with Jeremy Cronin
Member of Parliament of South Africa
and National Executive of African National
Deputy General Secretary of South
African Communist Party
This interview with Jeremy Cronin MP by Dr
A further interview was recorded on 24 January
2002 in the Parliament of South Africa
HS: Jeremy, can you outline the basic trajectory of your intellectual development ? How would you describe it ?
JC: It is undeveloped.
HS: Well to the extent that any of us are developed …
JC: Ok. I grew up in a middle class white english-speaking south african family. All of those things are significant in a south african context, not least for intellectual development. My father was a catholic and that was also important from an intellectual developmental point of view. He died when I was 10 years old and we moved to very close to where we're sitting now in Rondebosch. I went to a marist brothers school and I would guess that that was an early influence in terms of an interest in philosophy. A sort of intellectually serious, probably pretentiously serious, approach to things came at that stage when I was 13 or 14 from some extremely eccentric defrocked priests who were then teaching at the marist brothers. But it taught us Augustine and Aquinas and so on, so there was an early fascination for philosophy. I think that was important.
The other important influence, which wasn't seemingly intellectual, but I think important, was that we were this household of 3. I had a younger brother and a mother. I think that growing up as 10 or 11 year old, then adolescent, boy in close relationship with the mother and being told often by my mother's friends and so on, that I had to play the fatherly role and so forth, which I tried to do, but without too many role models available. I think my mother was quite a significant role model. She was very keen that I should be intellectually serious. We were now relatively poor for whites. My mother was living on a pension, my father's naval pension, and then eventually she went to work as a sort of administrative clerk at the local hospital. So we weren't destitute at all. It was a sort of white welfare dispensation that enabled us to live ok. Nonetheless, in white terms, we were sort of marginal in terms of resources. My mother encouraged me to be quite serious about school and about going to university, about the possibility of some kind of secure profession. That was quite important for me as well, that my role model person was a female rather than a male figure. I think, looking back, that was important. It was a dimension which was different
The next was a school influence which was catholic. There was a time in early adolescence when I thought I might want to become a catholic priest. That didn't last too long, but it was a sign, I suppose, of confusion and wanting some kind of security. Those who might think that my continued commitment to the SACP is stalinist would also maybe recognise something in it.
HS: I know. I know this so well… this argument about catholicism and communism.
JC: It's an international structure.
HS: But basically it's an orientation towards a world view.
JC: Yes, exactly. Precisely. It was definitely that … and a seeking after values and a lifestyle that corresponded to those values.
HS: Yes. I understand this very well.
JC: The intellectual interest then was philosophical, but it was also aesthetic. I became very interested in poetry in particular. I suppose I was about 15 or 16 years old when I started to write quite a bit. It was also an attempt to deal with adolescence and the few remaining lines that survive from that period show that it was a very confused attempt, but nonetheless, it was grappling with that. I was also studying outside of school. I was studying french. My mother was encouraging me to do well academically. So in addition to the latin, afrikaans and english and the normal school subjects, I was also doing french, which wasn't really available in schools here, and fell in love with Rimbaud and Baudelaire and the french poets.
I then spent a year when I was called up as a conscript. I managed to get into the navy, using my father's contacts. That was just before the border wars took off. So I was lucky enough not to have to go into that. I was not looking forward to going into that situation, but it wasn't quite yet into a war situation. It was also before resistance to conscription. There was no tradition of it at that point. I think some years later that is what I would obviously have done.
So I started university in 1968. I was lucky to get a bursary. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to afford to go to university. I started with those things that had shaped the intellectual and emotional side of my adolescence. I was studying french and english and philosophy basically. The university at that stage was also quite conservative … now looking back, I mean I didn't have that perspective very strongly at the time. Some of the leading left intellectuals had been purged out of the university by 1968.
JC: Well in particular Jack Simons, who had been a leading left intellectual person here at the University of Cape Town, who was a very important figure.
HS: The local party branch is named after him.
JC: Yes, named after Jack Simons …and Raymond Suttner (someone who later on, when I was in prison, became a close friend) who had started UCT some 3 or 4 years before me. Jack Simons had been a seminal influence on him. There weren't strong left lecturers around by my time, but there were some interesting intellectual figures and one in particular was someone called Martin Versfelt, who was an eccentric afrikaans intellectual, who had converted to catholicism and who was professor of ethics at the University of Cape Town. He taught Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and Descartes. Those were his areas of particular interest and fascination. He was quite old at that stage and even more eccentric, I think, than he had been. He was also writing books about cooking and cuisine, but trying to integrate. I think this was the interesting thing about Martin Versfeld, that he was trying to integrate different dimensions of life, and to think intellectually about that kind of integration, which was very different from what was increasingly becoming the dominant tradition in UCT. In my years that I spent there, and particularly when I came back as a lecturer, anglo-saxon philosophy was becoming increasingly dominant. The narrowing of subjects into smaller areas and technical topics and so forth, that was starting to become the future, but lingering on were some different intellectual traditions. The influential person on the university in this sense probably was this Martin Versfeld. He connected things.
I was no longer a practising catholic at all. In my year in the navy as a conscript, I had just sort of given that up.
HS: How did that happen?
JC: Not traumatically at all, I think. My mother wasn't catholic, but my mother had sort of kept the catholic tradition going in honour of my father. It was she who sent us, for instance, to the catholic school. I think that is where we were headed when my father was still alive. We were living down in Simonstown, whereas the closest catholic school was up here in Rondebosch. We were still too young to make it up to Rondebosch. When my father died, we moved up here precisely to be close to the catholic school. That was really the principal reason for the choice of location. So she herself never went to church, but insisted that we should go to sort of keep a Cronin family tradition alive. The church was a white suburban catholic church and the contradictions of what I was learning about, in terms of ethical perspectives and so on at school and from my own reading, and the reality of the parish church, were so in contradiction with each other that one sort of grew out of it. That’s how I experienced it and I couldn't abide what seemed to me like a deep hypocrisy.
HS: But what about the question of the existence of God ? Did you think about that?
JC: Not very profoundly. I don't remember having any deep angst about it at all. I came to be fairly spontaneously atheist, as an 18 or 19 year old without, without …
HS: without all my trauma … [Portrait of a marxist as a young nun]
JC: Yes, it wasn't really traumatic at all. It was connected, I think, to the kind of family background that I had, experiencing myself as being in a variety of ways somewhat on the margins of, but linked nonetheless to, the mainstream of white South Africa.
My father's death was an important personal subjective reality, because, if he'd lived, my subsequent choices would have been much more complicated. First of all, he was a very devout catholic, so I think that it would have been, not just a challenge to God's existence, but to my father's authority. The slipping out of catholicism, but more obviously my political choices, would have been more complicated ones if my father had been alive. They would have been direct challenges to his authority, whereas my mother had beliefs, but not authority, in those of areas and never sought to exercise any kind of authority. So she had values about, but no theory, or position, of authority. So in a way I was able to slip out of it without heavy traumas.
That's why I think the female headed reality was important, partly as a role model, but also as a different relationship to structures of authority and to power. I think of the presence of a father would have made it different. I don't know, as a 10 year old one doesn't really have a very objective understanding of a father. I don't think he was very authoritarian particularly, but he was a naval officer. He was a devout institutional person, both in the navy and in the church. I guess the existence of God had just disappeared like my father.
HS: That’s interesting.
JC: It coincided with the querying of all of those structures of authority.
JC: Quite early on in my university career in 1968, there was obviously a significant youth culture moment.
HS: I remember it.
JC: Just across the road here, around July of 1968, there were strong rumblings on the campus here at UCT, many of them mimicking what was happening in Paris and Berlin and Prague and Mexico City. There was an occupation of the administration building by students in protest basically.
HS: Was it Bremner at that time ?
JC: Yes it was Bremner. A black intellectual south african Archie Mafeje, had been appointed basically as Jack Simons replacement and the government had intervened and had refused to allow him back into the country and put pressure on the UCT council not to go ahead with the appointment and they'd crumbled basically. The University of Cape Town council had crumbled in the face of government pressure and the story had leaked out to students, so it was around that issue. It was a good issue, but it was as much a useful excuse for expressing some kind of solidarity with global student events of 1968 as the actual cause of the occupation.
