This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
Conducted by Howard Barrell,
Johannesburg November 12 1990
Now, if we can start with the point at which you establish a relationship with the ANC?
I think this whole issue, and I think it was in a sense the way we protected ourselves at the time. there was no explicit recognition that we were with the ANC. I mean we basically talked in code. We knew that we had moved very clearly away from what was an earlier BC period. And therefore, we would talk of things like the Congress, or we would get involved in things like the Release Mandela [Campaign], or talk about non-racial-democratic. And that would have happened round about 1977, 1978. It was a kind of gradual, sort of pulling in on the one side from people who were much more clearly working for the ANC, who had a much clearer idea and then them sort of drawing me in. And, on the other hand, a kind of realisation for myself that this is the kind of political organisation I would feel most comfortable with, just in terms of principles. I would say, very clearly 1978 would be the period of the ANC, or where I would say that I was working for Congress, for a Congress politics.
So, at any point did you formally become part of what was identifiably ANC unit?
No. But, I mean in retrospect, one could say that, ja. It's almost kind of, for oneself a kind of self-censorship thing. Where you were operating in caucuses, where you were working with people who were very clearly ANC people.
In the formal sense, are you saying ANC people?
Yes, like I mean Barbara Hogan was an ANC member.
So, would I be correct in formulating it this way in my book and in my thesis - a distinction between what I call an informal underground and a formal underground: so you were all the time moving in a transition towards a formal underground position, but for reasons of security and because you didn't detect any need to, say, formally constitute yourself as an ANC member, formally join the organisation, you considered it tactically correct to continue in this kind of semi-formal...
relationship. Would that be a correct formulation?
Ja. I mean I could say it differently. I mean I felt, and more strongly as the time went on, that there needed to be a definition. It couldn't be very clear, but there needed to be some definition between people that were involved in legal or kind of semi-legal work, people involved in building community organisations, who were working with unions - that that should be one set of people. And another set of people would be more formally underground with direct contacts and that kind of thing. And, in a sense, I had reached that decision almost independently, as I said. I would steer clear of wanting to be formally part, because I had made a choice about wanting to work in the kind of legal or semi-legal way.
Before we move on, I would like to go back to one or two things. You mentioned you were in BC organisations. Were you formally a member of BC organisations in the mid-1970s.
Well, I was a member of, what was it called, Pets, Peoples' Experimental Theatre, which was very clearly a BC project, ja.
Now, can you just explain to me briefly the factors which moved you towards a Congress position?
I think there were two things. On the one hand, I was, while I was associated with and in certain projects of the black consciousness movement, on the other hand I worked within the Young Christian Students and then later on YCW. And the whole issue of definitions - I mean at that time BC wasn't even more explicitly socialist. So it was my experience of a kind of methodology which YCS had, which was moving more and more towards a kind of class analysis of society. The big problem I had with BC's definition of black and seeing more and more a kind of non-racialism being something I felt more comfortable with, and then thirdly just from the history of my mother, who was in the Garment Workers' Union and the stories of struggles they had and of people like Solly Sachs and of Afrikaner women that were part of that movement. I mean it kind of moved me but the bottom line was that even before I was even conscious of the kind of project that we eventually started building, I was involved in community organisation and it was within the Johannesburg Indian Social Welfare Association...
is this Cass Saloojee's outfit?
Ja, where in kind of working with people in day-to-day struggles the whole issue of whether you negotiated with Marais Steyn, at the time for instance, around housing or whether you take a totally non-collaborationist position, just put me in an absolute dilemma.
how did you resolve it?
We went for the negotiations. And so that tactical inflexibility as well was a problem I had with BC.
There seems to have been quite a considerable group of young intellectuals - black, coloured, Indian, call them what you want - who went through a similar move at around about this time. Were you discussing with people also from similar origins? Did you find that there was a group of you moving together, or more or less together, towards this position?
Ja. in both instances - the instance of the community work in which I was involved - I was involved with very poor people in Lenasia, there was a group of people who constituted themselves as the [...] family. And while there was that movement, it wasn't a very conscious thing of saying: We are breaking with the black consciousness movement. Rather, it was in our day to day experiences. So that was one grouping. There was another grouping which was associated with a group called Time to Learn, who were mainly students either at university or at the teachers' training college, who went through a series of debates about which way forward and, relatively independently, didn't make a conscious issue of us going to be part of the Congress movement, but felt that we had reached a dead-end with BC. And there were huge debates around what it meant. And quite a lot of tension emerged.
Which teachers' training college would this have been?
It would have been the Transvaal Teachers' Training College, the Indian Teachers' Training College.
It used to be in Fordsburg. It's now relocated to Pretoria.
So, at this time it would have been in Fordsburg?
Now, you said, you indicated earlier that there were discussions with people who were clearly ANC. How much of a factor were these [people]?
I think it was a coalescence. What had happened was round about 1978, some people had come back from Natal, from Westville, and had obviously had close links with the National Indian Congress people. And more clearly wanted to push the project in a Congress line. It wasn't an easy thing. People just didn't fall over and say: Right we are going to be Congress. I mean the kinds of tradition, which was a good tradition, which I think still remained a good training for me was: Hold on, we need to be critical about what we are doing and what we are getting into and that kind of thing. I think there was a large coalescence of objective factors and the kind of subjective things that came together at the time.
Would the ANC's armed propaganda campaign at that time have fed into this movement?
Yes. I mean we began to read whatever publications we could lay our hands on. It was a kind of great intellectual awakening in the sense that a lot of us were kind of intellectuals for a long time. We had good political training from, say, the YCS that had been going since 1972. We read a lot about everybody in sight. and when the stuff started coming through, like Workers' Unity and Sechaba and African Communist, we would read that. So that did play a role. I mean there was like that kind of period...
[Break for visitor]
We were talking about various publications and whatever that you read affecting your thinking as well. What I would like to ask you also is: Did the armed activities of the ANC at this time affect your, this shift?
I think even more so than the publications.
Can you tell me how and why?
Actually, I just missed one other part of that whole thing.
OK, we'll go back to it.
Also I was at the time, I was - no, I wasn't the general secretary yet - but in 1978, I attended my first Tucsa conference and, at the conference, had met a couple of people there. I mean a lot of this is kind of public record because of the trials of Alan Fine and Barbara Hogan I met Alan there and, later on, it was clear that Alan was a member of Sactu. And he would give me quite a few publications. But even, I mean the armed struggle was quite powerful and symbolic. I mean we had been hit over the head by repression and there was still a kind of - you know most of the organisations that were banned and people detained and Biko dying [...]. That still, it was still quite painful - already there was that movement away from the sort of black consciousness movement. And when there were sort of strikes against the state, when there was a bomb blast, I mean we literally used to get happy. I mean, like fuck, you know, we still, we still can fight. It was important for people's morale. It might not have been many incidents; it might not have been a fullscale thing. But I mean purely in terms of what one could call armed propaganda, I think it was very successful, particularly in the early days.
What did it tell you about the ANC? Did it make the ANC specifically more attractive?
I think it gave a sense of confidence in the ANC, that the ANC was, had the capability to wage armed struggle, that, and I mean up until today I still try to operate in a reasonably non-sectarian way, and so I still have some feeling for the black consciousness movement and even for the PAC because of their struggle. But very clearly, the armed struggle showed that the ANC had the capacity to wage struggle - this was the clearest indication. I mean we are talking about a time when there were no real mass organisations. I mean although you had your Fosatu and SAAWU and that kind of thing there was no real mass struggle and mass organisation. So the clearest indication of an ability and a capacity to wage struggle I mean was the fact that the ANC could infiltrate guerillas in.
I'd like to ask you a loaded question. The way I have been formulating it - and I would like to know if you agree with it - you talk of confidence. I have been saying that what this armed propaganda campaign indicated was a certain seriousness which the ANC had which, apparently, others contended did not match. Would you go along with that?
I'm not so sure that the term "serious" was something that would have entered our mind at the time.
If we look back now and describe it, would you think it's a valid description?
Look, I mean, on the basis of rhetoric, the PAC would have been equally serious, because it talked about waging armed struggle. I think the point was that the ANC was able to do that, that that I think gave a lot of people confidence in the ANC - that it was able to do that, that it had the ability. A lot of people had been faced with a lot of rhetoric, and even now, the black consciousness movement talks about waging armed struggle, and the PAC is saying, they criticise the ANC for a ceasefire. I mean Slovo, I think, was right when he said that the PAC have now formally ended their PAC ceasefire [laughter]. The point is that the ANC was able to do it.
Now, where do you find yourself in mid-. late 1978? What are you doing?
I'm doing about 200 things, I think [laughter]. I'm in the union and I'm the secretary of the union. That's the Johannesburg Municipal Combined Employees' Union. That's affiliated to Tucsa. After the 1978 conference, in September of 1978, more serious discussion with a group of people around how to make an intervention within Tucsa. And here again, this kind of flexibility. You know, you begin to - you know, black consciousness people would have said [absolutely not]. So, basically, trying to make interventions.
Are you general secretary at that time?
Well, technically not, but de facto, ja. Secondly I'm quite involved in the boycott, the Fattis and Monis boycott. I'm also involved in trying to build civic associations.
Where, which civic associations?
It would be in Lenasia. We took it extension by extension. So we started, first we worked with the Thomsville, Greyville people; then we tried to set up civics in other extensions, Seven, Eight, Nine, that kind of thing.
Right, that's good enough for me now. I want to test something out. Your involvement in Tucsa - OK, you come from a BC background, you involve yourself in Tucsa, you are involved in the legal sphere, at that time kind of semi-legal sphere, attempting to organise workers, attempting to organise communities...
Oh, there was sports - I'm telling you it was a whole range of things.
This is a very important period. There are a number of people like yourself working in this kind of area. What's got you there? What's made you decide that this is where you should be working? Is it a range of influences.
Ja. Look, with the Tucsa thing, just my, the kind of militancy I was brought up with - my mother once being part of the union movement so there was this kind of strong pull in that direction. So it wasn't a kind of conscious decision to do that. With the development of community organisations, a group of us actually began to sit down and discuss these issues and say: OK, this is the kind of strategic places...
This is now in mid-, late 1978?
Presumably it's not a problem to name the others who were involved?
Ja. Well, they happen at different kinds of levels, with the union kind of thing, consumer boycotts, people said: Well, we think you should also be developing that. We had a series of what we called caucuses then. So, with the trade union kind of caucus, people that were around and had, and that we spoke about trade unions, about consumer boycotts and other stuff, would be people like, at first, Alan Fine, and then later on these things developed and then Gavin Andersson was pulled in, Neil Aggett was part of that, Liz Floyd. I mean it was a whole range of people. What might be very useful for you: I have a copy of my Section Six statement...
I'll photocopy it and return it to you in a couple of days.
Ja, that's fine. You see, because a lot of the detail I don't remember too clearly.
No Section Six statement is true...
It's largely true. You make the choice between where you lie. I think I have made notes about what isn't true.
But that somehow I could work out with you, I think.
