Operation Ozinsky

Max Ozinsky, widely credited with being the strategic mastermind behind the Western Cape African National Congress, is weary of attracting attention. The provincial party’s only white ANC office-bearer, he prefers the shield of collective leadership.

But this former operative of Operation Vula — an insurrectionary fallback if the settlement negotiations of the early 1990s had bombed out — he remains a Marxist and professed revolutionary. This is despite being a member of the provincial legislature in South Africa’s bourgeois democracy and owner of two yachts.

“I’m quite concerned about the idea that exists that you have one white person who does all the thinking behind the ANC leadership … It’s very crude,” he insists. Even if statistical number crunching and analysis “is something I have an interest in”, that does not amount to determining strategy.

But it was to Ozinsky that the ANC looked for spin after losing control of Cape Town in the municipal elections. It emerged quickly: the party has consolidated its traditional township support base, while the Democratic Alliance actually dropped from its December 2000 support levels. That position was confirmed at last weekend’s provincial general council meeting.

“This fine balance or instability [of one vote], in Cape Town is a result of the DA losing 13% of the vote,” he argues. “This is not a major defeat for the ANC and anyone who sees it in that way is misreading the situation.”

Ozinsky (43) has steadily manoeuvred from inconspicuousness within the ranks of the ANC to its van as deputy secretary.

Even those who dislike or disagree with him in the ANC agree that he is “Comrade Hard Work” and “Mr Clean”. The work ethic goes back to his days as National Union of South African Students media officer, when resources were readily available for anti-apartheid activists to print pamphlets and posters. “I remember Max coming to classes with his hands covered in ink,” remarked a former acquaintance.

While others moved into Parliament and the provincial government from 1994, he acquired a close working knowledge of branches and regions during a five-year stint as a party organiser. He also renewed ties with James Ngculu, then provincial secretary — they first met in exile in Botswana after Ozinsky skipped the country in December 1987.

His climb up the greasy pole began after the 1999 election, when he joined the provincial legislature, while heading the ANC’s Cape Town region. With 35 000 members, almost half the provincial total, it is the largest and most influential of the six regions. It was strengthened when the ANC took control of the Cape Town council in late 2002 after floor crossing and a cooperation pact with the New National Party.

From this position, critics say, Ozinsky became the power behind the “Africanists”, a faction led by Ngculu, now provincial chairperson, and Mcebisi Skwatsha, who emerged shortly after the ANC gained provincial control through NNP defections in 2003.

Pushing for control of the party on the basis that the ANC’s traditional support lies in the African townships, they were pitted against a group around Premier Ebrahim Rasool which places greater emphasis on reconciling Africans and coloureds.

At the provincial ANC conference in June last year, Ngculu ousted Rasool as party chairperson. Subsequently, Ozinsky was elevated to ANC chief whip in the legislature.

While you will hardly ever see Ozinsky in a suit, on public occasions such as the opening of the provincial legislature, he dons a brightly coloured Afro-shirt featuring President Thabo Mbeki’s face. Not known to smile much, he is described as a “loyal comrade” and a “disciplined cadre”.

Politics was an early choice, superceding a boyhood dream of being a seafarer. After one demonstration during his first year at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Ozinsky’s father, medical doctor Joseph “Ozzie”, a member of Chris Barnard’s first heart transplant team, gave him an ultimatum: drop politics or leave home. Ozinsky moved out.

Friend and one-time fellow campus activist Tony Karon, now a Time editor, has written on his personal website of Ozinsky’s “far deeper and infinitely more courageous commitment” and “sheer malkopheid [lunacy] that makes an intractable revolutionary”.

Karon describes his horror at discovering that Ozinsky had brought petrol bombs to a student protest march at UCT. As his comrade planned to be at the front of the march when it met the police cordon, he decided discreetly to move to the back.

As Christopher in Operation Vula, he “looked like a ballet dancer … tall and slender with a pale face and deer’s sad eyes”, according to Connie Braam, the Dutch anti-apartheid activist who helped disguise many of the operatives.

“I was already trying to imagine him in the environment of an ANC military camp. There must be something strong and steadfast concealed by the frail exterior.”

His fearlessness, bordering on craziness, working underground a few kilometres from his unsuspecting wife, have made struggle lore. His disguises as Rhodesian oaf, yuppie and Afro-sporting coloured man are immortalised on the front cover of Braam’s book Operation Vula.

His party colleagues agree that he is hardegat (stubborn). At PW Botha’s 1998 trial for flouting a truth commission subpoena, he held up a poster reading “Victoria Mxenge murdered. PW Guilty”.

“He is frank and blunt in a meeting to the point of driving people to desperation,” said long-standing friend Garth Strachan, fellow member of the Western Cape legislature and South African Communist Party.

But telling it like it is has had a price. Ozinsky has been accused of being a “Stalinist backroom organiser” — a tag he rejects. “Labelling in this province is a very severe problem,” he remarks.

Labels followed him over the “Not In My Name” petition he and Intelligence Minster Ronnie Kasrils started in 2001 in protest against Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The grandson of a Latvian Jew who moved to South Africa to escape persecution, he is not shy to criticise South African Jewry. “Many [South African Jews] came here as victims of colonialism and racism and they found themselves in positions where they were beneficiaries.”

However, he also has more indigenous roots — his father married into a conservative Afrikaner family.

Ideological conflict prompted his resignation from the South African Communist Party’s leadership in the mid-Nineties. More mysterious is the alienation of Ozinsky and Rasool, who years ago worked closely together. Ahead of the June 1999 election both were key to the strategy of targeting ANC voters in township strongholds to ensure they voted.

The strategy is not about choosing African townships over coloured areas, Ozinsky maintains. But he dodges the question of whether the ANC’s loss of ward 48 in Cape Town, a former party bastion among middle-class coloureds, does not pose a warning.

“It’s very interesting that people now are retrospectively criticising the strategy when they did not raise any questions [then]. If people have a rigorous critique that shows there are other ways of doing it, we will entertain it. We’d encourage that discussion.”

Ozinsky’s yachting hobby seems rather unrevolutionary. But politics is never far away: he named his first vessel (the presumably dialectical) “Contradiction”.

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Marianne Merten
Guest Author

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