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: Mwelela Cele
: 06 Sept 2002
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MC: My name is Mwelela Cele. I'm representing
the University of Durban-Westville, Documentation Centre’s
Oral History Project. Today we are at the Durban Institute of
Technology, City Campus and we are interviewing one of our best
political activists, Dr Ashwin Desai. Pleased to meet you.
AD: Pleased to meet you.
MC: My first question, I would like to know when and where you
AD: I was born in Durban on the 15th January 1959.
MC: And in which area of Durban?
AD: I'm not sure. I think it was Isipingo.
MC: Isipingo? And what were your parents doing?
AD: My mother was a housewife and my father a schoolteacher.
MC: Did you have any siblings?
AD: I have a sister, an older sister, four years older than me.
MC: Okay, and where did you receive your primary education?
AD: By the time I was in standard six, I'd been to five schools.
Five different schools. I started off in a school called Arya
Samaj, which is in Springfield, and then went to Model School,
which is in Asherville, and it was in the afternoon. They had
something called a platoon system, which I preferred, because
you could play in the morning and go to school in the afternoon.
MC: Why were you changing schools, this way?
AD: Well, one of the reasons was my father had to keep changing
schools. I don't know what the reason was for that, and secondly,
clearly, either the teachers didn't get on with me or I didn't
get on with the teachers, so the way to handle that, was to change
MC: Okay, so in some of the schools that you moved to your father
was working there?
AD: No, no I mean it was different areas, but there were times
where there was an overlap. That was embarrassing.
MC: So can you describe the schools that you went to? What kind
of students attended those schools?
AD: When I started in Arya Samaj - well to say that, I actually
went to nursery school there, a place called Asherville Grounds,
football grounds, and somebody ran a nursery in the change rooms,
and getting to Arya Samaj, it was for the poorest area in Springtown,
and then I moved to class 2 to Model School, which is in a more
middle class area of Asherville. The areas are close by, but they
had very different class dimensions. So the schools, generally,
the way I remember schooling is that, especially in the later
years, we learnt school by swotting, we learnt things by heart.
If you learnt things by heart, you did well. That was the orientation
of the teachers and even us, so I can remember, in standard six,
learning about nineteen history essays by heart, and I knew every
answer. I didn't understand history, but the orientation was rote
learning. This doesn't obviate the effort that teachers put into
MC: And what kind of history was that, the history that they were
teaching you, at that time?
AD: It was about a guy called Boyce, I think. It had that the
usual crap that masquerades as history today, also. You know,
the simultaneous meeting of the Bantus and the white people at
Fish River. Certainly Indians were completely written out of the
history. I think the chapter was called "The Indian Problem".
It wasn't written by Ngema, it was written by Van Jaarsveld, or
somebody. But that was the kind of learning we had, it was rote
learning, very strict schooling environment, and very little broad
education. So we'd do all this literature of Shakespeare, I remember
that. We did Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night", I
think it was, and many of us learned the "Twelfth Night"
by heart. We didn't understand the stuff, but we knew it from
line one to line 490, by heart. You may not believe this, but
it's true. I can tell it to you up till today, that's how well
I know it.
MC: Can you just recite one paragraph?
AD: "If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess
of it. That's of eating, that appetite may sicken and then so
die, that strayed again and had it die for and o'er it came my
ear like the sweet sound of music" you know, and there was
very little chance for creativity here. If you wrote essays that
- I remember writing an essay about - the essay was three days
in a diary of a boer, Trek boer, and I talked about Zulu women,
as we came over the mountains, Zulu women were bare-chested, and
the teacher put lines through it and gave me zero and he wrote
that is pornography. So there was something wrong where you received
an education. I think there was - there were a lot of things one
had to unlearn once you had that kind of education, because there
were a lot of bad practices that masqueraded as learning.
MC: Yes, and when did you first encounter racism?
AD: It's a difficult call, you know, about racism. Maybe two or
three examples I expect. Firstly, internal to the Indian Community,
clearly there were divisions. My mother is of South Indian extraction,
whose family converted to Catholicism and my father is Brahman
Gujarati. These are foreign terms probably to you, but the twain
shall never meet, these people were never supposed to marry. On
both sides, the Catholics considered themselves very English,
and kind of outside of the rubric of India or Africa, even the
English, and Brahman Gujaratis don't even marry other Gujaratis,
and so I encountered it inside the family, because my grannies
stayed two streets away. One in Prince Edward Street, and one
in Leopold Street, and they stayed thirty years, close to each
other, but they never met each other, and so one received a sense
that something was wrong. But I expect the kind of racism, I understood
obliquely, was two kinds of things. The one is my father and I
went to a match between or a team called Highlands Park and Durban
United. I must have been five or six years old, and the ground
was full, and every time my father stood under a stadium pillar,
and every time I wanted to ask him a question he told me to keep
quiet. It was unusual because my father kind of helped me along
with the game and because he's very fair [skinned], he had gone
into the White section and he didn't want me to be noticed too
much because that would have found him [out], you know, only [then
one] sees, one understands the colour. But most of it was accepting.
You know, because every Sunday, because we stayed in town we would
drive to the beachfront and we would watch the white kids on the
trampoline. But I never questioned it, that we were drinking our
tea out of a flask as a Sunday outing to watch kids my age on
a trampoline. So I kind of never received racism as a conscious
thing, for much of my upbringing because, ironically, South African
life allowed you to live in a sheltered, safe environment within
very closeted communities. So frankly I can't remember a specific
incident that somehow kind of evoked some thought in my head.
MC: Where did you receive your high school education?
AD: At Chatsworth High.
MC: And can you describe for us the atmosphere there?
AD: It was once again a school very rigidly trying to get you
to pass Matric well, because it had a reputation for producing
the best results, despite being in Chatsworth, you know, produced
all the A's and so on.
MC: And when was this?
AD: It was '73, '74, '75.
MC: Ya and so - and also had very good sporting teams, so there
was a lot of orientation, some of the best sports people came
there. I remember, when I was in Standard Seven there, I think,
they had there, out of like eleven players, they had eight guys
who were already playing professional soccer, you know. These
were mythical figures, Sugar Singh, Scampi Bissesser, Stanley
Govender. It was a school that was beautiful, because it was looked
up to and you basked in a kind of reflective glory of everybody
else, I presume.
MC: And the political atmosphere in the country at the time? Did
you experience any problems at school or were there many uprisings?
AD: Ya, there were kind of sporadic things around Republic Day,
for example. You know, people would - the National Party would
give out sweets and other paraphernalia, and there were always
pamphlets, and that kind of thing. One had a kind of sense of
there were people organising. You know, many of us, as young people,
we lived in town and a lot of the older guys from the area went
to the Frelimo Rally of 1974 at Curries Fountain. They were just
gangsters, but they went there and they like fought with the police
or you know, so they told the story. There was an overwhelming
force at that rally, and so on. So one kind of - there were snippets
of it. But I think, you know, lot of the - and it was a period
of Black Consciousness, I presume, but a lot of that work was
outside the rubric of the immediate community, it was limited
to the universities. It might not have been but it's the way it
was seen by us.
AD: My sense of anything that had to do with the underdog was
that I was in awe of the guys who stood on the street corner,
the gangsters. I wanted to be like them. I disliked my father
intensely, who as a schoolteacher followed the rules and went
to school and put his head down, earned his keep. My heroes were
not, you know, political activists. My heroes were gangsters,
I wanted to be them. I wanted to stab people, and then I was dressed
like them. Remember, I was nine and ten. My whole orientation
was when I would make a transition from the flat to a fully- fledged
member of the street corner, in Leopold Street, in Grey Street,
that was the height of my ambitions.
MC: But you were going to school and doing everything?
AD: Ya, I was going to school, ya. Ya, people went to school and
they spent their whole weekends, you know, standing in a corner.
I spent a lot of my life standing in a corner. I don't know why,
but a lot of my life I spent standing in a corner.
MC: Maybe gangsterism was symbolising something to you?
AD: I think it was, it was symbolising a kind of rejection of
our lives being controlled even at the micro level by family,
by socialisation process, by teachers, by police, who wouldn't
let you play, you know, soccer on the road, you couldn't play
anywhere else. They'll put you in a van and take you and dump
you at the beach, which would give you a one and a half walk back
home. So ya, it was, in a sense, a kind of sub-culture that was
rejectionist and stuff of the prevailing norms.
MC: Yes, and in high school did you have subjects that you enjoyed,
I mean subjects like history or English?
AD: No, I didn't enjoy school, I hated school. I started - by
standard nine I was already drinking a lot. The drink called brandy
ale. You would pay R1.08 for it at the Pelican, which was below
Chatsworth High. I spent a lot of my life drunk, which was important
for me, in later years, because then I didn't have to listen to
that crap that teachers were giving us. So I didn't have to unlearn
MC: So, your drinking, when you think about it now, do you think
it was a way of resisting or revolting or something?
AD: It revolted my parents and everybody else. I didn't think
of it as anything - well, when I think back about it now, ya,
I was alienated from those processes. I don't know if it was a
conscious act, it was just - ya, it was just a recalcitrance to
be a prefect. We hated prefects. To be a head prefect at Chatsworth
High, anybody who was head prefect at Chatsworth High between
'70 and '75, I'd rather keep quiet about it, because they were
like pimps, impimpis. Many head prefects becoming impimpis, in
later life. I think a lot of the people in Mbeki's cabinet must
have been head prefects. I'm now convinced of it; because you
can see they're in awe of power, like "I'm of the World Bank".
You can see it. Kadar Asmal must have been a head prefect in school,
because he's now an impimpi for imperialist interests. So those
transitions are made. I was a drunkard and, you know, I'm still
kind of ...
MC: And after high school, you went to Grahamstown?
AD: Not immediately. I worked in a place called Woolfsons, which
in town and then at a place called Admiral Hotel. Now closed down
and apparently has been, you know, sold to people who are going
to turn it into an Islamic School. An interesting transition.
MC: And what were you doing in ...?
AD: At Woolfsons, I was a salesman. I was doing very well. I was
one of the best salesman there, because simply when you came into
buy a suit and if you were a 38 jacket and a 36 pants I'd just
take the different suits and put them together and sell it to
you. There were the older salesmen who would want you to, you
know, go and change the suit and alter. I would just - because
I sold well. So I did that for what, six months and I worked at
Admiral Hotel, as a waiter, which was very enjoyable because I
was still young. I was 17, and you'd get tipped by drinking. People
would buy you drinks and you'd quietly drink it, without the owners
knowing. Then I spent a year, I think, in London, in England,
and then went to Grahamstown, which is - I was 19 when I got to
Grahamstown, but I'd kind of seen a bit, luckily.
MC: Did you experience any racism or did you feel bad about the
way you were treated at work when you were working at the hotel
or when you were selling suits?
AD: Ya, I mean clearly there, later when I reflect on it, the
man I would sell suits with, was somebody they called Johnny,
an Indian man. He was there for 27 years but he never became manager
or anything, you know? There would always be younger white guys
who would come and manage and so on. But, you know, kind of you
know, selling suits, you know? The white salesmen would have their
customers and the Indian salesmen - there weren't any African
salesmen, they would have their customers amongst Black people.
So there were those divisions and you kind of accepted that as
a natural order of things.
MC: And why did you move from Woolfsons to a hotel?
AD: From Woolfsons?
AD: I went to the Christmas party, I think, or one of their parties
and I obviously drank too much and fought with the manager, a
Mr Kretzner. I think he fought with me but as things panned out
- I always say that I left, but they asked me to leave. There's
rather a long trend in my life of people asking me to leave.
MC: And can you tell us about your experiences in London?
AD: It was kind of a remarkable one year. I mean I started to
learn a bit there, ironically, because it was a time of - the
height and time of the National Front, which is a right wing British
movement and there were a lot of concerts like "Rock against
Racism" and so on, and a kind of sea of humanity that was
prepared to confront racism and I went to these things for fun
but it really had - it created an impression in my mind about
people who were white, who were fighting racism, you know? And
there was a lot of antagonism, especially with people who would
label you in the streets. In Durban, you kept to your place. In
London, you'd go to places where people would call you Paki and
wog, these were derogatory terms and so you immediately wanted
to confront those things. So it was a very enlightening period.
Very tough period because one gets almost spoilt in a place like
Durban, where you know your environment, you had a very different
environment, a very alienating environment. But it was to hold
me in good stead later.
MC: And then from London you came back to...?
AD: I went directly to Grahamstown.
MC: And then at that time, I mean Grahamstown ...?
AD: Since you like this racism question, you seem obsessed with
that, let me give you the answer.
AD: I arrive at Port Elizabeth airport. Somebody told me - I'd
never been to the Eastern Cape in my life. Somebody told me that
Grahamstown is 30 kilometres, or a suburb of Port Elizabeth. So
I waited and waited and waited for what was called the Leopard
Express, for something you take from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown
and when it arrived, there was a Black man who was driving the
Leopard Express. He said to me they don't take Black people on
the Leopard Express and a white family there felt quite embarrassed,
and they dropped me on the highway. It was five in the evening,
getting dark, and I still thought - I wanted to pee and I thought,
you know, just out, and I was still hiking with a big suitcase
and finally, some people gave me a lift and I found out that it
was like 120 kilometres away, and I arrived in Grahamstown, and
there was still segregated hostels at Rhodes University, and I
arrived in a place called Adamson House which was for Black students,
it was a segregated res. and that was the beginning of an odyssey,
at the age of 19.
MC: And when exactly did you start your political activism?
AD: You know, it's - those questions are so difficult. I'm sure
everybody you ask, it's like trying to remember, you know, when
you first stopped wearing a nappy, you know, it's like really
hard. The hostel was important because it had all Black students,
many older students who had studied at the University of Western
Cape and Fort Hare, and so there were a lot of people of political
backgrounds there, and so we'd meet almost weekly in a common
room and talk about politics, you know, there were different political
movements, Black Consciousness Movement, Unity Movement, kind
of semblances of the ANC, and so on. So the debates were vibrant
and beautiful and we would stand almost - sit slightly outside
the centre of the circle and listen to these debates. But it was
also a very racist place, Rhodes, with the Rhodesians, as they
were called then. Mugabe was just about to come to power and a
lot of the Rhodesian students had come out of bush wars and had
a pathological dislike for Black students. So Black students created
a unity for themselves, in order to, I expect, offset this very
naked racism and so, I think, it was the beginning of some kind
of idea of politics. But really me, personally, I wanted to play
sport. I loved sport, I wanted to play soccer and so on, and there
was a decision not to use the campus sports fields and play for
the campus teams and so we went to play in the townships and so
we came - I expect we became integrated in the townships, not
out of consent but being forced there, but once we went to play,
you know, it became part of our lives.
MC: And did you join any student organisations?
AD: Ya, there was an organisation called the Black Student Movement
that was finally formed and I joined that organisation and in
1980, I can't remember the date, which is the second year I was
there, there was - the security police raided the campus and they
arrested seven people or eight people, I don't remember. Devan
Pillay, Erin Gijima, Guy Burger, Irin Rensburg, myself and so
that was my first real experience of a detention. We were taken
to Port Elizabeth, ended up in a big trial. I knew nothing, really.
I was just a big talker and we were beaten quite crudely and badly
and many of us just instinctively - I expect that's where my life
on the streets of Durban helped. We just wouldn't - they didn't
want to - it was a trick, they didn't want to - they knew we weren't
guilty of the things they were looking for but they wanted us
to give State evidence and, of course, we refused and we were
beaten badly. I don't know whether those decisions are political,
they were just based on a "well, fuck you, you want me to
do something and I won't fucking do it", you know? So it
was the beginnings and obviously when we came out we were big
heroes and suddenly we were politicians.
MC: This was?
AD: 1980, and obviously the leaders had been locked up, you know?
Erin Gijima, Guy Burger, Devan Pillay, and so on. So suddenly
we were thrust into a leadership role, and I became president
of the Black Student Movement. So it was almost like a hesitance,
you know, it wasn't a kind of unilinear development, somebody
- sub-consciousness raising, and all that. It was more a kind
of matter of circumstance that one was thrust into kind of leadership.
But it created an anger, obviously, in me personally, and a feeling
that I wanted to fight. For me the first time, because I'm like
twenty now, now I want to fight what was called the boere, you
know, I wanted to fight them and so ya, this kind of part gangsterism,
part - just feeling that I'd been hard done by, and I didn't deserve
to be beaten in that way. Set me on a train, you know, of activity,
MC: Why did you decide to go to university?
AD: I don't know, one day I was just in London, and I just decided
that this life was meaningless, but I didn't want to come back
home, but I wanted to be back in South Africa and so, you know,
probably in a drunken stupor, made that decision. So I don't know,
I don't remember properly.
MC: And why did you choose Rhodes University?
AD: I wanted to be a writer, I loved writing, I loved the idea
of words. I always wanted to be a writer. When I grew up, my mother
never really went to school, she went to standard 3, but every
day that I came home, she would make out of cardboard, a flash
card, with a new word that she would learn and I would learn.
So I had a fascination with words and that's all I wanted to be.
MC: And so you registered for journalism?
AD: I registered for journalism, ya.
MC: And your post-grad studies?
AD: I stayed in the Eastern Cape generally, and finally in 1987
when I was arrested again - it was an incredible place the Eastern
Cape, obviously through the '80s, and a place of political vitality.
It had its own conservativism, it's been made as myth, people
haven't really studied the Eastern Cape. I think there's a lot
of conservativism of the political leadership around the South
African Communist Party, the ANC, even the Black Consciousness
people. A lot of hierarchy and centralism, but in the streets
and in the townships, there's a political energy of incredible
nature that I was lucky to be a part of, and lucky that I was
in the Eastern Cape. So I wasn't - I didn't have the disease of
the Natal Indian Congress and the centralism and the authoritarism
and the gossip of the UDF and so on, that was part of Kwa-Zulu
Natal. I feel sorry for the comrades, every time I think about
them, all those activists who are lost in the new South Africa.
I always think that I forgive them because their sins are not
theirs, of these moribund organisations. So I was part of that.
MC: If I may interrupt you? Back in the early '80s, I mean what
did you think of the African National Congress?
AD: Oh, I was in awe of it. I really thought that they were liberators,
you know? We kept thinking through the '80s though, every time
we used to call for arms they never arrived. We didn't know Joe
Modise was buying shoes, MK guys were buying shoes on his behalf
in Jo'burg, but there was never - this is the mythology, that
history must be really written in this country. The arms never
arrived in the Eastern Cape, and one day we must ask the question,
that there were street committees, there was mass insurrection,
people using stones. Where were the arms, and why didn't they
arrive, and why were people left defenceless? [There were] very
few MK incursions from the outside, you know, that ever took place
in the Eastern Cape and that history, you know, is left for somebody
else. That's my understanding and feeling of being there, during
that period. Not on the campus only but in the townships and so
ya, there was an awe, there was a sense that there would be a
force from the outside that would come out and rescue us. All
our songs, all our speeches were about the sense that the exile
would not only come to defeat apartheid, but would be a radical
force for the broadening of job democracy, and the redistribution
of resources. I went back to Grahamstown last year, and it was
the very centre of liberation, the townships and the people still
live without lights, people still live in the most decrepit of
conditions. They are two cities still, when you stand on Makanaskop,
and look over the university and its beautiful buildings and the
degradation and degeneration of the townships. Clearly our songs
were in vain for being part of instituting this government into
power. So ya, of course we were, but I started to develop a critical
sense that they weren't going to be for debate, and there was
a narrowing of debate. One horrible example for me is that I was
in (Vianeck?) prison and for many reasons they thought some of
us were up to shit and we were in single cells, but we were let
out to do exercise, and there was only one AZAPO guy in that whole
prison. Young guy, we knew him as General, Bongani, was his name.
I knew him slightly. He said you know, Ash, can I use your cell
to study, while you're doing exercise? Because they were in communal
cells, very difficult to study. I said ya, cool, and when I came
back there were about twelve guys beating him to pulp in the cell
and I almost separated them, and I said why? They said no, didn't
I hear, you know, that AZAPO were killing Goniwe, you know, this
kind of stuff and that they're State agents and we must kill them,
and it made me think for a long time about the nature of the movements
that we were building, that we were having discussions, even in
the cells, but if you ever raised critiques of the Freedom Charter
and so on people were dealt with very, very harshly and heavily.
So there was inside the engine of the liberation movement, a deep,
authoritarian attitude that was developing, and there was a sense
of that and once again, when the history of the Eastern Cape is
written, there were people who were put on lists to be killed,
who were critical people, comrades of mine. There were mass splits,
people labelled with something called UDF militants, which was
some other grouping that was critical, so people were dealt with.
So these are the stories of the liberation movements that hopefully
some researcher someday will tell. People like to see it as -
and that's why I don't like doing some of these interviews, because
they end up as being rubbish because they want to tell the story
as some unilinear development of this great, good force on one
said, this great, bad force and a good force prevails. No. It's
bullshit, a lot of the good forces were marginalised, threatened
and steamrolled into submission and why can't their histories
be told? They contributed to the liberation struggle, and still
contribute because their values and their ethics that they were
trying to instill in the liberation movement are so vital and
important for today, and so ya, that was my socialisation because
it was all in the Eastern Cape, outside my own environment, outside
my own racial reference group. There are a very few Indians there,
you know, which I expect in a bizarre way helped because you were
an exotic other. Whenever I went to funerals in townships, even
if I wasn't a scheduled speaker, I became a scheduled speaker,
you know, being there as somebody who was not African, you know,
so I could really learn to speak and got to share platforms and
learnt the idea of transgressing racial boundaries and the possibilities
of that, and learning why this kind of building is so vital. So
it's was hard and it was difficult and life obviously, at Grahamstown
was very, very difficult.
MC: If I may ask this, why were you arrested in 1987? Why exactly?
AD: Well it was in a State of Emergency.
AD: You know, it was nothing specific, it was - and by that time
I had my break with the UDF and the ANC. It was a very difficult
time for me because in the prison there were people who hated
me, you know, beyond the warders, there were people who if they
could have put a knife in, would have because I was a vociferous
critique of what we saw, as the infesting of the UDF by liberal,
moderate elements and the reticence of the UDF to rebuild real
democratic structures in the townships. So I was one of the overt
criticizers of that, so it was a very tense time for me, but luckily
for me I had come with the unknown reputation. In the fight in
prison, the Black Conscious Movement was attacked by some right
wing whites and I'd stabbed one of them, badly and a lot of people
saw me - luckily, as a violent person, that if you fucked with
me I'll take you on. So it created a space for me within that
environment. So, ya, that's another history.
MC: Did the warders harass you or...?
AD: No, the warders were okay because they were just - it was
a holiday camp. But ya, especially the young guys who we always
influenced by the older guys, the thirteen or fourteen year olds
in the prison, who were already killers, you know, from Craddock
and so on, I had an affinity with them, you know, because we used
to get on well, but as time went on they would, you know, always
see there was an alienation and ya, you know, one doesn't want
to build this into a conspiracy but one could feel uncomfortable.
But, you know, it wasn't bad because of one's attitude, you know
one would laugh or things and then the cowardly nature of what
some of us did, we didn't engage in the debate, we just kept quiet
when, you know, the Communist Party would have reading groups
and get like a book smuggling called, by Marx and we were discussing,
some of us would be cowards. We wouldn't put forward our critique
of the Communist Party for example, you know, or Stalinism and
so on, because then you'd be a Trotskyite and to be a Troyskyite
was to be worse than a fucking National Party agent because to
be a Trotskyite would summarily get you into deep trouble.
MC: So ideologically during the '80s where did you stand?
AD: Where did I stand?
MC: Yes, I mean in the ‘80’s?
AD: It's very hard, you know, because I didn't have - after the
kind of tri-cameral elections mobilisation around that, for me
building community structures was important. There wasn't a narrow
political home, it was embracing of all people that we were fighting
around housing, free education, services for the poor, grounds,
you know, parks. So that became part of my politics, very integral
to - other people saw it as a lack of politics and reading - we
had reading groups, there were open reading groups for young people
who were reading about Marxism, about the Russian Revolution,
you know, what went wrong in post-liberation societies, you know?
And so there was a tremendous energy and enthusiasm for knowledge
and critique and that kind of thing.
MC: And what did you do, work - I mean in the '80s?
AD: Well, I was a student for most of the time, worked in the
Union Movement for a while, lectured at Rhodes for a while. There
my contract wasn't renewed by the management, and then finally
MC: The reason being?
AD: Well, the reason being I participated in student demonstrations,
and you know, it was supposed to be a liberal institution but
you know that there was a facade and they just dealt with me harshly,
you know, by just -you know, not renewing my contract.
MC: Yes, and in the '80's, what did you think of the armed struggle?
AD: What did I think of the armed struggle? I thought I was -
I was in awe of it and I was like a young boy, like young boys
today are in awe of Batman and so on, you know? I thought that
they somehow, MK guerilla fighters would come from the outside
and rescue us all, that this was the real thing, you know? But
slowly I began, you know, these things, you start to understand,
you know, and you understand its limitations and you understand
the ANC was never really involved in an armed struggle, as an
armed struggle to really arm people, because if they armed people
then they weren't in control of that revolution any more because
then people will be empowered. I realise that, that all these
trips that people made to Lusaka and Maseru were, you know, just
- were a waste of time.
MC: And what did you think of the organisations like AZAPO and
AD: Disappointments, you know?
MC: In the '80's?
AD: Ya, I mean clearly, you know, from the Eastern Cape we were
under pressure, we didn't need much PAC people but that's the
remnants of AZAPO and the Black Consciousness Movement. Clearly,
they had problems organising communities, there was a kind of
elitist movement, that liked talking. You know, but they'd been
through their own history in the '70's, I expect, they had community
programmes, they'd been down that road, they'd been disseminated
and fractured so they weren't a factor. In Grahamstown there was
a strong AZAPO branch, but the UDF moved, the ANC moved against
them violently and a lot of them had to leave the township. This
is the irony, you know, they had to leave the township. I think
by then the call had become, that we're going to dominate the
negotiation process in South Africa. All movements to the left
of us need to be sidelined or dealt with, you know? And that's
what happened, I saw it. AZAPO guys actually went to live in a
place called Sugar Loaf Mountain, they actually left the township
and had to go live in the bush for quite a while, and that was
because of ANC youth, not because of the State. You know, there
was a long rumour for a long time in the Eastern Cape that it
was the BC guys that killed, you know, the Craddock leadership
and that put them under pressure, a lot of pressure. We knew it
was lies, but in the cauldron of the mass mobilization, those
were very difficult things to discount.
MC: And did you consider joining the MK in exile in the ‘80’s?
AD: Ya, ya I think most of the young guys in that hostel wanted
to. In fact a few left. Some of them came back, you know, earlier.
Of course, it was a fascination and, I think, if we weren't arrested
in 1980 and that ANC cell wasn't broken up I think we would have
all gone, left the country, it was just too much of an attraction,
too much of an adventure, rather than just a political thing,
it was a young boys kind of adventure to go to the bush, as it
were. I'm so glad I didn't, simply because I'd end up either as
a decrepit drunkard in South Africa, abandoned by everybody, still
waiting for a pension, or would have been part of this exile mentality
of knowing better and imposing a horrible, almost genocidical
economic system in this country. I would have been part of that,
you know, really - they're not nutcases, they bad people, faces
down to bad people that are in power in this country so, it was
fortuous for me because I, you know, I expect the socialisation
of those camps would have bred certain attitude towards mass struggle.
I think, staying in the country gave a lot of people a humility
about democracy, consultation, mass struggle, sacrifice, and so
on and so those who stayed behind, I think, were lucky.
MC: And in these reading groups that you formed, what kind of
books were you reading?
AD: We read a lot of kind of Marxist literature, you know, we
read “What is to be done” by Lenin 138 times, you
know? I saw "Duel of Fists" about 117 times, but I read
“What is to be done” by Lenin 118 times, one more
time. We read, so we studied the Russian Revolution and in its
own mythical way and fought and debated these issues and the Cuban
Revolution and Mao, Mao's Long March and the Nature of the Cultural
Revolution. It was a great depth to the cadreship of the people.
The Mozambican Revolution, Frelimo, the critique of Nkrumah, Jomo
Kenyata and how the Mau Mau still wait for the land, you know?
So these were sobering times, because they were starting to set
that gigantic task that lay ahead for true and fundamental liberation
and we are learning the mistakes of a narrow kind of national
democratic revolution and so on. We were reading - ya, simply
because there's this huge debate about, you know, whether there'll
be one stage or two stages to the revolution, and so on. So these
were the vibrant debates at the time, that people wanted socialism
and so the reading groups were viewing us with the qualitative
sense of what we desired and it was like, for me, it was the most
beautiful and most fundamental part of my growth as an individual
because we are starting not to just create a myth around what
we were doing but to really learn, learn, learn, learn from people,
from liberation movements that had gone before. You know, unfortunately,
the people who became influential in our own struggle, didn't
bother going through all that.
MC: And some of these books were banned books?
AD: Ya, many of them were banned. Many of them were banned and
that only, you know, added to the attraction.
MC: So in these groups, I mean you used to meet in a place that
was like you were hiding some of the time?
AD: It was done quite openly but you would photocopy the books
beforehand. Everybody received that reading and then somebody
would lead the discussion for that week and - well, I mean obviously
it didn't have a profound effect on everybody, because some of
those guys now hold top positions in government, and are implementing
policies that would probably make Lenin jump out of his grave
and come and want to, you know, kill them, I presume. So reading,
you know, itself lent Lenin itself to radicalism but certainly
it gives you an idea and a critique of what exists in a very powerful
MC: So can you tell us maybe five of your favourite writers at
AD: Of the time?
MC: For now I'm just dealing with the '80s.
AD: Leon Trotsky, you know - it was Isaac Daitsha who wrote a
trilogy of Leon Trotsky's life when it was - it was brilliant
and it was of deep fascination. I also loved his biography of
Stalin because it taught me that Stalin was very mediocre, he
was a person in the party, he never really gave public speeches,
he was looked down upon by the other intellectuals in the movement,
but he understood power and he became general secretary of the
party and so it fascinated me that a lot of intellectuals don't
understand power. They may have great ideas but they can never
implement them because they don't have power, and then we used
to always tell the story from these books.
[End of Side 1]