UCT was almost entirely white at that point. I remember 3 or 4 coloured students, but there were no african students on campus at that time. There was an active NUSAS presence, the National Union of South African Students, as it was then called. It was a white organisation. It had emerged out of liberal student politics at that time, and by this stage it was still fairly liberal, but even as liberal, considerably to the left of the student body. To the left of the NUSAS / SRC structures were a grouping of students who later formed themselves into the Radical Students Society and they were the core that led this occupation of the admin buildings.
I was getting on with Aquinas and Augustine and Descartes and so forth. Part of my handling of the reality of South Africa and my own existential reality was to stay right out of politics. I was an intellectual by choice. I thought vaguely that I wanted to be either a poet or a university lecturer, or perhaps a mixture of both, at that stage, but didn't want to get sucked into politics. I had no understanding of politics really. Then a close friend, whom I'd known at the marist brothers, whose brother ended up in jail with me, whose name was Bernard Holiday …. We were both studying philosophy together and he was my closest university friend at that stage, and his brother, whom I'd known, had been expelled from the marist brothers for painting GOD IS DEAD on the door of the chapel, amongst other things.
HS: That would definitely be an expellable offence !
JC: I hadn't known him at school, but he was now a journalist, a sort of vague presence, up in Johannesburg, this eccentric older brother of Bernard. Bernard therefore had more political reference points than I did. His brother actually was an underground SACP operative at the time, which I didn't know then, but he had been one of the few survivors of the massive crackdowns that had happened early in the 1960s. He probably survived, one because he'd been slightly younger, but he was a very eccentric character, he had physical disabilities.
HS: What was his name, his first name ?
JC: Tony Holiday.
HS: Oh yes. I know of him.
JC: He had a traumatic birth and as a result was slightly spastic. He was possibly dismissed as weird and strange and not really a very serious person and perhaps had escaped as a result of it. Anyway, it was Bernard who said that the lectures were much more interesting down at the alternative university, because the students occupying the Bremner building then invited interesting lecturers to come, who were on the margins of things.
In particular the leading star of the piece was Rick Turner, who had been at the University of Cape Town. He must have been about 8 years older that me. He had then studied at Nanterre under Henri Lefevre, I think, and worked on Sartre. He'd just finished his doctorate on Sartre and marxism. He was interested in marxism, but that particular brand of marxism, a kind of french existential marxism. Anyway, he was a brilliant lecturer as well, a very, very interesting intellectual. He was assassinated in the late 1970s by the apartheid regime, an assassination that has never been quite clarified. It was clear that it had to do with the security forces, but it's one of the unfinished pieces of business from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
That really marked my entry into political intellectual activity and, quite quickly after that, organizational political activity as well. So I became an active member of the Radical Student Society. I began to edit the journal, in fact Bernard and I were given the honours, while we were young students (we were first and second year students), to edit the journal, which we were very proud of. The intellectual forces were quite diverse.
Bernard's brother's underground structure quickly spotted this ferment and began recruiting a couple of us. It was in 1968 that I was recruited into the underground SACP and began to do some work, mainly on the campus, supplying addresses and names of students, because at this stage the underground had virtually disappeared, but there were rudimentary attempts to sort of reconnect, and one of the key things was to mail pamphlets, books and resources, and the history of the SACP to targeted people, and my job in early 1968 was to supply some of these names and contacts and generally to brief people, well not really people, Tony Holiday, sometimes via his brother, but sometimes directly, on developments.
HS: It was a big decision to join a communist party, even aside from the fact that it was underground.
JC: I didn't see it like that.
HS: No ?
JC: I never remember going home and weighing up this large question. I remember going into this fairly spontaneously and feeling it was the obvious and right thing to do. You know I was pretty much intellectually seduced into it, not by some manipulation, but just that I was now beginning to move quite rapidly away from .. I was now wanting to… I was becoming more interested in the sort of political and social thought. It was very difficult to get anything in South Africa at the time. I remember battling for a year to get Marcuse's One Dimensional Man.
HS: So easy for the rest of us.
JC: Or to get some Sartre, .for instance, let alone marxist texts, things like that. So one of the great battles, organisational, intellectual, logistical battles was just actually to get reading material. It was very difficult to pursue things. If you read Sartre and he would refer to the Eighteenth Brumiere, then you couldn't get hold of the Eighteenth Brumiere. So a lot of our energies and resources and skills were in that early period devoted to hunting down texts. That was something that lasted for quite a long time. Also in prison it was a major activity to get hold of texts. We often used to copy them like medieval monks, once we'd got some key text and on Robben Island they were doing the same thing. Then you'd get to hear of someone, an older comrade who had kind of escaped the net of arrest, who had a small library somewhere. We would hatch complicated plots to track the person down and to win their confidence, so that we could get access to some key texts. A bit medieval in fact.
JC: I spent a frustrating 5 or 6 months sort of flirting with a trotskyist group on campus. One of the other strong left traditions, less strong now in the Western Cape, but historically through the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, was trotskyism, very much anchored in the coloured school teaching intelligentsia and artisanal people, you know, printers, people like that, who didn't feel spontaneously part of the old African National Congress traditions. Being coloured, having different intellectual roots and traditions, they were excluded then also from the Congress of Democrats and, I suppose, to some extent from the Communist Party of South Africa. But also reflecting the ambivalent situation of coloured intellectuals, which deepened obviously with the deepening of apartheid. My first wife Anne Marie, her mother, after the death of her father, had married a white trotskyist, who was a principal at a coloured school. He was quite a well known trotskyist and then one of his acolytes or rivals (because they were always joining or fracturing) was Hassan B. He hung around campus and we weren't sure if he was working for the police or which faction of the 4th International. He, by rumour, had a large stock of interesting left wing books, so we spent, my friend and I, spent months trying to get access to them. We never succeeded. We never signed the 12 point programme and accepted the discipline of whatever.
Rick Turner by this stage was lecturing at Stellenbosch University. He had come back from France and was battling to get work as an academic and, quite interestingly, it was the afrikaans-speaking and very conservative Stellenbosch University which offered him some temporary work. That reflected something that was happening there, and again it had some influence on me. The anglo-saxon linguistic philosophy trend had deepened on the english-speaking campuses like UCT. There was a different tradition, a continental tradition, sometimes of the neo-fascist kind, but sometimes with a more left wing spin to it, which still clung on to a number of the afrikaans campuses. Part of their way of thinking through their situation was to identify with phenomenology. Merleau Ponty and Heidegger were leading figures. The notion of life world was a very important concept.
HS: I know.
JC: The idea was to develop phenomenology beyond individual subjective phenomenology toward group phenomenology. The subject was the group. That clearly had, on the one hand, an apartheid version: there was a black life world and an afrikaans life world and an english-speaking white life world and so forth and obviously you shouldn't try to mix these things up, you should respect their individuality and so on. But also, as I said, there was a slightly more left wing approach to it: the ability to understand groups, therefore classes, national aspirations and so forth, which the intellectual tradition, liberal intellectual traditions, which would become neo liberal, at UCT, didn’t.
HS: Liberal traditions are individualist.
JC: Yes individualist, rights-based. The rejection of apartheid was: there are some very talented young black people who have been squashed by apartheid, that kind of liberal individualist version, rather than a much more structured understanding of the realities. So there was a kind of seminar, a fortnightly seminar, held down in Stellenbosch. Key people were Andre Du Toit and then Rick Turner, who was the particular fascination for me, but then a couple of interesting Stellenbosch students as well. So we struck some links in that direction as well, which didn't really go much further for me at that point. Is this is all getting…?
HS: It's grand. Go on.
JC: So, intellectual interests ? Bernard and I and a couple of our other friends now at UCT had a sort of political mode of operations, which was still very intellectual. It was very hard to do practical things, or so we thought. There was university politics, but they were dominated by a fairly liberal, relatively progressive, but liberal, NUSAS / SRC type politics, and we sort of eschewed that, maybe rightly, maybe wrongly. We formed a little communist cell within the Radical Student Society on campus. It had a weekly radical lecture on Friday. We sustained that kind of intellectual activity on campus publications and we worked with a broad range of people, such as Adrian Guelke, who is now professor of politics at …
HS: Queens University in Belfast.