Ja. Then with community organisations and what was happening in Lenasia for instance, it would have been people like Valli, Momoniat, people like Hassan Lorgat - I don't know if you know him.
No, I don't. How do you spell that? L-A-R-G-A-T?
Is he still around?
He's studying at Warwick at the moment. He might be a useful person to speak to when you are there. And, then more and more, when we dealt with the various boycotts and we started expanding them, it would have been people like Jabu Ngwenya. Also the union people it would Katide. Do you know him?
Are we still talking about 1978?
Well, from 1978, we are moving into 1979. But my closest points of reference would have been Barbara Hogan and Alan Fine.
And you sort of knew, did you, that they were in touch with the outside?
And you were quite happy, on the unsaid assumption, that, look, these people are getting some sort of line?
Now, I am interested to know...
Just one condition: I only discovered much later, round about 1981, that there was a very formal relationship between Barbara Hogan and the outside, and Alan Fine and the outside. But it was a kind of unsaid thing that we hardly even thought about.
Ja, I also had relationships like that at the time. Valli and Momoniat at that time - I am going to be talking to both of them - now they, at some stage, certainly had formal links.
I was more convinced that Valli had than Momoniat. It might not have been direct to the outside but it would have been through, maybe, the kind of NIC connection. I mean, for me, that was quite clear.
So what you are saying is that the assumption you were working on was that Valli was in touch with NIC - it would presumably have been people like Pravin Gordhan, Yunus Mohamed, that kind of person?
Now these people that you knew at the time, or have subsequently learned had formal ANC links at that time, [SA communist] party links or whatever it was, were they, what was their attitude to your involvement in these organisations? Was it active encouragement?
In certain areas, yes.
Can you tell me which areas?
Well, particularly the consumer boycott, the community organisations, the movement to community organisations. It was quite of fortunate that I was in Tucsa, but nevertheless it was another terrain that could be worked on. I think, you see, as things developed, in the end we were discussing our whole political lives - where we worked, what we were goingo to do, how we were going to do things. It was pretty disciplined.
Now, during 1978, 1979, were these ANC people putting before you any clear strategic perspective on the character of the work you were involved in, this legal and semi-legal mass work?
It was, in a sense - well, one of my arguments to myself, when I was sitting in detention, about whether I should give evidence in Barbara Hogan's trial or not, and in the end I decided not to because simply that was the political tradition. It was a kind of mutual relationship. For instance, around questions of consumer boycotts, I think in many ways, I had begun to put to these people a position on how I saw it. And so in some instances it would be me saying: Look, as far as consumer boycotts are concerned, they are very, very important. The reason is you practically link communities to practical struggles; it acts as an interface; in the absence of an internal party or political movement, it acts as the kind of thing in which people can take strategic decisions and give some direction. So that, sort of, is something that would come from me. On the other hand, the whole development of civic organisations as a site of mass struggle was very clearly put without it being said in so many terms....
It was very clearly put by whom?
I would say Valli primarily.
Can we try to be specific on the date - it's very important - the date of this clear thinking, this clear perspective that's coming from Valli.
I can't give you a date. You see a lot of the stuff - I mean the kind of work we were involved in - and that's why 1978 merges into 1979 merges into 1980 - was just an incredible amount of work, an incredible amount of meetings, meetings that happened at all sorts of times - and so, I mean, I am clear about - what was very clear, almost from the beginning was the methodology of how we worked. It was very clear that we would have certain structures, that we were accountable to these structures and these structures were, in essence, caucuses, and there was a kind of need-to-know basis, and that kind of thing. So I wouldn't know, for instance, that some people would go off to Durban to have meetings at a different level - and that was cool.
Can I just clarify this point. You never got - or I infer from what you have said so far - that you never got something like: Look, we must now get involved in mass organisation; this is the line; this is what we are going to do. Did you ever get any feed-in like this?
No. Partly because I think it was my personality as well. I would baulk at that kind of thing. I mean I still do. And that's why I am saying that our relationships tended to be quite equal relationships even if one knew that someone was more important.
There was still an equality of discussion which you expected, things which you would bring forward and which others would listen to respectfully, and you would be expected to listen to them?
Ja. I mean there were issues like who would be included and excluded - who would be included, we would discuss it.
Included in what?
In the caucus, who would be kind of purged would be a kind of discussion. But again here, the kind of lines - it wasn't very clear. It was on the one hand, say, a person like [???] would feel that he didn't feel comfortable within this - and he is a personal friend of mine - and we would go into a kind of caucus, and he would have already started not participating, and so it was almost a kind of two-way decision, almost a kind of mutual, sort of amicable - well, not really amicable - divorce nevertheless. So it was those kinds of things. There were one or two occasions where decisions were taken that people be kicked out of the group, because they were just-. And as the structures developed and became more solid - so by 1980, 1981, there was kind of very clear lines.
Now, can we go to 1980, 1981 and these very clear lines?
There's 1979 when the decision is taken to move - which in retrospect I think was a mistake, but nevertheless - was to move from the kind of grassroots organisations with very clear political intervention, and that was around the South African Indian Council [AntiSAIC] elections, where we put a lot of our energies into that - pulled our best people out of the grassroots structures and waged a superbly successful campaign. It changed, I think, the political terrain quite dramatically. But then we fucked up our grassroots organisation. But I mean that was a decision that was taken.
Right, now can you remember how that decision was taken?
That decision took quite a long time to take. Because sort of early in 1978 - it might even haved been 1977 - I was approached by a guy called Mohamed Bam, who said that there was a debate beginning to happen, particularly within the Natal Indian Congress [NIC] around the issue of participating in the South African Indian Council [antiSAIC].
With a view to taking it over?
Ja. And my line at the time - this is because of the non-collaborationist perspective - was: you can't do that. Anyway, those elections got postponed. And the elections were coming up in 1979. We had begun to develop a reasonable network of people around a whole range of organisations - community organisations, transport, supporting other struggles - and felt that we had the capacity to take it on. Now this is sitting in a set of caucuses. Obviously, a line had come - which wasn't explicitly said anywhere, but it was on the basis of discussion - that we felt we had enough of the resources to take these people on.
To take on the-?
The South African Indian Council [AntiSAIC] people in the elections. So, again, it wasn't: you must take the line. It evolved as a kind of-.
A kind of symbiotic process?
Ja. I mean it's - the more and more I think about it, it was a coalesence of a whole range of factors: it was a lot of subjective things and there was a great deal of consensus within that group, and maybe the reason for the consensus was that anybody that was a bit of a dissident tended to get, either through themselves or because of the way things happened, tended to get marginalised in the process. So there was quite a strong consensus on a range of issues.
How large would you say this caucus was?
You see there were different caucuses.
And they all had overlaps?
Ja. And that was the one problem for me in detention, was that because I was overlapping with almost everything they saw me as one of the key people. So the Lens [Lenasia] caucus, for instance, the kind of close caucus would have been about 10 people.
Do you feel able to name them? Would you name some of them?
There was obviously Vallie [Mohammed Valli Moosa], there was Momo [Ismail Momoniat], there was Hassan - and Hassan distanced himself from that caucus, and the other way around. There was a guy called Ismail Momoniat; there was Dipak Patel.
Which Patel is that?
Dipak Patel - he's a doctor. There was Madni Alim [?spelling], Haroon Bera [?spelling]. Those are the names I can remember.
Did you ever yourself, knowingly, contribute to a report on the success of your activities at this time which went to the ANC External Mission?
Not. Did you assume, however, that what you were doing - because of this ANC presence amongst your different caucuses - that the External Mission was continually aware of your progress and your setbacks in this mass legal and semi-legal work?
Ja. It made me jittery, but nevertheless, yes.
Now, by the sounds of things, most of them were pretty young guys, taking on the juge power of the state. These are early days. I remember those days and how afraid one was - well perhaps you weren't but I was!
No, [laughter] I was.
What was the origin of your confidence, your political confidence?
I think that is a complex question. While I was jittery - there was also a sense - there were some crazy decisions - say with the Wilson-Rowntree boycott, for instance. We would take a decision like: OK, we know some people are going to get detained; but, if it comes to the bottom line and they start beginning to kick the shit out of you, say Monty recruited you! So there was a kind of bravado, on one level. I mean I was scared. As there was an upsurge of struggle and as we were winning more and more victories, that confidence grew and grew. So, by early 1981, there were serious problems with some of us having built these little empires and we had a feeling like they couldn't touch us - I mean we would go to East London and say: Tell Sebe, the people are going to get him. I mean it's crazy. But the reason you do that is because you are standing in front of 6,000 people and you are talking and - but, in the earlier days, like for instance one of the first actions we took was to go to a sports ground in Lenasia and we had a big fight with the Unity Movement [NEUM] people because they were saying: You don't go into the sports stadium; it means you have to pay and blah, blah, blah; so we will have a picket outside. And we were saying: No, man, we've got to be more innovative. So we mobilised about 200 people; we were the majority in that crowd. And so, when Mike Proctor comes in to bowl, you know people start shouting and start playing with mirrors and that kind of thing. I mean there were a hell of a lot of security cops. And so there was a bit of bravado when we went in - we were surrounded by people - and I was sitting next to a security policeman and I asked him for a light and I was making jokes and that kind of thing. And then one of the reporters said to me: They have worked out that you are one of the ring leaders; you had better move it. And then it struck me. So I managed to escape. But the caught other people and they fucked them up really badly. So, because we weren't many, we were quite scared - we were really scared. There was a youthful enthusiasm, a belief in the kind of just society - we believed that we needed to struggle, and that did help us. and our youth did help us.
Did your confidence derive at all, to any extent, from a sense of ANC patronage?
Not directly. And that's maybe because of the kind of person I am. But there was a network, and that network was clearly Congress. And that feeling of being part of a network of people struggling. When you know people from Durban - Jay Naidoo's there. Or should we go to Cape Town, or [in] East London there is the whole Saawu network. I mean that does help. But the kind of: I will be protected by the ANC per se, no. Rather, we have a network of people, so we are more than just a little group. And, as you well know, we were little; there weren't many people. But that did give a sense of-.
Now if we can go to 1981, 1982 - it's the time of the Release Mandela [campaign], the anti-Republic campaign - I am specifically interested now in the anti-Republic campaign, which climaxes on May 31 1981. What was - as you can identify it from that time - what was the identifiable ANC input through your contacts, knowing those people in your caucuses who were involved? What was the identifiable ANC input in that campaign? In the decision to embark upon it?
There were two things that I think came clearly from those people - and came a little earlier actually, maybe around early 1979 - was there was basically two problems. One problem was that you had to delegitimise the state.
Delegitimise the state?
