“Solidarity is a two-way street”: Interview with anti-apartheid militant Ronnie Kasrils

Ronnie Kasrils, born 1938 in Johan­nes­burg, joined the South Afri­can Commu­nist Party at the age of 23. He was a foun­ding member of the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the para­mi­li­tary wing of the Afri­can Natio­nal Congress (ANC). After recei­ving mili­tary and intel­li­gence trai­ning in the Soviet Union and the GDR, Kasrils helped to estab­lish a sophisti­ca­ted under­ground network of anti-apart­heid figh­ters from the mid-1960s onwards. Follo­wing the victory over apart­heid, Kasrils served as Minis­ter of Water Affairs and Forestry (1999–2004) and Minis­ter of Intel­li­gence Services (2004–2008) in the ANC governments.


The IF DDR had the oppor­tu­nity to inter­view Kasrils in Johan­nes­burg in Febru­ary 2023. He spoke of his own path to commu­nism; his expe­ri­en­ces in the GDR, inclu­ding at a secret trai­ning camp for ANC mili­tants on the outskirts of a rural town in north-eastern Germany; and of the impact of the socia­list camp’s soli­da­rity with natio­nal libe­ra­tion movements.

How were you politicized and when did you join the liberation movement in South Africa?

I grew up during the Second World War and my back­ground is of Jewish immi­grants from the Russian Empire. My father was born in Lithua­nia, my grand­par­ents came from that area. We lived in our own little neigh­bor­hood (as is often the case in South Africa’s diffe­rent commu­ni­ties), which was very Jewish. My parents might have been mildly Zionist, but they were more secu­lar, not terri­bly reli­gious. I, actually, was quite a rebel as a kid and it was because of the South Afri­can situa­tion. I just abhor­red the racism and the way people trea­ted black people. There was this element of anti-Semi­tism that exis­ted here, and not just from Afri­ka­a­ner with Dutch or German back­ground. The ones who could be even more anti-Semi­tic were those of British origin. So, one beco­mes a bit sensi­tive that way.


My mother had two cousins, both of whom were in the South Afri­can Commu­nist Party (SACP). I star­ted picking up little bits from these lovely, quite sophisti­ca­ted women. One of them married a famous commu­nist who became my mentor later. But even as a teen­ager, I star­ted reading books of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War which brought me into a realiza­tion of how the Soviet Union had really been respon­si­ble for the defeat of Hitler, which went contrary to what we had been told in our English-spea­king schools here – they spoke all about Mont­go­mery and the British and the Americans.


Reading helped a lot too. Even anar­chi­stic stuff like Arthur Koest­ler and so on. This was prior to Shar­pe­ville [the 1960 massacre of anti-apart­heid protes­tors], so I was only about 21 then. I was inter­ac­ting with black people mostly through music and poetry, while also diving into Bertolt Brecht and lite­ra­ture of this kind. Quite early on I get a real passion for Brecht which begins to take me into the coun­ter culture of Germany against Nazism. I’m writing poems and I get a job in writing film scripts for a film company, which was quite an avant­garde-thing to do in South Africa. But the people I was inter­ac­ting with across the color line happened to be more Bohe­mian types even amongst the black people.


Then the Shar­pe­ville massacre struck in March 1960. It hit me so fier­cely that I suddenly reali­zed, you can’t just go on having discus­sions and deba­tes and reading. You’ve got to do some­thing. That’s when I began sear­ching for people who are now in hiding and trying to flee the coun­try. I went to visit my commu­nist cousin in Durban, she is 15 years older than me, and her husband was now under­ground. He was running away from the police and is orga­ni­zing from under­ground. I was not known to the secu­rity police at all. It was helpful for the commu­nist move­ment to have someone they could trust and who could run as a messen­ger, which is what I became.


To cut a long story short: My under­stan­ding deve­lo­ped incre­di­bly during discus­sions with my cousin, who gave me such deep insight into Marxism, into the Soviet Union, and into the Second World War. The Cuban Revo­lu­tion was also unfol­ding at that time, so I was caught by the bug now. I became very invol­ved with the under­ground, with the ANC, with the Commu­nist Party, and with the armed struggle. Being young and very physi­cally fit, they seized on me to carry out these mili­tary operations.


Having come from that Jewish back­ground, I was so inte­res­ted to under­stand the rise of Hitler and how fascism had come to power in a coun­try where the working class and the Commu­nist Party were so strong and well orga­ni­zed. In rela­tion to that, I acqui­red a reali­stic under­stan­ding of capi­tal, class forces, and how fascism arises. I began to absorb all the clas­sics and deba­tes which were taking place within the libe­ra­tion move­ment as well.

Ronnie Kasrils with Nelson Mandela and Cyril Rama­phosa (circa 1991/92)

How did you first come into contact with the German Democratic Republic (GDR)?

I was in exile and working in Tanz­a­nia for a couple of years after 1963 and it was there that I first estab­lished close cont­act with the GDR through its embassy. The ambassa­dor [Dr. Gott­fried Lessing] was wonderful. He was unfort­u­na­tely murde­red along­side his wife in Uganda by Idi Amin. I remem­ber him so vividly. In Tanz­a­nia, there was a small GDR dele­ga­tion with just a few people, Dr. Lessing and his wife, and a couple of others. They were making quite an impact on the libe­ra­tion groups which were now cente­red in the capi­tal Dar es Salaam, and they held good rela­ti­ons with the Tanz­a­nian govern­ment. I can remem­ber Dr. Lessing saying how they were stri­ving to get their work done but they were having to rely more or less on their own. They had the will, but they didn’t have many resour­ces. Still, this dele­ga­tion became a magnet for those enga­ged in the libe­ra­tion move­ments, they made a very big impact. In talks they would explain the origin of the GDR, the whole nature of the situa­tion, and how the GDR came into exis­tence, what East Germany was up against. We imme­dia­tely could realize that West Germany and the West wanted to see this young socia­list coun­try abso­lut­ely wiped out. One began to realize how important the soli­da­rity we were recei­ving from them was as they had only few resour­ces. We began to realize that, as libe­ra­tion move­ments, it was our duty to under­stand the whole nature of Germany and the GDR, its exis­tence and development.


Within a few years, I was deployed to London and I had the privi­lege to work with people like Yusuf Dadoo. Inci­den­tally, his former wife had been married to Dr. Lessing, the GDR ambassa­dor in Dar es Salaam. She had been a German woman who was living in South Africa from before or just after the war and was an anti-fascist. Dr. Lessing, a tall bespec­ta­cled guy, always opti­mi­stic and with a great sense of humor, always knew that we had to deal with the problems and the contra­dic­tions. He was a great ambassa­dor – in the gene­ral sense, not in a formal – for a new socia­list Germany. He really impres­sed young people like myself and had very good connec­tions with the older people like Oliver Tambo and Moses Kotane and leaders from other libe­ra­tion groups.


Quite soon after, I was in Britain. I was deployed there, and we began to create clan­des­tine connec­tions with South Africa and recrui­ting couriers. My book, Inter­na­tio­nal Brigade against Apart­heid (2021), is about the recrui­ting of young white people, espe­ci­ally from the Western count­ries, who could easily go in and out of South Africa. I used to read books about the war, as I mentio­ned, inclu­ding the “Rote Kapelle” [German resis­tance group against fascism – editor’s note] and these kinds of books about how the under­ground opera­ted. It was quite amazing to disco­ver that within fascist Germany even after the onslaught against the commu­nists and socia­lists there were still groups brave enough to operate. There was one that came out of middle class or bour­geois circles; it was called the “White Rose” and I was reading all about them. These were the kind of books that one was beco­ming very inte­res­ted in, so I had quite a good feeling about German progres­si­ves and obviously the commu­nists, who were against Hitler.


There were some Jewish comra­des, some youn­ger people who I had recrui­ted, who even at that time still found it diffi­cult to work with Germans. For exam­ple, when we were working with GDR dele­ga­ti­ons in Maputo. They didn’t diffe­ren­tiate between the Germans and said “Ronnie, he’s from Germany, I don’t know if I can meet with him”, and I’d say, for good­ness’ sake, don’t you under­stand the diffe­rence? It’s like in South Africa: people are for or against apartheid.


My first expe­ri­ence in the GDR was around 1967 when I went there with Joe Slovo [a leader of the SACP, from 1994–95 Minis­ter of Housing of South Africa] to soli­cit some support for trai­ning program­mes. People from Tanz­a­nia and Zambia were alre­ady recei­ving trai­ning through clan­des­tine acti­vi­ties in the GDR, and they also bene­fit­ted from their skills in smugg­ling lite­ra­ture and carry­ing out under­ground work. That was my first visit. Going there gave one an abso­lute under­stan­ding of the extent of the soli­da­rity which the GDR was providing.

What kind of training and support was the socialist camp providing to the liberation movements?

I had been trai­ned in 1964 for a full year with a contin­gent of 150 other comra­des of our armed wing. We subse­quently trai­ned for a year in the Soviet Union, and we came to appre­ciate the resour­ces, the extent of the power of the Soviet Union. The Soviets were able to provide mili­tary and non-mili­tary trai­ning to hundreds and hundreds of figh­ters, along­side weaponry and other resour­ces. Some of our comra­des were trai­ned in Alge­ria and in Egypt at that time; in one year, they fired their weapons maybe three times. In the Soviet Union, we were firing our weapons every day during prac­tice. Those were the kind of resour­ces they had.