JC: He was 2 or 3 years older than us and he was also part of that Radical Student Society, distinctly not part of the communist cell within it. So we had a sort of more radical student grouping, which related uncomfortably to the NUSAS and SRC politics. We maintained links, but we had a more left orientation. Within that radical society, we had a small communist cell. We did some work: distribute some literature illegally, supply names and addresses, very rudimentary things at that stage. I remember we got very fascinated by Althusser…
JC: Well, yeah, I actually still retain a deep fascination for Althusser.
HS: But it seems so unlikely to me.
JC: Yes, I know, but what, I remember, the word that we loved was 'rigour'. It was certainly that.
HS: You can have rigour without Althusser.
JC: Yes, of course you can. I learned to have rigour without Althusser, but
HS: You don't show any signs of althusserianism.
JC: No ? You'll see it in some of my writing. So we managed to get Althusser into the country. I think New Left Review was another source of ideas and exposure to things. It was via Tony Holiday, Bernard's brother and journalist up in Johannesburg, who became a political reporter on the Rand Daily Mail, and it was the most progressive newspaper by far at the time in South Africa. He would come down and bring us some underground literature, but then also some references. He obviously had some SACP units in Johannesburg and some connections elsewhere as well Then we worked our way through what were translated versions of Althusser. I think for me what was of interest: one, it was marxism and it was philosophy and it was philosophy that then took the traditions I had been working through, Hegel and so forth, very seriously and trying to… It made philosophers kings. With all the illusions of that, it empowered one.
I was a philosophy student, but trying to be a political activist. The space for political activism was very limited and my experience of political activism was zero at that point in time. So, apart from being intellectually fascinating, it was also an existential answer to the predicament of a young white intellectual in Cape Town in the early 1970s. I was left wing. I was marxist. I was a philosopher. Althusser appeared to say: “That's ok. It's probably the most important thing you can be as a marxist is to be a philosopher and to be rigourous and serious.” But it was also, perhaps only looking back, fairly stalinist, but Althusser was quite interesting, because it was a critique, of a very intellectualistic kind, of the stalinism that was stifling, beginning to stifle, the French Communist Party. I think it had been exposed by 1968.
It was a mass political party. When I arrived in 1973-74, it really was that. One was bowled over by the depth and size and scope and pluralism, notwithstanding its stalinism, the diversity of something that's a mass party. I think what influenced me about Althusser was the seriousness of the political project, but also the attempt to encourage critical thought and that within the context of a political organisation, to be an intellectual in an organisation and not as a lone individual outside of it, but at the same time to be critical within that organisation. I hope those are the influences I retain, instead of some of the other incredibly overly theoretical ….
HS: theoreticist, I would say.
JC: theoreticist inaccessibility and the parisian character of some of that….
HS: Did you ever read Caudwell ?
HS: Gramsci ?
JC: Yes, mainly in prison.
HS: Especially in prison…
JC: Well yes. At that point a lot depended on what you could get hold of and what you couldn't. In the early 70s we still had this catholic thing: that some reading was ok and some was not. So Althusser told us that Lukacs was deviationist. So I didn't read the Frankfurt School and treated it with contempt. There was this authentic line and Althusser told us what the authentic line was. We were quite rigourous in our orthodoxy as to who was in and who was out at that stage.
I'd always wanted to go and
study in France and it was Althusser who continued the love affair with
things french. I'd read Rimbaud and Baudelaire and so on. Then
seduced by Rick Turner, who'd been to France and was the leading intellectual
force of the occupation of the university, fresh with cobblestones and
parisian teargas in his head and so on. Then also I'd married and
some of the family was in Paris and her mother was french and had grown
up in Paris and had married a british soldier and come out to South Africa.
We stayed with a french parisian family.
Therefore I had to select quite carefully what I worked on by way of a masters thesis and things like that, because I wanted to go away, but I wanted to come back. I was trying to be relatively careful, but not careful enough, about my marxism and so on, so I did a thesis on Rousseau, which was interesting and I'm not sorry I did it. It was on the concept of nature in Rousseau. I was interested in the thesis, and remain interested, on the notion of the state of nature and the noble savage, which has a whole lot of resonance right now in South Africa. My principal studies were in that direction, but half of my work was done with Pierre Macheray, who was a close collaborator with Althusser, but one who had a particular interest in literature, and Etienne Balibar, both of whom were very good teachers actually.
Again, it was a very useful experience, but I suppose intellectually what I also found useful was just to be exposed to the french left and particularly to the French Communist Party. I broadened my horizons. I'd had a very narrow concept of politics and of political organisation inevitably. I was told not to get active in the French Communist Party, so I was obviously a marginal observer. There were public lectures and so on and I'd drift in and I went to all kinds of other lectures. I went to the Foucault series on prisons, which was interesting. It was hardly a preparation for what was to come for me, but it was an interesting series nonetheless.
I returned to South Africa and lectured in the philosophy department.
HS: What sort of lectures did you give ?
JC: I was quite influenced
by Althusser, so I was asked to do a history of political philosophy.
I think some of the best Althusser writing was the stuff on Rousseau and
Montesque and so on and so I went through some of that, but I did some
Marx as well, which I was trying to avoid. By this stage there
was a slightly wider group of young students who were white and my present
wife Gemma was one of those students then.
David had also grown up, as it happened, in Rondebosch, from obviously a jewish family and the family were kind of left liberal family, with family roots in jewish socialism, which is a very important influence on South Africa and on culture in South Africa, on Nadine Gordimer or Joe Slovo or Ruth First, but particularly on the communist party. I think a lot of communist party culture comes out of african traditions, but quite a lot of it comes out of the east european jewish socialist traditions. David was not very much like that tradition, but the family background was that. He had left, I think after Sharpeville. The family had left South Africa and gone to Britain and David had studied south african literature in Warwick, no at Leeds. He had written a doctorate on black south african writers and had become active in student politics there much at the same time. He was a year older than me. Much at the same time and in a similar context, but a different context, he had decided that he wanted to come back to South Africa to work in the underground, and Sue, who was british, had come back with him.
Ok so, got arrested in 1976 and ended up in prison, in Pretoria and that was intellectually important for many south african male prisoners. I think female prisoners were fewer and scattered and there seems to have been, for whatever reasons, but I think mainly for those reasons, fewer intellectual discussions. But definitely in Robben Island and in a smaller way in Pretoria in maximum security, most people, but particularly those with some kind of intellectual background, see that as having been quite formative for their own intellectual development in one way or another. Certainly it was for me.
There the key person was probably David Rabkin himself, but then others. There was a very nice intellectual vibrancy happening in the prison, with all the disadvantages and frustrations that of course also occur in prison, which was sustained collectively by many people. The other intellectual person was Raymond Suttner, who'd been here at UCT, a person who had been influenced by Jack Simons and ended up as a lecturer in Durban. He'd gone out and studied in Oxford and come back and formed a unit doing the same kind of propaganda that I'd been doing with the Rabkins. He'd been arrested the year before in 75, but you know all of the prisoners, just about all of the prisoners, and there were sometimes 8 or 9,.during the 70s during the 7 year period when I was there, we kept ourselves intellectually busy as best as possible.
One of the things I was doing, and so was David in particular, was writing, the writing of poetry. You know we'd have workshops and intense discussions with Raymond about it, but I was really interested in the literature. Others would comment and help and engage and take an interest in what we were doing. We'd swop essays and we'd have little lecture classes and read novels in tandem together and discuss them and things like that, so it was quite important. Often it was eclectic, because it was dependent on what you could get hold of into prison.
By the stage I'd got to prison, many battles had been won. I think that in the early years, as recorded in the memoirs of prisoners like Hugh Lewin, prison was very, very tough through the 60s and early 70s. By the mid-70s, the regime had been pushed back so there was some kind of liberated space in prison, certainly in Pretoria, where prisoners were running a lot of the routine things, so warders were guarding the perimeters and would from time to time enforce regulations on us, but there was quite a degree of space in which to manoeuvre, quite a lot of intellectual space. At that stage we'd won the right to study, so those of us who had degrees were able to register with UNISA, which is the correspondence university, and therefore get in academic books and so forth, and that therefore became an important source of …we'd often copy things. I've still got large collections of poetry which I copied out. [Tim Jenkin's Escape from Pretoria]
HS: How did your thought develop during that period?
