Parallel dead ends

Peter Manson reviews: Ronnie Kasrils, A simple man: Kasrils and the Zuma enigma Auckland Park 2017, pp283, £16.19 and Dale McKinley, South Africa’s corporatised liberation Auckland Park 2017, pp198, £14.95

Both of these books are written by former members of the South African Communist Party and both show the quandary facing former partisans of the African National Congress.After the patent failure of the ANC to end “racialised inequality”, let alone bring about “radical economic transformation”, where do we turn now?

The authors have very different backgrounds. Ronnie Kasrils was a member of the both the ANC and SACP for almost half a century, joining in the early 1960s. During the anti-apartheid struggle he was a senior member of the ANC command, and was “head of military intelligence” during the days of exile. Perhaps unsurprisingly as a result of this role, he was eventually appointed minister of intelligence services in the post-apartheid government - a post he occupied from 2004 to 2008. He notes that he has attempted to provide “an honest account of events ... without revealing classified information” (pxv).

By contrast Dale McKinley was not part of ‘the struggle’. He emigrated to South Africa from Zimbabwe in 1990, when he joined the SACP. He was a full-time worker for the party, but was expelled in 2000 for “consistently and publicly” attacking ANC leaders, and in this way “publicly and consistently promoting positions that undermine the SACP”.

While both books seek - in their far from satisfactory ways - to outline some kind of way forward for the ANC/SACP milieu, the prime motivation of A simple man is clearly to take advantage of the ongoing speculation about the future of president Jacob Zuma.

Kasrils starts the book by reporting an incident involving himself and Zuma on the Mozambican-Swaziland border in 1982. The two were smuggling a knapsack filled with arms from the safety of Mozambique to ANC fighters based in Swaziland, but when Kasrils jumped down from the border fence he badly sprained his ankle. Zuma was kind and considerate at the time, but when they managed to get back to their base in Mozambique Kasrils overheard Zuma calling him a “stupid white man”, implying he was responsible for that night’s setback (they had failed to meet up with ANC comrades in Swaziland). Kasrils maintains that there were always two sides to Zuma, but - unlike the SACP, which campaigned for him to replace Thabo Mbeki as president in the first decade of the 21st century - Kasrils never trusted the man.

And he describes in detail all the controversies that have engulfed Zuma - from charges of corruption (for which he could now face prosecution once more) to the underhand pro-Zuma campaign to blacken Mbeki’s name through the falsification of emails, to Zuma’s trial for rape in 2006. Kasrils was often well placed to describe such events first-hand and he makes it clear that he believes Zuma still has much to answer for in relation to all of them: “his degenerate behaviour and lack of moral integrity ... would have penalised him from membership, never mind leadership, of any half-decent organisation” (p126).

He asks: “... what were the factors that transformed Zuma, the freedom fighter, ... into a corrupt and disreputable figure, who surrounded himself with a load of creepy kleptocrats?” The answer is that “he is a consequence of errors made during the transformational arrangements of the early 1990s” (pxiv). He explains that in the period of negotiations with the apartheid regime “there was a primary need for funds” and “The organisation became a magnet, drawing all sorts of carpetbaggers and vultures to feast for flesh and favours” (p16).

Kasrils declares:

By no means all freedom fighters behaved like Zuma, but those who did would justify their behaviour on the basis of sheer entitlement: they had suffered in the struggle, hence they were poor; their needs were great; it was time to feed - the country owed it to them (p17).


The SACP began to see Zuma as their man after Thabo Mbeki, who was president from 1999 to 2008, was clearly leading the ANC firmly along the neoliberal road.

In fact the ANC had already begun to take that road under Nelson Mandela’s presidency (1994-99). Kasrils, like McKinley, shared the SACP’s opposition to Mandela’s abandonment in 1996 of the mildly social democratic Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) in favour of the neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution package (Gear).

If only an equivalent of the RDP had been followed through consistently, complains Kasrils, “it might well have attracted other developing countries to follow suit. This would have constituted a serious challenge to what is sometimes described as market fundamentalism or neoliberalism” (p232).

However, when it came to the transition from apartheid, “The agreement was achieved through undertakings by the ANC not to disrupt the economy by the adoption of radical policies.” He writes approvingly:

These undertakings became the glue that held the transition together, laying the foundation for the beginnings of a just and democratic society. That was a truly tremendous achievement, and credit is due to Nelson Mandela’s leadership (pp239-40).

Very understandingly, Kasrils comments:

The Mandela choice focused on the need to make compromises that were not radical in order to allow for a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy ... This meant allaying the fears of the powerful white minority and economic elite by not fundamentally changing land and property ownership.

