The Leftist Spy Who Came in From Cold Pretoria

‘I don’t have the stomach or the taste to serve any more at this level,’ said the normally ebullient Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils, as he quit after fourteen years of service to the South African government. It was late September 2008, just after Thabo Mbeki was palace-couped.

Kasrils’ intelligence service was by then an international laughingstock, with spy-versus-spy intrigue spilling out wide across the political landscape. His own troops were locked in unending, ungovernable, internecine battles against each other’s factions, using hoax emails, other disinformation and extraordinary political contortions unknown in even the ugliest Stalinist traditions of the African National Congress (ANC). Recall that Mbeki’s police chief Jackie Selebi was also the head of Interpol, and to have the mafia penetrate such high levels made South African security farcical at best.

None of this was Kasrils’ fault, of course; such fights continue to this day, and leading police officers Bheki Cele and Richard Mdluli have allegedly amplified the Mbeki-era traditions of graft. But the intrigue was so murky in September 2008 that when an obscure judge made an offhanded, seemingly flippant remark about Jacob Zuma being a victim of political conspiracy, it was a catalyst for the ANC’s Zumites to unceremoniously evict Mbeki seven months before his term was due to end.

To last so long in that immoral swamp required a firm constitution, and to then extricate from the mire was a heroic task. Kasrils was (and remains) the continent’s highest-profile revolutionary from the white race, and in spite of all the muck nearby, he exudes an exceptionally powerful moral influence. Kasrils also played crucial leadership roles as minister of water, deputy minister of defense, and leadership in the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe armed wing and SA Communist Party dating back nearly five decades.

The contradictions he faced during his era in power were overwhelming. They deserve, I believe, serious consideration; in some cases, much more decisive resolutions than we’ve witnessed; and now renewal, in the dialectical spirit. Exploring and transcending both the exercise of power (thesis) and counter-power activities by progressive civil society (antithesis), in order to find a new synthesis and yet new contradictions, is my objective in the coming pages.


Contradictory Kasrils

Last week Kasrils visited us at the University of KwaZulu-Natal as a Time of the Writer festival guest at the Centre for Creative Arts and speaker at the Centre for Civil Society’s seminar on authoritarianism and corruption. A student here in the early 1960s, he reminisced about his disputes during economics classes with the ‘reactionary’ Professor Owen Horwood – later an influential apartheid Finance Minister – because of Kasrils’ opposition to Bantustan policy.

He returned for this visit because in 2010, Kasrils’ beautiful biography of his late wife Eleanor, The Unlikely Secret Agent, won SA’s main book award (the Sunday Times Alan Paton non-fiction prize) and his compelling autobiography Armed and Dangerous had its third edition in 2004. His presentations last week celebrating writing, women and radical politics were thoughtful and humorous.

Like most who meet Kasrils, it took me only four discussions to depart so charmed as to confess I will now blindly follow him on any madcap adventure – albeit one in September 1992, when he marched 80 000 protesters to the ‘Ciskei’ government’s doorstep, left dozens to return home in coffins, after pro-apartheid armed forces opened fire. But dangerous as he has been, armed or not, this is the kind of mensch who would have us cracking up on our way to the gallows, more gregarious and fun-loving than any lefty I’ve ever known.

That charm in turn calls for even more critically-sympathetic reflection about how a South African nationalist-communist spy might come in from the cold. We might attempt this via the dialectic method, which respects tension and contradiction, which contextualizes so as to point the way forward to social progress, and which seeks to understand interrelations of economy, politics, society and nature.

Kasrils was quite right to finally quit the Pretoria regime, as he witnessed extreme abuses of power within his beloved ANC, and on occasion was attacked – without merit, he insists – for allegedly being a guiding force in the network of Mbeki supporters trying to halt Zuma’s presidential push.

The worst of it, he recounts, was when in early 2006 the Young Communist League leadership accused him of setting up a ‘honey trap’ for Zuma, who was accused of rape a few weeks earlier by an openly HIV+ lesbian known as Khwezi. The future president was acquitted after a trial in which misogynist patriarchy by Zuma and his supporters was on blatant display.

Kasrils had known the 30 year-old victim for a quarter of a century (as had Zuma) because her parents provided a safehouse during anti-apartheid military missions deep in Durban’s townships. He was drawn in against his will in a peripheral way, making clear that Khwezi should sort out the charge with professional aid, not old family connections to the Minister of Intelligence. But that moment was when the break with Zuma became irreparable.

Given his despondency about the ANC’s subsequent trajectory, time and time again in several conversations Kasrils reminded of what he is accused of sounding like by journalist Alistair Sparks: an end-of-apartheid verligte (Afrikaner enlightened reformer). But now Kasrils feels there is far more at stake: saving not only the liberal gains that the likes of FW de Klerk (verligte-in-chief) grudgingly surrendered two decades ago, but also reviving prospects for a broader left turn in coming years.

Given Kasrils’ larger-than-life personality, the best approach might well be to treat him as would Karl Marx, as recommended in Das Kapital: ‘Individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of particular class-relations and interest.’

You could add race/ethnic, gender and generational relations as well, since most of these divisions are also being amplified under conditions of class apartheid. Unfortunately, Kasrils is yet to pronounce on deeper-rooted economic policy corruption – i.e. the numerous neoliberal policies adopted after 1994 – aside from firmly endorsing the country’s 1996 structural adjustment policy (‘Growth, Employment and Redistribution’, GEAR), at the time, as part of the Arms Deal.

Instead, Kasrils’ current focus on corruption highlights mainly the acquisitiveness of the political-bureaucratic petit bourgeoisie, aspiring to great wealth for little effort.


The wretched of the ANC

His naming as ‘WaBenzis’ several former colleagues – including the late defense minister Joe Modise and current SA Communist Party chief Blade Nzimande – certainly helps personify the problem. As Kasrils griped in our seminar, ‘South Africa is regaled by one revelation after another involving luxury limousines, lavish banquets, expensive hotel bills and other extravagant follies.’

His own ‘economic category’ might be described best as a small-c communist. Kasrils’ trajectory of race/class-suicide began on Sharpeville Day in 1960 when, as he told the Time of the Writer audience, his white colleagues at Johannesburg’s Lever Brothers film advertising division were stunned when he sided with black staff, as reports came in of the 69 murders. As for his hostility to Zionism, Kasrils (from a Jewish background) came to understand the Israeli occupation of Palestine and became the continent’s leading campaigner for Middle East justice and the ‘one-state’ solution needed to avoid making permanent the region’s bantustanization.

He sums up the rise and fall of his vision for a socialist South Africa simply and accurately: ‘Regarding national liberation, as Vladimir Lenin put it, the character of the outcome depends upon the organised strength of the working class. For quite a period of time we saw the left rising and becoming strong and then post-1990 we see the rightwing agenda becoming so strong with its alignment to capital.’

You can’t argue with that, but the depth and intensity of South Africa’s contradictions require more than a simple class correlation as explanation. Instead, with dialectical method, Lenin remarked how social development ‘proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”,’ leaving us to link what we observe at surface level into ‘a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws.’

Theoretically, those laws of exploitation, it seems to me, were initially understood best by Marx in Kapital in 1867, elaborated in North-South (and capitalist-noncapitalist) terms by Rosa Luxemburg a century ago, and translated to African post-colonialism by Frantz Fanon fifty years ago. The critiques of capitalism, imperialism and nationalism by these revolutionary theorists still work well today, especially in a South Africa where migrancy, gendered roles and deep racial divisions in the division of labour, ecological degradation and capitalist crisis tendencies persist and indeed worsen.

But it is in the realm of degenerate political leadership that we see Kasrils’ next set of contradictions, as he gradually breaks from the ANC and loses all respect for the Communist Party (or so it seems), while lauding trade union and other civil society activism. He quoted from Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in his seminar last Friday, aiming these words at his former comrades who lost touch with the masses: ‘Privileges multiply and corruption triumphs, while morality declines.’

Fanon’s subsequent three sentences are yet more appropriate: ‘Today the vultures are too numerous and too voracious in proportion to the lean spoils of the national wealth. The party, a true instrument of power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, reinforces the machine, and ensures that the people are hemmed in and immobilized. The party helps the government to hold the people down.’


The arms bazaar

By many accounts in critical civil society, the 1997 Arms Deal was the font of South Africa’s large-scale corruption, the source of so many contradictions that drive Kasrils’ dialectic. He had, after all, spent the late 1990s arguing the case for the deal, on grounds that it could ‘stand up to the closest scrutiny’ because the process was ‘meticulously professional and objective.’ For the two leading experts on the Arms Deal, Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren, ‘It almost beggars belief that this claim could be made.’

Kasrils also notified parliament of ‘Major offset or counter-trade agreements so that for every rand spent abroad, the same amount will be invested in SA. Such packages will be of enormous benefit to our GEAR strategy. A tremendous boost to our economy and Treasury.’ Latest estimates from the Sunday Independent are revealing: of R114 billion promised in Arms Deal offsets, only R4 billion was delivered.

Kasrils’ defense last Friday was that the post-apartheid armed forces desperately needed the highest-technology weapons, but this did not leave his audience convinced. Exclaimed anti-corruption campaigner Marianne Camerer, ‘How can you sleep at night?!’

Kasrils’ answer: he’s sleeping well because as far as he could tell, the Arms Deal didn’t corrupt at ministerial executive level in major transactions, though he now concedes that at secondary level, the company-to-company transactions had plenty of holes. Schabir Shaik’s facilitation of the French firm Thales’ access to Zuma – for a reported R500 000/year – was an obvious example, and as Kasrils later put it, ‘Zuma was by then willing and ready for corruption.’

It was recently revealed that Zuma spokesperson Mac Maharaj was another conduit for Thales dirty funds, via an offshore account. These were men Kasrils relied on for life-and-death missions during the armed struggle against apartheid, though in at least in one case, Mo Shaik (who is now moving from heading the SA Secret Service to a Development Bank of Southern Africa job), there was finally a reconciliation with Kasrils.

But as Kasrils told me, this wasn’t the same Zuma he’d gotten to know as commander during MK operations, ‘a simple, decent comrade.’ Kasrils’ unsatisfactory theory of corruption seems largely based upon the numbers of wives and children that the former exiles were responsible for upon returning to South Africa two decades ago.

It’s a potentially racialising theory because as he pointed out in seminar, the white middle-class radicals who returned from abroad weren’t faced with anything like the same material pressures of household reproduction. And so when Kasrils began raising the critique of Zuma’s corruption within the Communist Party, for example, he confided that he found no resonance from black comrades, only from whites and Indians.

I asked whether, like other vocal critics of South Africa’s elite transition who were purged from the Party because they were communists (the names Jara, Satgar, McKinley come immediately to mind), this fate would befall Kasrils, he smiled and confirmed he was no longer in leadership nor a member of a branch – but hadn’t been expelled. Yet.


Flirting with Zimbabwe, flunking the xenophobia test

Looking more broadly at morally-exhausted nationalism, what of the so-called Zanufication of the ANC? The phrase was first used by SA Communist Party deputy leader Jeremy Cronin in 2002, and the backlash from Mbeki’s ranks was so strong that a humiliating apology was wrenched from the country’s next-highest profile white revolutionary.

True, Kasrils quickly confirmed, Zimbabwe’s Zanu(PF) ruling elite is ‘absolutely disgusting. We were their guests in exile and so we were mum over the Fifth Brigade [i.e. the Mugabe government’s mid-1980s’ massacre of 20 000 Ndebele people]. But you do that and you’re caught in a trap.’

Yet in 2005, in the midst of Mugabe’s most zany, self-destructive activity, Kasrils pronounced in a speech that his regime and South Africa’s shared a common world view and would march forward shoulder to shoulder.

When asked about this contradiction, Kasrils replied: ‘Sometimes it’s the context. They were our guests on that occasion, and we were signing a standard Defense Accord.’ He looked deeply regretful, but tragically, there is nothing incorrect about his remark.

Kasrils did, in retrospect, warmly endorse the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union’s April 2008 refusal to trans-ship three million Chinese bullets from Durban to Zimbabwe; Mugabe had ordered them to prepare for potential electoral defeat. (According to some reports, the Zimbabwe army finally acquired these via Angola after all the other ports in the region were declared no-offload zones for the weapons by courageous dockworkers.) Ten months later, the same unionists declared they would not unload Israeli goods, which warmed the progressive world’s heart, especially that of the newly-retired Kasrils, who stepped up his exceptionally admirable Palestine advocacy.

Of course, blowback from the ANC’s pro-Mugabe policy occurred in late May 2008, when with refugees streaming across the border to escape Zanu(PF) violence, more than sixty murders and 100 000 terrified displacees resulted from a heartbreaking xenophobia outbreak. ‘We are not just seeing spontaneous xenophobic attacks,’ Kasrils told journalists at the time, ‘There are many social issues at the root of the problem, but we have reason to believe that there are many other organisations involved in sparking the attacks.’

Really? There was no grounding for such conspiracy theory within sound intelligence. As Kasrils confessed, ‘Of course we were aware something was brewing. It is one thing to know there is a social problem and another thing to know when that outburst will occur.’ Stupidly, his National Intelligence Agency director general initially blamed xenophobia on a ‘Third Force’ that was ‘deliberately unleashed ahead of next year’s general election.’

To his credit, Kasrils later admitted these were ‘misguided’ theories, and regarding official impotence, ‘there has not been the kind of intelligence that has been able to, say, pinpoint exact details. Even now, two weeks into the mayhem, there’s not that great a possibility of being able to say.’

Resolving that particular contradiction, today Kasrils is a high-profile board member of Cape Town’s most effective anti-xenophobia organization, People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty.

But what happens next, if there’s another stolen election in Zimbabwe like those of 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2008? Contrary to hopes within that country’s democratic movement, Kasrils does not foresee Zuma intervening to ensure a free and fair election through enforcement of Mbeki’s September 2008 Global Political Agreement. In contrast, he says, ‘I thought Mbeki was getting the better of Uncle Bob. There were some changes in the election modalities, thanks to Mbeki’s niceties.’

This isn’t how Zimbabweans see it, for in March 2008, Mbeki laid down the law just as the opposition Movement for Democratic Change felt they had clearly won the majority of votes in the presidential election’s first round, having verifiable cellphone photos of poll results in each station immediately emailed to Harare headquarters for independent counting. Mbeki was the spoiler by ordering that Morgan Tsvangirai agree to a run-off vote in June, a race from which he soon had to withdraw because hundreds of his supporters were being killed or injured.

What if this happens again? Kasrils is adamant: ‘Sanctions. Absolutely, what else is there to do.’

Given the ANC’s ongoing commitment to Zanu(PF), it would be a great service for Kasrils to help open this debate if Zimbabwean comrades request it. The precedent is, once again, the Congress of SA Trade Unions’ threatened mid-2000s blockade of the Zimbabwe-SA border at Messina.


ANC secrecy

Another area of contradiction in which Cosatu’s support is vital, is the Secrecy Bill, the legislation that Kasrils originally introduced in early 2008 but that he now virulently opposes. As the Mail&Guardian reported four years ago, ‘Kasrils portrayed it as striking an enlightened balance between the need for secrecy and the constitutional imperative for open and accountable government. However, the M&G raised concerns that it would lead to a blanket of secrecy over government affairs.’

By mid-2008, Kasrils’ internal ministerial review commission – consisting of Joe Matthews, Frene Ginwala and Laurie Nathan – warned of very negative consequences of providing ‘so sweeping a basis for non-disclosure of information,’ reminiscent of ‘apartheid-era secrecy laws.’

That commission criticized Kasrils on several other grounds: ‘The enormously wide mandate initially given to NIA to gather political intelligence, that some current methods of intrusive surveillance are unconstitutional and that a policy culture persists in the spy agencies that insists they should be allowed to “bend the rules” when necessary.’

Again to his credit, Kasrils recognized many of these problems, and by late 2011 he was in the lead of the civil society campaign against the newer and even more totalitarian version of the bill. It was, he claimed at a Wits University rally, ‘turning into a Frankensteinian monster, a dog’s breakfast of toxic gruel.’

Kasrils also attacked parliamentary oversight: ‘All of those in the committee dealing with the bill, from every single party, are all woefully failing.’

These are the kinds of dialectical discussions which Kasrils invites: vast contradictions in past practices, conjoined with an ability to track degenerative trends and openly speak out today.


Privatisation and protest

That reminds me of the last time I ran into Kasrils, on September 3 2002, when dozens of protesters disrupted the ‘Water Dome’ conference panel his Director General Mike Muller had arranged with European privatisers as part of the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. Kasrils was livid, accusing me (!) of organizing the humiliating toyi-toyi (a task for which this armchair academic is quite incapable).

A decade ago, this was one of South African society’s hottest issues, along with the Mbeki government’s denial of AIDS medicines that left more than 330 000 people to die unnecessarily, according to a Harvard Public Health School study. Many of us were called ‘ultra-leftists’ during this era, because from around late 1999 in Durban’s Chatsworth township and Soweto, a new left had emerged to contest urban social services.

The argument, especially against Kasrils’ predecessor Kader Asmal, was that the 1994 water White Paper mandated full cost recovery, ignoring the implicit promise for a Free Basic Water ‘lifeline tariff’ mandated in the Reconstruction and Development Programme. Asmal, whom I briefly served as an advisor, was cross that a water-rights advocacy movement was rising, and he very decisively rejected Free Basic Water, once – to deter me raising this with his staff again – writing me the sternest letter that I’ve ever received (probably drafted by Muller).

There was great delight in February 2000 when Kasrils announced that at least 6000 liters per household per month would be provided to all residents of South Africa free. The catalyst was his meeting a Transkeian peasant who had turned away from one of Asmal’s water taps and gone to a dirty river for water, simply because the 100 percent cost recovery fetish of Asmal and Muller meant the new piped water was unaffordable.

Kasrils’ policy reversal represented to many of us the finest of the ANC’s traditions, so different from the staged imbizos that Mbeki was running around the country, none of which led to policy changes.