JC: Well, I read more
widely, certainly, into areas that Althusser designated as beyond the pale.
I read more about South Africa than I'd read. The colonial condition
is complicated and people have written interestingly about it.
Certainly english-speaking white south africans peculiarly grow up in a
very colonial and provincial kind of culture. Althusser was just
my left wing version of the same thing, worshiping at the altar of the
It was then that I began to take south african novels more seriously, south african writing more seriously, than I had until then. I followed that through then when I was in prison. I quite self-consciously read Olive Schreiner for the first time. I looked at events which were on the margins of my consciousness. I read south african poets, black poets. I had begun to do that, having come back from overseas. Those were very intense years of underground work and then getting caught. So it was really only two and a half years. So I was able to consolidate intellectually quite a bit in prison. I was able to read much more south african work, to read anthropology, which was the route in to try to understand cultural ethnic south african realities better than I had, to meet south african reality in literature.
It was also to engage an older
generation of political activists who were in prison with me, because that
was the other.repression: the expunging of texts, the exiling in prison,
the killing of activists and so on, which meant that there were huge generational
gaps in knowledge and reference points and understanding and I was very
strongly inspired in my understanding of South Africa.
HS: It’s astonishing, you know.
JC: You know, there was Nkosi
Sikela Afrika and so on. So it had been a very intellectual, moral
commitment, but not born out of the lived reality at all. But the
older generation of prisoners, who'd gone to prison, who'd been active
in the late 40s and 50s and then gone to prison had an experience of organisation
other than the 3 person underground unit, these little operations, and
had a non-racial experience, which I had not.
So again it had to be an intellectual and reading effort, just in that short period of return and activism and then in the slightly more prolonged period in prison, but there was some first hand contact with other white male political prisoners, but who had a depth of understanding and experience. They weren't necessarily intellectuals in the traditional sense of the word, but they talked, they had anecdotes about individuals and personalities and they were experienced and that was a very valuable input as well.
I read Gramsci in prison as well . One of the advantages of Gramsci was, because he was in prison, he wrote in this obscure style to get past the censors, which enabled us to get the same texts past the apartheid prison censors. So we read and discussed Gramsci. He then, of course, resonated with other things as well, national culture, marxism, not in some other reality, but in one’s own reality and that became useful to the intellectual project that I was involved in at that time, which was poetry, literary criticism, and trying to understand South Africa politically in marxist terms.
As I said, a very strong influence for me was a contemporary of mine, David Rabkin, who was a very talented person. A few years after he was released from prison, he died in Angola in an MK camp, probably as a result of a booby-trapped land mine. He went for military training and was blown up in assembling a land mine. A couple of people were imprisoned, but it seems that they had probably not booby-trapped the mine, but had just been lax in checking the equipment. Some of the security forces had managed to infiltrate some of the logistics networks and there were a lot of cases, particularly here in the country, of cases of hand grenades and things like that which went off when they were trying to train them. Anyway David was one of the victims.
HS: How did your wife die, Jeremy?
JC: My wife died of a brain tumour. I was sentenced in September o 76, so I was entitled to a half-hour visit once a month, and I saw Anne Marie for about 4 or 5 months and then… apparently she thought she was having a nervous breakdown, so she became quite disorientated and was having splitting headaches and so forth and was diagnosed as having a brain tumour, which I didn't know about, because we hadn’t met, and the first I knew was when her mother came in to say she was going in for an operation and she basically didn't survive the operation. So that was in March of 77, so it was very early on into the sentence. It was obviously very traumatic.
Part of the training in conspiritorial techniques is known as weeding. So when we were recruited back in 68, but in quite rudimentary structures still and then reconnected when I went out. Albie Sachs, who is now a Constitutional Court judge, was my first point of contact. I think there was a sort of up front address for him at his university, but he was just the go between to link me up with someone else and he then arranged it. I would obviously then see someone else. I met this guy Frank.
HS: Oh yeah.
JC: You know who Frank was ?
HS: Frank was Ronnie Kasrils.
JC: Frank turned out to be Ronnie Kasrils. Anyway, the first step was to supply me with a pile of books. I remember the pile of books still. He said: read these and I'll see you in 2 months time, if you still want to … It was Henri Alleg, his experiences in Algeria, torture. It was Ruth First. It was stories from Eastern Europe about nazi torture. The books were all about detention and torture and interrogation. It was very much a hurdle that I had to clear to see if I was really serious about this. It turned out to be very useful, because the techniques get passed on, as we know, and in the early 60s, there were security police who went to Algeria to learn interrogation techniques from the french.
Sorry, I can't remember where
I was trying to go with that, but anyway my wife died in 1977. So
I expected to go to prison, that's what I was trying to say, so obviously
it was awful and so on, but it was not unexpected and therefore, the security
policeman who arrested me, who was a very notorious killer, his name was
Spyker (which means nail) van Wyk, and he said to me, “Ha, you thought
you would never get caught” and I said “Actually I thought you'd catch
me a lot sooner”, because the average life expectancy of those underground
units was about 6 months at the time.
Whereas in the early 70s, we
didn't know who we could trust. We had few resources, so we were
very, very isolated and self-reliant, which had its own advantages, but
it was very lonely being active in the early 70s in the deep underground
and hard and dangerous and one knew that the possibilities of not getting
caught were very slim indeed, so that one was busy writing up speeches
JC: She was actually. She wasn't formally, so she wasn't a recruited member of the party, but I wouldn't have been able to survive if, one, she hadn't known what I was doing and two, if she hadn't been the person who could fix the car and so on. So, yeah, she was involved, but not arrested, although they threatened to do that, and they were watching her. Of course, there was nothing formally she could give them, there was no proof.
OK, where to now ? Came out and … maybe if you ask me a question…
HS: The tape is nearly finished. Jeremy, if you could sum up your life up until you came out of prison.
JC: I think I was … I came out of prison early in 1983, which was an exciting moment to come out into, but very frightening as well. I think that the books that I read about prison experience said that anything longer than about 10 years and major changes set in. I think I was lucky. I went in as a 26 year old and came out as a 34 year old. Prisoners who had been with us who were much younger, there was one who had come in at 18 years old. He had 5 years, which was not that long, but coming out, he was quite a young 18 year old, and I think he found it quite difficult coming out. Others who had gone in as 35 year olds and had done 20, 30, 40 years, I think that was very tough. So I saw my prison sentence, once beyond the interrogation stage, and obviously with the exception of my wife's death, as not a particularly traumatic experience. It was a frustration, but it was not a deeply traumatic experience.
HS: You came out into a different way of life.
JC: Let's pause.
HS: Of course.
JC: I was thinking now as you were out. Just a little bit of background on the intellectual front, because I think that in my period in prison, and just before it, but consolidating during my time in prison, there were interesting intellectual developments happening in South Africa, one of which had been very much around in the early 70s, late 60s/early 70s, coming to a head in 1976, was the black power, black consciousness intellectual tradition, dominant among black political activists of the 70s.
The old ANC congress traditions had been badly broken, marginalised, suppressed, in the 60s, and although they never died out entirely, and there were enough veterans or people returning from Robben Island or whatever to revitalise them later in the late 70s and through the early 80s. Certainly the dominant intellectual tradition of young black activists of the 70s was this black consciousness, black power. The philosophy and politics, the intellectual reference points, were not that different, ironically, from the reading that I'd been doing or were related to it, because the 76 of South Africa was very much part of the 60s. 76 was 68. South Africa was quite often behind global time or ahead of it. This time there was a kind of 8 year delay. The reasons for 68, of youth culture, of young people not feeling part of the institutions and structures, feeling slightly contemptuous or dismissive of earlier progressive traditions and so forth, all of those were strongly inscribed in the black consciousness movement here in South Africa. It was very much a youth thing.
