Ronnie Kasrils. Screenshot via "Democracy Now!"
What is it that makes a rebel? Why does one willingly step outside society to destroy a system of power, break the law and risk persecution and even death for an ideal? As the state calcifies into corporate totalitarianism, as prominent rebels such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are defamed by a bankrupt media and political class and hunted down as criminals, as change through the established mechanisms of reform becomes impossible, as systems of power invert morality to silence and imprison the just, we are going to have to ask hard questions about what we are willing to endure to make a better world.
Rebels at the inception of struggle are vilified. They are few in number. They are ostracized by the wider society. They are left to brood in shadows where the organs of state security track and hunt them like prey. These rebels of history must become our tutors. To discuss the nature of rebellion, I recently met with Ronnie Kasrils, who was a leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress when the group was fighting South Africa's government and who, from 2004 to 2008, was minister for intelligence services in the ANC government.
Kasrils, white, middle class and Jewish, turned his back on his race and his class to join the African National Congress as a 22-year-old in 1960. A year later he became a member of the South African Communist Party. He was a founding member, along with Nelson Mandela, of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), or Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the ANC. He served as the commander of the Natal Regional Command and underwent military training in 1964 in Odessa, in the Soviet Union.
As a leader in the MK, Kasrils carried out sabotage and bombings of state infrastructure and industrial sites. Although a 1983 MK guerrilla attack left 19 civilians dead and a 1986 raid killed three civilians and injured 73 others, Kasrils points out that overall, only a small number of whites died in the struggle while tens of thousands of blacks were slaughtered by the apartheid state.
Kasrils, along with his late wife, Eleanor, lived the shadowy life of an armed revolutionary. In his long liberation campaign he encountered resistance figures ranging from Ernesto "Che" Guevara to Malcolm X. His autobiography, "Armed and Dangerous: My Undercover Struggle Against Apartheid," is a meditation on the cost and demands of revolutionary discipleship.
Kasrils said the rebel and the revolutionary are driven by an instinctive compassion, concern for others and "standing up for the underdog." These impulses are often present in children, he said, but they are muted or crushed by the institutions of social control including the family and school. Kasrils, although an atheist, sees the rebel in Jesus Christ, as well as in the thunderous denunciations of evil and oppression by the Hebrew prophets of the Bible. He said that those who endure oppression such as Mandela and rise up to resist are better described as revolutionaries. The rebel, he said, is one who often enjoys certain "liberties" but who is "prepared to give up his class or her class, or tribe." Rebels turn their backs on their own.
Kasrils in his autobiography writes about a discussion on the nature of the rebel with Jack Simons, a retired university professor who was teaching ANC recruits in Angola and who had been a leader in the South African Communist Party before it was outlawed in 1950. The conversation, Kasrils said, "stunned me."
"Unconventional thought is a force for development," Simons told Kasrils. "It is wrong to suppress it. The likes of you and I were thrown to the lions in Roman times and burnt at the stake in the Middle Ages as heretics."
"The person who could [have escaped all that and had] a privileged or comfortable life -- isn't that the rebel, the John Browns?" Kasrils asked...
"Why does John Brown raise the flag of rebellion? So, for a rebel, the officer in an army who certainly stands up and says this army is standing for the wrong thing, we want to stand for the freeing of the slaves, I find this the more fascinating area in terms of rebellion, not that I find it more satisfying or important than understanding why the worker stands up against the boss. I mean, that's the motive force of revolutionary change, not the rebel's role. Not my role. And I think this is what Jack Simons was saying to me. We would have been burnt at the stake. That's the dissident factor. I find this on the question of having been Jewish-born but standing for Palestinian rights. There you need such courage to stand up against your tribe. In South Africa I see so many people now who were oppressed before, and now have a chance to advance in life and become ministers or government officials of various kinds and mayors or -- through black empowerment -- heads of companies, forgetting what their backgrounds were and feeling, 'Well, now I can give my children a decent home and education, I'm not worried about those without.' That's not a rebel."
It was in post-apartheid South Africa that Kasrils fully realized Simons' wisdom. Kasril's relentless quest for not just political but economic justice has turned him into a fierce critic of the two organizations to which he has dedicated himself for 50 years -- the African National Congress and the Communist Party. The failure of these two organizations to ameliorate the suffering of the poor, the rampant corruption he says exists within the leadership of the ANC, and the Marikana Massacre last August in which 44 striking miners were gunned down by the South African Police Service -- the most lethal assault on unarmed civilians since the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the event that prompted Kasrils to join the ANC -- have left him alienated, once again, from the centers of power.
"I have to speak up," he said. "It's deep within me."
Kasrils said the ANC's fatal mistake, which he concedes was partly his fault, was its decision in the transition to power in 1994 to mothball its socialist economic agenda, known as the Freedom Charter. The charter, which had wide popular appeal, demanded the end of the exploitation by the white oligarchic elite that treated black laborers as serfs on farms, in mines and on factory floors. It called for the right to work, freedom of expression, access to decent housing and land for all South Africans and a sharing of South African wealth, especially its mineral resources. Banks, industries and mines were to be nationalized. He and other leaders in the ANC believed they could deal with economic injustice later. They were fearful of defying Western imperialism and, as Kasrils put it, "neoliberal global economy market fundamentals." But the ANC's caving in to global pressure to adopt a free market economy has proved to be a disaster. South Africa continues to be one of the most unequal societies on the planet. Whites, although they are less than 10 percent of the nation's population, earn 7.7 times more on average than their black counterparts. Only a few thousand of the country's 41 million blacks earn more than $5,000 a year. It is apartheid by another name.
A "true rebel would not have accepted that," Kasrils said, citing Che Guevara and Simons.
Kasrils became deputy minister of defense in the ANC government in 1994 when Mandela was elected president of South Africa.
"I felt, perhaps as a rebel, that this was something that I could focus on and make a big difference," he said of his appointment. Kasrils wanted to reform "a white supremacist army into a military that would serve democracy" but in the process, he said, "I took my eye off the ball in terms of the economic factors."
The forces of global corporate capitalism that have deformed South Africa are harder to define and fight than the palpable evil of white supremacy under apartheid, Kasrils said. The current battle requires "more courage and inner depth" because the enemy is faceless. Kasrils said, however, that we have reached a moment in history that is like 1848 or 1917 or some other seismic turning point. Marx, Engels and Lenin, he said, illuminated the maze the rebels faced in 19th century industrialized society; now, a new maze has to be deciphered.
"We need something of that nature now," he said of the light provided by these thinkers. Answers "existed and then petrified." The onslaught of globalization has "torn apart" the world and created conditions that Kasrils believes replicate those Engels correctly predicted would convulse the early 20th century.