads of companies, forgetting what their backgrounds were and feeling, “Well, now I can give my children a decent home and education, I’m not worried about those without.” That’s not a rebel.
CH: Right, right.
RK: These were people I fought with who were very gallant and courageous, and I see them doing that. So that’s what we’re talking about, is they were revolutionaries at a certain stage, I would say they sold out on that. I don’t see them necessarily as having been the rebels.
CH: Let me just finish by asking about violence, which you deal with in your book. First of all, how important, and let me just preface that by saying in the book that I gave you [“Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt”] it makes the argument that there is no way now within the formal mechanisms of power to stop the assault against the ecosystem and against human capital in this country. We can’t vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs. It’s impossible. You have the Appalachian mountains being destroyed by big coal. The only way to stop the devastation of the Appalachians and the poisoning of the water and the people is to blow up the drag lines. I’m not advocating it, I’m just stating a fact. It’s not going to be done through the mechanisms of [established] power. When you reach a point like that, and you certainly reached a point where oppression in South Africa became so severe that you had to go underground. What are your reflections on violence as a tool for social change?
RK: Well, you have to really in the most serious possible way analyze the situations and conditions, and what’s possible. And, the way we analyzed the South African situation, led by Mandela, was whether we could advance the struggle for change through nonviolent means, which the ANC had been wedded to for exactly 49 years, and it had become almost an article of faith and belief—peaceful forms of struggle, nonviolent forms of struggle of the Gandhian type. Not that we were able to develop it in the way that Gandhi did, but there was strong influence from the Indian Congress in South Africa, which was an organization supporting the ANC based, as the name implies, on South Africans of Indian origin. Gandhian forms of resistance are certainly, and have been in history, an element and a form, a very powerful form of change, which was used against the British by millions of people who were galvanized into passive resistance by Gandhi. I’m not a Gandhian, and I’m not a pacifist, coming out of my origins, and, you know, I kid you not when I use the Kennedy statement, which was used quite probably in a very reactionary way because he was making a speech, I think it’s in December 1961, or ‘62, almost at the time when we formed counter-resistance, where I came across this sometime later and he’s making that speech in, at the Organization of American States, OAS—.
CH: Right, right, right.
RK: That’s the Latin American states—in Washington, I think. And he’s speaking to them as, you know, most of them were dictators themselves.
RK: I haven’t read the whole speech, but he was probably talking about Fidel Castro and change there, if not Eastern Europe. However, he, in a brilliant way, puts his finger on the pulse of history that if it’s not possible to make peaceful change, then you’re going to have violent revolution. My own reading, and I’ve read very extensively from different phases of history and 30, 40 different countries, including the Second World War and partisan resistance, which the Americans encouraged, is that as a great American writer, William Pomeroy, puts it in the book of his—can’t remember whether it’s a book on guerrilla struggles or whether it’s on the Philippines, I think it’s on the Philippines, and he talked there about the various ways in which people have come to advance violent forms of struggle. And he goes through the whole range of this, which is, comes down to some extent what Kennedy said, but it’s really about exploring all the avenues of change as we felt we had done in South Africa, and when you get to a point where it’s impossible to make change in any other way, then violent means comes on the agenda, revolutionary struggles. I wouldn’t speak for [the] American people, but certainly in a democracy where everybody has the right to vote at every level from national to local, isn’t it then a question of the extent to which you have the space and the ability, it might be really difficult, as I once said to a British communist in 1967, but to use your space and the opportunities of organizing people against particular obstructions, against injustice of whatever form, and electing the people who can do the job. So, yes, the corporate, as you say, they are the unseen force, but behind what? It’s behind the media, so to propagandize, and subject us to their world through the visual and the printed forms, and the way we’re educated, through to the running of governments and getting their hands on the Appalachian minerals, but isn’t there potential, and doesn’t the Occupy movement show that there is energy there that can be tapped, that can be mobilized—that’s the challenge. It’s very, very difficult, I know. I was in, I was with a man and we were in Harlem