The ex-MK leader is not endorsing any party this election – just follow your heart and head, he says.
For the first time in Ronnie Kasrils's life, he can't unequivocally tell people to vote for the ANC. "I have been a person who was so involved in mobilisation for ANC votes," he says. "I must confess that I can't do this today, simply saying: 'Vote for the ANC; it's your only hope.'"
We're at a hotel in Johannesburg's Rosebank after a long day for Kasrils, who sips a cup of tea to revive himself. It is a habit from his days in the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) camps, he says, where "tea was all we had to drink when logistics didn't come through in the Angolan forests".
He'll need the caffeine: his Johannesburg visits are a whirlwind of meetings and speaking gigs. Everyone wants to talk about the state of the ANC and Kasrils has earned a reputation for being refreshingly candid – and critical – in his retirement.
There are many "formers" to Kasrils – former MK head of intelligence, former minister of intelligence services and former member of the ANC's national executive committee and the South African Communist Party central committee – dating back to as recently as 2007, when the Polokwane tidal wave swept him to the sidelines.
But at age 75, he's not slowing down, despite a tremor in his hands and a shade more grey in his trademark bushy eyebrows. He has taken on the role of agent for change, hoping that "good comrades" in the liberation alliance will heed his advice to stop the rot from spreading. And the solutions he relates hearing are extreme, even going as far as spoiling votes to get the ANC's attention.
He talks repeatedly about the Faustian pact the party made with big business when it came to power in the 1990s, how Nelson Mandela did a U-turn on radical reforms in favour of neoliberal policies that have led to the current impasse: a police force seemingly so bound to mining bosses that it could shoot workers at Marikana and alarming levels of corruption.
But it is Marikana that evokes the most visceral response. Kasrils's easy grin is gone, his face flushed and his shoulders tense as he talks about it.
"It was premeditated murder … an absolute ambush," he says. "People would be pleading for their lives, riddled with bullets and these police, who are supposed to be there in the service of our people, do not move a finger to give any assistance."
It was a turning point for the country, he says. But one gets the sense that, ultimately, it was a turning point for him.
He could no longer hit the streets with his persuasive chatter and convince people to vote ANC. Instead, he has to dig deep for sincere advice for those who turn to him, at a loss about who to vote for.
'Use your vote'
"I find this all the time. And I say to them: 'Use your vote. Interrogate with your mind, your intellect: What is it that a party stands for?'"
But sometimes that isn't enough. Like on a hot day two months ago when he boarded a bus in Pretoria, drawn as ever to "where our people are".
There were a dozen people on board, surprised by the umlungu catching the bus and delighted when they recognised that umlungu as Kasrils.
"They start with the politics," he says. "I'm cautious; I want to find out how they think."
It turns out that the passengers – old, young, male and female – had all voted for the ANC before but didn't know what to do this time.
"Everyone started talking about Nkandla and the Guptas and so on … some said: 'No way, but we can never vote DA [Democratic Alliance].'"
The country's official opposition party, with its pro-business policies, isn't an option for those with a socialist bent, he says.
What, then, for those from the left looking for a political home?
There is his first nugget of advice: question the parties on offer and make a choice.
He runs through the options for a left-inclined voter: "If you're young you [may] think the red berets are offering something different" – but allegations of corruption by the Economic Freedom Fighters leader hang in the air.
Cope and UDM options
"You've also got [Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa] Lekota, who is a good man but I think his party made major errors. [United Democratic Movement leader Bantu] Holomisa is a decent guy but, unfortunately, I don't see him coming out strongly as a national leader."
If one can't identify with any party at all, Kasrils has heard other options being bandied about in his circles. One of those is voting anyway – against the ANC – as a wake-up call to the ruling party. It may result in ANC leaders correcting their course.
"We must be very decisive on corruption, on cronyism, and we must look to real economic changes for the betterment of our people."
It would also set a more interesting course for the next elections, by which time an organised workers' party might have emerged, as the National Union of Metalworkers posits. "That could well provide people with a real future choice."
And if one can't cast a negative vote? There's a spoilt-ballot campaign.
"I have been part of a debate with some close comrades, friends and associates who say: 'We just can't vote for this leadership of the ANC and if there is nobody else to vote for, then maybe one just spoils the ballot.'"
It's an extreme choice, but Kasrils would prefer it to staying away from the ballot box entirely.
"I have said to people like that: 'Look, if that's the case, it's no good going into a polling booth and just crossing everything out.
"If you want to do something like that, as a group, issue a statement expressing why you feel that you can't vote at this particular point in time and that the ANC has to prove itself in its renewal."
But no such campaign has emerged and he doesn't plan to head one. All he can do is persuade people to vote come May 7.
Kasrils is wistful as we wrap up. "I never thought I would come to a point of not being able to tell others what they should do, except that they should vote."
It was his outrage over the 1960 Sharpeville shootings that drove Kasrils into the ANC. But a second massacre, and its attendant bout of outrage 52 years later, has signalled a shift in his stance towards the party.
"The ANC has had 20 years to prove itself. If it hasn't proved [itself], then I'm saying: 'Listen to your head and your heart.'"
It's the 'treading water' election
It's too late for a spoilt-vote campaign, but left-leaning voters should make a temporary choice at least in the 2014 elections, according to some academics.
"It would have been nice to have a choice like in India, where it says 'none of the above' on their ballots," says Rhodes University political lecturer Richard Pithouse.
In South Africa the option would have been "a coherent strategy to spoil the votes".
"But you have to get big forces behind it, someone like Numsa or [Ronnie] Kasrils," said University of the Witwatersrand sociology professor Devan Pillay. "Otherwise it doesn't have much of an impact."
But no one has launched such a campaign, and so disillusioned voters must consider their options or risk coming off as merely apathetic.
Pithouse acknowledges the dilemma, saying it is no longer enough to stay away from the polls because of a lack of choice, if that means the ANC stays in power.
"Now that they are so repressive they have to go; we can't let them continue using murder as a tool to achieve social control," he said, referencing the Marikana massacre.
Pillay talked of a "temporary vote repository" for this election, until a genuine workers' party possibly emerges to contest the 2019 poll.
"There's a gatvol vote going for the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters], even though they're very worried about what [party leader Julius] Malema represents," he said. "And some are going for the DA [Democratic Alliance] to give the ANC a fright."
But he finds United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa the most appealing choice for now.
"He's an honest politician, he's got credibility and he's broadly on the left."
It's a tricky situation, however, where even the most radical may not be what they seem. "The EFF are relatively left but they seem to be cosying up to business," said political analyst Susan Booysen.
"They had a meeting in Alexandra recently where they gave assurances to business leaders that they would not nationalise outright." – Verashni Pillay