The problem reached tragic proportions in August 2000 when Ngwelezane officials took the 1994 White Paper seriously and cut off more than 1000 households because the R56 ($8) connection fee was too high. That same month, Kasrils drove the Free Basic Services policy into the ANC’s municipal election platform for the December 2000 vote. By 2001 the promise had become policy – yet with a catch: Muller ensured that the consultancy that was most responsible for opposing Free Basic Water during the Asmal years (Palmer Development Group) was the outfit chosen to design its municipal implementation.

The only outcome possible was sabotage of Kasrils’ intentions. Ironically it was here in Durban – the model for the 6000 liters because a drum was provided to residents that was actually cheaper for the city to fill each month than send out small bills and make collections – that the sabotage was most decisive.

From 1997-2004, according to municipal data, the real price of Durban residential water doubled, leading to a drastic contraction in consumption by an estimated million of the city’s poorest residents (by one third, from 22 000 to 15 000 liters per household per month) – even during epidemics of AIDS, cholera and diarrhea. The reason for this was that after the small tokenistic amount, the next block’s price rose so high so quickly that it was soon considered the second most inequitable (behind Pietermaritzburg) in all South Africa, and the worst of five major cities surveyed by the United Nations a few years later.

This city, regrettably, was the model for Free Basic Water, yet it should have been understood as an example of South Africa’s most venal public policy: brutal neoliberalism applied to social services but with tokenistic welfarism. In other words, the struggle for decommodification in which Kasrils had initially appeared as a top-down hero, was now twisted into a system for even deeper state surveillance and disciplining techniques, such as pre-payment meters.


The case of Veolia

Was Kasrils a water privatizer? Definitely not, he repeatedly claimed. Yet his earlier commitment to ‘public-private partnerships’ (a euphemism for commodification, commercialization and as in this case, privatization) hit hard here in Durban, home to the country’s leading grassroots environmental justice campaigning group, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (

Kasrils arrived in mid-2001 to open an industrial waste-water recycling plant in South Durban, owned by the world’s largest water privatizer, Paris-based Vivendi, claiming, ‘Durban has not only implemented some very effective water conservation and demand management programmes, it has also managed to be extremely innovative in the ways in which to provide water to poor and indigent households.’

Actually, protesters were up in arms about those rising prices and disconnections. From Chatsworth they filed the first court injunction requested by any South African community group against municipal cut-offs, on grounds of water rights. They lost, but the anger at water commodification grew here and everywhere.

Yet at the Vivendi plant’s opening, Kasrils announced, ‘Public-private partnerships enable a synergy between the best that Government and the private sector have to offer.’

The ‘best’? This was true for Vivendi profit-taking and for two huge South Durban polluters which were its only water purchasers, the Mondi paper mill and the Sapref oil refinery owned by Shell and BP. Their price of water was cut nearly in half by Vivendi, from R5.40/kl to R2.80, because Durban municipality priced the incoming water to Vivendi so generously.

But at the same time, SDCEA activists were demanding these firms be closed, in part because they were primary causes of the world-leading asthma rate of 52 percent at the nearby Settlers Primary School.

Then there was the financial downside. South Africa would pay a steady profit stream to Vivendi’s French shareholders, in an era in which the country’s balance of payments deficit soared to amongst the world’s worst (by 2009 this left South Africa with the reputation as the riskiest of 17 peer emerging economies, according to The Economist).

Ironically, fairly sophisticated R&D capacity in the South African engineering sector for water recycling already existed, given that the Durban wastewater treatment facility utilises merely sand and carbon filters, ozone and chlorine.

Asked about these in an interview last weekend, Kasrils rebutted that at least the Durban municipality’s capital was saved for redeployment elsewhere, thanks to the French investment.

Yet implicit rates of return and profit/dividend outflows were so substantial that it would have made sense for the city to have taken on the project internally, if merely for the sake of expanded municipal capacity and ownership. It would have been a much better use of money than building a second world-class stadium – now considered a white elephant – with the city’s large reserves a few years later.

Indeed, Engineering News reported that by 2014 there will be an estimated $240 million in South African water and wastewater outsourcing revenues, so to permit foreign, for-profit suppliers into this market without developing national and local capacity was a misjudgment.

Setting aside the deal’s flawed economics, a more extreme political contradiction loomed: Vivendi wasn’t a good business partner, in contrast to Kasrils’ 2001 claim about the world’s largest water privatiser: ‘a number of French companies heeded the call to withdraw from South Africa in the interests of breaking the apartheid government through economic sanctions. I believe it was in 1985 that the French government decided to stop all new investment in South Africa, a year before the European Union made a similar ruling.

Kasrils then offered this specific praise: ‘Vivendi Water respected this decision and it was only after the release of Nelson Mandela and his inauguration as our first democratic president that Vivendi took the decision to invest locally.’