yesterday and we were with black friends there who were talking about who they’re going to vote for in the next, the mayoral elections here and it was quite perplexing, it was interesting. They were very radical. And, you know, it’s the question then about, well, the how to do it and who with—we should never surrender that ability, no matter how difficult. Because the fact that we have a bourgeois democracy with the right to vote means that there must be the space to organize. So we’ve got a situation in South Africa where things, I believe, are going wrong, where our ruling party is serving corporate elements and is being bribed and corrupted, and it’s not so easy to mobilize people who see their only hope with the ANC and will use their vote for that, but in fact aren’t getting proper service from the ANC. But, in all, there’s a force on the scene in South Africa to do better. People won’t vote otherwise. And isn’t that what Britain and Germany and France and America are calling for? I wouldn’t [want to] see a repeat of what the Weathermen did in the late ’60s with the Black Panthers. Look how isolated they were as a result. If you’re going to take up arms as we did, it’s on the basis that in the end you will win, that you will isolate your adversary, and that you will win to your side the vast multitudes of people, not be isolated as so many armed struggles become, not only in Germany with the Baader Meinhof group or the Red Brigades of Italy. You know, looking back to that upsurge with the Weathermen it was that same period, but even in—from Peru to the Philippines, to the Islamic resort to violence which is utterly confused and will in the end, it will be smashed and it will set their struggle back immensely because it’s not the way to go, this wave of jihadism is absolutely reactionary, but that’s coming from where you’ve asked me the question. They see certain problems with their culture, with Western domination, it goes more than just the culture, it’s the religious factor and culture which appears on the surface, but it’s all about the domination of the wealth of those countries, and they’re using the wrong means here and bringing such incalculable suffering on their people. And I’m not blaming them for drone war, etc., but you’ve got to take this into account. They’re going about it in the absolutely wrong way. So to consider the use of violence in terms of resistance, it’s, in a sense, the highest form of struggle to use weapons when you can’t use any other forms of change. But you have to be so scientific, so clear in your goals and in your strategy and tactics if you want to use this. Otherwise, you’ll be absolutely smashed, and you’ll bring untold harm and devastation onto the heads of people, and a price that you can never pay.
CH: Let me ask one last question. In your book, you make, you talk about a scene, I can’t remember what country it was in, but you go and you see these three members, [including] an Irishman, apparently from a [government] hit squad ...
RK: Yes, yes.
CH: ... and you follow them to [a] hotel, and you reflect on whether, I mean you say in the book that you believe that they should have been killed.
CH: And you talk about the difference between having someone fire at you and you [firing back] your AK-47 and ... maybe they [are] killed, you don’t know, and that’s a kind of instinctual reaction, but there’s something quite coldblooded about tracking people down. First of all, do you still think that you should have done that [tracking and killing an enemy in a hotel], and can you, and that seems to me another type of violence.
RK: Yeah. Well, there is a place in a revolutionary struggle, and the Irish showed it so well in 1920. They dealt it to one of the icons of their struggle. You know when you’ve got a full-fledged struggle taking place, an armed struggle, a revolutionary struggle, or a struggle between two forces, adversarial from one country to another, whether it’s—I know we’re not talking about that, whether it’s a war between two states—but internal, revolutionary struggle, where you have these hit squads and they are killing so many of your people, and you’re able to get on the track of elements like that who are actually going to take more lives in the secret war of the shadows, I see this as similar to the French Resistance and the resistance in Europe against the Nazis. So, you know there were the battles in the open, but most of the battles were by stealth, and I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong in the battle of stealth against power when you are engaged in a war.
CH: And they had just, somebody had just been assassinated—.
RK: They had killed, murdered in cold blood, three of our people.
CH: Where was this?
RK: In Swaziland.
CH: That’s right.
RK: Yeah, in Swaziland. So, yeah, you’ve got to take harsh decisions at times, and this is in the context of an ongoing war there.
CH: Do you think—I, you know, I’ve been in war. If somebody fired at me I understand the instinctual reaction.
RK: Yeah, yes.
CH: Even though they’re killers, I’m not sure I could have walked into their hotel room and shot ’em.
RK: Yeah, yeah.
RK: No, no. Absolutely. And that’s why it takes different types within the war.
