Naledi Pandor and Joe Matthews

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi says the minister suppressed some awkward truths about her father

Our Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor's article, "Through the generations", which appeared in The New Age newspaper of 11 January 2012, makes for interesting but confounding reading

The article poses more questions about truth-telling than it purports to answer. Even when it involves a family as heroic and multi-talented phenomenon as Naledi Pandor's, the fine art of a son or a daughter narrating the great historical tale of his or her forebears is fraught with grave challenges, at the best of time.

When such a narrative is attached to a great occasion, such as the ANC Centenary celebrations this year, the room for possible embellishment, and even outright propaganda in favour of your parents or great parents, can become irresistible and overwhelming.

The writings of Isabel Allende, daughter of Chile's first socialist President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in a bloody coup by USA-supported General Pinochet's right-wing forces in 1972, and of Deng Rong, the daughter of China's former Supreme Leader, Deng Xiaoping, attest to the phenomenal historical, revolutionary, and even literary power of such reminiscences.

On the other extreme are the writings of the daughters of Fidel Castro and Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, who were so appalled by the revolutionary excesses of their revolutionary and highly ideological parents that they penned, what essentially were, denunciations of their fathers.

Where does Naledi Pandor's recent article sit in this writing and memory continuum?

Before fully entertaining this question, it is useful to remember the words of Donald Culross Peattie, who, in his article "The Epic of Michelangelo", pointed out that Michelangelo used "his art" to utter "ageless truths" (Reader's Digest - Great Lives, Great Deeds, 1965, page 191).

Did Naledi Pandor use her prominent position - as a leading and long-serving national Cabinet Minister, and a formidable ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) member, to utter "ageless truths" about her grandfather and father on the occasion of the ANC's Centenary?

I would say that Naledi Pandor got it absolutely correct in her account of her celebrated and highly respected grandfather, and leading ANC and South African icon, Professor Zachariah Keodirelang 'ZK' Matthews. Naledi's warm and adoring reminiscences about 'ZK' will themselves become part of our treasured legend about her grandfather until the other side of eternity.

She has thus done history, the ANC, and our fight against the pervasive tendency towards deliberate and calculated forgetfulness about aspects of our anti-apartheid struggle, a huge and indispensable favour indeed.

To appreciate how vital this contribution is, we should remind ourselves of these words written about 'ZK' in an explanatory note in Nelson Mandela's classic book, "Conversations with Myself":

"(1901-1968). Academic, politician, anti-apartheid activist. Member of the ANC. First black South African to obtain a BA degree at a South African institution, 1923. First black South African to obtain an LLB degree in South Africa, 1930. Conceptualised the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter. Following the Sharpeville massacre, with Albert Luthuli he organised a 'stay-away', a national day of mourning, on 28 March 1960. In 1965 he retired to Botswana, and became its ambassador to the USA." (Appendix D - People, Places and events, page 432).

In a word, in Professor 'ZK' Matthews, the ANC had its first, arguable still unparalleled, political genius, a towering organic thinker, and unassailable practical political philosopher. Yet, despite this very elevated stature of 'ZK' in the intellectual and political history of the ANC, it has not seen it fit to name a single city or metropolitan area after him, not even the area around Kliptown, where the Congress of the People met and adopted the Freedom Charter, both which were brain-children of Professor 'ZK'.

But ordinary SA people, and ordinary ANC members throughout decades since 1955, have given 'ZK' a greater honour than any that successive post-apartheid democratic governments could ever hope to confer on him. In popular imagination of ordinary South Africans, Professor 'ZK' Matthews remains the undying political metonymy for both the 1955 Congress of the People, and the Freedom Charter adopted by the same Congress of the People.

In South Africa's history, there can be no greater timeless and ageless political and intellectual honour and tribute than that. But what has been Naledi Pandor's treatment of her father, whom she knew better, and got to understand even more - Joe Matthews, the son of Professor 'ZK' Matthews?

Here Naledi's The New Age article becomes decidedly murky. Writing about her own father, Naledi Pandor suddenly decides to go saccharine and fuzzy, abruptly abandoning the guiding Michelangelo principle of using her elevated positions, and her much admired bloodline and venerated genealogy, to utter "ageless truths". Instead of truth-telling, the natural instinct of a daughter to protect, and to promote, her beloved father she so much adores kicks in. 

But out through the window goes the bold determination to utter "ageless truths", as she brilliantly did with her grandfather.

At the very heart of this narrative dilemma confronting Naledi Pandor is that the political history of her own father, Joe Matthews, unlike her much-loved grandfather, Professor 'ZK', is parts heroic and deeply noble, but also parts highly questionable, if not completely ignoble.

Because Naledi Pandor has very correctly made the decision never to denounce her own father, like Fidel Castro and Joseph Stalin's daughters did, she has decided to suppress certain unpleasant facts about her own father, and then over-emphasise and underline those parts of her father's political history that shed a warm and endearing glow, and halo, around her deceased father, Joe Matthews.

What you get at the end, therefore, is not historical revisionism, which is pardonable. What is at play here is probably something much more sinister, namely a deliberate attempt to mislead the general public, especially the SA youth, about the extent to which Joe Matthews zigzagged away politically from the great political path that was cleared and trod by 'ZK' Matthews, and indeed, much later by his own daughter, Naledi Pandor herself.

That she attempts to achieve such a feat of historicist ignominy on the occasion of the ANC Centenary celebrations is doubly mind-boggling.

What are the "ghosts" about her father, Joe Matthews, that Naledi Pandor would rather she did not have to advertise publicly? And how does one deal with such "ghosts", given Naledi Pandor's cleat reluctance to confront such "ghosts" in a public space?

In his brilliant article entitled "An opportunity to craft new ideas", which appeared in the Sunday Independent of 08 January 2012, Sipho Seepe, himself a renowned partisan intellectual during the Mbeki-Zuma ANC succession battle (2005-2007), cautioned as such about the current ANC: "Rather than being on the forefront of proposing and advancing ideas that will take the country forward, it finds itself having to respond to largely personalised and individualised attacks that masquerade as commentary."

A fair point by Sipho Seepe as far as it goes. But how does one present a fuller, nuanced, and more rounded historical and political perspective of Naledi Pandor's father than she has hitherto been willing to do, at least as represented by her recent The New Age article, without appearing or seeming to be dishing out "...largely personalised and individualised attacks that masquerade as commentary", as Sipho Seepe remarks?

Yet the imperative of truth-telling is both abiding and compelling enough of itself. At its very best truth-telling, to borrow the words of Allan Bloom in a different context, "should give new eyes to human beings, inducing them to view the world differently, converting them from fixed modes of experience..." ("The Closing of the American Mind", page 17). That Bloom writes "is ambition enough."

Perhaps no one else has written a more unflattering, and damning, account of the unpleasant political history of Joe Matthews than Vladimir Shubin, the former Soviet Union's points man and main contact with the exiled Lusaka-based ANC leadership.

In his biography of the exiled ANC entitled "ANC - A View From Moscow" Shubin makes the following comments about Joe Matthews:

  • "Joe Matthews, after playing a leading role for some years in the SACP and the ANC, later concentrated on his private business and finally found his political home in the Inkatha Freedom Party". (Page 7).
  • In 1960 Joe Matthews was visiting Moscow as part of the SACP leadership. (Page 26).
  • Following the ANC Morogoro Conference of 1969, London-based Joe Matthews became a member of the 20-member ANC National Executive committee (NEC). (Page 72).
  • In 1975, Joe became the Secretary of the ANC NEC's Revolutionary Council, a structure which for the first time in the history of the ANC, included non-Africans like Yusuf Dadoo, Joe Slovo and Reginald September as members.
  • Joe Matthews was again part of the ANC/SACP to Moscow in 1969. "Joe Matthews was also there, this time as a representative of the Communist Party of Lesotho. He made a strong anti-Beijing speech, comparing the Chinese Communist Party with a 'mad elephant'". (Pages 75-76).
  • The SA head of Security Police identified Joe Matthews as part of the 'pro-communist group" within the ANC exiled leadership that is 'opposed' by the ANC President OR Tambo. (Page 81)
  • "As early as 1954, Joe Matthews, then a member of the leadership of the ANC Youth League, called Buthelezi 'one of the most loyal sons of this land'. Did he anticipate then that he would one day become one of Buthelezi's lieutenants?" (Page 104).
  • In 1975 the ANC NEC could not function properly because only five or six people continued to function in the NEC, "whilst Joe Matthews had left for Botswana". (Page 106).
  • On the eve of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Joe Matthews renounced his revolutionary past in an article to the Johannesburg Sunday Times that was entitled 'I Believed'.
  • His revolutionary past included his activities within the ANCYL in the early 1950s; clashing with PAC's founder, Robert Sobukwe, in 1959; leaving SA for exile in pre-independence Lesotho in 1960; being banned from Lesotho in 1965, and then moving to London, where he became managing editor of the ANC Sechaba magazine; moving to Botswana in 1970 and giving up his involvement in the ANC.
  • In Botswana working in the Office of that newly-independent country's President, as Assistant Permanent Secretary, and later becoming an Assistant Attorney-General of Botswana, whilst amassing substantial commercial interests there; in 1972 Joe Matthews severed all ties with the ANC and SACP; his 'I Believed' article of 1976 called for recognition of 'independent' Transkei; he resigned his Botswana government positions, his commercial venture collapsed, and he left Botswana for the West;
  • He tried to attend the ANC's first post-exile Durban conference in July 1991, but was refused accreditation; he then joined the Inkatha Freedom Party as its Chief Executive officer; he was subsequently seconded by the IFP to serve in SA's first democratic government under Nelson Mandela, as the Deputy Minister of Safety and Security. (Pages 109-110).

Thus, Matthews moved from ANCYL, ANC, to SACP and CP of Lesotho, and then to serving Botswana government, abandoning politics for business, abandoning the hospitality of the Botswana Government for a stay in the West, and at the end joining IFP, which is on the right of the ANC. This suggests a "fair-weather" political morality willing to serve contradictory political forces from extreme left to extreme right.

On occasions Joe Matthews placed personal and family interests above loyalty and commitment to the exiled ANC-led anti-apartheid struggle and failed to consistently honour the great legacy of his father, 'ZK', of unswerving loyalty and commitment to one political home, the ANC, and was at times mercurial and unreliable.

What Vladimir Shubin's book reveals about Matthews contradicts the 'revisionist' history Naledi Pandor presented about her father in her recent article. Joe Matthews proved that unswerving commitment and loyalty to the ANC cause did not come easy to every ANC leader. His story is best summed up by the comment made in the 1975 SACP Statement on the ANC's Group of Eight rebels in 1975, entitled "The Enemy Hidden under the Same Skin": "Most of them have made many somersaults in their chequered political careers, always following what seemed to serve their ambitions at any given moment. Some of them were communists at one time and anti-communists at others, tribalists and African nationalists, strongly pro-Soviet and equally strongly anti-soviet and pro-China."

Joe Matthews' compromised past is as much Naledi Pandor's inheritance as is the undoubted and unambiguous great historical and political role of her grandfather, Professor 'ZK' Matthews. After all, no one has a choice over who their parents are, or what their parents will be up to.

The dictates of the Pedagogy of Truth-Telling, however, require that Pandor tell us the whole truth even when blood gets thicker than water, and truths become inconvenient. This is especially true during the ANC Centenary celebrations this year.

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi is Executive Director, Centre of Economic Diplomacy In Africa (CEDIA). He is also a businessman and former diplomat.

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