Delegitimise the state. So by attacking the South African Indian Council [AntiSAIC], attacking Republic Day, you are taking away the legitimacy of the state. That was coming through very clearly. And the second thing that came through very clearly was that what one needed was a kind of mass struggle that took on a particular form. And I mean for a lot of us that had come through a certain kind of training, the first thing that, when you are dissatisfied with the kind of black consciousness [BC] thing and you are beginning to move on, you go straight into kind of Marxian thing of class struggle. And then what clearly comes out from what the ANC people are saying - and I can actually remember the one person that I knew was - the Cachalia brothers were part of that whole thing - was saying that there needs to be a democratic revolution. And that what we are doing - I had written a paper on Lenasia and I had said Lenasia didn't have any revolutionary potential - and it was during that debate when it was very clear that the first stage is a democratic stage and that we would move on. So we had reached that stage or phase. OK, so that was the one thing. And the second thing was us building civics and consumer boycott movements and that kind of thing was part of mass struggle.
Now, OK Monty, you said early 1979?
No, early 1979 I am saying the whole issue of the two - for want of a better term - the two-stage struggle became clear. By the time we are coming to late 1979, and I mean reasonable successes all over the show, that we begin to start thinking in terms of mass struggle. And people are saying that.
Did I misunderstand you earlier then? I had understood you to say that, in early 1979, one or more of the people that you knew were ANC said that there should be, now, a particular form of mass struggle developed in South Africa. Did I misunderstand you?
Ja. I am saying that what we are still battling with, even by 1979, is the kind of histories that we have come from. And that understanding that you don't go for kind of radical-. Mass struggle becomes something that begins to be said - I mean I might have arrived at that in my head - begins to be said later on, towards the end of 1979, where we begin to see that our struggles, or our organisations are beginning to work, and that we are having networks and people are taking up stuff. So, by the time you get 1980 and the boycotts and Wilson-Rowntree support group, which was very important, particularly in the work I was doing, that we began to start talking really about mass struggle.
From late 1979 onwards, early 1980, is there any identifiable line on mass struggle coming from the people you are identifying as ANC?
Can you characterise it?
There was a more clear attempt at engaging politically.
[End of Side A: Break in tape]
South African Indian Council [antiSAIC], when you are going for Anti-Republic, there was also - it was very badly done, but nevertheless, an anti-Ciskei independence thing. Ja, the mass struggle thing is more political than-.
And this is coming out from identifiable ANC people?
Ja. Look, I think other people were reaching that stage, were seeing this thing moving, you know.
But certainly - am I correct in saying - you could identify this as being a position coming from ANC?
Ja. Whether that line was actually a direct line coming from outside, or whether it was the basis of an internal assessment. I meant we went through a lot of debates at different times, particularly with me - I think some of the debates I was trying to raise some people might have thought were premature, so we wouldn't discuss it. You know, the issue of the Party [SACP], those kinds of things.
These ANC people - identifiable ANC people pushing this line - where did you assume their links were to? Were their links to Durban NIC, or would they have also been to Botswana?
I think they - my idea was, what I thought at the time - you see I am trying not to confuse what I know in hindsight - I knew that the Vallis [Mohammed Valli Moosa] and the Lens [Lenasia] people were going through the NIC way. But I think with Valli, there was more than one connection. With Barbara [Hogan] and Alan [Fine], I knew that it wasn't going through the NIC. But the other very specific thing is that it was unsaid - but we wouldn't discuss that. So, when it came to the crucial issue of Barbara having to make a decision on whether to send out a list for an independent security check by the ANC, I mean it was a given for both her and I that we wouldn't talk about it because, you know, I was in a certain space in a certain place at the time. Those things might have changed if we didn't all get bust.
Did you ever have any understanding at the time - or do you know subsequently - the NIC connections to outside? Particularly at the time: were their any names mentioned who were the sort of - for want of a better term - the leaders outside with whom your group was in contact?
It's interesting in the way that it was done. It was never said openly. But, for instance I had a very good relationship - the other person was Prema Naidoo. And we would go and talk about historical stuff. And it was all about coding and decoding and that kind of stuff. And he would talk a lot about Mac Maharaj, for instance, as being this kind of person, that kind of person. And you deduce from those kinds of things. I tried very consciously not to know too much. But I knew that there was that connection.
Did you know what Mac's position was at that time?
What did you know his position as being?
I knew that his position was within MK, and that he was one of the leading members of MK. His Party [SACP] affiliation was very clear. What role he played within the Party I didn't know.
OK, I am going to come back to Mac's position in a short while. I just to move on; I want to jump around a bit. I want to go to late 1982, 1983 - to the Eshowe decision of the Labour Party, and then the Transvaal AntiSAIC congress [TASC]. If we stay in late 1982, the Eshowe decision is about January 5th or January 7th of 1983. If we are in late 1982, can you remember in late 1982, before Eshowe, any talk of, in your caucuses-.
Actually, I'll have to explain. What happens is I get detained in November of 1981. I get released in June of 1982. I then have a major confrontation with the caucus because I feel that we had made certain crucial mistakes and I thought that kind of self-appointed caucuses were problematic. And then I move out of the caucuses, so I am now independent; I kind of have a general sympathy for the movement but I am not in those caucuses. What I can say is about the relationship to the Labour Party pre-1982.
OK, then can we handle it in a slightly different way. No, my question stands: Did you hear any talk of a front, the formation of a united front, any generation of this idea, before that Eshowe decision by the Labour Party to go into the tricameral parliament?
There was - there is actually quite a history to that. After the AntiSAIC campaign when we crash these guys, there is a long period of discussions within these caucuses which then get broadened very dramatically, pulling in people, the old Congress people into reasonably large caucuses of 20, 30 people, to discuss the formation of the Transvaal Indian Congress [TIC].
When is this now?