RK: But I put it within the context of a revolutionary war.
RK: So, looking back now, there were people who we killed during our struggle. Fortunately it was never one of these mega-bloodsheds [in] South Africa. There weren’t that many people who died. I know that those who stood with the state, with the apartheid state, they say things against us, the ANC, that we were vicious, that we killed people in cold blood, etc. They’re very few in number, [the] whites who actually died, and there are tens of thousands of blacks who did. But, in actual fact, when I look back and I meet some of these people who we fought before and I hear from them how they knew someone who died, I wish that that person didn’t have to die.
RK: I’m not bloodthirsty about these things. So, you know from that point of view, it’s conditional, you’re within the context of a struggle. We certainly eschewed what would be called terrorist activity. It was very hard for them to place that at the door of the ANC because right from the beginning we understood what terrorism was. There were those who talked about how terrorism would be very effective in South Africa and we were very taken up with a form we watched over and over in our camps and conferences, [a form] called the Battle for Algiers.
CH: Yeah, of course.
RK: Where you had bombs being placed in restaurants ...
RK: ... where French Algerians were, and the object was to drive them out of Algeria and that actually helped. So there is an argument out of it that had its place, although it’s quite simplified because the way the FLN [National Liberation Front] actually forced the [French] out wasn’t through their terror campaign.
CH: It was political.
RK: It was political, it was mass based. But it was through guerrilla warfare.
CH: There were all, by the end of the war they’d lost. They were all in Tunis.
CH: By the time the French withdrew.
CH: I mean on the battlefield—.
RK: But they had considerable guerrilla forces which operated around the country’s borders and so on. But of course there are political factors. France couldn’t hold on in the end, couldn’t hold out. But for us, we made it very clear that we would not carry out indiscriminate acts of violence against noncombatants, and that’s what my definition of terrorism would be where you carry out indiscriminate acts against the civilian population.
RK: To go up in a war, a revolutionary war, to attack a barracks and blow it up with soldiers inside, you know they’re doing that to you—.
RK: That’s warfare. Terrorism is the indiscriminate action against unarmed combatants—sorry—against the civil population, unarmed people. And there were times there, probably 20, 30, 50, maybe, acts that took place in so many years where you could say that was an act of terror, where a bomb was put in a bar or a restaurant, but we stopped it as soon as that was taking place in the mid-’80s. Some of our elements, our units, did that in a very small-scale way. We came down upon it very quickly. So, certainly the question of terrorism, rather than the example you use I would say is the relevant one. To have taken lives that way, I think, is coming down to the unspeakable level of your adversary, which you must not do. And you lose the moral high ground in the process. But just for purposes of morality and even for strategic questions you’re trying to isolate the main core of reaction and don’t drag in the people who vote for them as a result because they happen to be white. You know, when people vote they often aren’t even really clear about why and they do it out of fear. So we were very careful in relation to that. But it was another thing if you were on the track of hit squads, of very vicious people who were taking our lives. You were actually saving lives if you could stop them.
CH: It was interesting that they weren’t South African. They had a South African handler—.
RK: Yeah, yeah.
CH: But they weren’t—the three, I think there were three—.
RK: It was, no, he was the one, plus a guy who was a Portuguese speaker—.
CH: Portuguese speaker.
RK: And the other was clearly out of Northern Ireland.
RK: One of the loyalists there. Yes, they recruited the really dark forces, these murderous types who would kill without compunction.
RK: At all, without a thought and did so. And the man in charge, who we didn’t realize at the time, actually emerges later, I recognize him, as Eugene Terre’Blance, a man who the press in South Africa called Prime Evil, who carried out the most despicable killings of South African revolutionaries in cold blood.
CH: Where is he now?
RK: He’s serving life in prison.
CH: Oh. But he was the guy?
Amina Frense [Kasrils’ wife]: Wasn’t Eugene Terre’Blance. He had another name.
RK: Oh no, de Kock. I’m terribly sorry. It’s Eugene de Kock. I mean not Eugene Terre’Blance, Eugene de Kock. It’s Eugene de Kock. Thanks, Amina. I thought you were going to tell me we got to get somewhere.