Suddenly, one was in a small socia­list coun­try with this huge aggres­sive neigh­bor in every sense of the word. We could actually see that even in 1967/68 there was more deve­lo­p­ment taking place than one was seeing in the Soviet Union. Of course, this became clear later on, but the GDR’s readi­ness to support us amazed me at the time. And they were provi­ding this kind of assis­tance to other natio­nal libe­ra­tion groups as well. While we were there, we encoun­te­red comra­des from Nami­bia, from SWAPO. There was quite a connec­tion, because Nami­bia had been a German colony with concen­tra­tion camps – the first concen­tra­tion camps in the early part of the 20th century – set up by the German Empire which commit­ted a geno­cide there.


We were discus­sing the possi­bi­lity of trai­ning the people who had been based in London. I came to realize that Mac Maha­raj [SACP member, from 1994–99 Minis­ter of Trans­port of South Africa] had a very strong connec­tion with the GDR. He is a promi­nent South Afri­can who had been trai­ned in the GDR, parti­cu­larly in prin­ting and using under­ground methods from early 1960s. He went back to South Africa to work in the under­ground in 1962. After the Rivo­nia Trial, Maha­raj was arres­ted and served 12 years in prison.


So as early as 1960, the GDR was invi­ting some of our people based in London and provi­ding them with trai­ning in non-mili­tary and clan­des­tine acti­vi­ties such as the publi­shing of under­ground mate­ri­als. I had the privi­lege of watching the growth of the resour­ces going towards assis­tance for the natio­nal libe­ra­tion struggle, from the 1960s right through to the late 1980s. And I was, of course, invol­ved in Teterow.


Tete­row [a town in north-eastern Germany], from 1976 onwards, became a center in which the small GDR would provide six-month cour­ses twice a year for 40 very advan­ced ANC cadres. They recei­ved high-level guer­rilla warfare and under­ground clan­des­tine trai­ning, inclu­ding secu­rity and intel­li­gence prepa­ra­tion. Other groups recei­ved their trai­ning in diffe­rent safe houses in East Berlin and its envi­rons. Maybe four or five people a few times a year, some­ti­mes only one or two, just recei­ving focu­sed trai­ning and getting back into South Africa.


It had grown to that degree. Having been invol­ved in a Tete­row trai­ning group and going there maybe twice a year over 10 years, my esti­mate is that we had more or less 80 people trai­ned annu­ally over a 12-year period. That’s just under 1,000 cadres, which is incre­di­ble because this was very advan­ced, highly sophisti­ca­ted trai­ning. One could add a couple of hundred other cadres from our intel­li­gence and secu­rity depart­ments over the period of a dozen years, recei­ving trai­ning as well. They proba­bly amoun­ted to just over 200 cadres, plus perhaps another 50 that had been selec­ted from inside South Africa, the latter being very sophisti­ca­ted and advan­ced in their poli­ti­cal aware­ness and acti­vity in the emer­ging trade union and mass demo­cra­tic move­ment of the 1980s. We would select and bring these indi­vi­du­als to a place like Nether­lands, Britain or France and from there send them into the GDR. They recei­ved very concen­tra­ted and focu­sed prepa­ra­tion trai­ning over two to three months in rela­tion to under­ground orga­niza­tion, linking with the public levels of orga­niza­tion, lear­ning aspects of self-defense, secu­rity, sabo­tage tech­ni­ques and so on.


“The GDR – being so close to the West and having to inter­act and contest with the West – had a much more sophisti­ca­ted grasp of the power of capi­tal in the impe­ria­list states.”


The other element of the trai­ning that the GDR provi­ded, as star­ted with Mac Maha­raj, was running an under­ground press. But also the provi­sion of our maga­zi­nes and mate­rial and small book­lets which were disgu­i­sed with false covers. They prin­ted for us our jour­nals like the Afri­can Commu­nist, and for the ANC their main jour­nal Sech­aba. This was all orga­ni­zed through London via both the editors of Sech­aba, “MP” Naicker and later on Ben Turok, and Brian Bunting from the Afri­can Commu­nist as well as Sonia Bunting. She would be going back and forth to Berlin with the texts for prin­ting, the arran­ge­ment for dispatch of the thou­sands of copies of those jour­nals through to London.


You can imagine the extent of the capi­tal resour­ces provi­ded for that – totally dedi­ca­ted to libe­ra­tion move­ments around the world and Africa featured very much. It wasn’t just the examp­les I cite for the South Afri­can move­ment, but it was for the others as well. In 1990, when Nami­bia beco­mes inde­pen­dent and the GDR actually is kaputt, its presi­dent, Sam Nujoma of SWAPO, is invi­ted to the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany. He goes to Berlin and they had a program worked out for him. He looked at the program and the dear man who showed his nobi­lity and his under­stan­ding prin­ci­ple, he said to the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany, before I start your program, the first thing I have to do, which you don’t have on the program is to go to the eastern part of Berlin and to see the people who were assis­ting us for all these years and to pay his respects. And you can imagine how taken aback they were! But it’s an exam­ple of how the GDR helped, in prac­ti­cal terms of assis­tance, mate­rial assistance.


