Joe Matthews: Mogotsi is economical with the truth

Kgosie Matthews responds to the criticism of his father's record in politics

Mogotsi's "Naledi Pandor and Joe Matthews" (PoliticsWeb, 18 January 2012) is a piece of writing that my father, Joe Matthews, would have loathed. It lacks a factual basis and is peppered with unnecessary quotes that are designed to convey some reading but which fail to disguise the fact that the piece is in essence an old-fashioned hatchet job. By describing Naledi Pandor's treatment of her father as ‘murky', Mogotsi's reveals his ignorance, both about the ANC and the more importantly about the Matthews family itself.

Even Matthews's enemies over the decades have always acknowledged his sheer brilliance, not least because he was widely acknowledged as the leading authority on the liberation movement. His frequent comment to those he encountered was: "you must read!"

Reading was something that Joe Matthews did a lot. He believed in extensive discussion and argument. While he was adversarial in intellectual matters, he was not one for personal attacks, vile invective, and distortions, despite frequently having been being the subject of lies and distortions himself. He rarely responded because he had the self-assurance and thick skin of a complete politician. Criticism to him was part of the game.

Matthews had detractors principally because he advised his comrades without fear. He was never a snivelling courtier bowing and scraping to curry favour. Matthews was a big figure, and if his fellow politicians wanted to hear some straight talking, a good starting point was ‘what does Joe think?' And Matthews would let them know and more often than not he was right.

One part of Mogotsi's article that would have interested Matthews is his choice of comparators. He compares Matthews to figures who have occupied voluminous amounts of newsprint and about whom numerous books have been written: Stalin, Castro. Matthews would have chanced a wry smile at being in the camp of the West's ‘bogeymen.'

But to get at the truth, which is what Mogotsi purports to want to do about Matthews, you need a long historical perspective. Mogotsi's critique of Matthews takes Shubin's account as its starting point and from an intellectual standpoint it is all downhill for Mogotsi from then on, because Shubin's account consists primarily of invective. For one thing, it is poorly sourced, but more seriously, if South Africans are to take history lessons about their leaders from Soviet-era Communists of the pre-Gorbachev era, then our problems are even more deep rooted than I thought.

Concerning the Zulu question, Matthews and Buthelezi had a lifelong friendship, from their days in the youth league until Matthews's death. Did Matthews see it as his historic duty to persuade Buthelezi to participate in the 1994 election and to draw back from the brink of a low intensity conflict in Zululand? Yes. Was this in South Africa's best interests? Yes. But is it correct to speak of the IFP as Matthews's political home? The answer is rather more complex than Mogotsi's borrowings from Shubin suggest, particularly when so much material on the subject is now available.

Matthews's position as a member of the ANCs top leadership pre dates 1969. Thabo Mbeki will occasionally refer to his and Matthews's time in Moscow where they celebrated Joe Matthews fortieth birthday on 17 June 1969.

Did Matthews make an assessment that China's Cultural Revolution was an anathema? I do not know, but hopefully yes.

Was the head of the South African security police an appropriate source for material on divergences of opinion between Matthews and Tambo? Certainly not. Were there divergences? The record suggests otherwise. Matthews and Tambo as comrades and as African nationalists (in the ‘persons concerned with resisting colonialism' sense) cannot be separated and were entirely at one. Tambo was always conscious that the liberation movement was a broad church comprising a variety of strands of thought and embodied the political tradition that ZK Matthews and the apex of the liberation movement held dear, namely, that inter-African conflicts must be avoided at all costs. Matthews was schooled in this tradition which was one of the many tenets of what was known as the ANC way.

If Matthews described Prince Buthelezi as a loyal son of the land in 1954, he was correct in so doing. Prince Buthlezi was then a member of the ANC, so this was a wholly appropriate comment. But Matthews respect for Buthelezi had a deeper and more interesting source than that. He had observed Buthelezi's determination to restore the royal Zulu house to its former position, colonial forces having left the Zulu King of the time almost destitute. Matthews saw in that effort by Buthelezi an act of resistance to European intentions and he held Buthelezi in deep respect for that act alone. He did not seek to justify every action taken by Buthelezi but fundamentally they both understood that a new South Africa would have to have room for many varied opinions, quoting the Zulu proverb that ‘people are not like water and flow in different directions'.

Matthews left for England from Botswana in 1970 not 1975. The functioning of the ANC executive in 1975 is not something that Mogotsi would have been privy to. The suggestion that Matthews gave up his involvement in the ANC and severed all ties with the ANC is wrong.

Matthews travelled widely with Sir Seretse Khama, and was frequently in Zambia and other parts of Africa, attending OAU and Commonwealth and non-aligned movement meetings in different parts of the globe, working to advance the ANC's interests, securing support, simultaneously working underground. A lot of what Matthews did has not even been written about. The numerous biographies of Madiba for example do not even scratch the surface of Matthews's relationship with Madiba, and their journey through Africa. But more importantly, there is the Tambo-Matthews association: again there is a large gap in the record, and few are alive to tell this story: Duma Nokwe is long gone, but perhaps when Thabo Mbeki has a chance to write he will be able to set the record straight.

Matthews's position on Transkei is another that is widely misunderstood. His issue with the Homelands was that it was entirely wrong to deprive South Africans of their right to be South Africans. But did he believe that, as a policy option, the ANC should vilify Homeland or other Traditional leaders? He did not. What influenced him on this? Well he often knew them personally. He told a story of a discussion that Madiba and he had with KD Matanzima many, many years ago. Madiba's recall is not as extensive as that of Matthews, but in essence these were Madiba's cousins. Matthews did not like the use of terms such as ‘stooge' and ‘sell out,' and frequently referred to pamphlets by Lenin (Left Wing Communism - an infantile disorder) and Mao (Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People) in an effort to dissuade comrades from engaging in political insults, name calling and conflicts of a more serious nature. He was opposed to bloody sectarian internecine conflicts among the Xhosa and Zulu and his position was always that fire should be reserved for Pretoria and persuasion for homeland leaders. Ultimately, well after Matthews, his ideas became ANC policy.

Despite having had friends at the highest level in Botswana (Seretse Khama was the last guest to leave Matthews 50th birthday party in 1979 at 89 Mongana Close in Gaborone), Matthews is not likely to have always regarded the Botswana governments approach towards South Africans refugees as hospitable, but more importantly, by the 1980s, life in Botswana and the frontline states was far from safe for senior South African exiles many of whom were killed in cross border raids by South African special forces. By the time Matthews left Botswana it had long ceased to be safe for exiles.

When China's leaders discuss Mao, they say something along the lines of ‘Mao's victories far outweigh his mistakes.' There are few politicians who have not made mistakes. Did Matthews make mistakes? Yes. He certainly analysed the decisions of the movement, in the hope that the analysis would hasten achieving the goal of liberation. Matthews did not waiver in wanting to achieve the goal of liberation. He had read Lenin and understood the need to change tactics, and to reach uncomfortable accommodations. Principles and goals without tactics often mean goals unachieved.

Moreover, Matthews was not personally ambitious, and nor was his father. Both of them actually believed in public service, both of them advised royal houses, Z K Matthews advised Tshekedi Khama among others, Joe Matthews advised Sir Seretse Khama and Prince Buthelezi; and both advised and worked on behalf of the Church. Joe Matthews spoke to academics at length, about his motives, he wrote a lot and was concerned that the leadership of the liberation movement were not writing enough to explain the movement's actions. He wanted black South Africans to tell their own story and on the liberation movement he was the ‘Professor.'

Matthews did not want to go on and on in politics, and believed that the movement's history should be conveyed to the young, so that there could be ease of generational change within the ANC. He considered the pen mightier than the sword.

Naledi Pandor can rest assured that the truth about her father is that he was a great teacher, and a man who did not follow others for the sake of easy popularity. His was not a fair-weather morality-serving contradictory force: he was concerned as his father had been with reconciling those forces in South Africa's interests.

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