Ken Owen's speech at the celebration of his 80th birthday
I did not want to make this speech. I told Kate I had become an old fart in the wrong century, and I had nothing to say, but Kate said: “Say something to offend everyone!”
That’s not easy.
How in heaven do you offend Hugh Corder when he forgives you even before you have sinned?
But let me try.
I’ll start by saying that as I look back on my life I think I have always tried to find and hold the middle ground – between Hitler and Stalin, between left and right, between Afrikaans and English, between black and white.
It started when I was very young with two episodes that framed my life.
The first was at the end of the war when I was about 10. My mother used to give me a sixpence for bus fare from where we lived, below the slag heaps of Iscor in Pretoria West, to the public library just east of Church Square. But I preferred to walk back and use half the fare, a tickey, to take out a second book. Just west of Church Square was a row of shabby little shops, probably run by refugee Jews from the thirties. One of them had pasted in his window the first pictures of the Nazi death camps, whether Auschwitz, or Majdanek, or some other camp, I do not know. I stared at the pictures in absolute horror. My idea of war was Biggles and flying Spitfires. Nothing had prepared me for mass graves, or piles of corpses, and emaciated people reaching through barbed wire. It was a horror I had never imagined and I don’t think I ever recovered. On my bookshelf you will still find the Auschwitz chronicle, essentially a list of the names of Jews who went to Auschwitz and the dates when they died.
I became obsessed with the camps and read everything I could on the subject, starting with Lord Russell’s early history of Nazi atrocities.
That episode was the first stake in the ground. I hated the Nazis, and all their spawn.
The second episode came five years later when I was 15 . I took from the town library in Lydenburg a book titled I Chose Freedom by Victor Kravchenko. It described his incarceration in the slave camps of Kolyma, and his escape. Kolyma lies just north of the Kamchatka Peninsula, mostly in the Arctic Circle, where the temperature drops to -60 degrees centigrade, and the climate is too harsh even for the Russians. The area is populated only by a few indigenous hunters – Eskimos or Indians, I would call them, and by renegades. They saved Kravchenko’s life, taking him into their warm huts. I was fascinated by his account of having to fill his mouth with snow before going indoors, lest his teeth crack.
Kravchenko convinced me that the Communists were an exact mirror image of the Nazis, no less brutal, no less part of an inhumane system, no less evil. Morally and politically, they were the same putrid thing. I hated them as I hated the Nazis.
That was the second stake in the ground. And between these stakes I have lived my life.
For years I wandered around Anglo Saxon countries asking if anybody had read Kravchenko. Nobody had.
In France it was different. The book was a bestseller, to the outrage of the intellectual Left, led by Jean-Paul Sartre, who was then a Communist. The Soviets were furious and fed scurrilous stories about Kravchenko to its fellow travelers and French Communists in an attempt to discredit him and his book.
Kravchenko sued for libel in what turned out to be a spectacular show trial. The Soviet embassy sat behind the defense, feeding information to witnesses. They flew Kravchenko’s former wife from Moscow to testify that he was a drunk, a liar and a wife beater. In the witness stand she was a drab figure, looking demoralised and frightened.
Under cross-examination she disintegrated completely, the defense called for an adjournment, and that night she was flown back to Moscow, never to be heard of again. So Kravchenko won his case but such was the domination of Paris’s intellectual life by the left that he was awarded damages of one franc, or it may have been 10 – a derisory amount. Kravchenko left France in disgust for the US, and never returned.
In faraway Lydenburg I knew nothing of this but my views hardened as I read more – this was a time when visitors to Russia were still crying out: “I have seen the future and it works!”, while five million Ukranians were starving to death. But Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” drew a different picture. Later Menachem Begin’s “White Nights” confirmed what Kravchenko had said. In the end, Solzhenitsyn put an end to the argument with “The Gulag Archipelago”. And Khrushchev confirmed it all in his denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress.
As you can imagine, my view that the Communists were no different from the Nazis put me outside the intellectual mainstream of my time. Often I found myself standing alone, but I had no other choice. All my life I played my hand as it was dealt.
