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The Eternal Rebel: Ronnie Kasrils
Posted on Jun 23, 2013
By Chris Hedges
NEW YORK—What is it that makes a rebel? Why does one willingly step outside society to destroy a system of power, break the law and risk persecution and even death for an ideal? As the state calcifies into corporate totalitarianism, as prominent rebels such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are defamed by a bankrupt media and political class and hunted down as criminals, as change through the established mechanisms of reform becomes impossible, as systems of power invert morality to silence and imprison the just, we are going to have to ask hard questions about what we are willing to endure to make a better world. For if we do not rebel, if we do not actively defy corporate power, we will steadily be herded like captive animals into pens where we will be watched, controlled, abused, exploited and finally cast aside when our bodies and our minds are deemed superfluous by the corporate state. It is not enough to interpret the world. We must change it.
Rebels at the inception of struggle are vilified. They are few in number. They are ostracized by the wider society. They are left to brood in shadows where the organs of state security track and hunt them like prey. These rebels of history must become our tutors. To discuss the nature of rebellion, I recently met with Ronnie Kasrils, who was a leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress when the group was fighting South Africa’s government and who from 2004 to 2008 was minister for intelligence services in the ANC government.
Kasrils, white, middle class and Jewish, turned his back on his race and his class to join the African National Congress as a 22-year-old in 1960. A year later he became a member of the South African Communist Party. He was a founding member, along with Nelson Mandela, of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), or Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the ANC. He served as the commander of the Natal Regional Command and underwent military training in 1964 in Odessa, in the Soviet Union. As a leader in the MK, Kasrils carried out sabotage and bombings of state infrastructure and industrial sites. Although a 1983 MK guerrilla attack left 19 civilians dead and a 1986 raid killed three civilians and injured 73 others, Kasrils points out that overall only a small number of whites died in the struggle while tens of thousands of blacks were slaughtered by the apartheid state.
Kasrils, along with his late wife, Eleanor, lived the shadowy life of an armed revolutionary. In his long liberation campaign he encountered resistance figures ranging from Ernesto “Che” Guevara to Malcolm X. His autobiography, “Armed and Dangerous: My Undercover Struggle Against Apartheid,” is a meditation on the cost and demands of revolutionary discipleship.
Kasrils said the rebel and the revolutionary are driven by an instinctive compassion, concern for others and “standing up for the underdog.” These impulses are often present in children, he said, but they are muted or crushed by the institutions of social control including the family and school. Kasrils, although an atheist, sees the rebel in Jesus Christ, as well as in the thunderous denunciations of evil and oppression by the Hebrew prophets of the Bible. He said that those who endure oppression such as Mandela and rise up to resist are better described as revolutionaries. The rebel, he said, is one who often enjoys certain “liberties” but who is “prepared to give up his class or her class, or tribe.” Rebels turn their backs on their own.
Kasrils in his autobiography writes about a discussion on the nature of the rebel with Jack Simons, a retired university professor who was teaching ANC recruits in Angola and who had been a leader in the South African Communist Party before it was outlawed in 1950. The conversation, Kasrils said, “stunned me.” “Unconventional thought is a force for development,” Simons told Kasrils. “It is wrong to suppress it. The likes of you and I were thrown to the lions in Roman times and burnt at the stake in the Middle Ages as heretics.”
“The person who could [have escaped all that and had] a privileged or comfortable life—isn’t that the rebel, the John Browns?” Kasrils asked. “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 rebel’s role. Not my role. And I think this is what Jack Simons was saying to me. We would have been burnt at the stake. That’s the dissident factor. I find this on the question of having been Jewish-born but standing for Palestinian rights. There you need such courage to stand up against your tribe. 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.”
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