The Leftist Spy Who Came In From Cold Pretoria

‘I don’t have the stomach or the taste to serve any more at this level,’ said the normally ebullient Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils, as he quit after fourteen years of service to the South African government. It was late September 2008, just after Thabo Mbeki was palace-couped.


Kasrils’ intelligence service was by then an international laughingstock, with spy-versus-spy intrigue spilling out wide across the political landscape. His own troops were locked in unending, ungovernable, internecine battles against each other’s factions, using hoax emails, other disinformation and extraordinary political contortions unknown in even the ugliest Stalinist traditions of the African National Congress (ANC). Recall that Mbeki’s police chief Jackie Selebi was also the head of Interpol, and to have the mafia penetrate such high levels made South African security farcical at best.


None of this was Kasrils’ fault, of course; such fights continue to this day, and leading police officers Bheki Cele and Richard Mdluli have allegedly amplified the Mbeki-era traditions of graft. But the intrigue was so murky in September 2008 that when an obscure judge made an offhanded, seemingly flippant remark about Jacob Zuma being a victim of political conspiracy, it was a catalyst for the ANC’s Zumites to unceremoniously evict Mbeki seven months before his term was due to end.


To last so long in that immoral swamp required a firm constitution, and to then extricate from the mire was a heroic task. Kasrils was (and remains) the continent’s highest-profile revolutionary from the white race, and in spite of all the muck nearby, he exudes an exceptionally powerful moral influence. Kasrils also played crucial leadership roles as minister of water, deputy minister of defense, and leadership in the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe armed wing and SA Communist Party dating back nearly five decades.


The contradictions he faced during his era in power were overwhelming. They deserve, I believe, serious consideration; in some cases, much more decisive resolutions than we’ve witnessed; and now renewal, in the dialectical spirit. Exploring and transcending both the exercise of power (thesis) and counter-power activities by progressive civil society (antithesis), in order to find a new synthesis and yet new contradictions, is my objective in the coming pages.


Contradictory Kasrils


Last week Kasrils visited us at the University of KwaZulu-Natal as a Time of the Writer festival guest at the Centre for Creative Arts and speaker at the Centre for Civil Society’s seminar on authoritarianism and corruption. A student here in the early 1960s, he reminisced about his disputes during economics classes with the ‘reactionary’ Professor Owen Horwood – later an influential apartheid Finance Minister – because of Kasrils’ opposition to Bantustan policy.


He returned for this visit because in 2010, Kasrils’ beautiful biography of his late wife Eleanor, The Unlikely Secret Agent, won SA’s main book award (the Sunday Times Alan Paton non-fiction prize) and his compelling autobiography Armed and Dangerous had its third edition in 2004. His presentations last week celebrating writing, women and radical politics were thoughtful and humorous.

Like most who meet Kasrils, it took me only four discussions to depart so charmed as to confess I will now blindly follow him on any madcap adventure – albeit one in September 1992, when he marched 80,000 protesters to the ‘Ciskei’ government’s doorstep, left dozens to return home in coffins, after pro-apartheid armed forces opened fire. But dangerous as he has been, armed or not, this is the kind of mensch who would have us cracking up on our way to the gallows, more gregarious and fun-loving than any lefty I’ve ever known.


That charm in turn calls for even more critically-sympathetic reflection about how a South African nationalist-communist spy might come in from the cold. We might attempt this via the dialectic method, which respects tension and contradiction, which contextualizes so as to point the way forward to social progress, and which seeks to understand interrelations of economy, politics, society and nature.


Kasrils was quite right to finally quit the Pretoria regime, as he witnessed extreme abuses of power within his beloved ANC, and on occasion was attacked – without merit, he insists – for allegedly being a guiding force in the network of Mbeki supporters trying to halt Zuma’s presidential push.


The worst of it, he recounts, was when in early 2006 the Young Communist League leadership accused him of setting up a ‘honey trap’ for Zuma, who was accused of rape a few weeks earlier by an openly HIV+ lesbian known as Khwezi. The future president was acquitted after a trial in which misogynist patriarchy by Zuma and his supporters was on blatant display.


Kasrils had known the 30 year-old victim for a quarter of a century (as had Zuma) because her parents provided a safehouse during anti-apartheid military missions deep in Durban’s townships. He was drawn in against his will in a peripheral way, making clear that Khwezi should sort out the charge with professional aid, not old family connections to the Minister of Intelligence. But that moment was when the break with Zuma became irreparable.


Given his despondency about the ANC’s subsequent trajectory, time and time again in several conversations Kasrils reminded of what he is accused of sounding like by journalist Alistair Sparks: an end-of-apartheid verligte (Afrikaner enlightened reformer). But now Kasrils feels there is far more at stake: saving not only the liberal gains that the likes of FW de Klerk (verligte-in-chief) grudgingly surrendered two decades ago, but also reviving prospects for a broader left turn in coming years.