By the way, we also recei­ved clot­hing for the mili­tary: uniforms from Czechos­lo­va­kia, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and the GDR. A lot of our people were in GDR mili­tary uniforms in places like Angola and Tanz­a­nia. We recei­ved food and civi­lian clot­hing as well, right through this period, from the mid-1960s, right up until, unfort­u­na­tely, the demise and the collapse of the GDR.


One can go on giving examp­les but I’m just citing them, so that people can under­stand the extent of that support. And it went beyond the actual mate­rial support, it included diplo­ma­tic and ideo­lo­gi­cal aspects as well. At Tete­row we had, for instance, a profes­sor from a nearby univer­sity town. I remem­ber having inter­ac­tions with him about what contra­dic­tions the GDR was facing and so on. The high level of the theo­re­ti­cal presen­ta­tion, ideo­logy and philo­so­phy was really very impres­sive. The GDR – being so close to the West and having to inter­act and contest with the West – had a much more sophisti­ca­ted grasp of the power of capi­tal in the impe­ria­list states. It could alert us to under­stand the extent of this. So, it was a very profound relationship.

Ronnie Kasrils with Winnie Mandela in Southern Cape Town.

What was your impression of socialist society in East Germany?

In the first place – whether it was the GDR, Cuba or the Soviet Union – we basi­cally inter­ac­ted with the autho­ri­ties who were wonderful in all those count­ries. This idea of ‘Stali­nist’ and ‘bureau­cracy’ and ‘cold people’ – it was the actual oppo­site. The first time you go there you’re inte­res­ted about these people and you found not only how human they are, but witty and warm and caring. So, that’s the way as a human being you see through propa­ganda and the poiso­ning of one’s mind.


We would certainly see the extent of the deve­lo­p­ment taking place and that this deve­lo­p­ment was abso­lut­ely focu­sed into the uplif­ting of people and of over­co­ming econo­mic problems even in a place like the post-war GDR. I can remem­ber being taken around to Alex­an­der­platz [East Berlin’s city center] and a young woman was telling me, how she had been mobi­li­zed with other people after the war and volun­t­a­rily came to the area where they were clea­ring up the debris which was right at Alex­an­der­platz. We obviously could receive this infor­ma­tion in class and with offi­ci­als, who we inter­ac­ted with, but to speak to a person more or less my age roughly 30 years after the war who was 16 years old in 1945 was very interesting.


One could see more of the sophisti­ca­tion in terms of deve­lo­p­ment indus­tria­liza­tion and light indus­try in the GDR compared to Cuba and even the Soviet Union. We’d always be given a stipend.  As a writer and someone they wanted to inter­view on radio, I always made some Deut­sche Marks or roubles. So, I had a little bit of money to spend and from going back and forth to my family in London, I would always find that the shops in the GDR certainly had more impro­ved goods than one would find in Moscow. Not to belittle what was happe­ning in the Soviet Union, but one could get the impres­sion that socia­lism was advan­cing more in the GDR.


I was fort­u­nate to inter­act with some South Afri­can students while I was in the GDR. I visi­ted Tete­row but then would have some time at the Gast­haus an der Spree [“Tavern on the Spree River”], which was a party hotel. Being very free to go out into the city and to get into the under­ground trains, hardly paying a penny, and going anywhere was abso­lut­ely amazing. I was then able to meet ordi­nary civi­li­ans, youn­ger and older people.


Expe­ri­en­cing ever­y­day life, you did come across both pros and cons, which made it inte­res­t­ing. Because it’s impos­si­ble – and we weren’t naïve – for a coun­try to become advan­ced while being cut off from the inter­na­tio­nal market to a such a degree, virtually sanc­tioned. We were well aware of these tremen­dous problems. Also, the issue of being eye to eye with a very aggres­sive, vengeful, powerful West Germany which had taken into its poli­ti­cal elite, its ruling class, and judi­ciary former Nazis.


Some­ti­mes, when we inter­ac­ted with youn­ger people in the GDR, they weren’t seeing this side of things, not as much as their parents. They would be very inte­res­ted in the free­doms in the West. They would be saying, “Here it can be a bit boring. At work we’re under such struc­ture and people are a little bit wary of being criti­cal”. Some­ti­mes it was also real gossip, which I would laugh at and argue about with them. They hear that Honecker and the rulers would be recei­ving fresh milk from Denmark every day and – because I was at Tete­row, which is in the coun­try­side and we were paying visits some­ti­mes to parti­cu­lar farms – we saw such glorious farm animals inclu­ding cows being milked. I could laugh and say, what is wrong with you guys? Be very careful about Western propa­ganda! It’s desi­gned to under­mine your belief in the system. You don’t know what these people are up to and I used to tell this to people in the Soviet Union as well.


