Why Ronnie's right

Jeremy Gordin says that, for all his faults, the former minister has guts

What about Red Ron then?


You probably missed it - it was after all in the December 15/16 2012 edition, when we were all on our way to Plett for the season - but the Financial Times ran a full page review of a book titled On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present by Allan Ryan. Ryan, a professor of politics at Princeton and Oxford, has been working on the thing for about 30 years.

The review was written by a man called John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney, director of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, and, according to our trusty Wikipedia page, a man whom The Times of London has ranked as a leading political thinker and writer whose work has "world-wide importance".

"Look around," Keane begins his review of Ryan's book ... "you'll probably have noticed that disquiet and disaffection are spreading through the drought fields of democracy. Political parties and legislatures are not exactly in favour. Public disenchantment with politicians and official ‘politics' is rising everywhere..."

"Now ask the citizens of Greece, Spain or Portugal what they think about democracy: a clear majority says it's a fine ideal that feels corrupted and practically broken. Significant minorities of citizens in democracies otherwise as different as Slovenia and Chile ...say much the same thing. Some parliamentary democracies - Hungary, Israel and Ukraine among them - are breeding active disillusionment with democratic ideals ..."

All this being the case, argues Keane, it means that even though Ryan's book is "erudite, brave and clever," the book, "as a diagnosis of the present miseries of democracy or as a riposte to the critics of democracy," is "out-of-season [and] disappointingly old-fashioned."

Why? Keane offers at least three or four cogent reasons to back up his argument, but the main one is that in his view Ryan doesn't grasp what Keane calls "monitory democracy". 

"Monitory democracy," writes Keane, "was a new historical form of democracy [arising out of the war against fascism and Stalinism], one much more sensitive than its predecessors to the evils of arbitrary power ... [Monitory democracy] also promised ... the continuous public scrutiny, chastening and control of power, wherever it is exercised ... according to standards ‘deeper' and more universal than the old reigning principles of periodic elections, majority rule and popular sovereignty in constitutional form.

"Who will read this thousand-page defence of liberal democracy?" asks Keane of Ryan's book. "Busy young people will probably not find it attractive especially those with a healthy sense of fast-changing realities, a democratic attachment to new social media and a strong sense of disaffection with parliamentary politics." 

"What we do know from the history of democracy is that bold new political thinking never comes easily in periods of crisis ... which is why, in a wonderfully curious way, this book [of Ryan's] is so important. ... [It reminds us] that in this crisis, political thinking really matters, that the new dangers to democracy cannot be undone without the help of political thinkers who strive to jump over their own shadows ..."

Two points.

First off, I won't patronize you, dear readers, by labouring the point that, even though Keane was clearly not thinking too much about Seffrica, what he describes above does, mutatis mutandis, apply to Seffrica. ...

"[C]orruption and power-grabbing, factional in-fighting and mischief-making populists. There are widening gaps between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. ... A new precarious class of semi-employed or permanently unemployed people has meanwhile been born. And xenophobia and bigoted nationalism are on the rise." ... The only difference I can see is that our unemployed have been with us for decades.

Or how about this? "With jobless figures high and rising within their ranks ..., many young citizens now feel excluded from the democratic game. Their cynicism flourishes ... For many, ‘liberal democracy' is phantom democracy played by rich and powerful men trading in broken promises." ...

The only difference I find here is that the old and middle-aged in this country, as well as the young, are having to deal with broken promises.


Second point. Accustomed as I am to being a punching bag for readers and various others, not even I am going to be silly enough to suggest that Ronnie Kasrils is our new Simón Bolívar, our new Don Quixote, or is even a "political thinker" per se.

Actually Kasrils can be, let's be frank, something of a buffoon. Don't take my word for it. It was all laid out in the proverbial nutshell in this week's Q&A in the Sunday Times with Chris Barron:

For 14 years you were happy to be a well-paid minister in a government whose economic policy you fundamentally disagreed with?

Sure, I made an error.

Were you intellectually dishonest or just confused?

How on earth can you say that? I absolutely reject that.

On 15 April on Politicsweb there was also a long letter to Kasrils from RW "Bill" Johnson (see here). Johnson asked in many words what Barron asked in a few: what the hell's going on, Ronnie? How come you've done a total volte-face

Johnson also asked why Kasrils has come out of the closet now - on Jacob Zuma's watch and not before. "What is odd to me is that all this indignation is focused against the Zuma regime. Of course Zuma's corrupt and of course the government just drifts but surely you would agree that Zuma is a whole lot better than [Thabo] Mbeki?"

Well, first off it's unlikely that Kasrils would agree that Zuma is "a whole lot better" than Mbeki. There was a point - around about the time Kasrils was appointed Minister for Intelligence, if I remember correctly - that Kasrils made what people who really disliked Mbeki (Mac Maharaj, Jacob Zuma, others from Vula) considered to be "a pact with the devil (Mbeki)". They were very, very bitter. One doesn't know why Kasrils did this - or I don't; but there you are: Kasrils did it.

And Zuma knew (and knows) perfectly well that when the woman who brought rape charges against him contacted someone in Kasrils' department to tell her what had happened and to ask for advice, Kasrils did not exactly going into mourning on Zuma's behalf. In fact he was happy to transmit to the young woman the advice that she should do the right thing - i.e. charge Zuma with rape.

Secondly, I don't know where Johnson's been, but there has been a serious wholesale dive into the swill, as well as a massive falling-apart of systems and infrastructure, especially on the municipal levels, during Zuma's watch - and there have in addition been the small matters of the Marikana massacre, Guptagate, and the farcical and Kafkaesque events surrounding Nkandla. Regarding the last of these, a couple of senior card-carrying members of the ANC whom I know have seriously given up hope over Zuma and the ANC.

But this is not meant to be a debate with, or attack on, Johnson. What I want to say is this:

Notwithstanding Kasrils being a bit of a chump or, if you feel more positively, notwithstanding him being a maverick, as well as incredibly difficult to pin down ("If you don't like my principles, I have others ..." an old Yiddish joke?), he is the first and only major ANC figure (or major ex-ANC figure) to have the balls to talk about the elephant in the room.

And someone - if you consider the context sketched by Keane above and what is happening around us every day (check out the Daily Sun) - someone badly needed to say out loud and clear that people should not vote for the ANC.

No one else from inside the tent - not Maharaj, not Trevor Manuel, not anyone else with half a brain - has had the balls.

Say what you like about Kasrils - at least he's done that.

I don't know if it's going to have a major effect. Kasrils does have the problem of being white. But still, he's said it. I take off my yarmulke to him for that.

Kasrils once told me, laughingly, that maybe his surname is derived from Shalom Aleichem's notorious town of fools: Kasrilevke. Maybe. One also recalls that, ironically, the fools in Kasrilevke in the end turn out not to be so foolish after all.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter