Ronnie Kasrils, head of intelligence during South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, on his revolutionary life and the prospects for the country’s left.
- Interview by
- Marcus Barnett
Ronnie Kasrils has led a titanic political life. Growing up in a Jewish family in Johannesburg in the middle of the twentieth century, he was radicalized by apartheid and joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1961.
From there he would become active in the broader national liberation movement around the African National Congress (ANC), eventually becoming a key figure in its military wing uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK). By 1983, as the anti-apartheid struggle reached its peak, he was MK’s chief of intelligence and a member of its High Command.
Jacobin contributor Marcus Barnett met Ronnie Kasrils in London where he was promoting the forthcoming movie London Recruits, which tells the story of the volunteers he organized to travel to South Africa and conduct operations for the ANC in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Here they discuss Kasrils’s path to politics, his experience as intelligence officer for the ANC, and his views on South Africa’s descent into neoliberalism.
What sort of environment that you were brought up in? What were the sources of your political development?
I was brought up in Yeoville, a bustling suburb in Johannesburg. It was somewhat Brooklyn-esque, a mix of Jewish, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants. There were also British and Afrikaner working class people, but around 40 percent of the population were Jewish immigrant families.
My grandparents were from Lithuania and Latvia. They were apolitical — although a distant cousin of my mother was in the South African Communist Party. My home wasn’t an intellectual or a political one. My father worked for a factory as a salesman, and that put him in the union, which was led at that time by a Communist, Eli Weinberg. My father had a grasp of what working was about, about the bosses, and about the employer-employee relationship. He had a fine grasp of that, in a sort of reformist way. As the representative of the factory, I would go to the factory with him occasionally, looking at the workers busying around, and when he was selling to Indian and Chinese traders based around the African townships.
Doing this gave me an inside knowledge of African life at the time, as life in the townships was something no white kids would ever see. What warmed my heart was that the Asian storekeepers showed respect for him, a Jewish man, and vice versa—”Mr Kasrils, would you like to sit down, would you like a cup of tea, would your son like a Coca-Cola?”
My mother was a kindly woman with a very warm heart, and I remember asking her in the forties — after seeing the way Africans were treated by our neighbors with coarse language, never mind the actual brutality that happened beyond our little pond — I would ask her things like, “Is this how Jews are treated in Europe?”
You would have been around ten years old at this point?
Oh yes, apartheid was established in 1948 when I was exactly ten years old. But even before apartheid, this was the legacy of three hundred years of colonial rule. There was plenty of racism and prejudice.
In response to my question, my mother said to me, “Yes, what we see here is bad. It’s not like what’s happening with the Nazis, because there our people are in concentration camps and the gas chambers.” But, she said, “it starts this way,” with racial prejudice and victimization. That opened my mind, and kept it open.
The friends who I grew up with, many of them were told by their parents, “Oh, you mustn’t worry about the blacks, they’re used to this. You just worry about yourself.” My parents gave me the opposite lesson. Going to school, I was very interested in the French Revolution. I had a great school teacher who opened my eyes further and, as I was getting towards the end of school, I began making friends with black people, as difficult as it was.
When I was twenty-one, the Sharpeville Massacre occurred. I was so shocked by it that I made the decision to do something. By this stage, I was interested in Sartre and existentialism, I lived quite a bohemian lifestyle as a script writer. But this startled me — I rejected as nonsense the idea that exercising my will would lead to my freedom, and decided I had to do something about apartheid.
I had a vague connection with the SACP through my mother’s cousin, Jackie Arenstein, and I went to visit her and her husband, Rowley. They were lifelong communists, and I began to assist them in their work. Rowley was on the run from the police, and I looked after him as his minder. I worked to find safe houses for him. I had the huge network of friends you would expect a young bohemian to have — the kind of people who might not be that political, but were certainly unconventional and against racist rule. I utilized that network, and very quickly became educated in terms of Marxism with him as my mentor.
From then on I became very involved in South African politics, got fired from my job, and became a member of the ANC and the SACP underground. It was the military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), that I became most involved with. I had been in the movement for not even two years, but they saw this young, energetic guy, who was clearly cut out for that type of clandestine work. I was placed at the top of the command of MK’s provincial command in Natal. I was then a wanted man, but managed to evade capture, leaving the country at the end of 1963.
As you fled South Africa, you went directly to the Soviet Union in order to undergo military training. What were your impressions of the Soviet Union at this point in time?