We had a wonderful South Afri­can comrade, Arnold Selby, who worked for the GDR radio. He had a big contra­dic­tion with his wife and young daugh­ter because they would tune in to West-Berlin tele­vi­sion and he never in all his life in the GDR would even look at an image on the screen unless it was a chan­nel of the GDR. He used to have very serious discus­sions and argu­ments, because they were attrac­ted to it and of course he was so highly prin­ci­pled and under­stan­ding the imagi­na­tion of this false propaganda.


Living next to West Germany, it was impos­si­ble to keep aspects of this kind of propa­ganda and that inevi­ta­bly when you buil­ding a new society you have parti­cu­lar problems and people can become very subjec­tive about such things and begin to inter­pret things in a wrong way. I’m not saying that, as time went on and we came towards the end game which affec­ted so many people, that there were not deep contra­dic­tions. But if one had a big picture view and an under­stan­ding of the inter­na­tio­nal situa­tion and what was now taking place vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, we could see this happening.


I trai­ned in the Soviet Union for mili­tary intel­li­gence in 1983 and I was quite shocked at the diffe­rence in the presen­ta­tion that one would receive from our instruc­tors. At the poli­ti­cal level there were some­ti­mes quite silly presen­ta­ti­ons about the inter­na­tio­nal situa­tion. I can remem­ber when this one commis­sar was talking about the growth of socia­lism and asking how many socia­list count­ries there were. I had quite an argu­ment because although he was numbe­ring of course Viet­nam, but also Laos and Cambo­dia but not Mozam­bi­que and Angola. I said, you include Laos and Cambo­dia which don’t have the produc­tive basis and kind of commu­nist leader­ship of Viet­nam, and yet you keep out Mozam­bi­que and Angola. The guy then procee­ded to say, and what about San Remo in Italy? I said, what are you talking about? He was coun­ting one of these other little places where commu­nists united in small parts of France or Italy and got a majo­rity in terms of the coun­cil that year. I was there with a group of people not as sophisti­ca­ted in under­stan­ding of me and I had to say, look for good­ness’ sake, he’s giving the wrong impres­sion here.


Coming back to the GDR: At the intel­li­gence level there was a man called Markus Wolf, a great hero of yours and of the libe­ra­tion move­ments, who had played such an important role in ensu­ring that our people recei­ved that type of trai­ning as well. That was very sophisti­ca­ted stuff compa­ring it to the Soviet presen­ta­tion. We got very good ideas and very sophisti­ca­ted ideas about how to coll­ect infor­ma­tion through Markus Wolf. A few years before he died, he came to South Africa to meet amongst others Mac Maha­raj. A little party was thrown for him. People throug­hout the natio­nal libe­ra­tion strug­gles were very aware of the value, the extent, the cama­ra­de­rie and the warmth of the support that we recei­ved from the GDR.

What was the theoretical basis for this solidarity between the socialist states and the national liberation movements or the newly independent states?

The basis of the commu­nist ideo­lo­gi­cal under­pin­ning that we recei­ved in South Africa and that gave birth to this inter­na­tio­na­lism and this unity emer­ged after the Bols­he­vik Revo­lu­tion with the estab­lish­ment of the Commu­nist Inter­na­tio­nal. Right from the begin­ning, the whole theo­riza­tion out of Marxism, of the alli­ance and the soli­da­rity between the socia­list count­ries and the anti-colo­nial struggle – what we called the three detach­ments of the struggle: the socia­list camp, the working class of the capi­ta­list count­ries, and the natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ment. And we held big discus­sions around these theo­ries. The Commu­nist Party of South Africa was very invol­ved in those deba­tes from the early twen­ties and the conse­quence of those deba­tes of how the formu­la­tion of anti-impe­ria­list struggle, the anti-capi­ta­list struggle, the alli­ance between socia­lism and the people fight­ing against colo­nia­lism and how hard to deve­lop that unity. Out of this emer­ges the firm unity of such forces.


The theo­re­ti­cal factor is vital in terms of what people from the so-called Third World recei­ved, espe­ci­ally post-Second World War. There’s the theo­re­ti­cal under­stan­ding and analy­sis as well as the support recei­ved mate­ri­ally and prac­ti­cally in the struggle against colo­nia­lism and the collapse of the colo­nial system. This support was provi­ded for the emer­gent inde­pen­dent count­ries such as Tanz­a­nia, Ghana, Egypt etc. or in the hours of need like at the time of the 1956 Suez crisis with Britain, France and Israel taking control of the Suez Canal. These aspects inclu­ding econo­mic deve­lo­p­ment and possi­bi­li­ties of these count­ries against neo-colo­nia­lism. All this under­pins our under­stan­ding of what prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism is and the unity that is requi­red between the three detach­ments of the struggle. We then went through the phase of the Sino-Soviet dispute, which crea­ted certain confu­si­ons, but also grea­ter clarity.