Given Kasrils’ larger-than-life personality, the best approach might well be to treat him as would Karl Marx, as recommended in Das Kapital: ‘Individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of particular class-relations and interest.’


You could add race/ethnic, gender and generational relations as well, since most of these divisions are also being amplified under conditions of class apartheid. Unfortunately, Kasrils is yet to pronounce on deeper-rooted economic policy corruption – i.e. the numerous neoliberal policies adopted after 1994 – aside from firmly endorsing the country’s 1996 structural adjustment policy (‘Growth, Employment and Redistribution’, GEAR), at the time, as part of the Arms Deal.


Instead, Kasrils’ current focus on corruption highlights mainly the acquisitiveness of the political-bureaucratic petit bourgeoisie, aspiring to great wealth for little effort.


The wretched of the ANC


His naming as ‘WaBenzis’ several former colleagues – including the late defense minister Joe Modise and current SA Communist Party chief Blade Nzimande – certainly helps personify the problem. As Kasrils griped in our seminar, ‘South Africa is regaled by one revelation after another involving luxury limousines, lavish banquets, expensive hotel bills and other extravagant follies.’ 


His own ‘economic category’ might be described best as a small-c communist. Kasrils’ trajectory of race/class-suicide began on Sharpeville Day in 1960 when, as he told the Time of the Writer audience, his white colleagues at Johannesburg’s Lever Brothers film advertising division were stunned when he sided with black staff, as reports came in of the 69 murders. As for his hostility to Zionism, Kasrils (from a Jewish background) came to understand the Israeli occupation of Palestine and became the continent’s leading campaigner for Middle East justice and the ‘one-state’ solution needed to avoid making permanent the region’s bantustanization.


He sums up the rise and fall of his vision for a socialist South Africa simply and accurately: ‘Regarding national liberation, as Vladimir Lenin put it, the character of the outcome depends upon the organised strength of the working class. For quite a period of time we saw the left rising and becoming strong and then post-1990 we see the rightwing agenda becoming so strong with its alignment to capital.’


You can’t argue with that, but the depth and intensity of South Africa’s contradictions require more than a simple class correlation as explanation. Instead, with dialectical method, Lenin remarked how social development ‘proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”,’ leaving us to link what we observe at surface level into ‘a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws.’


Theoretically, those laws of exploitation, it seems to me, were initially understood best by Marx in Kapital in 1867, elaborated in North-South (and capitalist-noncapitalist) terms by Rosa Luxemburg a century ago, and translated to African post-colonialism by Frantz Fanon fifty years ago. The critiques of capitalism, imperialism and nationalism by these revolutionary theorists still work well today, especially in a South Africa where migrancy, gendered roles and deep racial divisions in the division of labour, ecological degradation and capitalist crisis tendencies persist and indeed worsen.


But it is in the realm of degenerate political leadership that we see Kasrils’ next set of contradictions, as he gradually breaks from the ANC and loses all respect for the Communist Party (or so it seems), while lauding trade union and other civil society activism. He quoted from Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in his seminar last Friday, aiming these words at his former comrades who lost touch with the masses: ‘Privileges multiply and corruption triumphs, while morality declines.’


Fanon’s subsequent three sentences are yet more appropriate: ‘Today the vultures are too numerous and too voracious in proportion to the lean spoils of the national wealth. The party, a true instrument of power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, reinforces the machine, and ensures that the people are hemmed in and immobilized. The party helps the government to hold the people down.’


The arms bazaar


By many accounts in critical civil society, the 1997 Arms Deal was the font of South Africa’s large-scale corruption, the source of so many contradictions that drive Kasrils’ dialectic. He had, after all, spent the late 1990s arguing the case for the deal, on grounds that it could ‘stand up to the closest scrutiny’ because the process was ‘meticulously professional and objective.’ For the two leading experts on the Arms Deal, Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren, ‘It almost beggars belief that this claim could be made.’


Kasrils also notified parliament of ‘Major offset or counter-trade agreements so that for every rand spent abroad, the same amount will be invested in SA. Such packages will be of enormous benefit to our GEAR strategy. A tremendous boost to our economy and Treasury.’ Latest estimates from the Sunday Independent are revealing: of R114 billion promised in Arms Deal offsets, only R4 billion was delivered.


Kasrils’ defense last Friday was that the post-apartheid armed forces desperately needed the highest-technology weapons, but this did not leave his audience convinced. Exclaimed anti-corruption campaigner Marianne Camerer, ‘How can you sleep at night?!’