Yes, I was sent to the Soviet Union and trained in Odessa, where the big military base was. In the Soviet Union in 1964, there was a real pace of development. I was there with two hundred black people. For them, their impressions of being trained by white people, being served in canteens by white people, their rooms cleaned by old Ukrainian ladies — they just couldn’t get over it. Can you imagine the impact it had on them, and their understanding of what non-racism meant?
We were very fortunate to have military instructors who, twenty years earlier, were those driving the Nazis from the gates of Leningrad and Stalingrad. They were witty people who kept us laughing, but at the same time were so clearly strong and determined to pass their lessons onto us. Their presence was outstanding; to us, the Soviet Union was like a dream, and it was held with much love and respect. We had all come out of the SACP, the entire ANC was influenced very strongly by what Communists said, so we were thrilled to be there.
By 1983 I was promoted to chief of military intelligence for MK. I went to Moscow for a six-month high-level course in military intelligence, which was fascinating. But that’s when you began to see the cracks, the defects. The Soviet Union was now in trouble, things weren’t going well. Yes, there was peace in the streets, but I began to have debates with Russian political officers on political and economic questions, particularly relating to what socialism is, the problems they were undergoing, and so on.
Even so, when the Trade Union Congress building in Odessa was attacked by fascists in 2014, burning over forty people to death, I was horrified. It shook me so much, since Odessa was so very cultural just fifty years earlier, and making such huge progress.
And following your military training, you were sent to London.
Well, from Odessa I was sent to Daar-es-Salaam, and from there I was sent to London. The British security services watched us, but we had to be more careful of South African agents who had a reputation of being very rough in London. They feared our community of around five hundred exiles, all of us very close-knit. It is vitally necessary if you are involved in revolutionary work to collect information about your enemy, and to develop it. As such, we focused on recruitment and intelligence work.
Following this initial move, you began to study at the London School of Economics, enrolling in 1966.
Yes! But my study there was a bit of a joke. I registered as an LSE student to be close to the student movement in London. When I registered at LSE, I just spent a whole year befriending people there, such as Danny Schechter, who on July 24, 1967 became the first “London recruit” to go to South Africa.
Would it be fair to say at this point that the anti-apartheid struggle was at a particularly low ebb?
It was. After I had served in MK, and after the Rivonia arrests, our repertoire of activity was nearly zero. We needed some way to disseminate our message without a functioning underground. Initially, we were looking to recruit and develop South African students who could be trained and returned to South Africa. We wanted these students to have long-term roles, such as setting up underground printing presses and cells, activities of this kind. But finding these people took quite a long time — until the early seventies in fact.
We needed to undermine the security forces’ propaganda that they had smashed the SACP and the ANC. This was why we developed the concept of the London Recruits. The idea was to recruit white “tourists” to be trained in South Africa for propaganda actions, such as leaflet bombs.
You would place leaflets in a bucket which contained a harmless explosive in the bottom, a timing device and just a little wooden platform separating it from the leaflets. When it was detonated with a nice loud bang, the platform was blown up thirty meters or so into the air with the leaflets wafting to the ground. They were detonated in strategic points: bus terminals, railway stations, and so on.
Who were the type of people you recruited to these activities?
Initially, our main allies in Britain were the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the Young Communist League (YCL). I approached John Gollan, the CPGB’s general secretary, at their King Street headquarters, and was put in touch with London organizer George Bridges.
Once we had that assistance from YCL leaders, recruitment was easier. The YCL could offer people who had distinguished themselves by their commitment, or who had already successfully carried out certain tasks for the party. I would be meet them in pubs, university campuses, parks, taking real time with them. The YCL recruits were all working-class trade unionists, which was really interesting. They were from all over the British Isles — including Ireland — and some were immigrants.
We were very careful about who we recruited for what was a dangerous task. There were always people who I felt were unfit for the work. I would test them by having a couple of beers with them, and tried to work out those who wanted to stick around in the bar all night and down pints, in case they got a little too loquacious as they drank.
In the main, the YCL members we got were fine people — as well as others, such as seafarers we were linked with through the National Union of Seamen (NUS) and an International Brigadier, Jack Coward. Another grouping was actually through the LSE Socialist Society. With the students, I had to be a little more careful, since they weren’t part of a structure where they could be verified.