It was also influenced by, not so directly, but in some cases directly, here in South Africa, that continental phenomenology that I was speaking about earlier. Many of the leading intellectuals of the movement, Steve Biko and Barney Pityana, were students at these black so-called bush campuses, the bantustan universities. The teaching staff at these universities were white afrikaaners coming out of Stellenbosch and Potchefstroom and Pretoria, those universities, often poor, very poor academics and intellectuals, who were going to those campuses as a fallback, because they'd not been able to find jobs at Stellenbosch or Pretoria, but what they carried with them was this language of phenomenology, of life worlds, of collective experience, of group experience, of consciousness precisely. Although the most obvious sources of influence were Eldridge Cleaver and so forth from black power in the United States, if you read what Steve Biko and Barney Pityana were writing in the mid-1970s, you'll see that they were drawing a lot of their concepts from this afrikaans university tradition as well and that the things marry quite well. Politically they were going in very different directions, but the phenomenological language, group experience, group consciousness, and the need to affirm group consciousness linked up, connected up, here in South Africa, strangely, ironically, with the black power discourse.
I think that its great achievements were: 1) revitalising radical politics in South Africa and 2) revitalising radical politics, therefore creating a whole new generation of political activists, black political activists and 3) it was a very significant literature moment in South Africa: black poetry. The politics was about consciousness and self-affirmation and therefore it provided the philosophical and theoretical underpinning for a particular kind of political struggle, of political / poetic practice, which was the poetry of self-affirmation, of shouting down, of swearing at, white culture, white …anything that had to do with Europe and the unfurling of something else. It was usually in english ironically. English became the medium, because it was after all a university-based intelligentsia, rather than working class people who were involved. I think one of the great literature moments in South Africa in the 20th century was black consciousness, black power poetry of the 70s, which in a strange second-hand kind of way also influenced me, more in literature terms than in intellectual terms, but that too.
The other development was more closely related to my peer group of left leaning white intellectuals. With one or two exceptions, most of them continued on in academic work and became quite influential in the late 70s and early 80s, to some extent in Britain, but especially back here in South Africa.
HS: Who do you mean ?
JC: They mostly had studied in Britain. I’m thinking of people like Ray Kapinsky, who then went on to have a chair of development studies in Sussex, and now works for the World Bank. He had been a key radical student. He had been the chair of the Radical Students Society back in 68. Someone like Adrian Guelke and so on, but back here in South Africa: Mike Morris, Dave Kaplan, David Lewis and Alec Erwin. That was a generation of intellectuals in my peer group, who had been influenced, like me, by the 68 events, who had all become marxists of one kind or another, who mostly studied in Britain in places Warwick and Leeds and especially Sussex. Most of them returned to South Africa and, when I came out of prison in the early 80s, they were senior lecturers or professors even at Wits University, at University of Cape Town, at Durban, Natal and so on.
There was a kind of left, and even perhaps marxist, hegemony in the social sciences in the english-speaking universities in the 80s, as a result of this peer group of mine, who had not got involved in the underground structures, but whom we called, dismissively quoting from Lenin, the ‘legal marxists’. They had a very important intellectual impact on South Africa, insofar as linked up then with activism, political activism, organisational activism. A number of them moved, I reckon, to the trade union movement, which began to emerge in 1973 around the Durban strikes. That was when the first people like Alec Erwin, who never really went on strongly to the academic track, moved quite early on into the trade union movement. They sustained links and there were quite strong links between the university-based intellectuals of my generation who were marxists and the early cadre of the resurgent trade union movement.
When I came out of prison in 1983-84, it was a slightly fraught situation, intellectually fraught situation, stimulating, but fraught. Following on the 1976 student uprising, which became quite quickly more than a student uprising, but became township uprisings . There were many more than Soweto, but in virtually every urban township in South Africa. There were a host of localised organisations that began to pop up: civic organisations, student and youth organisations, progressive radical church organisations of one kind or another and women’s organisations, quite strong particularly here in the Western Cape.
So there were those and then the trade union movement, which was becoming stronger and stronger, and there were powerful political contests for the allegiance of these ongoing structures. Some, in the early struggles in the 70s, had been between the ANC congress tradition and the black consciousness tradition. If South Africa had been liberated in 1975-76, the ANC wouldn’t have been in power in all likelihood. It would have been some kind of black power organisation, insofar as the ANC hasn’t become that by the 1990s and 2000s.
That battle was won considerably in two places. One in exile: thousands of youths left the country looking for arms and the only organisation capable of providing arms and organising them, providing them with the education and the logistical support and getting them back into South Africa, was the ANC. The latter was a risk, not a greatly successful dimension of the ANC, but the ANC certainly was a coherent reality in exile. So that generation basically, although it looked for alternatives, found itself in exile inside of the ANC. The other key place where there were strong ideological debates and contest was on Robben Island and again the congress tradition, which had a depth and intellectual comprehensiveness, which the black consciousness movement didn’t have, was able to prevail by and large and so the overwhelming majority of convicts who went on to the island, like Terror Lekota for instance, who went in black consciousness, came out ANC.
So that battle, where there was still a black consciousness strand of south african politics in the early 80s, it was not particularly the most challenging one from that point of view. The more serious challenge come from the trade union movement and the key intellectuals at that point in the trade union movement were sceptical of the ANC and extremely sceptical of the South African Communist Party.
HS: From what angle?
JC: From two angles. One was a sort of practical angle. I remember right in 83, on my release from prison, I was pulled into these debates. It was rather something very innocent and rather naïve. I was asked to write a short simple history of SACTU, the South African Congress of Trade Unions, which had been an ANC-SACP aligned trade union movement formed in 1955 and still existing weakly in exile as part of the tripartite alliance. The idea was for worker education: to write a little booklet and the NGO which asked me to do it was itself riven by those who were pro-ANC and those who were anti-ANC, including Brenda Cooper and her relatives and friends and they were part-time members or part of that particular NGO.
The reading of what had gone wrong with the trade union movement was that the ANC-SACP had treated the trade union movement as a simple adjunct to the political struggle in the early 1960s and, when the arms struggle was launched, the trade union movement was seen simply as a recruitment terrain for guerrillas, and in this way the trade union movement and its cadreship had been recklessly exposed to security police action. Although SACTU hadn’t been banned as such, in the course of the confusion and conflation of the trade union movement with the political movement, the banning and crushing of the political movement, had resulted also in the crushing of the trade union movement.
Now though, I think, looking back retrospectively, there were elements of truth in that. I think that there was certainly some, and someone as key to the process as Joe Slovo himself was saying that by the late 80s, that insufficient attention had been paid to the trade union movement and went too easily and not thinking it through, moved people from the trade union organisation to the guerrilla struggle. Largely because we thought that the guerrilla struggle was going to be a short quick sharp blow in 5 years, and therefore we weren’t looking to 20 years, 30 years. So there was that kind of critique, but then it also justified that particular strategic and political positioning to stay out of politics and to maintain the autonomy, a strict isolationist autonomy, of the worker movement. There were then influences at the time by Solidarity in Poland and by also the worker’s movement in Brazil.
The idea was that these old political formations like communist parties and so on were bad news for the trade union movement. Insofar as it wanted to move into politics, it wanted to do so on the basis of a strong trade union movement, so that working class ideas, ideology, wouldn’t be captured by the sort of petty bourgeois nationalism of national liberation movements. That was the kind of point, but it also justified an existential choice, which was that they didn’t want to go to prison, understandably. Some were quite brave, but, you know, some of us suspected that some of it was, not in all cases but in some cases, was to justify not taking some of the risks that sometimes we felt were necessary to take the struggle forward.
Nonetheless a strong trade union was built and the key intellectual forces were very often these white intellectuals, but now increasingly challenged by a different sort of idea when former trade unionists, who had spent 5 years or 10 years in Robben Island, were now coming out after completing their terms in Robben Island and were based in townships, were often banned or under house arrest, but able then to influence this new generation, one of black consciousness intellectuals, but also emerging shop stewards and so forth in the trade union movement.
So there were sharp contests over the political orientation of the trade union movement. We were called populists and there were certain populists in our ranks at that time. I always regarded myself not as a populist. We called the other lot workerists and there were certainly strong syndicalists. Sometimes they were progressive in orientation, sometimes they were less progressive in orientation, but these intellectual traditions still play themselves out in the ANC of today.