Kasrils’ answer: he’s sleeping well because as far as he could tell, the Arms Deal didn’t corrupt at ministerial executive level in major transactions, though he now concedes that at secondary level, the company-to-company transactions had plenty of holes. Schabir Shaik’s facilitation of the French firm Thales’ access to Zuma – for a reported R500 000/year – was an obvious example, and as Kasrils later put it, ‘Zuma was by then willing and ready for corruption.’


It was recently revealed that Zuma spokesperson Mac Maharaj was another conduit for Thales dirty funds, via an offshore account. These were men Kasrils relied on for life-and-death missions during the armed struggle against apartheid, though in at least in one case, Mo Shaik (who is now moving from heading the SA Secret Service to a Development Bank of Southern Africa job), there was finally a reconciliation with Kasrils.


But as Kasrils told me, this wasn’t the same Zuma he’d gotten to know as commander during MK operations, ‘a simple, decent comrade.’ Kasrils’ unsatisfactory theory of corruption seems largely based upon the numbers of wives and children that the former exiles were responsible for upon returning to South Africa two decades ago.


It’s a potentially racialising theory because as he pointed out in seminar, the white middle-class radicals who returned from abroad weren’t faced with anything like the same material pressures of household reproduction. And so when Kasrils began raising the critique of Zuma’s corruption within the Communist Party, for example, he confided that he found no resonance from black comrades, only from whites and Indians.


I asked whether, like other vocal critics of South Africa’s elite transition who were purged from the Party because they were communists (the names Jara, Satgar, McKinley come immediately to mind), this fate would befall Kasrils, he smiled and confirmed he was no longer in leadership nor a member of a branch – but hadn’t been expelled. Yet.


Flirting with Zimbabwe, flunking the xenophobia test


Looking more broadly at morally-exhausted nationalism, what of the so-called Zanufication of the ANC? The phrase was first used by SA Communist Party deputy leader Jeremy Cronin in 2002, and the backlash from Mbeki’s ranks was so strong that a humiliating apology was wrenched from the country’s next-highest profile white revolutionary.


True, Kasrils quickly confirmed, Zimbabwe’s Zanu(PF) ruling elite is ‘absolutely disgusting. We were their guests in exile and so we were mum over the Fifth Brigade [i.e. the Mugabe government’s mid-1980s’ massacre of 20 000 Ndebele people]. But you do that and you’re caught in a trap.’


Yet in 2005, in the midst of Mugabe’s most zany, self-destructive activity, Kasrils pronounced in a speech that his regime and South Africa’s shared a common world view and would march forward shoulder to shoulder.


When asked about this contradiction, Kasrils replied: ‘Sometimes it’s the context. They were our guests on that occasion, and we were signing a standard Defense Accord.’ He looked deeply regretful, but tragically, there is nothing incorrect about his remark.


Kasrils did, in retrospect, warmly endorse the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union’s April 2008 refusal to trans-ship three million Chinese bullets from Durban to Zimbabwe; Mugabe had ordered them to prepare for potential electoral defeat. (According to some reports, the Zimbabwe army finally acquired these via Angola after all the other ports in the region were declared no-offload zones for the weapons by courageous dockworkers.) Ten months later, the same unionists declared they would not unload Israeli goods, which warmed the progressive world’s heart, especially that of the newly-retired Kasrils, who stepped up his exceptionally admirable Palestine advocacy.


Of course, blowback from the ANC’s pro-Mugabe policy occurred in late May 2008, when with refugees streaming across the border to escape Zanu(PF) violence, more than sixty murders and 100 000 terrified displacees resulted from a heartbreaking xenophobia outbreak. ‘We are not just seeing spontaneous xenophobic attacks,’ Kasrils told journalists at the time, ‘There are many social issues at the root of the problem, but we have reason to believe that there are many other organisations involved in sparking the attacks.’


Really? There was no grounding for such conspiracy theory within sound intelligence. As Kasrils confessed, ‘Of course we were aware something was brewing. It is one thing to know there is a social problem and another thing to know when that outburst will occur.’ Stupidly, his National Intelligence Agency director general initially blamed xenophobia on a ‘Third Force’ that was ‘deliberately unleashed ahead of next year’s general election.’


To his credit, Kasrils later admitted these were ‘misguided’ theories, and regarding official impotence, ‘there has not been the kind of intelligence that has been able to, say, pinpoint exact details. Even now, two weeks into the mayhem, there’s not that great a possibility of being able to say.’


Resolving that particular contradiction, today Kasrils is a high-profile board member of Cape Town’s most effective anti-xenophobia organization, People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty.


But what happens next, if there’s another stolen election in Zimbabwe like those of 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2008? Contrary to hopes within that country’s democratic movement, Kasrils does not foresee Zuma intervening to ensure a free and fair election through enforcement of Mbeki’s September 2008 Global Political Agreement. In contrast, he says, ‘I thought Mbeki was getting the better of Uncle Bob. There were some changes in the election modalities, thanks to Mbeki’s niceties.’


This isn’t how Zimbabweans see it, for in March 2008, Mbeki laid down the law just as the opposition Movement for Democratic Change felt they had clearly won the majority of votes in the presidential election’s first round, having verifiable cellphone photos of poll results in each station immediately emailed to Harare headquarters for independent counting. Mbeki was the spoiler by ordering that Morgan Tsvangirai agree to a run-off vote in June, a race from which he soon had to withdraw because hundreds of his supporters were being killed or injured.


What if this happens again? Kasrils is adamant: ‘Sanctions. Absolutely, what else is there to do.’


Given the ANC’s ongoing commitment to Zanu(PF), it would be a great service for Kasrils to help open this debate if Zimbabwean comrades request it. The precedent is, once again, the Congress of SA Trade Unions’ threatened mid-2000s blockade of the Zimbabwe-SA border at Messina.


ANC secrecy


Another area of contradiction in which Cosatu’s support is vital, is the Secrecy Bill, the legislation that Kasrils originally introduced in early 2008 but that he now virulently opposes. As the Mail&Guardian reported four years ago, ‘Kasrils portrayed it as striking an enlightened balance between the need for secrecy and the constitutional imperative for open and accountable government. However, the M&G raised concerns that it would lead to a blanket of secrecy over government affairs.’

By mid-2008, Kasrils’ internal ministerial review commission – consisting of Joe Matthews, Frene Ginwala and Laurie Nathan – warned of very negative consequences of providing ‘so sweeping a basis for non-disclosure of information,’ reminiscent of ‘apartheid-era secrecy laws.’


That commission criticized Kasrils on several other grounds: ‘The enormously wide mandate initially given to NIA to gather political intelligence, that some current methods of intrusive surveillance are unconstitutional and that a policy culture persists in the spy agencies that insists they should be allowed to “bend the rules” when necessary.’


Again to his credit, Kasrils recognized many of these problems, and by late 2011 he was in the lead of the civil society campaign against the newer and even more totalitarian version of the bill. It was, he claimed at a Wits University rally, ‘turning into a Frankensteinian monster, a dog’s breakfast of toxic gruel.’


Kasrils also attacked parliamentary oversight: ‘All of those in the committee dealing with the bill, from every single party, are all woefully failing.’


These are the kinds of dialectical discussions which Kasrils invites: vast contradictions in past practices, conjoined with an ability to track degenerative trends and openly speak out today.


Privatisation and protest


That reminds me of the last time I ran into Kasrils, on September 3 2002, when dozens of protesters disrupted the ‘Water Dome’ conference panel his Director General Mike Muller had arranged with European privatisers as part of the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. Kasrils was livid, accusing me (!) of organizing the humiliating toyi-toyi (a task for which this armchair academic is quite incapable).


A decade ago, this was one of South African society’s hottest issues, along with the Mbeki government’s denial of AIDS medicines that left more than 330 000 people to die unnecessarily, according to a Harvard Public Health School study. Many of us were called ‘ultra-leftists’ during this era, because from around late 1999 in Durban’s Chatsworth township and Soweto, a new left had emerged to contest urban social services.


The argument, especially against Kasrils’ predecessor Kader Asmal, was that the 1994 water White Paper mandated full cost recovery, ignoring the implicit promise for a Free Basic Water ‘lifeline tariff’ mandated in the Reconstruction and Development Programme. Asmal, whom I briefly served as an advisor, was cross that a water-rights advocacy movement was rising, and he very decisively rejected Free Basic Water, once – to deter me raising this with his staff again – writing me the sternest letter that I’ve ever received (probably drafted by Muller).


There was great delight in February 2000 when Kasrils announced that at least 6000 liters per household per month would be provided to all residents of South Africa free. The catalyst was his meeting a Transkeian peasant who had turned away from one of Asmal’s water taps and gone to a dirty river for water, simply because the 100 percent cost recovery fetish of Asmal and Muller meant the new piped water was unaffordable.


Kasrils’ policy reversal represented to many of us the finest of the ANC’s traditions, so different from the staged imbizos that Mbeki was running around the country, none of which led to policy changes.


The problem reached tragic proportions in August 2000 when Ngwelezane officials took the 1994 White Paper seriously and cut off more than 1000 households because the R56 ($8) connection fee was too high. That same month, Kasrils drove the Free Basic Services policy into the ANC’s municipal election platform for the Decemb

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