Dave King and Alex Moumbaris from the CPGB headed off shortly after recruitment. They carried out the distribution of SACP literature, while Ted Parker and Diane Ellis were kept to distributing ANC literature in case they had any ideological doubts about work for the SACP. As a broad national liberation front, the ANC was much easier for them.
We improved on our technology gradually. We started off by getting the recruits to post leaflets to addresses in South Africa, or unfurling slogan banners from the top of buildings using simple time delays so that they could get away. We then developed leaflet bombs that were compact enough to carry around in a shopping bag.
The successes were amazing. We would have teams in all the six main cities that wouldn’t know each other, but were told to carry out an action at a precise time and date. They would leave these devices across various parts of different cities, and all of them could go off at the same time. Sometimes it could have been sixty in six different cities. It had a huge impact and would make front page news.
How important was this international work?
It was extremely important. Many South Africans who were young and politically unengaged at the time attest to this in the film we are making. People who became politically active in 1976 would say that the first time they knew anything about the ANC or the SACP was through these actions.
Later on, we also developed street broadcasting devices. People could carry these fashionable tape recorders openly, with a speech on a cassette. The first ten minutes would be blank. We devised small amplifiers, and the recruits were taught how to make a little box to put them in, and stick these at particularly inaccessible points, such as outside of building windows. They would go into a building, turn the tape recorder with the ten minute silence on and lower the device by rope onto a parapet. It would usually have a warning like “Explosives: Don’t Touch.” Soon after it would blare out a speech or some music. People in nearby shopping centers or factories would be standing around — it would be heard by black pedestrians and workers on their lunch breaks.
Some of these volunteers were caught?
Yes, these were young, working class people who had never owned a passport in their lives. They didn’t know anything about flying, or even staying in a hotel. We had to explain every aspect of the journey.
It was emphasized that capture was a real risk, and they had to prepare for the possibility of arrest. We taught them how to control themselves under detention. Some had been used to conflict with the police on demonstrations, but I had to drum into them the reality that South Africa was a semi-Gestapo state; if they were caught, we had to give them honest expectations. In the end, nobody said “Look, I am too frightened of this, I am going to pull out.”
Inevitably, there were some arrests: Sean Hosey, an Irishman living in Coventry, Alex Moumbaris, a Greek who lived in London, and Alex’s wife, Marie-José, who was French. They weren’t caught for the leaflets, no-one was caught for that. They were involved in more dangerous activities. By the early seventies, we were sufficiently developed with our bases in South Africa to do printing and distribution. So, some of the people we had recruited in London were used to help trained guerrilla fighters from across South Africa’s borders. Alex and Marie-José were captured on one of these operations.
We asked Sean to take money and false documents to a guerrilla fighter. We hadn’t realized that this guerrilla had cracked under torture and given information to the police. Sean was caught and exposed to some level of torture, but they were more careful of the ill treatment of foreigners due to potential international outcry. He was solid, as were Alex and Marie-José. Alex was sentenced to fifteen years, but escaped after seven. His wife was pregnant at the time — unbeknownst to us — and they released her after three months.
These people were ready to make real sacrifices, but when you speak to them they do not want any limelight. They think they did very little. I had to tell them to come to South Africa so people can meet them and thank them for what they were prepared to do. Their story has become a real cause for celebration and a tribute to the internationalism that contributed to our victory.
What are your thoughts on the situation in South Africa at the moment? Why does a socialist South Africa seem so far off?
There is a truism that the tendency of national liberation struggles towards socialism depends on the extent of a working class and of organized labor in the country. Because of South Africa’s developed economy, industrial base, matured Communist Party, and strong trade union movement, we were pretty optimistic. The existence of a proletariat in South Africa and that legacy of struggle made us believe that unlike a lot of African or Asian countries, the result of a national liberation struggle would be strongly oriented to socialism.
But we did not take into account the other side of the coin. What had created the developed economy and a South African proletariat had also created a formidable, internationally-connected capitalist class. The collapse of the Soviet Union occurring around the same time also left the ANC a lot more vulnerable. When JW de Klerk implemented democratic reforms, there was a pressure on the ANC to capitulate to big business influence.
To what extent was that capitulation inevitable? Could the labor movement have done more to prevent it?
When Nelson Mandela was meeting captains of industry, leaders of Western countries — and even the Chinese — he was being encouraged only to develop private enterprise and to be wary of nationalization. If the Soviet Union had been in existence, there would have been stronger options in terms of economic development. Although, let’s face it, the real reason the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse in the eighties was because the socialist project in Eastern Europe was warped. There was no democracy at the base, which is what Marxism is all about. Nevertheless, at least there would have been that option.
Even among Communists, there was the view that the first objective should be political power, and once you achieve that you could change things. But we in the SACP completely underestimated the power of capital, especially the extent to which it could seduce national liberation movements. We got into what I call a Faustian pact with big business from Mandela onwards. We said, “If we get political power, we will give concessions on the economic side.” Those concessions were much too great.
And this was the beginning of the problem. Even with all the goodwill and intention of Mandela and Mbeki as leaders — people who are not as corrupt as Jacob Zuma — it created a stepping stone for the craven, profit-seeking rentiers and the comprador-bourgeoisie to come to the fore and establish systems of patronage. That has allowed the South African revolution to veer completely off course.
What is your diagnosis for the future of the South African left?
At the recent congress of the SACP, general secretary Blade Nzimande said that they had been betrayed by Zuma, in whom they had placed too much trust. This was the basis of my fallout with the SACP from 2005–7 when Zuma came to the fore. I knew Zuma very well, I had worked with him closely in exile. I argued that he was no working-class hero and couldn’t be trusted.
The term “state capture” was coined by the SACP, and it is very apt in relation to the grouping Zuma represents — the nouveau riches of South Africa operating against the old capitalists. They are a mafia network, ripping off the state and its assets. They are a grave danger.
In the coming battle for the ANC leadership, there is also Cyril Ramaphosa, who is a neoliberal; a wealthy millionaire who was on the board of Lonmin when the shooting of the Marikana miners took place. There is a sharp contradiction between these two camps. It could be bloody. People at the lower level are already being killed, including Communists killed by ANC rivals in the patronage system.
The political left and the breakaway trade unions — such as the metalworkers’ union NUMSA — talk about the formation of a new party. It is a very slow process, I’ve been involved in some discussions. I recently attended the SACP congress, which included two thousand delegates, all working class, 95 percent between the age of thirty-five to forty-five. The idea that you could create a working-class left opposition to the factions in the ANC without that base is wrong, it wouldn’t work.
The SACP made an error in supporting Zuma, but the problem goes deeper than this. It is about dealing with the hold neoliberalism has had on South Africa since 1994–95. In 1990, we were at the height of a revolutionary ascendency, which has been squandered by this neoliberal turn, and undermined by the criminal grouping around Zuma.
It will get worse, it will get ugly — but by the end of this year, the ANC goes into its national conference to decide who will replace Zuma. And by 2019, this person replacing him will stand for the presidency. Some people think the ANC will get under 50 percent. I can’t see that. There have been real advances since 1994: the setting up of a semblance of a welfare state, sixteen million people benefiting from a grant system, pension parity, and the quadrupling of black people’s wages since the end of apartheid. However, at 27 percent unemployment is very high, there is a lack of growth, and there is huge inequality. There is a complicated road ahead.
Finally, since we are in London, I want to ask you about Jeremy Corbyn, who has been a friend of yours since the 1980s. Given your experience of how states work to undermine the Left, what advice would you give to Labour in the scenario of their winning power?
The British labor movement has huge experience in its history of intelligence systems operating against them. They are well versed in these terms. Although they make huge errors, Britain has the oldest and most experienced capitalist establishment in the world. There have been struggles of epic proportions between the classes in Britain, and I don’t have to teach Labour members what that’s about.
If we look at the fantastic election result, the key things were how Corbyn’s team organized, the party structures and the popularity of the manifesto. Corbyn ended speeches by quoting Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy — “ye are many, they are few.” We say the same thing in South Africa.
Nzimande recently described the mistakes the SACP has made, reminding us that as a party we “moved away from the masses when we put our faith in a Jacob Zuma figure.” We have to remind ourselves of the rock of unity and strength that is the masses. Jeremy Corbyn articulates this in Britain. He shows his understanding of a wonderful, rich history of class struggle in Britain which has inspired the world.
All over the world, there is this experience of class struggle. We are at a point in time where the 1 percent are running things, where the profits are going into their deep pockets and huge swathes of the world live in misery. It is on the basis of the mobilization of those people that you can face the dangers and threats of seduction by the system. This is what can defeat the counterrevolutionary plots that are launched against the working class, its party, and its leadership.