THE past few weeks have been a harrowing time for many of us in the African National Congress, and in the broader progressive movement in South Africa. Increasingly comrade turned against comrade in a cycle of ever deepening acrimony and insults being exchanged. For every comrade involved – especially those of us who have been in the struggle for most of our adult lives – this is very personal and painful.
It is no different for me: I have known comrade Ahmed (Kathy) Kathrada since he came out of prison, both as a friend and a comrade. Similarly I have known his wife, comrade Barbara Hogan for many decades. I have known Barbara as an activist and underground ANC operator when we were both students. When Barbara was arrested and tried for her ANC activities I attended her trial, until I myself had to go into hiding. I know the terrible torture that Barbara went through at the hands of the notorious Security Police at John Vorster Square.
She went through utter hell when her fellow friend and comrade Neil Aggett was killed right there in John Vorster Square, while she was detained in the same building. After Barbara was sentenced her situation did not improve and for many months she was the only white woman ANC political prisoner. Barbara was imprisoned in solitary confinement, first at the Johannesburg Diepkloof prison (the notorious sardonically named ‘Sun City’ prison), and later moved to Pretoria Central. That grey concrete and brick monolith on the left hand-side of the road when one enters Tshwane from the N2.
Not long after Barbara was sentenced my then fiancé (later my first wife) Jansie and I were arrested. We were represented by the same attorney that Barbara had, Kathy Satchwell, who is now a judge. Kathy became a sort of intermediary, exchanging messages of support between the already sentenced Barbara and ourselves who were still being tried and on our way to join her as political prisoners. After Jansie and I were found guilty of so-called ‘High Treason’ and sentenced, Jansie joined Barbara as the only two white women ANC political prisoners. For years, the two of them only had each other as company and support under harsh and repressive conditions. Eventually they were joined by Helene Pastoors, Marion Sparg and Trish Hanekom. In the crucible of prison a strong, unbreakable friendship had been forged between them up to this day.
I met comrade Kathy many years later after I was released from prison because of the negotiations that had commenced between the ANC and the Apartheid National Party. Comrade Kathy had been released earlier as part of the first group of Rivonia trialists who were released. By the time I met him he was already in a relationship with Barbara. They met each other shortly after they were released from prison. In terms of personalities and temperament they were very different people, but they built the most incredible and beautiful relationship based on mutual respect for who each were, and their unshakeable commitment to justice and our liberation struggle.
After 1994 Jansie and I spent many pleasant visits and dinners at comrade Kathy and Barbara’s humble apartment just a stone’s throw from parliament and Tuyn Huis, where Comrade Kathy was President Nelson Mandela’s Special Parliamentary Advisor. There were many serious political discussions, but also much banter and laughter. Comrade Kathy’s sharp, but gentle, humour never failed to lighten up our conversations. He joked that we younger chaps only had parking ticket sentences compared to him, Madiba and many other Robben Island political prisoners who had much longer sentences.
Comrade Kathy‘s determination that Robben Island had to be preserved as a place of triumph of the human spirit over repression was unequaled. No-one promoted that message about Robben Island more effectively than him. He was the personification of the triumph of humanity over evil and inhumanity. It is a great tribute to his efforts that Robben Island became a World Heritage Site.
Although I was in every respect comrade Kathy’s junior by far, he allowed me to become the chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services despite both him and another remarkable and senior comrade, comrade Laloo Chiba, serving as Members of Parliament on that Committee. Comrade Kathy and comrade Laloo, with their seniority and vast experience, served as ordinary members of the committee and never undermined my position as chairperson or elevated themselves above any of the other more junior MP’s on the committee.
This was even more remarkable, because very few people actually know that comrade Kathy was originally appointed by President Mandela as Minister of Correctional Services, but it became clear that in order for the Government of National Unity to succeed the IFP had to be given more ministerial posts. Madiba asked his old comrade to stand aside for the IFP’s Sipho Mzimela. Without a word of protest or any rancour comrade Kathy did exactly that. He understood what organisational discipline was all about, and that no individual – no matter how senior or capable – is ever bigger than the ANC.
Another comrade that had a huge impact on my political development was comrade Jacob Zuma. As one of the first senior ANC NEC members of the ANC’s Advance Team to enter South Africa from exile as part of the early phase of negotiations, he came to visit me and other political prisoners in our respective places of incarceration. His visit to me was remarkable for how warm and down-to-earth it was. Here was one of the most senior members of the ANC meeting with a young, junior white comrade, but from the moment he entered the visiting room and the big comradely hug that he gave me, he levelled with me. Our conversation was warm, animated and honest.
Comrade JZ – as we all called him – told me that I should understand that the negotiations were still in their infancy, and that it would take long and that much could still go wrong. He asked me to accept that I may still have to stay some time in prison. He also made me understand that as a white Afrikaner the ‘Boers’ in the NP (as he called them) hated me, and that they will probably try to keep me until the very last in prison. As it turned out his assessment was correct, and I was one of the last ANC political prisoners to be released. He was brutally honest about my situation, but not brutal in the way he delivered it to me. After he had visited me he contacted my parents and warmly engaged with them. Although they were racist Afrikaners and not at all warm to him, he tried to encourage them and to lighten the burden of my imprisonment for them.
All of this meant much to me! As a young MK cadre I knew comrade JZ’s reputation as one of the most successful Commanders of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and stories about his many successful and long forays into northern Zulu land, where he was truly swimming like a fish in the water among his people, were legendary.
We also had something else in common in that I was born in the small North West town of Zeerust (now the Ngaka Modiri Molema District Municipality), and this is where Comrade JZ was arrested as part of a group of MK cadres. That arrest led to him having been sentenced as a political prisoner for 10 years on Robben Island. With that characteristic laugh of his, he said to me, umngane (comrade) your birthplace is the place where I lost my freedom.
A few days ago I sat in front of the TV watching comrade Dipuo Letsatsi-Duba being sworn in as the new Deputy-Minister of Public Service and Administration. When President Zuma rose to congratulate comrade Dipuo I could see the warmth with which he did it, and the warm but respectful manner with which Dipuo responded. For many not knowing their history those few short moments of comradeship would have gone unnoticed.
I remember comrade Dipuo as a young 16 year old high school COSAS activist who was on the run from the security police, and in the middle of the night came to my student communal house in Berea scared and hungry. I helped her and three other young comrades (which included the young Vincent Tshabalala – the same legendary comrade Vincent who years later returned as an MK soldier and died in a hail of SADF bullets in Alexandra township) to hide for a week at the St Peter’s Priory in Rosettenville. At the end of that week I helped them to across the border to Botswana where they joined the ANC, and later moved to the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) camps in Angola for training.
Years later at a commemorative event in Alexandra for Tshabalala, comrade Dipuo told me how tough it was in those camps, and how much respect she has for comrade JZ because he really cared about the well-being of the young comrades there. The comradeship between comrade JZ and comrade Dipuo was forged during those difficult times in exile, and there they were now in the Union Buildings: The former MK Commander, now President of South Africa, warmly welcoming the former young MK cadre into his Cabinet. I could not stop tears from welling up.
However, my tears came with mixed feelings of joy and apprehension. These are tough times for our beloved Movement. No-one who followed recent political events will be able to miss that some of the comrades that I have written about here are now exchanging harsh words with each other. The reactions to President Zuma’s recent cabinet reshuffle have been mixed. Even capable comrades like comrade Dipuo, whom President Zuma appointed, and who have dedicated their youth and entire adult lives to the liberation struggle have not escaped the wrath of other similarly dedicated comrades. At this sadly divided juncture in our liberation history comrade is literally pitted against comrade.
Not any one of us who are longstanding members of the African National Congress can escape this situation. Indeed, none of us are left unscathed.
I have spent many sleepless nights thinking about what should guide me through these stormy and treacherous waters. One thing I knew, no matter what decision I take, it will not be universally popular with all my comrades. While doing so I remembered that remarkable evening in April 1994 when the official Independent Electoral Committee (IEC) announced that the ANC had overwhelmingly won our first national democratic elections. Wow! After President Mandela made our victory speech, we partied throughout the night in the ballroom of the old Carlton Hotel in central Johannesburg. I can still remember the warm hug from comrade Cheryl Carolus while we danced the night away.
After much consideration and agonising I have decided what should guide me now (and I know with sadness that it will probably not charm comrade Cheryl). I do not bargain on a hug from her any time soon… But, I can only find one set of guiding principles, and those are found in the ANC Constitution and organisational structures of the ANC that are established in terms of that Constitution.
As far as I am concerned, we can agree or differ about how well comrade JZ is doing as President of the ANC and of South Africa. Knowing a bit about the long history of the ANC as Africa’s oldest liberation movement, I know that not a single President of the ANC – not even Chief Albert Luthuli or comrade OR Tambo, nor comrade Nelson Mandela were universally supported or loved by all ANC members. However, the one thing that kept us from tearing ourselves apart regardless of whatever opinions we may have had about our leaders, or the decisions they had taken, was our adherence to the constitutional democratic structures and processes of the ANC.
In all honesty I have no problem with the criticisms that Comrade Kathy expressed of President Zuma in his personal letter to him. As Isitwalandwe/Seaparankwe and icon of our struggle he was more than most of us entitled to have his opinions and to express them. I also do not have a problem if comrade Barbara or comrade Pravin [Gordhan] or comrade Kgalema disagree with the President, – that is their right – we are a ‘broad church’, we are not a monolithic organisation.
It is when instead of using the internal democratic institutions and structures of the ANC, they start criticising the ANC in the open from public platforms – and start mobilising all and sundry, even our former enemies (and many who are still the enemies of political and especially economic empowerment of the majority of black South Africans) – that I really start having a problem. Being who they are, and knowing our shared struggle histories, I can still try to rationalise matters and cut them some slack. Having watched with growing concern this happening I have told myself that as long as they bring their open mobilisation against the President and some ANC policy decisions eventually back into the democratic structures of ANC it could still be okay.
However, trying as hard as I possibly could to still find common ground with these comrades, our paths diverge at the point where they call for open mobilisation and marches to remove the President of the ANC – not through mobilising and securing a democratic majority within the ANC constitutional structures, but by bringing thousands of people out into the streets to try to dictate to the ANC what to do, and with the intention to remove a democratically elected President through nothing else than mob rule.
Having watched this happening with growing alarm I, two days ago, sent the following message to both those comrades who agree with me, and also those who disagree:
The ANC is ruled by our Constitution that we democratically had put in place through debate and voting at our National Elective Conferences. Whatever we do must be guided by that Constitution and our institutional democratic processes.
LET’S CALMLY AND OBJECTIVELY CONSIDER THE SITUATION:
1. The President of the ANC: Democratically elected by 2 National Elective Conferences of the ANC (Polokwane & Mangaung)
2. The Top 6, NEC & NWC overwhelmingly elected by a democratic vote at the ANC National Elective Conference in Mangaung.
3. Members of Parliament elected in a National Election that was declared by both local and international observers as free and fair.
We cannot possibly say that ALL of them must be removed by no democratic process, just by street marches and mob rule?
If anyone wants change then work inside our well established democratic institutions and respect their outcomes. If you win or lose respect the outcome of democracy. Otherwise I do not understand how one can call yourself a democrat and ‘loyal member of the ANC’.”
Yesterday [Sunday], I went to the Memorial Service for Comrade Kathy here in Durban wearing the standard T-shirt of the Ethikweni ANC Region, with a photo of President Zuma on the front. The face of every President of the ANC had always been printed as standard on our T-shirts, similarly with our election posters during every election campaign. I do not see any reason why they should now become contentious and why we should not wear them.
I have hanging in my cupboard T-shirts with Presidents OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. During the periods that these leaders, respectively, were the Presidents of the ANC I have worn those T-shirts to many ANC events, including funerals and memorial services.
Those comrades who know me more intimately know that of all the Presidents that have led the ANC during the 38 years that I have now been a member, I was the least enchanted with President Mbeki. However, not once during the period of President Mbeki’s Presidency of the ANC did it even as much cross my mind not to wear the T-shirt with his face printed on it.
So yesterday, as I have always done, I went to Comrade Kathy’s Memorial Service with President Zuma’s face on my T-shirt. The looks that I got and the comments that were made at me by those comrades who are evidently against comrade JZ were most disconcerting. These were the same looks and comments that were directed at the members of the ANC Youth League who wore the same T-shirts.
As it must be clear from what I have written here about Comrade Kathy, and said on many forums about him since he passed away, I only have the greatest respect for him. I do not for a moment think that comrade Kathy would have taken offence at me wearing that standard ANC T-shirt. He was always big hearted enough, and a humble and disciplined ANC member, to have accepted that we could differ and still remain comrades and friends.
I am saddened by how the Memorial Service yesterday ended, when many ANCYL members were not prepared to stop singing and listen to comrade Pravin and comrade Zweli Mkhize, the Treasurer General of the ANC. However, we as older ANC members must not underestimate the influence of the poor example of political intolerance and ill-discipline that we give through our own acts of self-righteous intolerance.
Yesterday’s disruptive behaviour by members of the ANCYL was provoked by grossly generalised comments by comrade Gordhan about corrupt people passing brown paper bags with money around. No hard evidence was provided at all, just a generalised and provocative insult! As a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC, comrade Pravin should surely have known better. I have no doubt that comrade Kathy would have been appalled. Furthermore, I do not believe that comrade Kathy would have conceded for his sincere and personal letter to comrade JZ, now being used as an attack-tool to divide the ANC.
Today, on this fateful date of the 10th of April, 24 years ago, comrade Chris Hani was killed at the hands of racist assassins. We still suffer the loss of his charismatic leadership every day, but he left us an incredible example of disciplined leadership. It is well known that comrade Chris initially did not agree with the decision to suspend the armed struggle, and felt that especially those like him who were in the forefront of the armed struggle had not been adequately consulted.
However, as a disciplined cadre he accepted the decision of the ANC’s National Executive Committee and went full out to defend it and promoted it as if he was in full agreement. Fortunately there is a very good interview, captured on video, with him where he explained how he behaved under those difficult circumstances – where he had every reason to have felt slighted and disregarded – and accepted the democratic discipline of the ANC’s constitutional structures. I would like to suggest that the likes of comrade Pravin should, as part of a political education process, be shown this video in order for them to understand what organisational discipline is all about (Chris Hani interview: ).
I sincerely hope that we will be able to work through this period of political turbulence and ill-disciplined behaviour, and soon reach a point where we are all mature enough to accept the Constitution and democratic structures of the ANC as the only foundation that can provide for the safeguarding our beloved organisation, and also on a more personal level can protect the long history of comradeships that we share.
As I have concluded in that message that I have sent to all my comrades: That is truly the only way that one call yourself a democrat and ‘loyal member of the ANC’.
Carl Niehaus is a former ANC NEC member