Most of the key intellectuals came in, if you want to be cynical, when it became safe. If you want not to be cynical, when they appreciated that the ANC was the principal terrain on which the direction of the liberation had to be contested, that it couldn’t be contested from outside, that it made more sense to move in. They then moved into the ANC after it was unbanned basically. Some of them now are very important intellectual influences, not least someone like Alec Erwin, who was probably the principal economic influence, connecting some other traditions in the ANC and we can talk about that another time, some other time. OK, end it. I’m now getting lost in the detail
HS: So there was a mass movement when you came out of prison, which I think was a big factor.
JC: It was a novelty for me
JC: Certainly in South
Africa a novelty. I’d been an observer of something of a mass movement
in France, but had never been an active
I was also involved, but I saw
the things as being linked rather than different, in poetry performances.
I had written the poetry as a survival activity in prison without much
sense of an audience, but then had the privilege in this period of heightened
mobilisation of being asked to perform the poetry. I quite quickly
discovered that some of the poems didn’t work in noisy church halls and
rallies and soccer stadiums and so on, but some to my surprise did.
They became a way of communicating ideas and experiences and resistance
and defiance and the history of our struggle. So it was a fantastic
experience for me to be able to have this privilege of doing this and to
get very nice and positive feedback from that.
HS: Was much of the political education directly about marxism ?
JC: Yes, it was, but it was no longer to a university audience. I no longer had the excuse of encryption to justify theoreticism. It was about communicating with young students and workers.
HS: Did that develop your own thinking, that exercise ?
JC: Yes, absolutely. I mean it forced one first of all to think about .. not that it just began there and then … I can’t easily put a date on it, but it connected very much with my understanding of the need to move away from a very eurocentric version of marxism. One was self-consciously teaching marxism: theories about class, theories about dialectic, about historical developments and transformation and so on. I realised it had to be grounded in some african examples, not least of things like dialectics, had to be indigenous examples or indigenous wisdom. The point had to be to show that, although these ideas were european in origin, it didn’t have to be the point, because it didn’t have to particularly mention Marx . I began to realise that the dialectic sounded like a strange germanic thing, whereas in fact it was people in their indigenous proverbs and sayings and so on. In the philosophy of the nguni, there were profoundly dialectical understandings of reality. So in order to connect with people, link it to their lived experience, both their cultural reference points, but also to their contemporary reference points, one had to link all of those things to that. So I was teaching marxism, but I realised that I had to indigenise the marxism.
I also had to encourage much more participation from people, something that still is not what I would like it to be even now. So we perpetuated it in the 90s in the party after I came back again from exile. I began the experience of what was in the 80s of getting people in Cape Town, because that’s where I was mainly active, to talk about their grandparents and what they knew about their grandparents. Cape Town is very nice to talk about grandparents, of course, and what they knew about ancestors further back. Because South Africa is, Cape Town is, a real melting pot of diversity of experiences, of slavery, of migrant labour on the mines, of very recent experience of communal african tribal life, of iron age resistance to colonial occupation and so on. So I would try to get people to talk about family experiences and then on that basis collectively develop a marxist explanation for all of that. I enjoyed doing that work. It was fantastic.
I was learning from people and from their experiences. So I was trying those kind of things and obviously their intellectual influences were also some of the liberation theology experiments, particularly coming from Brazil, Latin America and of popular education, popular participation and so on. There were some very interesting religious groupings. There was a muslim grouping here in Cape Town that Ebrahim Rasool, who was a young student of philosophy at that time, was associated with. There were also some christian groupings, who were marxist and very self-consciously marxist, but were also trying to apply the sort of latin american experience of popular education and so forth into the South Africa. I didn’t particularly, I must admit, I don’t particularly remember reading much of that, but I was being influenced by a younger generation of activists who were. There was also a kind of convergence with my other personal concerns and interests and often in this period the kind of work we were doing.
HS: And how was the party developed? I mean how did the party interface with the mass movement ?
JC: The party was a remote reality, a bit like a protestant god. It was there, you know, but remote. I remained a communist obviously in prison. Not all the prisoners that I was with were, about 8 or 9, 6 or 7, as the numbers shrunk or grew, but the great majority of them were communists in Pretoria in maximum security. So we had a kind of communist organisation there as well and a set of reference points. When I came out in 83, I didn’t .. it was, …. I knew of fellow communists who now had come out of prison. There were contacts between people, but I was not immediately re-integrated into it. I think obviously there was a need for a kind of cooling off period. I was obviously under close scrutiny by the security police, so I didn’t all at once immediately re-connect with the party, but saw myself as a communist activist.
It was about a year and a half later that there was a formal re-integration into an underground SACP structure. It was grimly called the Western Cape command structure, but most of my activism was in the United Democratic Front and its related structures. The SACP contact then was also a contact to the ANC and the attempt to get the guerrillas back into Cape Town and offer logistic support in safe houses and so on. I got pulled a little bit in for that. I stuck out a little bit like a sore thumb, so people had to be careful of me.
HS: Why? Because you had been in prison ?
JC: In prison and it was known I was in the leadership of the UDF and so on, but by late 84, I was attending the regular fortnightly deep underground meeting.
HS: Here in Cape Town ?
HS: Who was in that?
JC: Jenny Schreiner, Tony Yengeni (in the news now), Desi Angelis and some others.
HS: In the present branch?
JC: Desi Angelis. Did you meet her ?
HS: Yes, I did. I was curious to know whom I have met.
HS: But you went abroad then again in the late 80s, did you?
JC: Yes, I managed to evade the police. Twice there were states of emergency during this UDF period and on both occasions what would happen, I suppose, is universal practice of authoritarian regimes. They would have a swoop of all sort of known activists and put them into detention and then 6 hours later announce that there was a state of emergency in terms of which all the people had been detained. They came for me twice and, precisely because there was now an extensive network of people, I was able to get warning and evaded them twice, but had to then go into hiding and operate under a false name and grew beards and all the usual, but they were looking for me because of my UDF activity and were trying basically to disrupt the United Democratic Front.
HS: So you went abroad
JC: No, carried on and it was doing UDF work. It was useful being, sometimes it’s not particularly useful, being a white male, but in this case it was quite easy, because with most of the Western Cape UDF leadership in detention and just a few of us having evaded the net, we regrouped and then drew in a next layer of leadership, which was what happened and was happening all the time. The Western Cape internal structure of UDF …we needed to connect nationally and there were roadblocks all over the country and so on, so the easiest way actually to connect nationally actually was to fly. Although now catching a plane there are quite a lot of black people, at that stage as recently as the mid-80s, there wasn’t much except white business people catching planes. I was used quite a lot as the Western Cape connection link.
Then in September of 87, the underground structure that I was also a part of was captured. Tony Yengeni and Jenny Schreiner were arrested along with a number of others. I was ordered to get out as fast as possible, because that was… In the earlier states of emergency, we were just held in detention and kept parked away for a year or two, but this was detention much more serious, so I got out very quickly. I borrowed someone’s passport and managed to pass it off as my own. So I flew to London and then I spent a year in London and then went to Lusaka. I worked with the ANC in what was called the internal political entity, which was the one not dealing with the arms side of the struggle but with the political co-ordination of the internal structures.
HS: So this period in London and Lusaka, how did that contribute to your intellectual development?
JC: They exposed me to the ANC in all its… because I had only ever been seen one or two people training me in exile, in the sort of internal structures of one kind or another. I made assumptions about numbers of other people, but the living… The ANC in London was fraught with exile politics and I think a lot of the problems we’ve got now relate to that reality.
The same with Lusaka, a little less, but that too. It was a hard experience, and I appreciated the fortitude of people who had survived long stretches in exile. I think you heard me say the other day the underground and prison were somewhat easier to handle than the prolonged period in exile. There were some advantages in exile. There were politically, organisationally, hard realities to survive. So it was a bit sobering frankly to encounter that reality, to realise that there was strong bureaucratism and there were levels of factionalism and there was patronage that operated and so on, which has to do with large organisations, distance from the mass base, which can in good times raise sharp questions and give perspective, but has its problems and they were there definitely.