Yet simultaneously, Vivendi’s operations in other countries were rife with corruption, as the 2001 report ‘Dirty Water’ by Friends of the Earth International showed. The month after the South Durban deal was done, in the Italian city of Milan, ‘a senior manager in Vivendi’s water division was convicted for bribery and received a prison sentence’ while four years earlier, ‘junior French minister Jean-Michel Boucheron was jailed for two years’ and fined the equivalent of a million rand after a Vivendi bribe was revealed.

In another case, according to the Dirty Water report, Vivendi executives were ‘convicted of bribing the mayor of St-Denis to obtain the water concession.’ Vivendi privatization in Puerto Rico was already recognized as a world-class consumer disaster, and in England in 1998, Vivendi’s waste disposal operation ‘was listed by the Environment Agency as the second worst polluter in the UK.’ A year later, Vivendi was hit with seven prosecutions for waste management pollution. Health and safety violations were rife in Vivendi operations by the late 1990s.

Perhaps most ironically, in 2003 Vivendi changed its name to Veolia, and quickly became one of the leading targets of Palestinian activists demanding sanctions and disinvestment. By 2006, Irish campaigners started to succeed against the world’s largest water firm, as contracts were canceled due to Veolia’s participation in Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

According to campaigners, Veolia ‘is helping to build and operate a tramway linking illegal settlements in East Jerusalem with Israel. Not only do the settlements contravene article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention forbidding an occupier transferring its own civilians into the territory it occupies, but in most cases the establishment of the Israeli settlements involved war crimes too. The tramway tightens Israel’s hold on occupied East Jerusalem, ties the settlements more firmly into Israel and undermines chances of a just peace for the Palestinian people.’

The BDS fight against Veolia has included a great many victories, all of which were after Kasrils left the water ministry. To his credit, the 2001 grand opening can be revisited and Palestinian solidarity politics renewed in only one way, which he has provisionally agreed to: a ‘street closure’ of Veolia’s South Durban plant, one day soon. This would resolve several interlocking privatization contradictions created by Kasrils eleven years ago, and push forward one of the world’s most difficult dialectics of economy-society-nature.


More water wars

But there were many other contradictions associated with early 21st century water politics, and this is only a partial list of civil society grievances against Kasrils recorded at a meeting he hosted at the time of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in mid-2002:

• The SA Municipal Workers Union opposed the private-sector and NGO-oriented rural water programme and the promotion of public-private partnerships in municipal water delivery;

• Some community organisations, social movements and NGOs, mainly affiliated to the National Land Committee and Rural Development Services Network, complained that most taps installed after 1994 quickly broke and that millions of South Africans remained without water, arguing that Kasrils did not take seriously the RDP promise of 50 litres per person per day of free water;

• Environmentalists in the Group for Environmental Monitoring, Environmental Monitoring Group, Earthlife and the Soweto and Alexandra civic associations complained that Kasrils championed unnecessary Lesotho dams;

• Many civic groups protested intensifying municipal water cut-offs, with fierce demonstrations in the townships of Gauteng, Durban, Cape Town and several smaller towns;

• Criticism continued against low infrastructure standards, such as mass pit latrines in urban areas.

Because of the failure to resolve any of these state-society contradictions over water commodification and ecological destruction, Kasrils grand opening to the left with Free Basic Water soon appeared as a shut door. ‘You were seen as our main enemy’, he told me last week, ‘because when we offered 25 liters you ungratefully insisted on 50,’ and yes, in retrospect, there was a degree of self-defeating, arrogant posturing by myself and many others on the independent left, especially after the empowering march of 30 000 people against the ANC government and World Summit in late August 2002.

The tensions ratcheted up, and in his April 2003 budget speech to parliament, Kasrils went after the jugular of the man who had actually surpassed him as the most notorious white revolutionary living in South Africa, John Pape, of the International Labour Research and Information Group in Cape Town. Noting that a few months earlier, Pape was extradited to the US to stand trial for his early 1970s participation in the Symbionese Liberation Army (an urban guerilla group in California best known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst), Kasrils attacked him as a ‘phoney revolutionary.’ (And me and a few others, too.)

Pape, according to Kasrils, ‘glorified the use of incorrect information in a paper entitled “Down With Missionaries and Objective Academics”. He encouraged his labour education colleagues not to present facts to help workers make their own decisions but rather to “lead” them to support their desired positions and courses of action. I have nothing personal against the man but misleading working people by withholding concrete facts or deliberately providing them with incorrect information is no basis for long term political success.’

Had Kasrils ever read this 1998 paper? If he had, I sense he might have agreed with Pape’s actual concerns, on the one hand, that, ‘The missionary sees union members as passive zealots who chant slogans and repeat key phrases without being able to analyse or criticize,’ and on the other hand, that ‘The objective academic sees unions as debating societies, not as organizations engaged in struggle.’

Seeking a route out of these traps, as even a Los Angeles Times reporter could recognize, Pape’s main thesis was the opposite to Kasrils’ allegation. He argued ‘that union leaders had to cultivate critical thinking among their members, not lock-step militancy.’ The newspaper cited these sentences from Pape’s article: ‘It is dishonest to pretend we don’t have opinions. But it is also destructive to use our views as a sledgehammer to hit people over the head. Sledgehammer tactics will silence differing opinions.’

Indeed at the time, that appeared to be Kasrils’ objective: sledgehammering his critics.

With Pape in prison, fellow researcher David McDonald replied to Kasrils’ charges: ‘It is morally reprehensible that Water Affairs and other government agencies have not been researching the cutoff situation themselves and sharing this information with the public. Apparently they would rather attack academics whose data does not fit their rosy picture of service delivery than do the difficult work of research themselves.’

McDonald added, ‘Sadly, the cutoff saga continues, and the new white paper on water services makes it clear that cost recovery remains at the heart of government’s water delivery strategy. Those who do not pay their bills will continue to face the wrath of budget-conscious bureaucrats.’

Kasrils’ rejoinder was that thanks to his policies, no one should be cut off entirely – because of the guaranteed free supply. Rebutted McDonald, ‘“Free services” are just part of this cost recovery continuum. Once the meager supply of free water is consumed, water flows will be restricted or cutoff if not paid for, despite the fact that millions of low-income households cannot afford to pay for the water they need. The city of Durban, the first to introduce free water, is still cutting off as many as 1000 households a day.’

Johannesburg townships witnessed the toughest battles over water, and at one point in 2004, Kasrils attacked the openly socialist Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) for destroying the pre-payment meters which Kasrils endorsed as a delivery system for at least the basic minimal free supply of 25 liters per person each day.

As he wrote in This Day newspaper in April 2004: ‘Attempts by misguided activists such as the APF to stop municipalities from managing their water systems sill probably undermine people’s water supplies and turn the hard won “right to water” into an empty tap, the right to a healthy environment into an open sewer.’

APF leader Trevor Ngwane replied: ‘Does Kasrils not know that these devices are banned in Britain, where they are considered a public health threat. Here we have AIDS, and tens of thousands of our people dying from diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery each year. So the threat of losing access to water – and hence our lives – is even more immediate.’

Ngwane continued, ‘Last May, Kasrils promised he would help by “naming and shaming” municipalities like Johannesburg which disconnect people and deny them lifeline supplies. We are still waiting for Kasrils to make good on his promise. Good riddance if, in the next cabinet, he is moved somewhere less damaging to the public health.’


Damn dams

A decade ago, this was the destructive tone of the debate between the impotent left-left and those few in the ANC’s left flanks who exercised a certain kind of delimited power. The early 2000s conflict was as acute in relation to Johannesburg water as it was for access to AIDS medicines. In 2001, another French firm – Suez (whose subsidiary was implicated in corruption associated with Lesotho dam construction) – was hired to commercialise the city’s retail supply, and let the rich continue to pay a relatively lower post-apartheid price compared to poor people (even Palmer Development Group data showed), while unemployment and inequality soared in South Africa’s meanest city.

I lived in Johannesburg then, and worked at Wits University’s public policy school. It was not hard to break with Asmal over his decision to hire the same corrupt construction firms to build the second Lesotho dam in 1998, since those two dams were responsible for quintupling the price of water to consumers, as well as destroying sensitive ecologies.

In 1999, Kasrils as the new water minister inherited the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which soon became the highest-profile corruption case in the Third World. Even the World Bank began to debar some of the dozen multinational corporations convicted of bribing Lesotho officials, one of which (the giant Canadian civils firm Acres International) effectively closed due to the revelations.

In last week’s UKZN seminar, Kasrils claimed that he and Muller were the driving forces in speeding up Bank investigations, yet from our perspective in civil society, Pretoria was regularly turning a blind eye to corruption by the same firms. I have found no account of Kasrils’ own attempt to deter further SA government contracts with SA firms like Group Five, Concor, LTA, Ninham Shand, Knight Pièsold and Keeve Steyn, or others associated with the LHWP corruption, and in overseeing the second Lesotho mega-dam’s construction, the same firms were hired.

Subsequently, as Kasrils confirmed with genuine disgust during our seminar, the main Basotho official guilty of taking bribes, the head of the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority, Masupha Sole, served a few years in jail but in August 2012 was rehired as a top Authority official.