I noted with some scorn that more passion was aroused by McCarthyism than by the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Don’t get me wrong. Margaret Chase Smith, Republican senator for Maine, was one of my heroes because she stood up to McCarthy when Bobby Kennedy was still grovelling. But I saw the whole affair as a display of cowardice by folk in Hollywood, most of whom ratted on each other. In time, the American system swung back into balance and McCarthy was destroyed. The invasion of Hungary was different – the brutal military suppression of a people to subject them to what I might call left wing Nazism. But few intellectuals were much upset. A few left the Communist Party, Sartre shuffled right wards to democratic socialism, and the issue faded away. The intellectual mainstream went back to attacking western imperialism and American capitalism, and life went on undisturbed until the invasion of Prague. Then back to attacking capitalism and imperialism. I wanted no part of it.
Other things happened.
In 1964, the year of Mississippi Burning, I worked in Mississippi as a volunteer for SNCC, which was headed by Stokely Carmichael, who was I think Black Panther. My part was mainly to ride about in “integrated cars”, as we called them, and to sing “We shall overcome” in various country churches.
However, Mississippi showed me how much courage, discipline and training went into eliciting the latent violence of the system without responding with counter-violence. I became a great admirer of Martin Luther King and through him of Gandhi, the Mahatma. Both rejected armed struggle in favour of passive resistance, both demanded discipline, and both worked in a framework of liberty and equality.
Algeria was a moral problem of the fifties in which I followed Camus, again not the phony revolutionary theory of Sartre. Sympathy for the Algerians did not preclude the hope that if revolutionary violence could be avoided, a solution might be negotiated that would make it possible for the one million French colons to stay in Algeria as useful citizens. You can see the relevance to South Africa.
In New York I heard a Hungarian say: “In the West the throwing of a stone is a political act, in the East it is a lamentable breakdown of self-discipline.” I understood what he meant.
I won’t bore you any further except say that these experiences hardened into a few ideas:
1. I was hostile to romantic theories of revolution, so popular at the time, Che Guevara and all that. 2. I came to believe that the manner of liberation would determine the character of the post-revolutionary government. 3. I was convinced that success of armed struggle could only occur after civil war and would condemn us to totalitarian government by a vanguard party, which would impose democratic centralism on us; would deploy cadres to all positions of power; would subject the judiciary and the legislature to the will of the party; would centralize control of the economy; and enforce its will by controlling the security agencies.
That, essentially, is what we have got. I watch with amusement as that trio of old-style commies, Ebrahim Patel, Rob Davies, and in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, try simultaneously to govern the country, centralise control of the economy, and overthrow international capitalism. It’s ambitious!
Six people in the NEC decide who goes to form the majority in Parliament. The same six control the security agencies, one appoints the judges. Together they deploy cadres to fill all important posts. Once in five years we get a chance to voice our disapproval, a futile exercise. The ideology and intellectual framework constructed by armed struggle is what I feared when I tried to unmask the communist conspiracy behind the ANC and was accused of looking for reds under the bed.
So you see I was far out of the mainstream, with some funny consequences. When I was appointed to try to rescue the Rand Daily Mail after the mess Alistair Sparks had made of it, the Black Sash organized a public protest against my appointment. The main speaker was—wait for it—John Kane-Berman, who denounced me as too far right to sully the precious Rand Daily Mail.
En Kyk hoe lyk hy nou!
Have I offended you all? I’ll spell it out: if you were more passionate about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg than about Hungary, then shame on you. If you have ever condoned or accepted armed struggle, then shame on you. And here’s the one to catch you all, if you have never worried about Reds under the bed, then shame on you. Finally, if you have been part of the Left consensus, then shame on you.
All offended? Even Hugh Corder? OK, Kate? Offensive enough?
I have two more brief things to say. The first is something I have never said in public for fear of the harm it would do if I started drinking again, but I say it now: I would not have reached the age of 40, or even 36 but for the tender and loving care I received from a bunch of drunks when I crawled into Alcoholics Anonymous 45 years ago.
Lastly, I have had a fantastic life with Kate, full of adventure and love and endeavour. For much of it I have been guided by William the Silent: it is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, it is not necessary to succeed in order to persevere. But Kate was sent from Mount Olympus or somewhere to teach me to love, to see beauty, to read well, to widen my horizons, to give me a rich new life including 4 step-children who have been unfailingly kind to me, and she widened our circle of friends to the point where we could not have them all here tonight. It has been a fairy book love story.
I am so grateful to you all my friends for coming here tonight, for what is probably my last gathering, and while it is a joy to see you, I must say to you that I relinquish life easily, and I hope gracefully. It is time to go.