The Eternal Rebel: Ronnie Kasrils
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.
Click here for the full transcript and audio of the interview on which this column is based.
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.”
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.
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.
“The rise under capitalism of Western Europe is directly, as a result of the ability, time and place, to colonize what we call the developing world today: Africa, Asia, Latin America. It’s on that basis that the empires of Europe, and then of America — North America — grow.”
And as nations are re-colonized, the forms of control become more sophisticated.
“Every single dictatorship builds up the surveillance mechanisms and the control system of its society, of its people,” Kasrils said. “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.”
“People fear what they see emerging,” he said. “It has happened before under McCarthyism, communist witch hunting in Europe, Britain. 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. That emerged very starkly in the police state of [Hosni] Mubarak. Fear was everywhere. 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, ‘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. 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 the system breaks, when the weakest link snaps, and people suddenly lose fear and find courage and stand up. And that’s what we’re seeing.”
“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,” he said. “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 and seeing it on our TV screens this very day. That’s a kind of poetic beauty about rebellion and revolution. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s that dialectic — the drip of water that wears away a stone. What is it? This is where you use the term ‘mystery.’ It’s happening over many, many years. It’s wearing away a chain that’s imprisoning people. 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.”
“You’ve got to be organized,” he said. “You’ve got to have a program of action. You’ve got to have a strategy about your tactics and who is the enemy, and what are you going to replace the system with.”
Although Kasrils embraced violence against the apartheid state he is very hesitant about employing violence against the corporate state. But he sees oppression, if finally left unchecked, as justifying the use of force by the rebel. He quoted John F. Kennedy’s dictum: “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.”
“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,” Kasrils said. “I wouldn’t speak for [the] American people. 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 … 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?”
“The corporate [state], as you say, they are the unseen force, but behind what?” he asked. “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 the running of governments and getting their hands on the Appalachian minerals, but isn’t there potential? 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.”
“The fact that we have a bourgeois democracy with the right to vote means that there must be the space to organize,” he said. “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. 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. Until there’s a force on the scene in South Africa to do better, people won’t vote otherwise. … 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.”
“This wave of jihadism is absolutely reactionary. … They see certain problems with their culture, with Western domination,” he said. “It goes [to] more than just the culture … it’s all about the domination of the wealth of those countries. 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.”
Kasrils in his autobiography tells of an incident involving a South African death squad led by the notorious killer and former police colonel Eugene de Kock. De Kock was the commanding officer of C1, a counterinsurgency unit of the South African police that in the 1980s and 1990s kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of anti-apartheid activists and ANC leaders. He and his hit squad had recently assassinated three of Kasril’s ANC comrades. Kasrils tracked de Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil” and now serving a life sentence in South Africa, along with de Kock’s squad of killers, to a hotel. Kasrils organized a group of ANC insurgents to gun down the members of the hit squad there. De Kock and his men had left, however, before Kasrils and his party burst into the room where they had been. I asked Kasrils if he would, should the situation be repeated today, organize an armed group to kill de Kock and his hit men.
“I see this as similar to the French Resistance and the resistance in Europe against the Nazis,” he said. “So, you know there were the battles in the open, but most of the battles were by stealth. I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong in the battle of stealth against power when you are engaged in a war. They had killed, murdered in cold blood, three of our people in Swaziland. You’ve got to take harsh decisions at times, and this is in the context of an ongoing war there. … I put it within the context of a revolutionary war.” He said, nevertheless, that “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.”
“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 — that’s warfare. Terrorism is the indiscriminate action 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.”
“To have taken lives that way, I think, is coming down to the unspeakable level of your adversary, which you must not do,” he said. “And you lose the moral high ground in the process.”
He said that the ANC learned to differentiate between the apartheid regime and all other whites, even those whites who voted the apartheid leaders into power and backed their racist ideology.
“When people vote they often aren’t even really clear about why, and they do it out of fear,” he said. “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.”