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The Eternal Rebel: Ronnie Kasrils

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Posted on Jun 23, 2013
Screenshot via "Democracy Now!"

Ronnie Kasrils.

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

It was in post-apartheid South Africa that Kasrils fully realized Simons’ wisdom. Kasril’s relentless quest for not just political but economic justice has turned him into a fierce critic of the two organizations to which he has dedicated himself for 50 years—the African National Congress and the Communist Party. The failure of these two organizations to ameliorate the suffering of the poor, the rampant corruption he says exists within the leadership of the ANC, and the Marikana Massacre last August in which 44 striking miners were gunned down by the South African Police Service—the most lethal assault on unarmed civilians since the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the event that prompted Kasrils to join the ANC—have left him alienated, once again, from the centers of power.

“I have to speak up,” he said. “It’s deep within me.”

Kasrils said the ANC’s fatal mistake, which he concedes was partly his fault, was its decision in the transition to power in 1994 to mothball its socialist economic agenda, known as the Freedom Charter. The charter, which had wide popular appeal, demanded the end of the exploitation by the white oligarchic elite that treated black laborers as serfs on farms, in mines and on factory floors. It called for the right to work, freedom of expression, access to decent housing and land for all South Africans and a sharing of South African wealth, especially its mineral resources. Banks, industries and mines were to be nationalized. He and other leaders in the ANC believed they could deal with economic injustice later. They were fearful of defying Western imperialism and, as Kasrils put it, “neoliberal global economy market fundamentals.” But the ANC’s caving in to global pressure to adopt a free market economy has proved to be a disaster. South Africa continues to be one of the most unequal societies on the planet. Whites, although they are less than 10 percent of the nation’s population, earn 7.7 times more on average than their black counterparts. Only a few thousand of the country’s 41 million blacks earn more than $5,000 a year. It is apartheid by another name.

A “true rebel would not have accepted that,” Kasrils said, citing Che Guevara and Simons.

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Kasrils became deputy minister of defense in the ANC government in 1994 when Mandela was elected president of South Africa.

“I felt, perhaps as a rebel, that this was something that I could focus on and make a big difference,” he said of his appointment. Kasrils wanted to reform “a white supremacist army into a military that would serve democracy” but in the process, he said, “I took my eye off the ball in terms of the economic factors.”

The forces of global corporate capitalism that have deformed South Africa are harder to define and fight than the palpable evil of white supremacy under apartheid, Kasrils said. The current battle requires “more courage and inner depth” because the enemy is faceless. Kasrils said, however, that we have reached a moment in history that is like 1848 or 1917 or some other seismic turning point. Marx, Engels and Lenin, he said, illuminated the maze the rebel faced in 19th century industrialized society; now, a new maze has to be deciphered. 

“We need something of that nature now,” he said of the light provided by these thinkers. Answers “existed and then petrified.” The onslaught of globalization has “torn apart” the world and created conditions that Kasrils believes replicate those Engels correctly predicted would convulsed the early 20th century.

“It’s very similar,” Kasrils said. “The ruthless struggles for ascendancy, the rivalries, the aggressive wars. That huge confusion and tumult of capital, and now finance corporate capitalism.”

He views the rise of the revolutionary force in the Arab Spring, the recent Turkish street protests and the Occupy movement as signals of a new age.

“We see the anger, the rebellious spirit of people not wanting to live in the way we’re being forced to live at present,” he said. “But the question of how to come together, and the way ahead, and clarifying the enemy, is at present something we’re striving for. There are obviously groups of revolutionaries, rebels and anti-war groups around the world. But what’s lacking is the ability to define what it is that needs to be replaced. [We need] to define that for the vast multitudes, not just for those who are convening movements and protests.”

“Rebels are detonators in terms of getting other people to understand what we’re up against and how we should be organized,” he said. “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.”

What we face through the rise of corporate capitalism is, in essence, the “re-colonization of Africa and the rest of the world,” Kasrils said.

Marx predicted that eventually unfettered, global capitalism would evolve into a revolutionary force, but it would also have within it the seeds of its own destruction. National boundaries helped check capitalist exploitation with government regulation, an adversarial press and labor organizing, but once corporations created global markets, once they could play one country off another, once workers around the globe were in effect disempowered, the barriers to unfettered capitalism were lifted. I asked Kasrils if we had now reached the last stage that Marx wrote about.

“I think it is that,” he said. “You know we call it today globalism and give it the name of the neoliberal agenda, but that’s exactly what Marx is talking about. Globalism isn’t something that’s just emerged. There’s been the force 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.


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