Reading the new edition of Ronnie Kasrils’s Armed and Dangerous (2013) reminds one very forcibly of how bloody, merciless and protracted was the struggle for a democratic South Africa, and how heroic many of the struggle participants were.
Kasrils’s lively account remains very readable in its grittiness and abundance of detail.
However, a reader in the present cannot also but be aware that Kasrils’s laudable intention in writing the book has possibly been undermined by the events of recent years, most notably, by the seemingly irreversible decline of the ruling party into nepotism, and its corruption, rampant self-interest and anti-democratic tendencies.
In his acknowledgements, Kasrils remarks that his book “will hopefully not only assist a new generation to understand the struggle but will [also] explain to those of an older generation who were ignorant of or simply unclear about what drove us on. It will hopefully also assist those who, like all mortals, myself included, struggle with memory against forgetting.”
There is no question, to my mind at least, that Kasrils is correct in asserting, as he does in various ways in the book, that the movement fought a just war and took decisions on the basis of principle and morality –something, he equally rightly asserts, that could not be claimed for the enemy, the apartheid regime.
To what extent, though, are the events of the present causing us to reinterpret and re-evaluate the past?
It is interesting that this kind of reassessment is precisely what Kasrils himself does in Armed and Dangerous. He recalls his first experience of training in the then USSR, and how infected he and his comrades were with the rightness of the communist cause and the inevitability of its triumph over corrupt and doomed capitalism.
However, his recollections of the time (early 1960s) are tempered by the post-Berlin Wall, post-USSR present in which he was writing the first edition of Armed and Dangerous (1993), and there are many references to what he regards as his naivety at the time.
Even more to his credit, his introduction to the new edition is forthright in its condemnation of the current betrayal of the principles of the struggle.
“Struggle veterans are frequently asked in the light of disappointment: Was the sacrifice really worth it?
“While my answer is decidedly affirmative, I must confess to grave misgivings too, for I believe we should be doing far, far better. We owe it to our moral conscience, to our people and the born-free generation to carry forward the banner of those who so unstintingly and bravely gave their lives for a better life for all.”
Most heartening of all in this new edition of Armed and Dangerous is a photograph of Kasrils addressing a Right2Know demonstration against the Protection of Information Act in Cape Town in 2012. That a stalwart of the struggle was actively campaigning against ANC legislation that better fits the apartheid era speaks volumes about the extent to which the ANC has betrayed its own principles.
Toni Strasburg’s Fractured Lives (2013) is a very welcome addition to the body of memoirs and histories on the struggle years. As a filmmaker in exile in London (her parents Hilda and Rusty Bernstein were forced into exile at about the same time as Kasrils was), she returned to South Africa’s frontline states (Angola, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe) in the 1980s and 1990s to make documentaries about the silent and largely invisible victims of South Africa’s proxy wars.
Like Armed and Dangerous, Strasburg’s account also contains an undertone of disillusionment. She concludes the first part of her book thus: “I knew that I wouldn’t be able to change the world but, when I first began, I believed that I could make some difference, at least make some viewers more aware of lives other than their own. In the end, all I could do was bear witness.”
Strasburg deliberately departed from the dominant British television mode of “objectivity”, reasoning that such a stance was impossible in a war zone.
Her account is not only of the human subjects of her films, but also of her own struggle to find her voice as a filmmaker. She candidly recounts her feelings of inadequacy as the only woman in the company of men and in harrowing war zones.
She is also frank about her failings. One of these was her misinterpretation of the Matabeleland killings of the 1980s. Her willingness to believe Zimbabwean ministers’ tales that they were the handiwork of South African-trained dissidents was something she came to regret. These killings were, she later realised, part of Robert Mugabe’s drive towards a one-party state.
If the Kasrils and Strasburg memoirs are partly about re-evaluating the past from the perspective of a disillusioned present, Jacques Pauw’s account of a remarkable Rwandan’s long walk to redemption is uplifting by contrast.
Pauw is a master of the documentary narrative form and he effortlessly telescopes Rwanda’s colonial and more recent history into an account of a return trip to the country with Kennedy Gihana, the Tutsi who was both victim and perpetrator in the Rwandan genocide and the ensuing conflict.
Gihana’s story should be read as a cautionary tale about the power of political demagogues who use ethnic hatred to transform ordinary human beings into killing machines, but it should also be read as an inspirational narrative about the extraordinary capacity of people to do good after suffering and also perpetrating appalling wrongs.
For years I have been trying to teach apartheid-era literature to large undergraduate classes of born-frees at the University of Johannesburg. Almost without exception, they have been apathetic at best, bored and even hostile at worst – and the university’s classes are demographically representative of South Africa’s population as a whole, so it wasn’t a question of white guilt or anything of the sort.
Indeed, the most vocally oppositional have often been black students, some of whom have told me bluntly that that form of literature belonged to their parents’ (or even grandparents’) era, and that they were bored with it and wanted to move on.
There’s more to this than teenage impatience: If South Africa continues to slide into unbridled greed and blatant opportunism, with government appointments increasingly being seen as nothing more than a chance to accumulate wealth for oneself and one’s family, how much does this diminish the struggle for liberation against apartheid – and, with it, the literature of the era (such as Cry, the Beloved Country, The Conservationist, Call Me Not a Man, To Every Birth Its Blood and Jeremy Cronin’s poignant cycle of prison poems, Inside, to mention some of the many iconic texts of the era), much of which strained with every fibre against the hated political system of the time?
There can be no doubt that the vast majority of the population are pleased to see the back of apartheid and also of the thugs who kept the system in place. But, equally, is there not a growing sense that the struggle – once seen as so heroic and self-evidently righteous – has merely ushered in a new set of thugs and opportunists?
If South Africa were to descend into an era of open looting and anarchy, as in Nigeria under its various military dictatorships, or Zimbab-we over the past dozen or so years, would the struggle not retrospectively come to be seen as naive and, therefore, less heroic?
Craig MacKenzie is professor of English at the University of Johannesburg. He will chair Session 6 of the M&G Literary Festival on Saturday August 31, from 4.30pm to 6pm, a panel discussion on memoir/biography/autobiography. The panellists are Ronnie Kasrils, Armed and Dangerous (Jacana), Jacques Pauw, Rat Roads (Zebra Press), and Toni Strasburg, Fractured Lives (Modjadji Books)