“Comra­des, soli­da­rity is a two-way street. It is not just that we come here from South Africa and we receive soli­da­rity from the GDR or the Soviet Union. It is what we can also provide them: they require this stead­fast support, this alli­ance – for exam­ple, through the ‘non-aligned move­ment’ which is progres­sive and anti-impe­ria­list, which the socia­list count­ries support and don’t simply see as neutral between two camps.”


The same comrade who was working with Radio Berlin, Arnold Selby, he used to speak with the South Afri­cans and talk about his actual expe­ri­ence in the GDR. He was an ideo­lo­gue, a theo­re­ti­cian. He was a very prac­ti­cal guy with a white working-class back­ground in South Afri­can trade unions. He used to say: Comra­des, soli­da­rity is a two-way street. It is not just that we come here from South Africa and we receive soli­da­rity from the GDR or the Soviet Union. It is what we can also provide them: they require this stead­fast support, this alli­ance – for exam­ple, through the ‘non-aligned move­ment’ which is progres­sive and anti-Impe­ria­list, which the socia­list count­ries support and don’t simply see as neutral between two camps. But we must under­stand, how we must support them in the world bodies like the United Nati­ons, to break out of the isola­tion and the sanc­tions, which the West is constantly attemp­ting to apply. And how we must work and assist these comra­des in Africa. They are not simply there to give us support but they need the kind of support from us to break out of isola­tion, because we have our GDR comra­des in those count­ries and towns feeling very isola­ted and we must make sure that libe­ra­tion forces attend the events they put on for us.


When Tanz­a­nia became inde­pen­dent in 1964, there weren’t many GDR embas­sies around the world. By the 1970s there were many more and they were more confi­dent, they had more resour­ces. In Zambia, the comra­des from the embassy were giving us such support. We could visit them and we’d be welcome there. We could use their phones to speak to our people in London, France, and in South Africa. Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki also came there, and the embassy took us home, not to their head­quar­ters, where we often used their phones to talk to Winnie Mandela. We had long conver­sa­ti­ons trying to direct her in her activities.


Such gestu­res were very touch­ing. They sound like small things. Do you think you could get some­thing like that out of the British, the Ameri­can or the French embas­sies in those count­ries? You would­n’t even dream of asking for such assis­tance. Would you ever be really welcome in those places? Obviously, as time went by and we were getting on top in the struggle, then the West star­ted invi­ting us to their embas­sies. We would only send people to go there, who were from our intel­li­gence struc­tures, to keep very tight-lipped and sort of pick up what was going on in places like that.


There’s the ques­tion of the diffe­rence between what we recei­ved from all the socia­list count­ries – and I’ve always poin­ted out how the GDR, being really amongst the smal­lest was up there with the Soviet Union and with Cuba. Unfort­u­na­tely, with China for this very long period of exile up until inde­pen­dence in South Africa, until free­dom, the Sino-Soviet dispute had affec­ted that rela­ti­onship.  But the GDR was abso­lut­ely solid right through all those deca­des of the 1960s to the end of the 80s. The Western count­ries were working against us. They were support­ing apart­heid. They were calling us terro­rists. They were provi­ding apart­heid with impu­nity. It didn’t get to quite the degree of the USA and Israel, because apart­heid embar­ras­sed the Western count­ries and ther­e­fore, they would put up some hypo­cri­ti­cal mask in rela­tion to that. We know of Harold McMil­lan talking to the South Afri­can racist parlia­ment in 1960: “The Winds of Change are coming to Africa”. But that was to encou­rage the apart­heid regime not really to reform it. It meant that things were chan­ging and that if they went out of line as they did with Shar­pe­ville, there would be condem­na­tion. But this was never of the kind that brought any real pres­sure even in the prac­ti­cal sense of the isola­tion of South Africa. Far from it, because South Africa sought an alli­ance with all those Western count­ries in rela­tion to the bogey of commu­nism in the Cold War. This is where the regime would then raise the anti-commu­nist issues in order to show that they were a relia­ble ally of Western capital.

Joe Modise (head of the MK from 1965 to 1990), Gene­ral Siphiwe Nyanda (Chief of the South Afri­can Natio­nal Defence Force from 1998 to 2005) and Ronnie Kasrils

How did you experience the end of the GDR and the wider socialist camp?