From the intellectual point of view the nice thing was an exposure to Slovo, who kind of linked up with quite early. He was in London, travelling back and forth between London and Lusaka and I spent quite a lot of time with him. When I got to London, one of the most disappointing things was that I was fresh out of the battle front as it were and had quite a lot of experience now from 4,5,6,7 years of working with trainees and civics and moving up and down nationally and also connecting up with the underground, so I was very anxious to get a very detailed debriefing from the sort of senior structures in London.
Two-thirds of the people told me, from their 20 years of exiled experience, what was going on in South Africa. They did sometimes have an interesting and a bird’s eye view, which I didn’t have, and so forth. But I could see it was people who were, I think, were demoralised, understandably, whose sense of self-worth was diminished and therefore saw me as an opportunity to justify their life’s existence. I had a psychological understanding for their reality, but was deeply frustrated with the political significance of how they were acting. But Slovo was quite different. He was very engaged. He was very interested in hearing the detail of what I had to say and quite challenging as well and would produce a different reading and engage me in quarrel and argument and so forth. So that was very nice and for me that was perhaps the best part of the London experience, which was fairly good for me.
Of course this was also the moment of perestroika, of glasnost, and the deepening crisis in Eastern Europe and so on. So I was engaging with Slovo around that too. So he was writing Has socialism failed ? It wasn’t quite called that yet, but that’s what he was busy working with. He was also coming to terms with his bereavement, intellectual bereavement, and tense relationship with Ruth First, who had said many of these things long before and had been critical, where he hadn’t been critical, long before he had been. I think there was also something on his chest that he was grappling with.
JC: OK. That’s lovely, very nice. So it was lovely to have someone with that experience and depth of intellectual method and seniority within the movement, who was now trying to grapple with the legacy of socialism and beginning to ask questions.
The big debate that was going on in exile was what kind of struggle we were trying to fight in South Africa. What exile had produced was a kind of tendency, an accumulation tendency: to accumulate an armed force in exile, which was more and more like a conventional army, and was more and more diverging from the realities and struggle in South Africa and was more and more about building a bureaucratic and military apparatus that would then give you some kind of standing in the future after liberation happened, rather than an instrument for waging that liberation struggle. Slovo had, through the 80s, the late 70s really, been fighting that battle inside of the ANC and inside of the party. His way of fighting it was characteristic of Joe Slovo, which was not really to solve the organisational problem, but to bypass it. So he had been involved in special ops and then Vula and the party and he was increasingly using the party in that way.
There was this ANC, which was bureaucratic and less and less capable of actually waging a struggle, and stuck in exile and in guerrilla camps. Well he couldn’t do much about that, so he thought, and therefore what he did was set up a special operations team, which carried out the most spectacular military operations. He set up Vula, which was a special underground structure. He also was now much more focused on the party than he had been, I think, in the late 70s and early 80s, primarily because of the challenge, well not primarily, but one of the spiriting factors was that there was now inside of the country a socialist, mass socialist organisation, which was not necessarily aligned to the SACP at all. It was the trade union movement and the ideological hegemony of the other ideological influences on the trade union movement, Solidarity, Brazil and so forth.
So there had been a very focused attempt from the mid-80s of revitalising the party and of realising the party had become little more than a kind of network inside of the ANC in exile and not really asserting strongly enough its own profile and vision, class politics, not in opposition to the ANC, but with its own organisational apparatus. So Brian and Sonia and others had kept the African Communist ticking over, but organisationally and so forth, there was a sense that african communists had not been talking into the debates in the 80s, which was true in fact. We had underground copies here in the 80s. It seemed like an exiled publication and not one that was engaged deeply with events here. Slovo was behind Umsebenzi, which again was, instead of them transforming the AC, it bypassed the AC, bypassed it and launched Umsebenzi, which was smaller, more educational, but also theoretical.
HS: I used to get it.
JC: It was a great publication
and it had a huge influence. So when I was organising underground
here, but then quickly when I was in exile, I got pulled into that by Slovo
and so quite a lot of my journalistic writing and theoretical activities
went into sustaining Umsebenzi, working very much with Slovo, who got people
to write and watched very carefully and shaped it through its processes.
That was a lovely intellectual experience.
JC: I came back into South Africa early in the 1990s. In 1990 very luckily I got deployed to help set up the legal SACP. I was based in what became the Johannesburg office of the South African Communist Party. I stayed right through the 1990s. I was SACP delegate at the negotiations process, which was a very exciting reality. Intellectually there were several paradoxical preoccupations, which had to do with the paradoxes of the South African Communist Party, in the early 1990s.
The communist party was more popular than it probably had ever been in its history in South Africa in the 1990s, at the very moment when the communist legacy, of which it had been so much a part, was in steep decline and crisis, and that became an organisational challenge. The huge popularity of the party was an organisational challenge, which we couldn’t meet. I remember we had a launch rally at the huge FMB soccer stadium in Johannesburg, which was just packed to capacity with something like 100,000 people at the rally. We handed out, unwisely, application forms to join the party. We had something like 100,000 applications to join the party, which we just couldn’t process. We didn’t have the organisation to reach to these people and to actually bring them in meaningfully into the organisation.
Those realities were happening at the same time as the collapse. Unfortunately I think some of the key people like Slovo had only begun to think late, but nonetheless a few years ahead of the actual physical collapse of the Soviet Union and of the soviet bloc. He began to think critically about that tradition, of which we were so much a part, and therefore there were some internal organisational reference points and the beginning of an intellectual process, which helped. If it had been left a few years, if it happened afterwards, then there would have been so much more difficult, but obviously what also helped was that we were forging ahead rather than going backwards. So there was high morale in debates in the party at the time.
The sociology of the debates was quite interesting. Half of the party leadership quietly resigned. Half the central committee membership resigned quietly from the party in 1990 and they constitute basically the core of the ANC leadership at present. Their reasons for resigning at the time were, I was at that central committee meeting in Johannesburg when they announced, and they had clearly had discussed it among themselves as a faction, that they were going to leave the party. They said that they had remained broadly committed to what the party stood for, but they thought that, now that the party was no longer an underground organisation, they would need to announce publicly who its leadership was and they were not prepared publicly to do so. They thought that it would compromise the ANC, if so much of the key leadership of the ANC was also being shown publicly to be the party. Those of us who were of a different view also had a different view on that, but we agreed that we couldn’t stop them. So there would be in any case an agreement that that would happen and we wouldn’t say who it was. It wasn’t supposed to be said at that time.
So that was the first kind of reality, which was many things. There was an organisational reality. There was an intersubjective reality between leadership. The division occurred along lines, which had been somewhat factional lines in exile, and so there was a distinctly a Hani and Slovo grouping in the party, but also in the ANC, and then another grouping which gravitated around Thabo Mbeki. There had been some sharp rivalry between Mbeki and the other two. There was a struggle about the SACP and the ANC. I think also the reaction of Mbeki was that the party would not last very long, that the party would not be able to survive much beyond the heroic struggle aura, that like other parties that had been involved in resistance struggle in Europe and so forth, it wouldn’t really survive as powerfully and as strongly, especially now under the circumstances of collapse of Soviet Union and so forth.
So the scepticism about the party and its future came particularly from exile ranks, not all exile ranks, but particularly from those who had been in the party, although obviously there was a lot of being sceptical about the party by those who had not joined the party in exile. Two notable exceptions being Hani and Slovo, but there also a generation of 40 or 50 year olds, who remained on in the party and were more inclined to think critically about the legacy. They had been to the party school in Moscow. They had benefited enormously from the solidarity. Many of them had intellectual formations running precisely through that kind of solidarity experience, but they had also seen that socialism was far from perfect, that rat bag socialism called actually existing socialism had been far from perfect, and there were many difficulties and problems, so there was a capacity to think sympathetically but critically about the legacy from those quarters.
Ironically it was often new members coming into the party who were least prepared to be critical of the past and of the legacy.
JC: 1) I think many of
the new members had been SACP supporters, but had simply not been able
to find it in the underground. They wanted to join the party in the
80s, but couldn’t quite connect with it, but were influenced by the party,
by reading Umsebenzi, AC, reading marxism and so forth.
HS: I remember hearing of him.
JC: Who argued in respect of that what went wrong out there was not that there were massive internal problems there that had something to do with that kind of stalinism, bureaucratism, but that Gorbachev basically had sold out. Slovo had, and I suppose myself as well, under the influence of Slovo, but not to blame him for it, we had been rather naively too supportive of Gorbachev in the late 80s and 90s. So there was sharp internal SACP debate, whether it was a debate with those who had left the party, who were now influencing the ANC and particularly the elections, but there was a strong debate inside of the party, about the meaning of what had gone wrong, indeed if anything had gone wrong, outside in the former socialist countries.
All of that then also co-incided with the sharp, huge debates about the way forward here in South Africa in this complicated new terrain, about what kind of party we were trying to build. Maybe I could focus on that. It relates to many things, including what kind of intellectual realities the communist party should try to be building.
JC: One version of what the party should be was that it should continue to be a very tight vanguard party with probation periods of 6 months or longer, which have been justified in the underground period on security grounds, although it had often been implemented bureaucratically as it were excluding certain elements from the party and so on. Again we still live with that legacy in the party. There were a number of people who got excluded from the party, who I think were left wingers who were marxists, who were communists in some broad general sense of that word, but who had been hurt when exiled by and excluded by, in rather stalinist ways, by elements within SACP.
The Gwala grouping argued for a tight vanguard party. Some elements close to Mbeki, who remained on in the party, perhaps in order to watch over the party, basically I think that’s the case, also argued for a tight vanguard party, partly so that we would simply be a little museum keeping alive the memory of Moses Kotane and so forth, but would wither into relative insignificance. That bureaucratic control over membership and participation in the party, I think, suited that agenda. It corresponded also to particular instincts about what it is to be a communist. Others of us argued for a very open approach to, amongst other things, to party membership and to debate and to discussion and so forth within the party. I think the sheer realities of the situation favoured this, because the existing membership that carried over membership from the past were divided themselves as to whether they should have a vanguard stalinist party or not, so there was a division. So who was going to monitor or supervise the probation period ?
Everything was so much in debate and so much in flux that precisely which hurdles they had to cross in order to become members were themselves contested and uncertain. Also above all what was apparent was that there were thousands and thousands of working class cadres, shop stewards, experienced revolutionaries, who had a lot more experience of organising on the ground in South Africa, who wanted to be members, who were members or whatever, whose exiled leadership couldn’t exclude from SACP membership. So the party then in the 90s became quite a fluid party. We were uncertain about how large our membership was, what the coherent ideology was, who we were and that was fine and I think that was absolutely conjunctural for the circumstances.
The SACP was in that period less an organisational but more an intellectual force. It made key intellectual contributions into that complicated and throbbing reality. One issue was how to conduct negotiations. I think that there was a tendency to pursue an elite pact negotiated outcome and to see the mass movement, the trade union movement, the civics, that UDF pluralistic reality, as having played its role. Now that the struggle was basically over, the idea was that things needed to be stabilised and kept quiet, so that the negotiations could get on with it. Any mass mobilisation could upset the apple cart and could play into the hands of reactionary forces and so.
The party, and the party were not alone, there was this tradition coming out of the 80s, which found its place inside the ANC, where large numbers of the key leadership came into the party or the ANC, who agreed with the perspective that mass protest, mass organisations, mass mobilisations were essential for the negotiations to succeed. It was our critical weapon, so the party made a lot of inputs into the ANC and into trade union movement in this direction, around this particular conception of negotiations. This was opposed to Harry Gwala, who was saying that negotiations were finally finishing the sellout and that insurrection was what we should be headed for. To oppose that, to say negotiations were serious, it was a key strategic path we needed to pursue, but it was not … It could become a sellout, but what would prevent it, was that we sustain and maintain popular involvement, mobilisation and so forth right through. The record and what the party was doing at that time…
One of the frightening things of our reality in the early 90s was that we became the darling of the left internationally and so there were lots of pilgrimages to South Africa. But it was very useful, because people came instinctively to learn, but actually providing us with lots of … We met nicaraguans, we met salvadorians and we met filipinos and we met people who were going through or had just gone through negotiated settlements of one kind or another themselves. Often coming into the SACP office were people who had been burned in the process or who had lost the strategic high ground and initiative in those processes. I remember Ed de la Torre, who was a catholic filipino priest.
I think that these left influences in the early 90s, international influences, were again very important, not least for me intellectually. They were pluralistic influences. I think that was important. I think that the SACP had historically in its international stance had been very one-dimensional in linking up with fraternal communist parties in other countries. That was important and it certainly helped the ANC as well. I think it established an international network of support mechanisms, but the communists within it were exposed to something much broader and more pluralistic in exile, namely the broad anti-apartheid movement, but that was not directly part of their communist experience, but I think we learnt something from that.
Both outside and inside the country, there was mass mobilisation and we learned the importance of autonomous organisation, pluralistic organisation, that the left needs to be a dynamic pluralistic reality. I think that was the experience that I carried from the 80s, but it was also the early 90s experience that I had got from international visits. People coming to South Africa to learn from South Africa, but then us learning from them. They were very often from communists parties, but they were very often not from that, and brought a variety of different left experiences, which were very valuable to try to chart a way forward in South Africa, not least in regard to the kind of Washington theory about 3rd world negotiated pacts and negotiated transitions in Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Ok, moving to the 1994 thing, the South African Communist Party, it’s hard to put it in 10 minutes. I think that again we have tried to be primarily an intellectual and strategic force in the south african reality. We have realised that to be that you can’t be a handful of intellectuals and the publication of something or two. You’ve actually got to try to develop something of a mass organisation. So we are a fairly small party. We think we have got about 18,000 active members who are more or less …
HS: 18,000 ?
JC: 18,000, that is about the number of people who are on a fairly regular basis going to branch meetings and are organisationally structured. Our influences are obviously much greater. On our books, we’ve some 80,000 people who one way or another align themselves with the communist party, but our active cadreship is around 18,000. Many are in the trade union movement and the next largest grouping would be youth, african youth especially. But the influence of the party, I think, is much greater than its membership and we are advisedly a communist party in the context of an alliance with the ANC and COSATU and a lot of our work is conducted inside of the ANC and inside of the trade union movement: political education work, ideological work of one kind or another.
I think the huge challenge of the post-1994 period has been to keep socialist aspirations, culture, morality, alive and resonant within the south african reality. I think we’ve somewhat succeeded, but it’s an uphill struggle, for a variety of reasons. Obvious reasons being, first of all, external reality, which is not just the collapse of the old soviet bloc, but the rolling back of the social democratic left project and, dramatically for us here in South Africa, the rolling back, the falling apart really, of the radical 3rd world project in Mozambique and Zimbabwe and Angola and arguably in Vietnam. Those have impacted heavily on morale and orientation here in the south african liberation movement, that external reality.
There is also then the reality of an undefeated capital, a powerful capitalism inside of our country, which has managed to come through literally unscathed inside of its own defeat really, relatively unscathed, linked then to quite a rapid emergence within the ANC of a new capitalist class, not a new capitalist class, as part of the south african capitalist class. It’s not a separate black bourgeoisie. There’s one bourgeoisie in South Africa, but a small but significant component of that south african bourgeoisie is now a black stratum, the majority of whom are deeply linked into the ANC. That has created a complicated terrain on which the SACP is trying to carry through a left project agenda here.
I think that the success of that project is uncertain at the present time. I think that the reality of South Africa is still somewhat fluid and therefore outcomes over the medium term are still in play. But I am probably now, speaking now in April of 2001, less optimistic than I was, even 2 or 3 years ago, about the outcome. I think what keeps it relatively fluid is the continued existence of a strong militant trade union movement.
(abrupt stop. 2nd tape finished and meeting to attend)
A follow up interview was recorded
in Jeremy Cronin's parliamentary office in January 2002 for nearly 3 hours.
This page by Helena Sheehan
Transcribing an oral interview, especially a long one, is a big and awkward job. My thanks to my colleague John O'Sullivan, manager of DCU teaching assistants, for organising it, and to Phil Eccles, Bridget Ryan, Elaine Smith and Dominic Coll for working on it.