Southern Africa: support for ex-SLA fugitive and opposition to commodification

Johannesburg: Most ZNet readers will have heard of the November 8 arrest of former Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive, James Kilgore, known here as John Pape. Across this region, first reactions–an outpouring of support from comrades, friends and even mainstream colleagues–provided a sense of deep and wide respect for Pape’s Southern African sojourn.

A 55 year-old trade union and community educator, Pape is employed by the University of Cape Town’s International Labour Resource and Information Group (Ilrig). He is the author of many published documents, including a highly-regarded economics textbook that introduces radical theory in an accessible way for the first time in local educational history. Most recently, he was co-editor of a book about water/electricity struggles in black townships (

He is the father of two boys, a husband to Terri Barnes (noted feminist historian), and a model of commitment to the cause of social justice. His arrest came after 27 years of living in Australia where he studied history and economics (late 1970s), Zimbabwe where he taught in a township high school and researched his doctorate on the plight of domestic workers (1980s), Johannesburg (early and mid-1990s) and Cape Town (since the late 1990s). Under a false identity, he became a widely respected public intellectual, notwithstanding regular exposure on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.

Coincidentally, the capture at his family’s modest residence occurred a day after four fellow ex-SLA members had plea-bargained various crimes including an accidental murder during a 1976 bank robbery. According to a book by Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress kidnapped and then converted into an SLA supporter, Pape had warned the group against using the murder weapon–a rifle with a delicate trigger.

Reflecting his own desire to come to grips with the robbery and death, Pape had apparently instructed a US lawyer to negotiate his surrender several months ago, expecting to return to the US to face trial before year’s end. Likely, he anticipated getting a similar sentence to that agreed upon in the plea-bargain: 6-8 years in prison. Nevertheless, there remains a great sense of shock–and subsequent rallying around the John Pape well known in the activist community–and a great desire for his early return to pick up the work where he leaves off.

Trevor Ngwane, secretary of the Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation Forum and chair of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, wrote this tribute, worth quoting in full:

“Comrade John was respected by many on the left in South Africa. On hindsight I can admit that he tended to work on the ‘quiet’ side but he did not hide his politics nor stay in the shadows. I always thought he was a comrade who was averse to political grand standing, big talk and theatrics. He seemed to prefer long-term spade work, working on research and on education.

“He certainly did solid work as principal and rector at Khanya College. This left-wing institution has produced many leading activists and progressive left-leaning professionals in South Africa. Its work in the trade unions during Comrade John’s time has been outstanding. Recently, building on John’s work, the college is at the forefront of encouraging debate and discussion to find a working class way forward following the disorganisation and disorientation of left forces here due to the ANC betrayal and capitulation to neo-liberalism.

“John’s latest research and publication work at Ilrig has been outstanding. He edited a seminal book on the impact of globalisation on the working class in South Africa which is arguably the clearest and most accessible academic commentary on the subject for working class activists to date.

“I got to know Comrade John much better during a difficult time in my life where his support and willingness to go beyond the line of duty shone through and left a lasting positive impression of this former SLA operative on me. This was when my friend and comrade, Bongani Shingwenyane, was shot and killed by political assassins in April 1993.

“Then, there was a spate of murders of activists to clear the way for the sell-out political settlement in South Africa. At the time Comrade Bongani was employed as a teacher at Khanya College where John was rector. The college, through John, supported the family and us friends through the bereavement in material and emotional ways far beyond what was required of them. During this time Bongani’s father Jack Shingwenyane, a retired worker and lay Christian preacher, relied heavily on John and to this day regards him as his close friend and confidante. I still have the hard task of breaking the sad news to Baba Jack.

“Comrade John’s supportive actions were not, in my assessment, calculated as part of his ‘cover’ but he was motivated by a genuine compassion and sympathy for the deceased’s family and friends. His solid active support ensured that Bongani’s child and fiancee were left financially secure despite the tragic loss of a loved one. That is the John Pape I know.

“I don’t feel betrayed, tricked or taken for a ride with these revelations about John Pape’s real identity. Instead, and perhaps strangely, I feel more respect for him. He certainly was not in a position to tel me who he really was. If he had done so he would of course had made me an accomplice which, knowing John, is the last thing he would want to do.

“As a Marxist I do not agree to the use of terror as a political method. I think it is counter-productive because it plays into the hands of the enemy (look how Bush was able to get away with murder in Afghanistan and is still using the momentum of the September 11 terror attacks to whip up war fever in the USA against Iraq and has unashamedly used this to win the elections).