That discussion actually goes back further. I mean it goes back to the time of whether we should participate in the South African Indian Council [antiSAIC] elections, on what basis and whether, because there is the Natal Indian Congress [NIC], whether there shouldn't be the formation of something in the Transvaal. But it is taken more seriously after the AntiSAIC election in late 1979. So these discussions happen right to 1980 - it was a long period of meetings that people argued around issues. So there's meetings and there's broadening of who's going to be involved. And debate is - there is an agreement that we need a political party. What form it takes? Should we revive the TIC. The whole issue of whether you have an Indian organisation comes up. And it's pretty dicey stuff you've got. So they bring Pravin Gordham, who we all know is one of the heavies. He comes down from Natal. So, I mean without even knowing exactly what his position was, and even not wanting to know, we know that Pravin is one of the heavies. We know that Yunus-.
When does he come here [to the Transvaal]?
He comes here in about mid- to late 1980.
1980 - eight zero?
Mmm. And the discussion is still happening when I get detained.
And you get detained in what - late 1981?
Late 1981. The public launch - but in the meantime, people are saying we have got organisations all over, and I am one of the people arguing this, isn't there a way, because I am thinking in a legal sense, I mean there is an underground that is obviously linking a lot of these things, I am saying we need to make a political intervention. It needs to happen in a surface way. I know I was one person raising it. So the first kind of coalition of organisations that act as a front is the AntiSAIC congress. It doesn't only include Indian organisations; it includes a whole range of other people who have a big congress thing in Durban and that kind of thing. And then there is talk of a united front and who should be part of this united front. This is also at the time of the discussion on the TIC. Because, if you are going to form a political organisation in this particular Indian character, how is one going to unite people politically.
Just give me the time period for this again?
I would say it's late 1979 going through into 1980, 1981. And that's why there is a decision to form the organisation - what is the name of that organisation now, that Ismail Mohammed was part of - you know Professor Mohammed?
Ja. The Coloured equivalent of the Transvaal Indian Congress [TIC].
But that only comes much later doesn't it? That only comes early 1983, as far as I am aware?
No, no, it was formed before that.
Ja. So that is almost beginning to put into place a kind of Congress Alliance again.
Now, you are arguing: Let's bring these things together - these different elements together. There's the antiSAIC 'federation' let's call it; there's the Anti-Republic caucus, or whatever you call it, of 50-odd organisations-.
There's the anti-Ciskei thing. But a lot of those people, the activists, are sitting in our caucuses.
Right. When there are these different coalitions, let's call them, being put together around these different campaigns - against the Republic, against SAIC - what is the input that you identify as ANC qua ANC?
The decision to wage a political battle against the state.
Are they in favour of this kind of coalition, or are they not clear on it? What kind of ANC position - how does it strike you that the ANC is feeding into this debate on the formation of a front?
The coordination of this is through a set of caucuses that tend to be hierarchical, that tend to be relatively secret, that pull people together. So I am saying that the most important input of the ANC people is to build up these networks of activists who, without even having to say that - and that's what saved my neck in detention - is I could talk about the Congress movement without saying I was a member of the ANC. And they couldn't you know-.
And then you have the Freedom Charter clandestinely being put out. So it is very clearly a political move. And it was the ANC that had pulled together all these structures. It had a whole range of activists that began to feed in the symbols - the Release Mandela campaign was also very clearly part of that. For me, it was absolutely certain that the ANC - that there was a crucial move because a whole range of organisations, a network of organisations that had begun to emerge, they were being coordinated by a series of committees.
Specifically on the bringing together of these coalitions, was there any identifiable ANC qua ANC line? Was it supportive of these moves of bringing these organisations together?
Yes, by implication.
I am not saying that I was ever told that the ANC is saying this. I mean its-. Well you know, maybe even better than I do is, a lot of the way in which we operated was by these implications.
It was all, not even a nod and a wink - it was all understood.
Ja, you know. It was clear: we were Congress people. It was part of the whole ANC. But the exact nature of the links between ourselves and other people were [not clear].
[Break in tape]
So Monty, you become a little bit alienated from this caucus after your release. What mistakes, briefly, do you argue that the caucus has been making?
Well, in the first instance, the kind of practice that begins to emerge within the support groups, the consumer support groups - going from Fattis and Monis through to Wilson-Rowntree and the red meat boycott - is a reasonably democratic way of operating. Also we are beginning to pull in constituencies on a much broader level. So the Cosas constituency comes in. We are dealing more with the union kinds of people, the Saawu kind of people and that kind of thing. And I argued that the people were saying that we were using the Leninist concept of democratic centralism. And I said I might not know all the theoretical details about it, but it's supposed to have been the coalescence of the leading cadres together. But we were a self-appointed group in the first instance. In the second instance, the way we were operating was in a clandestine kind of way when it was not necessarily the way to operate when you are involved in legal kinds of work. And by confusing the legal and the clandestine, we set ourselves up for the kind of
Shit you had just been in?
Ja. And that for me was problematic. And I had serious problems with kind of, in the end, self-appointed people. And in the good old tradition, they said: All right, we need to discuss this in detail, and we will invite you back [laughter]. I don't get invited back. So I know what is happening, and then I get approached much later - and I still continue to be involved in different kinds of organisations, I am now the coordinating secretary of Actstop - and they say to me: Listen, we would like you back. So I said. Look, there were several things that had happened. I knew the decision was taken to form the Transvaal Indian Congress - this is now early 1983.
Early 1983. And I said to this person: Have you guys decided to form the TIC. And they lied to me. So, on what basis am I going to enter into a comradely relationship with this particular person who I know is part of the caucus. So there is a kind of mutual separating of the ways. With some people I retain a reasonably good relationship, up until today. But, for other people, like lower down the level, there was a kind of smear campaign started, and all sorts of funny things happen. It's only very recently that I was able to confront quite a lot of them, and it was very clear where that was coming from. But I mean that's another story. I think those caucuses were effective when they were coordinating things and they were allowing inputs to come in. That might sound like a little bit of arrogance: when they became tighter and tighter and became more closed and more intolerant of even other tendencies existing, there was less and less of a kind of innovation, that I think characterises the kind of 1977 to 1982, 1983 period. I think there was a huge upsurge. There were the objective conditions that turned the struggle into a real mass struggle and took people right into the kind of insurrectionary phase of 1984-1986. But that wasn't planned and organised.
So what you were arguing, as I understand you, then is that structures needed to be changed in order to take on board this incipient mass character, and the kind of conspiracy, and question of democracy, needed to be amended to take on board this new mass character. Is that basically what you were arguing?
I am saying even the organisations which did exist at that time were reasonably democratic - people were being pulled in, I mean kind of leading and talented people were being pulled in - I think it began to stop.
When did it begin to stop?
I think, come 1982, 1983.
And this is when you challenge?
Well, I challenged slightly earlier. And then it begins to manifest itself in different ways. There's this kind of ANC cabal faction that emerges in Natal in about 1983, 1984.
And who is the centre of the ANC cabal faction?
I don't know clearly who it is. I know where the centre is: the centre is in the University of Durban Westville. I mean I can speculate.
Could you name one or two people? Fouad Cassim, is he one of the people?
Oh, you mean here? I think the ANC cabal faction emerges more clearly in Durban. And I would guess that Jay Naidoo was
Part of it?
Jay Naidoo who is now Cosatu general secretary?
And I think two streams begin to emerge. And there is the Natal people. And if you look at the kind of debates that happen in Durban - not in Durban, in Port Elizabeth at the formation of the United Democratic Front - where the Natal people wanted one president, and they wanted Archie Gumede; they wanted Zac Yacoob as the sole-.
This is now the second UDF conference?
You have the launch and then you have the Port Elizabeth meeting. And then they wanted a couple of their own people. And then the fight happens between the Durban guys - the kind of NIC cabal people - and the Transvaal guys. And then I get - people try to pull me in again in a different way, to begin to fight the TIC people here - which I kind of steer clear of in one way but, in another way, would be at meetings to argue for a kind of democratisation.
This Port Elizabeth meeting - just refresh my memory: This is about December 1983 or January 1984, isn't it?
Round about then anyway?
Ja. And they also want the head office in Durban because they argue that they are the most advanced. There is a strong challenge that comes from the new breed of political activists that had emerged: people like Popo Molefe, who used to be in the black consciousness movement [BC]. And Terror [Lekota] was now out and he was impressive. And there is a kind of battle between the two, and the newer leadership emerges from that. So you have three presidents, Popo [Molefe] is the general secretary. And Terror is the publicity secretary.
Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn't the three presidents actually decided at the launch?
Are you sure? Because my memory - I remember writing a story, at the time for City Press - and I remember saying that Albertina [Sisulu] was going to be one of them. And this was the weekend of the launch, in fact. City Press then used to publish on Thursdays and Sundays. And I seem to remember that particular issue being settled by the time of the launch.
I'll have to check that.
OK, Monty, were you are the TASC conference, the Transvaal AntiSAIC conference?
When they take the decision to form both the UDF and the-?
Ja. Were you at that meeting?
Do you remember the one or more origins of the front idea as it feeds into that TASC meeting and the commission?
I had speculated beforehand that the people who had decided on the formation of the United Democratic Front and - even, well, my memory is slightly unclear. There was talk of a united front. I wasn't part of the inner structures, but there was talk of a united front.
This is leading up to TASC?
Ja. I am sort of recently out of detention so I get bits and pieces. Originally people were talking of a united front, and they were discussing the nature of the united front. I knew it was happening in one or two of the caucuses, but I didn't know clearly. But the name United Democratic Front [UDF], I hear about that two or three days before the meeting-.
This is before the TASC meeting?
The Transvaal AntiSAIC meeting, yes. And I hear the person who is pushing it particularly strongly is Gerry Coovadia.
Gerry Coovadia from Natal?
From Natal. And I know that Gerry is part of the cabal. So, obviously, people like Pravin [Gordham] and Yunus [Mohamed] had made an input. Well I was still uncertain about that, so at the meeting, Boesak called for the launch of a United Democratic Front [UDF], and then they have a whole period of discussion and launch of, talk of a UDF declaration and blah, blah, blah. And one guy stands up and says: What's this all about? Why don't you just adopt the Freedom Charter as the UDF declaration. And the people who answer have obviously thought it more out: people like Gerry Coovadia.
They answer no, do they?
Ja, and they give an explanation that, if you only have the Freedom Charter, it's a more narrow thing. What we are looking for is a broad-based United Democratic Front, bringing in all sorts of people.
Why do you derive the opinion that Coovadia has thought it out more carefully?
Simply because, when all the hard questions came, it was - he was answering. And I had heard prior to that. So I was almost, in a sense, looking for that. So that might be a prejudice, in a sense. But the idea of a United Democratic Front definitely comes from Durban, and I think definitely came from the cabal.
OK, I want us to discuss more, but I just want to tell you some things which I hope won't spoil our ability to discuss things. But before doing so, I want to ask you a few things. Did you ever hear, in this period, 1979-1983, hear of the existence of a document in the ANC, specifically addressing itself to the issue of mass struggle and what form it should take in South Africa?
There is, well there was one document that I know that was being discussed by people like Auret van Heerden, Priscilla Jana and - what's his name - Credric Mayson, about the setting up of forward areas, about the moving of political decision-making into a number of committees.
Do you know the names of those committees?
Of the committee?
Of the committees that were to be set up?
I am not sure. I know how the committees were characterised. The one committee was a political committee and the other committee was a military committee. And at the time of hearing that I thought it was crazy.
What time are we talking of?
We are talking of late 1981, just before I am being detained.
It was the kind of thing that the whole treason trial of Mayson was built on in the end.
And internal organisation: did you remember hearing any plans of internal organisation, and the form it should take, ANC, specifically ANC, in this period post 1979, through to 1983?
That is the only document I can think of at the moment.
Was this document available in Mayson's trial? Do you remember if it was a court exhibit?
Well, Mayson never eventually went on trial.
Oh, of course, because he jumped, didn't he?
Ja. I mean I spoke to Auret van Heerden about it afterwards.
Did you ever hear of a document from the ANC dealing with the united front?
Did you ever get the impression that some people may have had access to anything so coherent as a document?
What I know about the united front thing is that there were various levels of discussions taking place. That there was an actual document that came in from the outside, no, I don't know.
OK, I don't want to spoil our discussion because I want to talk to you again about after the formation of the UDF. But, what I know is that there is a document referred to colloquially as The Green Book-.
Never heard of it.
And its formal name is the Report of the Politico-Military Strategy Commission. It was - the sequence is basically that in 1978, the NEC and the RC came to the conclusion that actually they were acting arse-about-face; they had been using armed struggle as the major means by which to attempt to reconstruct a political base, a political revolutionary base inside South Africa, and that this was arguably wrong. And in October 1978, they go on a trip to Vietnam and study the Vietnamese experience. It is a working visit. And indeed they come to the conclusion that the main challenge before the movement was to embark upon a campaign by legal and semi-legal means to build a mass political movement. And the only role of armed struggle is to assist in this process for the foreseeable future. The end-point being, hopefully, to conduct a successful people's war. And this document specifically comes out with the following, and I am paraphrasing: Our main strategic task now is to move towards building the components for a united front in South Africa. And the Political-Military Strategy Commission is set up in Christmas 1978-New Year 1979. It reports in March of 1979 and its main recommendations are accepted in September 1979. I understand that Mac [Maharaj] is not in MK at that point; Mac is head of political Internal Reconstruction and Development [IRD], secretary. He is working under someone else, but he is effectively running the show. Now Mac has these links to Pravin and Yunus Mohamed. But I would like you to keep this under your hat, because I don't want it to affect other interviewees' responses. Therefore, my reason for questioning you so closely about this thing is that, what is clear is that the UDF, the front that is formed, is not ANC property. There are clearly a number of independent, innovative minds who are coming up with the same requirement. The ANC, however, has also been thinking along these lines and, fortunately for it, has placed an innovative mind like Mac's in the position of IRD secretary. So you have, as you said, this kind of coalescence of objective and subjective factors, independent activists, informal underground people and formal underground people, seemingly all arriving at this same conclusion. It's a very, very interesting phenomenon in the revolutionary process. At this stage, my thinking is that it's this coalescence of innovative minds dealing with an objective situation which is throwing up this possibility with concrete potential. Certainly there were problems of implementation of this document - which seems to be the case throughout the ANC's history. There is a tremendous unevenness of understanding of how the strategic tasks which a document like this places before people should be carried out. But it is clear that people like Mac were pretty clear on what was to be done. I just mention that.
I don't think it in any way [contradicts what I said].
[Break in tape]
I had a very good working relationship with people like Barbara [Hogan] and Valli and Alan [Fine]. We might have differed on a whole range of things. I might have - and I probably always will be - behave in a very independent way, without hopefully not being undisciplined. And for me that - I am glad to hear that there was some kind of plan. But I think that the kind of relationship that did emerge, and which made it a very exciting time in the last 10 or 12 years was that there were inputs from within and from the ground, and there was - I mean I knew that people were shifting me to play certain roles and that was cool. I wasn't naive, I wasn't being used.
There was no feeling of manipulation?
No, I mean, because here again the kind of way the thinking went, and the direction it went, was something that I felt was the right direction. When I felt there was a problem with some of the practice, I basically took it on. And, agh, maybe it's my kind of romantic naivete, but the kind of Lenin 'trust in the masses' thing is very important. I mean there is-.
You see, the thing I think we mustn't forget about a front is that a front is precisely designed to bring forward the imagination and creativity from a wide range of people, so there is absolutely no contradiction between the ANC's seeking to stimulate something like this and a range of innovative and creative people coming to the same conclusion. It's in the character of a successful front that this should be the case. A front is never - however much conspiracy there is in a front - a successful front can never be subject to a conspiracy.
Yes. Unless you, unless there is a clear possibility of the overthrow of a state through military means, the kind of mass movement that was unleashed - I mean it was very skilful. I mean I still have some misgivings about not enough effort being put into organisation, and too much effort being put into mass mobilisation, and I think the heritage of that is-.
With us now.
Ja, and we are going to have to rebuild. Even the trade union movement is relatively weak organisationally. But it has been successful. There has also been a fortunate coalescence between economic and other political factors that has [helped] us. But for anybody to deny the incredibly important role of a reasonably coordinated mobilisatory strategy in pushing back the government-.
I think it is one of the most remarkable stories of a mass movement this century. I really do. Whatever its weaknesses - and if you are involved you know what those weaknesses are - but it's an extraordinary achievement. It is the one major victory of the democratic movement: the construction of this front.
[End of interview]