The collapse of the socia­list camp, start­ing in Poland with Soli­dar­ność in the 1980s, or even going back to the Prague Spring of 1968, actually affec­ted me. I was very solid in terms of how we unders­tood the Soviet Union etc. I had been raised as a youn­ger person in London with people like Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, Joe Slovo and the top leader­ship. I had been quite distur­bed, because suddenly we saw major contra­dic­tions. It wasn’t so much an exter­nal inter­ven­tion like that of a color revo­lu­tion. It was clearly coming from the street level with students very much invol­ved. So, I could see some elements of what I’ve been mentio­ning earlier in the GDR fairly recently before that. But it was quite distur­bing to see such numbers, which, in the GDR, only star­ted to emerge at the end of the 1980s around Leip­zig. One always looked for Western inter­fe­rence though, which was always there.


Perhaps in those peri­ods of the 1960s, we weren’t so clear about the extent to which the USA and the West had been attemp­ting to under­mine the socia­list camp. Being from the Markus Wolf back­ground, I was very inte­res­ted in the writings of people like Kim Philby and others. You would read and sort of toss it off as though it wasn’t so important that Britain and America parti­cu­larly had been parach­ut­ing people into Alba­nia and the Balkan count­ries, as in Ukraine today. You just thought, oh well, this wasn’t much of a problem. It was like reading a para­graph in a book and not reali­zing its depth.


Regar­ding Czechos­lo­va­kia and the Prague Spring, I can remem­ber in the big deba­tes we were having in the South Afri­can poli­ti­cal milieu in London at that time. The older comra­des like Yusuf Dadoo were saying: No, you must see the extent to which the impe­ria­lists want to take over Czechos­lo­va­kia. Palme Dutt, who was one of the outstan­ding theo­re­ti­ci­ans of the British Commu­nist Party, wrote an article which then chan­ged my thin­king. It said that Czechos­lo­va­kia was a dagger at the heart of Moscow, and he then high­ligh­ted what hadn’t been so obvious: the extent of what was happe­ning in the GDR, the imperialist’s inter­ven­tion, the estab­lish­ment of grou­pings and colla­bo­ra­tors, obviously always start­ing with spies and espio­nage. So, one was very aware that the socia­list camp could­n’t lower its guard and had to keep up a high state of vigi­lance and ther­e­fore secu­rity control à la Stasi. We know how these things are also exag­ge­ra­ted in the West even in rela­tion to say, Stalin’s rule where we see the equa­tion of Stalin and Hitler equaling Putin and Hitler, which is a very powerful narra­tive if you don’t have a coun­ter to it, when you are subject to Western disin­for­ma­tion through the tele­vi­sion, media, and academia.

So, in your view, why did the socialist states allied to the Soviet Union collapse? And, against this background, how do you understand current developments in the world?

Well, one factor was the ques­tion of the degree to which demo­cracy was really deve­lo­ped amongst the people, as Joe Slovo wrote in his pamphlet “Has Socia­lism Failed?” (1991). He’s not talking about the bour­geois concept of demo­cracy. We’re talking now about a Marxist-Leni­nist concept of demo­cracy, which you can only have if you can base it on real deep educa­tion, theory and under­stan­ding amongst the people. Very much to start with amongst the layers of your own autho­rity and party and then into the levels of your people. We saw, how the socia­list count­ries have made huge endea­vors in terms of deve­lo­p­ment of new pedagogy, new forms of educa­tion at school level. I can remem­ber from 1964 Soviet Union and visi­ting schools and being so impres­sed with the aware­ness of 15 and 16 years-olds in the way they were reading the novels and history of Western count­ries from Shake­speare to so many other progres­sive writers.


Apart from the GDR, where I found leaders to actually be very clued up, the inter­ac­tion I had with leaders in quite a number of other socia­list count­ries was not so deep. One has to, of course, take into account the fact that so many commu­nists had peri­s­hed in the Second World War. I came to realize some­thing that Joe Slovo, who he had visi­ted all these count­ries, had told me long ago: “Some of these people are not commu­nists, Ronnie, like you and I are.” That trou­bled me initi­ally, and I had to discuss it further with him. He was refer­ring to the fact that post 1945, if you looked at a coun­try like Hungary, very few of the pre-war commu­nists had survi­ved. Their parties were quite small and there were a lot of oppor­tu­nists and care­erists, maybe some posi­tive aspects to them, who came in to take up jobs. Yet, they weren’t the kind of real educa­ted commu­nists with a real under­stan­ding. We saw this in South Africa too, and in other count­ries of the deve­lo­ping world, where the natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments had won power. I’m talking here about Mozam­bi­que, Angola, South Africa and so on. People came and joined these parties or move­ments, not always for the same reasons as the old-time Bols­he­viks. That makes a very big difference.


That’s a ques­tion that arises for the socia­list project: How do we build and protect the gains of a revo­lu­tion which is under such threat extern­ally that you have to have so-called, I say so-called, “Stali­nist measu­res” in place to deal off extern­ally and even with inter­nal subver­sion, because they carry on with that. You don’t often have the Markus Wolf type of sophisti­ca­tion and I can tell you, he’s very unique compared to the kind of people who I inter­ac­ted with running intel­li­gence inside the Soviet Union. We see what happened then to the Soviet Union post 1990–91 through Gorba­chev and Yelt­sin and then neoliberalism.


So, Slovo’s pamphlet about the need for demo­cracy within such socie­ties and to keep their demo­cra­tic spirit within the party beco­mes a big chall­enge in terms of rebuil­ding the socia­list project. Has it got poten­tial? Yes, it has, because impe­ria­lism, inter­na­tio­nal capi­tal, is facing inher­ent inter­nal and unre­sol­va­ble contra­dic­tions and is trying to deal with them in very extreme ways inclu­ding in terms of how, espe­ci­ally U.S., the EU and NATO, are deal­ing with China and Russia. Both of these count­ries are seeking to deve­lop their econo­mies and their trading abili­ties on the world stage which clearly the USA – given the nature of capi­tal, corpo­rate capi­tal, finance capi­tal and inter­nal contra­dic­tion – doesn’t want. When you examine the way they deal with their own people – their workers, the ethnic groups, the black popu­la­tion etc. – we see how vile this rule is and how vicious they are in holding on to the empire and impo­sing their hegem­ony, keeping it impo­sed, because it’s under such threat.


So we begin to see a pheno­me­non and new deve­lo­p­ments: The West is shocked that, when they blew the whistle for support for sanc­tions and condem­na­tion against Russia, the world didn’t come running to their door­step. Although they claim that the majo­rity, 140 count­ries, in the U.N voted their way, they forget to actually use arith­me­tic and total up what India and China actually count as, what Brazil and South Africa and Indo­ne­sia and even count­ries like Saudi Arabia and so many in Africa count as, who are refu­sing to cater to the Western line. Of course, it’s very diffi­cult to prophesy what this outcome is. It’s a very bitter struggle. Russia is having to defend itself for obvious reasons in an exis­ten­tial way in the history that it’s been through and the provo­ca­ti­ons from the USA and NATO in its expansion.


One would loath to see the writ of Washing­ton impo­sed on the world. Because when we look at this, we see an actual cycle taking place. Is it simply coin­ci­dence that at this point in time from the Baltic to the Balkans along the very borders running along the Russian boun­dary, in all those count­ries which were actually part, except for Poland, of an axis under Nazi Germany, are now under NATO? I actually say, apart from Poland, but if we look at Poland’s history: It came sand­wi­ched between Germany and the Soviet Union and the parti­cu­lar pact, again a pact not because Nazism equals Stali­nism, but because of the geopo­li­tics and how the Soviet Union was percei­ving the way Poland was the “dagger” through to Moscow. We were well aware of how reac­tion­ary Polish natio­na­lism has been right through the centu­ries and how ultra-reac­tion­ary it is today as part of Lithua­nia, Esto­nia, Latvia, parti­cu­larly those Baltic states, Poland and then Ukraine.


I’m just saying, what is it then about this axis and this alignment and the fact that – I’m not saying it’s exactly correct but it’s quite inte­res­t­ing – that the axis under NATO takes on board not just so-called libe­ral bour­geois demo­cra­cies of Europe but the most ultra right-wing, neo-fascist count­ries from the Baltic to the Black Sea. There is the same basis for this. When we look at Europe, the USA and the batt­le­ground that Europe has been for multi­ple centu­ries, inclu­ding the two world wars, we see that it is focu­sed the East, espe­ci­ally by the central states like Germany and those of Eastern Europe, looking into the vast lands and the resour­ces, the world’s richest resour­ces, of Russia, which from the time of the Swedes and the Lithua­nian and Polish empires were looking in that direc­tion. Of course, we under­stand that Russia now is a capi­ta­list coun­try, but under this kind of clash, what might emerge, because Russia is show­ing its strength and there is the alli­ance with China and the deve­lo­ping count­ries of the Global South which are not meanin­g­less. They are very important in terms of BRICS, and now that we have Lula in power in Brazil it gives it even grea­ter progres­sive nature.


So, there is now a huge confron­ta­tion under­way. What we have to bear in mind in terms of South Africa’s posi­tion and so many of the Afri­can count­ries and those in Latin America, and Asia, is that non-alignment is a key factor for us. We won’t be drawn into the axis of Washing­ton and Brussels. The crucial importance now is for a diplo­ma­tic nego­tia­ted solu­tion – which the West and NATO don’t want. They preven­ted Zelen­sky from that, they’re putting the whole world at peril, at the age of possi­ble nuclear confron­ta­tion. So, it is a very dange­rous time and it requi­res the inter­na­tio­nal soli­da­rity of progres­sive forces in the world.

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