But “It was this deal ... that led to unforeseen consequences and that, I believe, could and should have been avoided, given what we had promised our people”. In Kasrils’ view, however, Mandela’s belief that there was “no option, no other possibility” should be regarded as “an error of judgement” rather than “conscious betrayal” (p225). In fact, it seems, Mandela was right to engage with leading business figures: “he realised he had to meet with such people, particularly from the white community, to ensure that they were carried along for change” (p238).

What other ‘errors of judgement’ did Mandela make?

Soon after the ANC won power, president Mandela established a commission to consider the extent to which cabinet ministers’ salaries and perks should be reduced ... A group of veterans, however, were disturbed by this possibility ... They had nothing and needed similar salaries to those of the former apartheid political hierarchy ... In the end Mandela thought better of reducing ministers’ salaries and the subject was never raised again (p221).

Mbeki v Zuma

No doubt Kasrils had many reservations about ANC policy under both Mandela and his successor, Mbeki, but he was outraged at the idea of Zuma as president, who, he was convinced, just could not be trusted - and in fact he had a certain admiration for Mbeki, who he believed was at least honest. Kasrils recalls how in 1991 Nelson Mandela had asked him what he thought of Zuma: “I told the old man that distrust towards him had been evident in exile”. He was “too ethnically inclined and conservative” (p23).

However, at a meeting of the SACP leadership in 2005, the party began to discuss moving against Mbeki and throwing its weight behind Zuma as the new ANC leader - and inevitably South Africa’s next president. Kasrils was one of a tiny minority who spoke against the idea: “Mark my words - the party one day will deeply regret this support for Jacob Zuma” (p35). SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande tried to reassure Kasrils: “We understand you,” he said. Nevertheless, he continued, “I would say that a Zuma presidency represents the best opening for the left in the country.”

As Kasrils explains,

The SACP and Cosatu, with their decidedly ideological concerns, might have regarded Zuma as the best prospect for opening up space for the left, but in my view that rendered them as complicit as the emergent crony capitalists and rent-seeking opportunists who protected him (p126).

What is more, “It took 10 years for the SACP to begin to raise criticism” of Zuma (p190-91). Finally in 2017 the party called on him to resign. But so far he is clinging on - although his second term as president will end in 2019, he seems to be hoping to strike a deal with the ANC’s new leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, to ensure he will not have to face fresh corruption charges.

Kasrils contrasts this obduracy with the attitude of Mbeki, who was much more ‘honourable’. When the ANC national executive called on him to resign as president in September 2008, he did so immediately. He was followed by the likes of Kasrils - from both the government and the NEC.

Incredibly, Kasrils waxes lyrical about “the sense of vision that marked his presidency” (p144). He has nothing but praise for the “gender empowerment methodically introduced by Mbeki over the years” (p141). He concludes:

The fact that the comrades at the SACP headquarters supported Zuma for the top leadership spoke volumes about the extent to which he had succeeded in exploiting their antagonisms to Mbeki and their belief that he was a suitable man for the left and for the country (p18).

However, it goes without saying that Kasrils’ position never remotely resembled one of communist principle. You only have to look at what he says about his role as minister of intelligence services. Yes, it involved full cooperation with the likes of the CIA. He explains: “Establishing relationships with international intelligence agencies was ... essential to the job.” After all, “While there might be immense political differences, there are also areas of common interest. Such as knowledge pertaining to security threats” (p12).

In fact, following the first democratic elections in 1994, the ANC government under Mandela simply took over the apartheid regime’s intelligence apparatus lock, stock and barrel: “after 1994 it was a question of amalgamating former regime personnel with those from the liberation movement”, writes Kasrils (p9). But ANC comrades - who perhaps had undergone no more than “a six-month training course in a socialist country” - were “at a decided disadvantage when compared to the apartheid-era spooks” (p10).

It is not clear when Kasrils finally parted company with the SACP, but eventually he became “an active supporter of the Right2Know campaign, fighting against government secrecy and corruption” (p180).

He was disgusted by the August 2012 Marikana massacre and involved in talks sponsored by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa about the formation of a new workers’ party (which came to nothing). But at the 2014 general election he helped to lead the ‘Sidikiwe/Vukani’ campaign, which urged voters to “either spoil your ballot in protest or [vote] in ways that will challenge the huge power and hold of the ANC over the electorate” (p195). In other words - anything but the ANC.

He even seems to regard the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters as an advance. The EFF is described as “an energetic voice to fill the void created by the absence of any strong left opposition in parliament” (p196). And, now that the tripartite alliance is “breaking apart”, we need a new “agency for change”, says Kasrils. Maybe a new workers’ party will come about or maybe “the emergent EFF, or SACP standing in elections ... will be part of that agency”.

But, most of all, we need to “fearlessly reconsider the choices that were arrived at” (p227):

The economic failures that arose as a result of the settlement, the collapse of revolutionary resolve, have allowed a pack of criminals and charlatans to hijack the ANC and masquerade as the proponents of radical economic transformation, which is a term they abuse to hide their nefarious business interests (p241).

In the final chapter, Kasrils puts on his ‘communist’ face again:

International monopoly capitalism is wreaking unprecedented havoc in the quest for markets and resources, with invasion, war, destruction and reaction in its wake. As was stated a century ago by Rosa Luxemburg during a previous era of havoc, “the outcome is either socialism or barbarism” (p243).

This, he says, is all part of “ the irrational, self-destructive character of global capitalism” (p241). And “we are reminded of Marx’s observation ... government is the executive committee of the bourgeoisie” (p243). He must have overlooked that when he was minister of intelligence services!

Today Kasrils advocates a combination of Keynesian policies and protectionism in the shape of measures to “stem the outflow of capital abroad” (p245). But he still yearns for the days of the “socialist countries”. After all, “Cuba provides the example of how it eradicated illiteracy within one year in 1961” (p245).

And now “What is needed is a People’s Pact, to be arrived at through a national consultative process built from grassroots participation.” We need “elected representatives subject to recall by their constituency rather than being rubber-stamp captives of a party list” (p244).


In this way, as will become clear, Kasrils comes to a similar conclusion to that of Dale McKinley, whose criticisms of first the ANC and then the SACP were always from the left.

Unlike Kasrils, however, McKinley is clear in South Africa’s corporatised liberation that the ANC “made a conscious choice after 1994 to exercise its unparalleled political position and power (mostly though the state) in partnership with and in service to capital” (p5).

In fact this was not a new development, he contends. From the beginning, “The leadership of the early ANC wanted a specific section of the black population to become an integral part of the capitalist system.” This he describes as “the foundational setting for what was, much later, to become ‘black economic empowerment’” (p14). The whole idea, says McKinley, was that this must be part of a “deracialised capitalism” - one which required “the empowerment of an emergent black capitalist class” (p15).

But he soon makes clear where his leftism has taken him. He explains that his book is not one that

seeks to set out specific policy recommendations, to offer all-encompassing ‘solutions’ to the present situation or an alternative ‘macro-model’ for the future ... It is a book that is umbilically linked, through the author and his own journey, to consistent political and intellectual activism ... (p12).

In this way McKinley is turning his back not only on the need for a party, but on Marxist theory, and looking instead to “activism” pure and simple to provide the way forward.

However, it seems that McKinley believed the SACP was committed to something similar in the late 1980s. He contends that the party “set out a completely different path” from that of Mandela. He quotes from the SACP’s 1989 manifesto calling for a “seizure of power” built on “all-round mass action, merging with organised armed activity [and] led by a well organised underground ... with the likelihood of culminating in an insurrection”:

As for negotiations, the SACP warned that “our ruling class and their imperialist allies ... see negotiation as a way of pre-empting a revolutionary transformation ... which will ... frustrate the basic objectives of the struggling masses” (p16).

By that time, he says, “ANC leaders were rapidly running away from long-held organisational and ideological positions that were supported by the vast majority of their own members” (p22). He holds up the example of nationalisation, which, despite his anarcho-activism, he still seems to support.

Around the time of the negotiated settlement, he writes, “the ANC’s main concern was the political-ideological and organisational buy-in of its two alliance partners, the SACP and Cosatu, [which] represented the core of political and organisational power for the majority of workers and the poor at that time” (p33).

By the way, McKinley constantly refers to the power of “workers and the poor” in this way. But in what way are “the poor” - if we mean by that the millions of unemployed shack-dwellers - able to exercise “power”? True, they can, and often do, engage in spontaneous, locally based protests, which state forces are called upon to suppress. While such protests may threaten state property in a given area, they can hardly be said, in and of themselves, to pose a threat to the rule of the bourgeoisie.

By contrast, workers are concentrated in workplaces large and small and have a natural tendency to organise collectively when confronting their employer. Equally they have a natural tendency to seek out collective solutions to society’s problems. They are not automatically socialist, but they find it easy, to embrace socialist ideas, which become their common sense. More than that, they can be won to give leadership to all who are oppressed and suffer under capitalism. This is where their power derives from, which explains why the organisation of workers is the key. But McKinley clearly does not think much of even trade union work.

For example, he states that Cosatu by the early 1990s

... began to wrap itself up in corporatist deal-making with domestic corporate capital. Following the same elite-led incorporation strategy as that of the ANC, Cosatu’s leadership became involved in a parallel negotiating process with capital and the state, devoting much of its energies to institutionalising bargaining agreements between unions, employers and the state (p23).

True, under communist leadership unions would link their campaigning for improvements in the here and now to a strategy for working class power, but McKinley seems to be implying that working class rule was actually on the cards at that time - despite his contention that the leadership of the liberation movement was aiming only for a “deracialised capitalism”.

He writes that in 1994 “there still remained a widespread ... expectation among the black majority that the ANC would begin to adopt and pursue a more anti-capitalist, or at the very least radically redistributive, politics and socio-economic plan” (p29). He states correctly that the RDP was merely “mildly redistributive”. However, he seems to believe the RDP’s verbiage when it promised a population “empowered through ... an institutional network, fostering representative, participatory and direct democracy” (p95).

Both authors regret the abandonment of a report drawn up by the Macro Economic Research Group (Merg) in 1993, which, says McKinley, “painstakingly laid out a wide range of social democratic policies as an ‘answer’ to the neoliberals” (p74-75). Of course, writes, McKinley, Merg did not set out a “radically anti-capitalist development path”, However,

... it was designed to directly address the ... inequalities of the apartheid era and to create the conditions for a redistributive path to economic growth through a participatory and democratically accountable interventionist state” (p75).

Showing, despite his anarcho-activism, his continued attachment to the sort of Keynesian reforms Merg and the RDP encompassed, McKinley claims: “The year 1996 proved to be a watershed for both the ANC and the country” (p37). That was, of course, when the RDP was replaced by Gear - which, he says, represented “the logical ‘second stage’ outcome and then embracing of the ANC’s core politics and organisational character of accession and incorporation (the ‘first stage’ having been completed when the ANC came to political power)” (p41).

On the other hand, in spite of his illusions in the RDP, he tells us that, “Once political power had been ‘won’, the ANC’s rapid abandonment of a radically redistributive economic path ... was a fait accompli” (p43).


McKinley provides useful information to demonstrate that poverty in South Africa and inequality have substantially increased since 1994. For example:

... almost 20% of South Africa’s population (10.6 million people) are living in informal dwellings [ie, shacks]. The backlog, which ... is estimated to be between 2.5 and 3.5 million units, continues to grow (p59).

But the problem has been that

… leading up to 1994 there were two diametrically opposed concepts of power and revolutionary change. On the one hand, the idea of progressive civil society ... On the other hand, the idea of vanguardist political parties ‘seizing’ power by ‘capturing’ the state (p30).

He claims that it was for this reason that the ANC closed down the United Democratic Front in the late 1980s. It was seen as a focus of mass mobilisation - something the ANC could not tolerate, he implies.

Rejecting in this way the idea of “vanguardist political parties”, McKinley yearns for “a genuine people’s power - a radical, participatory, bottom-up democracy and governance” (p76).

He embraces “the idea and principle of participatory democracy, as opposed to the much more functional and detached set-up of representative democracy” (p98). In this way, the experience of workers’ councils and soviet power is definitively rejected at a stroke. But how can genuine democracy not be “representative”? Yes, we can organise lots of things locally - he is delighted to report that “a new collection of community organisations and social movements rose up in resistance from the late 1990s onwards” (p100). But how are we to coordinate such local organisation except through electing representatives able to come together on a much larger scale in order to agree on common action and aims?

He admits that “elections ... are necessary in any democratic polity”, but “they are not and never can be the embodiment of democratic expression” (p119). In fact “In many poor urban and rural communities, it is through the activities of community organisations, social movements and often spontaneous ‘uprisings’ that an increasing number of people are experiencing and practising meaningful participatory democracy” (p120). Admittedly “institutional democratic forms are necessary”, but on their own they “gradually turn democracy into oligarchy” (p147).

Illustrating his refusal to engage with authentic Marxism, McKinley notes that in reply to the question, “what is the real, practical alternative?”, the answer that “those on the ‘left’ side of the political spectrum ... want to hear is a specific, prefigured and worked out ‘alternative plan or model based on the application of a particular ideological tradition/ism” (p146). But that only “nullifies the very essence of a democratically framed, collectively conceived and constructed ‘alternative’”. He concludes:

As opposed to models and plans derived from the ‘expert’, the ‘leader’, the vanguard or the party, a ‘real’ alternative must surely be borne out of a journey of changed consciousness ... and the ensuing practical struggles and experiences, both individually and collectively (p147).

What he appears to overlook is the rather obvious fact that we learn from both “practical struggles and experiences” and the accumulated theory based upon them. For McKinley it seems to be acceptable to develop our own ideas regarding the content and achievement of an “alternative”, but we must never bother with the conclusions already arrived at in the past.

Although both McKinley and Kasrils seem to accept that the necessary change must take place globally, they are at a total loss when it comes to the achievement and coordination of a new international order. McKinley’s rejection of actual organisational forms - not least that of the Marxist party - in reality renders such change impossible.

The two authors have provided us with much useful information based on their separate and totally different experiences. But their conclusions are confused and totally inadequate. In this, however, they are hardly alone. Their confusion is typical not just of the South African left, but of leftwing organisations worldwide.



1. Both titles are available from Central Books: www.centralbooks.com