“But everything Comrade John did in South Africa showed that he had broken with terrorism as a method of struggle, preferring the hard patient slog of building among ordinary workers, in the trade unions and among working class youth. He exchanged his guns and masks for pen and paper. He stopped living between the cracks and in the night; he built a new life, took care of his family and contributed to the struggle of the workers. He turned his back on terrorism, bank robberies and murder as a political method and embraced the Marxist method of mass education, mass mobilisation and mass action.

“Life could not have been easy for John. Living under cover is very strenuous. The emotional turmoil, the anxiety, the fabrications, the tension. But clearly John was a strong person. He managed to excel in his day job and in political activism despite everything. Twenty-seven years on the run is a long time. This and the contribution he has made in the struggle of the South African working class is enough, in my opinion, atonement for his earlier follies and sins. I personally would support a call for pardon for John Pape.

“John always gave the impression of deep quiet strength, commitment and determination. His wife and children loved him because he was a good husband and father. If he spends his last days in prison they will suffer the most. But we will suffer too we in the left who regarded John as a comrade and a friend. So will his colleagues and many other people who were touched and inspired by him especially his former students at Khanya College. So will many shop stewards who studied the history of the struggle in worker education programmes organised by John.

“I never met James Kilgore but I know and respect John Pape. It is because of this that I want to be counted among those who will stand with Comrade John during his hour of greatest need.”


Off to Tanzania, where, after attending conferences in Arusha last week that highlighted the role of global neoliberalism in health system inequalities, I had a chance to dine with Issa Shivji in Dar es Salaam. The country’s most consistent leftist intellectual since the 1960s, Shivji, a university law professor, raged against Tanzania’s ongoing deindustrialisation. In the 1980s-90s this was by dictate from IMF/World Bank financiers. Subsequently, the villains have been South African importers and takeover artists in the banking and insurance, tourism, mining, breweries, retail, electricity, and cellphone sectors.

For Shivji, a key problem is the lack of ideology still prevailing in the petit-bourgeois intelligentsia and especially the NGO crowd: “They have no agenda, and are mainly directed by funding agencies. Still, opportunities are arising for a change in mood and growth of mass movements–as we see in recent strikes in the railway, banking and electricity sectors. The state can sense the problems, and in response is now passing legislation ranging from NGO monitoring to anti-terrorism.”

Another commodification controversy in Tanzania that teaches us much about regional and global power politics concerns ivory sales. Meeting in Santiago, Chile earlier this month, the Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) was manoeuvred by US bureaucrat Craig Manson into partially lifting the ban on sale of elephant tusks. South Africa, Namibia and Botswana won permission to offload 60 tonnes, thus ending a decade in which poaching African and Asian elephants was unprofitable.

The existing prohibition was catalysed in 1989 by the then chief Kenyan wildlife manager, Richard Leakey (of paleontologist family fame), as countries like Tanzania with limited anti-poaching resources witnessed the rapid denuding of wildlife. Tusk and horn poachers selling to East Asian and Middle East markets threatened the very existence of elephants and rhinos in East Africa.

The countervailing neoliberal philosophy–adopted by even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (both then and now)–was, simply, “If the species can pay, it can stay.” If not, it can go extinct. But to “pay” requires attracting upmarket foreign visitors to ludicrously expensive gamepark resorts (far out of the price range of locals), some of which still encourage “canned hunting” which pulls in $50,000 per kill from the world’s most obnoxious tourists. Culling elephants and chopping the tusks add to the booty.

Anti-ban advocates insist that such resources pay for anti-poaching patrols–but unlike Pretoria, Nairobi can never win a war of this sort, given how desperate people are to survive and how corrupt and ineffectual the state has become under outgoing president Daniel arap Moi. (Next month, Moi finally gives up power after 24 years of misrule. But whomever the successor–the ruling party’s Uhuru Kenyatta or, more likely, former finance minister Mwai Kibaki–overall political-economic conditions won’t change.)

Massive amounts of ivory are now surfacing, such as the 3,000+ kg found in one Chinese port three months ago, sourced from deep in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even South Africa’s tightly-guarded Kruger Park had a dozen poaching episodes–covered up by authorities–in the run-up to the Cites conference, while Tsavo East National Park in Kenya suffered at least 19 recent elephant kills by poachers.

As leader of the countries demanding an end to the boycott, no matter the damage to East African wildlife, Pretoria’s environment minister Valli Moosa–recently host to the Jo’burg World Summit on Sustainable Development–epitomises the reason for growing regional fears of South African subimperialism.

In sum, Southern Africa’s hot wars have subsided–at last temporarily even in Angola and the DRC–and that leaves the commodification of everything as the fastest-growing threat to human and environmental health. But good people continue to resist.


(Bond and Masimba Manyanya launch the second edition of their book *Zimbabwe’s Plunge: Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Search for Social Justice* in Harare next week, updating the story to October 2002: http://www.unpress.co.za)

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