Horst Kleinschmidt, in conversation with author Glenn Moss at the launch of The New Radicals. A Generational Memoir of the 1970s on 11 June 2014 at the Book Lounge, Cape Town.
A disclaimer first of all: I was involved in student politics just a few years before Glenn. Much of our history is either similar or coincides though: serving on SRCs, being elected to Nusas positions, attending Nusas leadership seminars, getting to know Steve Biko, being detained together, etc. But Glenn and his group did what we were only beginning to have glimpses of. I have the greatest admiration for what they did – and the legacy they leave us with.
Glenn’s book is well written, well researched and accessible to the ordinary reader. I commend it to you especially because it is devoid of the triumphalism that many ‘struggle period’ books are guilty of. We have far too many books about glorious victories when there were few. A real and good history to be credible to the next generation, even when popularised, has to be an honest assessment that shows mistakes, errors in direction and human failures. Glenn does this and does not spare himself.
Most important, though, is that this book shines light on a development of resistance that has largely, so far, enjoyed little recognition for what it did and what it achieved. I refer to a new home grown radicalism that emerged from within the white student movement in the early 1970s onward. Selflessly, with energy and rigorous study of class politics and the new Marxist writings that came from Europe and from within South Africa, white students carved out a niche of struggle. And importantly they were not uncritical of the ANC, the SACP or SACTU, neither where they uncritical of Black Consciousness.
The greatest achievement of NUSAS throughout, but more focussed and important in this period, was the vital and effective educational role it played. Progressive thinking in South Africa today is not least an achievement of student leaders of this time and Glenn can take credit for part of this.
Questions posed to Glenn at the launch:
1. Will you locate the epoch you describe in the minefield both of government repression and of revolutionary groups and the polemics at the time?
2. You describe how ‘representative’ student leadership shifted to leadership that was elected by the students but also had an ‘underground’ or clandestine agenda that said: we must work with the wider forces that seek the overthrow of apartheid. How did you justify the double agenda that started with your generation and remained so from then on?
3. You take great pains to describe the shift from liberalism to radicalism. You credit Neville Curtis, the NUSAS President, for much of this within in NUSAS. He would state clearly: I am no Liberal, I am a Radical! What precipitated this shift in the late 1960s and early 1970s? Challenges from BC is one reason and you give credit to Steve Biko for this. Can you provide more insight?
4. On page 114 of the book, there is an extract from a 1974 SRC pamphlet criticising free market economic policies as a basis for change. How pertinent is that statement in today’s politics?
5. You write about the relationship between students, intellectuals and worker organisation. Intellectuals identified several ways in which unionism should be defined – industrial vs general unionism, workerism and popular politcs, and and more. What informed these distinctions at that time? Theer were also criticism of liberalims and BC from a worker organisation perpsective. Can you elaborate on that as well?
7. Navigating through the cold war politics. The Blocks: Soviet, Western quisling or Peking. Could you or did you escape the hostility from SACP? Toenadering from the CIA?
8. You and the new radicals in Johannesburg became close to underground, even MK action, talking to ANC people, but not being of them. Was this tactical or more fundamental?
9. You were eventually acquitted in the trial in which you were accused number 1. What were the difficulties you faced in giving evidence? What competing issues did you have to balance. George Bizos prepared you to give evidence in your defence. Will you expand?
Inputs prepared by Glenn Moss for the launch of The New Radicals at the Book Lounge, 11 June 2014, and as a basis for response to questions and comments.
It’s rather strange to claim that there is unfinished business in political history. But as I warn readers in the preface to the book, this is not a story with a beginning or an end. Reflecting on the past often provokes evaluation of the present, and projections into a future. And so it has been in the journey of The New Radicals.
In writing this book, I wanted to record some of the stories about anti-apartheid politics in the first half of the 1970s. I also wanted to locate that politics, to explain how it developed and identify some of its influences.
There were some towering figures from the period who played significant roles in radical challenges to what existed in the 1970s, but whose names and legacies were being lost. I wanted to remember them, and record a little of their impact, while at the same time acknowledging a generation of young activists, on both the black and the white campuses, who dared to imagine a different way of thinking, of being, of acting.
Some of the most significant initiatives, moments and events of 1970s opposition politics have failed to find a place in the history being constructed and recorded, post-apartheid. To some extent, this is because that history does not sit comfortably with the new orthodoxy being developed. On this version, the most significant reasons for the imploding of apartheid rule derived primarily from outside of the country through the national liberation movements and their allies in exile; through sanctions and boycotts; the armed struggle and international pressure.
Internal organisation, strategy and initiative did receive its acknowledgement, especially in the later years of the 1980s when the UDF and Cosatu were often aligned with the strategies of the ANC in exile.
However, the politics which had developed in a largely ‘home grown’ and independent manner within the country - the politics of the Durban strikes, of Black Consciousness, of June 1976, of student campaigns on the Nusas campuses, of the wages commissions and the new union movements – these are largely left out of the complex causality which brought the country to February 1990.
I wanted to make a small beginning in correcting these historical distortions.
I had been involved in much of what I intended writing about, and my first source of information was always going to be memory. But The New Radicals was never planned as an autobiography, or even as a record of individual initiatives and engagements. That is why it is sub-titled ‘a generational memoir’. It is about a generation’s contribution to the development of a new political radicalism in the 1970s. It is the story of social context, developing strategies, deepening understanding and the construction of a collective activism.
The book is not about individuals. But a few figures who walk through its pages have left enormous footprints – Neville and Jeanette Curtis, Steve Biko, Rick Turner, Phindile Mfeti. Their contributions to the radicalisation of opposition politics remains to be properly recorded.
The book, then, is something of a hybrid. It includes political history, interpretation, story telling, personal history. It is primarily occupied with developments in and around Johannesburg, although I would like to believe that its themes parallel what was taking place in other urban centres such as Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town.
One of the more interesting questions posed in the book relates to why and how individuals and groups sometimes act in ways opposed to their immediate interests. Students on the predominant white, Nusas affiliated campuses in the 1970s, had every reason to accept the socio-economic status quo. They were almost guaranteed upward mobility, good employment, material comfort, security and stability. All they had to do was to follow the trajectory mapped out for them by the parents, by their universities, by the mainstream of society, and keep their objections to the excesses of apartheid within narrow parameters.
A range of factors intersected and collided to loosen the glue which bound students on these campuses to the status quo. These included the challenges mounted by BC itself; the impact of critical thought and explanation, including Western Marxism and the new left; the radicalisation of Christianity and the organisations associated with Christian opposition; the challenges to mainstream liberalism; and the rejection of established authority under the influence of the ‘counter-culture’ and the lifestyle choices which went with that anti-authoritarianism.
The books sets out, in some detail, some of the campaigns which were run on the Nusas campuses at the time – against the ongoing incarceration and torture of political detainees, and the 1971 anti-Republic Day campaign, amongst others. I have set out not just the story of those campaigns, but also the strategy and organisational tactics which informed them.
The release all political prisoners campaign of 1974 was probably the most radical and daring undertaken on the Nusas-affiliated campuses. It was not a liberal human rights protest, reacting to the atrocities of an oppressive minority government. It did not involve a call for clemency to be shown to prisoners of conscience. It made no distinction between communists and nationalists, non-racialists and Africanists, saboteurs and those who followed a path of non-violence. It boldly asserted that many of the leaders of South Africa’s majority were imprisoned, and called for their release so that they could participate in dismantling the system of apartheid.
In 1974, forty years ago, this was daring and radical politics, which tested the limits of above-ground organisation and activity. The campaign explicitly aimed to give prominence to the organisations of national liberation, introducing a generation of students to the leadership of the ANC, the PAC, Swapo, the Unity Movement and other organisations, and explaining their endorsement of violence as a means of political struggle.
The campaign began calamitously, when a compromised bantustan leader had invited himself to speak, and drawn a distinction between democrats and communists. Only non-communist prisoners, he argued, should be released. After his speech, we were treated to the sight of Helen Joseph poking him repeatedly in the chest, and shouting ‘Are you saying Govan Mbeki should not be released because he is a communist?’
Now, in the next campaign meeting, we needed to regain and reassert the inherently radical content of our message. Helen excelled in helping us do this, and, as recounted in the book, went a step further: she read out a smuggled message from Robben Island prisoners, commending and supporting the campaign – dangerous stuff in the hard political years of the early 1970s. Years later, then state president Nelson Mandela confirmed that he had been part of the group which penned and smuggled that message.
Last week, The New Radicals was launched in Durban at two seminars and a bookshop event. One of the most striking features in these discussions was the hunger of so many people to explore the way in which the politics of the past ‘talks’ to the current political malaise. Many questions were raised, most notably by a young pupil who had been brought to the launch by her history teacher. ‘I did not know until now’, she told us, ‘that there had been white radicals opposing the system. And now I ask how they were formed – what made people like you into radicals?’ A very fine question indeed.
I hope The New Radicals can make some contribution to answering her question. I also hope that the book will assist in recovering an important part of the past, and enhance discussion about what political history can tell us about the present and the future.
Reflections on the Cape Town launch - and more photographs
The well-attended and vibrant Cape Town launch of The New Radicals, held at the Book Lounge, gave rise to some probing questions from members of the audience.
Both time constraints, and the format of a book launch, did not enable me to answer all of these in any depth. I have grouped the topics below, and set out more detailed responses for the interest of those who attended that launch, and others who may have read the book.
A member of the audience asked about the definition of radicalism, and how that determined who was, and who was not, a radical.
The New Radicals is not about individuals, but charts the construction of a collective basis for understanding and engaging. True to the times, I made no special effort to develop a definition of radicalism, precisely because it was something in process. I do identity some of the elements in that process. These included a critical understanding of the relationship between apartheid and capitalism; a critique of both political and economic liberalism; a strong-held belief that alternatives were possible, that a society based on totally different principles and practices could be imagined.
The core of radicalism involved efforts to establish the roots of what had deformed society, and, in confronting these, to work for a solutions which undermined those roots, and sought different ones. That was broad enough to avoid any narrow constitution of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.
General and industrial unionism
There was a question at the launch about the ‘unravelling’ of the Industrial Aid Society, and the related contestations over models of general and industrial trade unionism .
There is no doubt that serious differences existed within the emerging union movement over whether industrial or general unionism provided the best model for strengthening worker organisation.
However, the contestation was not exclusively over these different forms, or even whether unions should be ‘political’ or not (which was sometime used as a proxy for the differences between these forms of organisation).
Rather, ‘it was the methods of organising, the role of worker education, the depth of factory and shop steward organisation required before unions should be formed, and the nature of working-class politics, that informed the IAS’s early efforts to find an independent way’. (p. 182-83).
Gender and geography
Different participants at the launch made statements about the ideological, political and gender composition of radical groups in the 1970s, as well as their geographical location.
The book makes no claim to be nationally representative, and the focus on the events and activities recorded is in and around Johannesburg. There were, of course, both similarities and differences between what was occurring in Johannesburg and in other centres, and the book is alive to these regional variations (see, for example, the first page of the preface).
Another questioner thought the book assumed that all radical politics of the period took place through Nusas, and wondered about other radical groups outside of Nusas.
There were, of course, different radical initiatives. The New Radicals does not claim an exclusive preserve for Nusas or Johannesburg in the development of political radicalism in the 1970s. There were, for example, groups of students who saw themselves to the left of student organisations like Nusas. In much the same way, there were Marxists, socialists and radicals who organised in the union movement who adopted strategies distinct from the Industrial Aid Society in Johannesburg. Those histories are not the subject of The New Radicals. They need to be recorded, and located within the challenges to what existed.
The book is not a history of Nusas, nor is its subject matter limited to student politics. It explores issues associated with the new union movement, the attempts to develop a ‘post-campus’ radical politics, relations with individuals associated with the ANC, SACP and MK, the Congress-leaning Human Rights Committee and other developments beyond the campuses.
The place of gender relations, and feminism, in the radical politics of the 1970s is an important question, and was discussed in some detail at the Durban launch. At least in Johannesburg, radicalism extended to the involvement of women on a formally ‘equal’ basis to men. This is reflected in the large numbers of extremely powerful women who were centrally involved in the leadership and activism of the period, both on and off the campus. However, with the perfect vision of hindsight, it is equally clear that the issues of socially constructed gender and identity, patriarchy and power, were not confronted, nor even understood in any depth. This absence was but one example of the ‘uneven development’ of radical politics.
Not an autobiography
At least one speaker was under the impression that The New Radicals is an autobiography, and wondered, in effect, why this story should be told rather than other ones.
The book was never written as an autobiography or even as a history or narrative about individuals, and I regret it if I did not make this sufficiently clear. I had hoped the sub-title would clarify that The New Radicals is about the politics of a generation, not the story of one or more individuals. This was reiterated on the back cover, which notes that the book is ‘the story of a generation of activists’, and in the preface, which describes the book as telling ‘of the political, ideological and organisational journey undertaken by a group of students’.
A participant was critical of the book’s cover, partly because of the all-male composition of the photograph used on the front (though not the back), and also because the image might be read to suggest that those portrayed were the most important radicals of the 1970s.
Cover images, along with titles and design of a book, are generally determined by publishers, and based on what they believe will enable the best marketing and promotion for the book. They are usually designed to catch the eye of a particular audience, rather than convey the full complexity of a book’s contents (hence the phrase ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’).
The cover photograph used for The New Radicals depicts the accused in the 1976 Nusas trial which, by virtue of the state’s decision on who to prosecute, involved an all-male group of defendants. It is not meant to suggest that all radicals at the time were male, or even that the five people portrayed constituted the core of ‘the radicals’.
It was not even intended to suggest that the central theme of the book is about Nusas, or the Nusas trial. The trial itself occupies part of just one chapter, and is treated more as an indication of the state’s inability to fathom the politics of the new radicalism than a record of the proceedings.