Interviewing the irrepressible Ronnie Kasrils is like trying to drink Champagne out of a shaken bottle. Words, phrases, anecdotes, philosophy, descriptions, economic policy, ideas, opinions, questions and more, bubble up too fast to record.
We meet just before the former ANC Minister of State’s 81st birthday, at a restaurant in Greenside, Johannesburg, near his home. He has ten launches scheduled for his new book, Catching Tadpoles – The Shaping of a Young Rebel, and, squeezing my interview in, he says he has less than an hour to talk. An hour and 40 minutes later he’s still talking.
His is a remarkable South African life. Dedicated largely to the Struggle, this is his fourth memoir, a prequel to the others, explaining how a good Jewish boykie from Yeoville turned into an ‘armed and dangerous’ (the title of his first memoir) revolutionary.
“It’s all about ‘who am I?’ and what fashioned me,” he says.
Kasrils puts his awareness of apartheid’s injustices down largely to a horrific event when he saw a black man being beaten almost to death by white thugs for not giving way on the pavement. He was with his mother on their way to the bioscope. “The seminal thing was that beating. So raw.” He was seven years old.
“I did my research to determine my age, and recalled it was a movie showing of Road to Rio with Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters – my mother loved them. I recalled the war bunting at Anstey’s [department store], so could place the year.” He took pains to be accurate, he insists.
Gym was less exhausting than Ronnie Kasrils
We drink coffee, he in a dark T-shirt and green shorts, I still in gym gear having rushed to be on time. Gym was less exhausting than Ronnie Kasrils at full tilt. His previous books include two on Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher who he met twice. I met Jean-Paul Sartre, so we drop philosophers’ names together. I try to stop the flood of words by asking what he would do if he were made President of South Africa tomorrow. He gives me a lecture on British economist John Maynard Keynes, the last person I expect this communist to quote, and how we should go back to Keynesian principles.
“I wouldn’t go to Lenin or Stalin, but to Keynes. Like Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, invest the country’s money in maximising jobs, infrastructure, roads, dams, trains, canals and big projects like the Hoover Dam, and pay workers good wages.”
Kasrils adds, “We must do what the National Party did for the Afrikaner, provide massive training as apprentices. It was the worst thing we as the ANC did, to abolish that. Skill people, then they can get good jobs at Eskom, the railways and other places. And the Nats taxed the rich, not the middle class. Why did we bring corporate tax down from 48 per cent to 29 per cent? We could have brought it to 38 per cent, imagine how much more money the State would have had.”
What does he think of the ANC now?
“I’ve resigned from the ANC and the Communist Party. But I did vote for Cyril Ramaphosa, to get over the Zuma years. We now need to re-motivate the whole country. I’m a fan of civil society. There are so many people who believe in good values, and we need people as in Chile, Lebanon, Hong Kong and all around the world to show how many of us believe. If so many people show their belief, every party will feel they must be part of it.
“We need to save the planet and to get away from greed and a belief that the accumulation of wealth is our objective in life. We need to live meaningful lives.”
Kasrils writes, swims every day, is in demand as a speaker, and remains an activist. What a boykie.
Catching Tadpoles – The Shaping of a Young Rebel is published by Jacana Media (R280).