There was another problem, though: it appeared Kasrils had a Soviet-era fascination with massive dams, something that at least Asmal had tempered by chairing the World Commission on Dams from 1998-2001. After copious evidence of mega-dam destructiveness, that Commission suggested quite restrictive conditions for dam-building, and as a result was rudely rejected by the World Bank and also by Kasrils and Muller.

In May 2001 after a trip to China, Kasrils witnessed what can reasonably be called the most extreme attack by human beings on nature, the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges Dam: ‘I must state my admiration for the determination and care with which the Chinese government is promoting this vast undertaking.’

This contradiction is formidable, and last December, when I visited the upper reaches of the dam’s impoundment near Chongqing, I witnessed why the Chinese government itself confessed, a few months earlier, their struggle to address ‘urgent problems in terms of environmental protection, the prevention of geological hazards and the welfare of the relocated communities’ (there were nearly two million people displaced).

Four years earlier, Yangtze River Forum secretary general Weng Lida also admitted these ‘problems are all more serious than we expected,’ and other senior officials worried about frequent landslides, pollution, and environmental ‘catastrophe’, some in the wake of several ‘major chemical spills and algae outbreaks that have contaminated the country’s rivers and lakes, leaving millions of people without safe water for days and weeks at a time,’ according to Probe International, a Three Gorges Dam watchdog.

Even Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, a geologist, conceded pollution control was lacking at the Three Gorges dam. There is also a new awareness of how a dam in central China I visited, Zipingpu (upriver from the town of Dujiangyan), had caused the May 2008 earthquake that killed more than 80 000 people.

These eco-social antitheses to Kasrils’ hydropower thesis have not yet created a new synthesis, but last week he remarked that he’ll soon go back to central China for another look at the Three Gorges, given that he’s in the process of setting up a China-South Africa Friendship Society. Such a society, we agreed, should seek civil society linkages – after all these are the two leading countries I know of in protests per capita – and avoid some of the sleazier relations that characterize China’s interests in Africa.



After a few days of contemplation, I am certain that the way that John le Carré’s great novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was described by Time magazine – ‘a sad, sympathetic portrait of a man who has lived by lies and subterfuge for so long, he’s forgotten how to tell the truth’ – is the polar opposite of how to understand Ronnie Kasrils’ renewed life on the left. After a chilly period as a genuine revolutionary trying to find a way forward within a blatantly corrupt version of ‘post’-colonial neoliberal nationalism, in which his own best instincts were confounded by an adverse power context and bureaucratic distortions, Kasrils should be warmly welcomed for any initiative he pursues, and I look forward to doing so, in coming months and years.

(It might be easier to accuse others around Kasrils of ongoing lies and subterfuge, including his main water policy advisor Muller, a National Planning Commissioner who, dangerously for Gauteng and Mpumalanga residents, appears to be in Mbeki-style denial about the region’s Acid Mine Drainage crisis. Another is the man who self-interestedly misinformed Kasrils about Joe Slovo’s seven months as housing minister, the World Bank’s Billy Cobbett, before Kasrils delivered the Eastern Cape’s 2010 Slovo Memorial Lecture through remarkably rose-coloured glasses.)

The method above, in which older contradictions are explored against newer wisdom and recommitments – e.g. on the Secrecy Bill, Zimbabwe, xenophobia – isn’t fool-proof, and many further debates remain about areas of nuance regarding the Arms Deal, water pricing, dam-building, wastewater privatisation and the like.

What seems profoundly different, though, is an appreciation by Kasrils that a very wide range of progressive social actors, including once-derided ultra-lefties (like myself), could perhaps be part of that renewed movement leftwards, ‘in spirals, not in a straight line’ (Lenin). We can only hope that with his exuberance and unfailing energy, Kasrils continues to spiral up and outwards, gathering more former skeptics like myself along for his ride.

But for those others facing situations in which power can be exercised as decisively as did Kasrils, likewise we might wish for further ‘catastrophes’ and ‘breaks in continuity’ – like those ‘eight days in September’ 2008 – to hasten the working of the dialectic. If we’re correct, then further contradictions regarding the fight against class apartheid require exploration, to get us to that ‘universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws.’

Along with Ashwin Desai and Trevor Ngwane, there’s a strong sense I’ve had in recent years that the ‘uneven-and-combined’ character of South Africa and its urban social resistances require much fuller treatment (,68,3,2523). As that too proceeds, I will always think back to the March 2012 conversations with Ronnie Kasrils about his own contradictions, and seek to renew these in some way in search of a better understanding of power: an understanding that he too is grappling with so courageously, given how far he has come in from the cold of Pretoria.

Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society,

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: