Ronnie Kasrils is a South African author and activist. He was Minister of Intelligence Services from 2004 to 2008, and member of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1987 to 2007. He was a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and lived in exile in London, Luanda, Maputo, Swaziland, Botswana and Lusaka where he served the ANC. He is currently a jury member of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine.
I caught up with Kasrils in London where he participated in a book launch and in Marxism 2012 to talk about a new book – London Recruits. Here is what he had to say about the situation in Palestine/Israel and anti-apartheid in South Africa.
Frank Barat: How did you become an anti-apartheid activist?
Ronnie Kasrils: Well, I am from a background which afforded me privileges in white South Africa, but I grew up with a social conscience and could not tolerate the cruelty and oppression against my black compatriots. After the Sharpeville massacre of March 1961, in which 69 black protesters were killed, I took the decision to become an activist and joined the ANC. I was involved in demonstrations and soon came to understand that armed actions were required to reinforce the mass political struggle.
I consequently responded to Nelson Mandela’s call for volunteers to join the movement’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). I was subsequently on the run from the police, left the country for military training in the former Soviet Union, and worked throughout Africa in our military camps and on the front line. I became chief of military intelligence for MK.
FB: How does it feel to be back in London, a city you lived in for many years, in exile, during apartheid in South Africa?
RK: I settled in London for a while and my wife, a fellow activist who escaped with me, and I worked here, and our two sons were born here. We participated in many international solidarity movements, including the Palestinian struggle, and have many friends in Britain. So I enjoy meeting up with old comrades and friends and love the political and cultural life of the British capital.
“I enjoy meeting up with old comrades and friends and love the political and cultural life of the British capital.”
– Ronnie Kasrils, anti-apartheid activist
FB: Could you tell us more about this new book London Recruits?
RK: The book is a compilation of the experiences of over 30 foreign supporters I and others recruited to travel to apartheid South Africa over many years as secret couriers and smugglers of political literature, funds and false documents needed by our underground in the country.
They participated in the physical distribution of leaflets at a time when our underground presence was at a very low ebb and when we needed to get our message of freedom across to our people. They acted very bravely to do this and were trained in London in clandestine methods of distribution. In time some of these activists settled in South Africa to provide safe houses for our cadres or smuggled weapons into South Africa from neighbouring African states.
FB: I was recently with you in Cape Town, for the third session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, and what shocked me was that while apartheid ended in a legal and institutionalised sense, things were still very tough for Black South Africans and one could still feel a sense of social apartheid. What is your view on this?
RK: Yes, this is unfortunately the case. In the first place, the centuries-old legacy of colonialism and apartheid still persists and despite exceptional achievements in building homes, delivering water and electricity, and raising pensions and social grants for the previous underprivileged, it is still a long way to go to eradicate poverty.
Secondly, in this unipolar world dominated by market capitalism, and the neo-liberal global agenda, it has proved very difficult to break free from the old prevailing relations of production, distribution and exchange. Our democratic government from Mandela’s time compromised to ensure a peaceful transition from the apartheid order, but this has not translated into the kind of economic justice that is required. A second revolution is needed.
FB: You are one of the most vociferous critics of the policies of the State of Israel towards Palestinians. Why the focus on Israel?
RK: Because what is taking place in Palestine reminds us, South African freedom fighters, of what we suffered from. We are the beneficiaries of international solidarity and need to make a similar payback to others still struggling for liberation. Palestine is an example of a people who were dispossessed of land and birthright just like the indigenous people of South Africa.
As a Jew, I abhor the fact that the Zionist rulers of Israel/Palestine claim they are acting in the name of Jews everywhere. I am one of many Jews internationally, and in Israel itself, who declare “Not in my name”.
FB: In November, in Cape Town, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, an initiative you have been involved with from the start, called Israel policies towards the Palestinian People as a whole, apartheid. In your opinion, what is the difference between SA apartheid and Israeli apartheid?
RK: The SA government admitted outright they believed that races were distinctly different and had to develop separately along their own cultural and traditional lines. Blacks therefore would be treated as foreign workers/visitors to white SA and would have their own “national” rights in their Bantustans – greatly deprived rural areas. Laws were required for such separation of racial groups. Of course, they pretended that each group would receive same assistance for their development but in fact the White group received all the privileges.
“In the Israeli case, it is quite clear that non-Jews do not receive equal rights and treatment as Jews, but the Zionists are embarrassed to admit this.”
– Ronnie Kasrils, anti-apartheid activist
In the Israeli case, it is quite clear that non-Jews do not receive equal rights and treatment as Jews, but the Zionists are embarrassed to admit this. Consequently, they attempt to conceal the fact that Israel is not a democracy for all its citizens, but they have various laws to ensure that Jews receive preferential treatment. It is apartheid by another name. I refer here to the situation in Israel itself where over 40 laws give Jews privileges and rights over non-Jews.
In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is quite a different matter where open and strict apartheid laws allow for the segregation and control of the Palestinian people whilst the illegal Jewish settlements receive State protection and privileges. But in both cases – Israel itself and the OPT – a clear system of apartheid-style rule operates.
FB: Israel is backed by most western states and the only remaining superpower in the world, the US. Do we, we the people, have enough power to change this?
RK: A people involved in a just struggle, occupying the moral high ground, will triumph over oppression in the long run, as long as they persevere with their struggle, are prepared to sacrifice, stand united in their cause and have the correct theory, strategy and leadership.
Such a struggle will gain support and solidarity of the world community and the masses of the western states, including the US, who will force their rulers to support change in the end. This process happened in Vietnam and South Africa.
FB: Finally, you are also involved with Polisario Front, which is fighting for the rights of the people of Western Sahara. As John Berger once said, “The struggle is going to be endless”, right?
RK: The struggle in such cases as Polisario and Palestine will be protracted, but I am sure will culminate in victory because these are struggles of heroic peoples who are steadfast in their objectives and just do not give in. South Africa and Nelson Mandela are illustrations of this.
Frank Barat is a Human Rights activist based in London. He is the coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. He has edited two books; Gaza in Crisis with Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe, and Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation with Asa Winstanley. He has also participated in the book Is There a Court for Gaza? with Daniel Machover.