Portrait of a revolutionary as a young man

Jeremy Gordin reviews "Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel" by Ronnie Kasrils

Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel by Ronnie Kasrils. Jacana Media, 2019.

Ja-nee, during the past week, while reading Catching Tadpoles, I have written, between load-sheddings, roughly 1 500 words about the book, or rather about Kasrils. But none of these words will appear here. Why?

Several reasons, I guess. Given that 40 years ago we were fellow Yeoville-dwellers, home of the Kasrils family, I have obviously been thinking of gorgeous “Sha-Sha Robe” (Sharon Rohrbeck), who worked for some months in “my” department (Business & Industry) at the FM. As she sallied forth from the office to do interviews she’d shout cheerily: “Got to kill ‘em with kindness, Gords, got to kill ‘em with kindness.”

Also, it seems my daily, personally administered anger management course is working a little; Kasrils is 81 years old; and Kasrils is ostensibly so well pleased with himself, why, I ask you, be a killjoy during this season of goodwill? And, to be fair, Catching Tadpoles is about Kasrils’ first 20 years or so on Earth and therefore has little to do directly with his later “career”.

Anyway, I’m in influential company by being well-disposed towards this book. Kasrils and his publishers are not ones to bring a knife to a gunfight; and there are shout-outs at the start of the book from the great and good of Seffrican letters.

These include Richard Poplak, Mark Gevisser, Jeremy Cronin, Ashwin Desai, Z Pallo Jordan [shurely shome mistake? – editor], Eusebius McKaiser [shurely shome ‘nother mistake? – editor], Breyten Breytenbach, and Mongane Wally Serote. Well, as far as I’m concerned, if Rauten Rautenbach (Wopko Jensma’s affectionate name for Breytenbach) and Cronin have good things to say about the book, I’m not going to argue – much.

Besides, what kind of person would want to carp about tadpoles, especially as this book ends with Kasrils proclaiming joyously that “[a]t 80 I am a bullfrog swimming in an ocean of hope. For the greater part of my life I have been swimming with dolphins (p. 268).” [1]

So right away let me say that Catching Tadpoles: The Shaping of a Young Rebel is an entertaining and charming memoir. Wragtig.

Luckily for potential Kasrils nay-sayers, or maybe for Kasrils, or for everyone really, this book, as I have mentioned, deals only with Kasrils’ life from birth until 1960 – when he was, as they say, “radicalised” by the Sharpeville massacre and soon after joined the ANC and SACP.

It’s fun and warm and filled with the joie de vivre of the Kasrils family and Ronnie’s coming-of-age experiences, all of which paint a vivid picture of life in Seffrica, especially Jewish Seffrica and especially Yeoville and Johannesburg, in the 40s and 50s.

By the way, I find Kasrils’ relationship with his Jewishness, which is inescapably a large part of this swatch of his life, quite interesting. On the one hand, he embraces it warmly – his family were Jewish, his main friends and mentors were, as is he. On the other hand, he becomes increasingly “atheist” and anti-Israel as he grows up – spending several pages venting his spleen at the propaganda, etc. purveyed in Jewish youth groups to which he belonged as a teenager (though no one forced him to join them).

This bifurcated attitude is not these days very unusual among Jews, particularly among those who, besides choosing secularism, have embraced Marxism or variants thereof and/or the cause of Palestinian “justice”. But what’s interesting about Kasrils is that he nonetheless remains so intrinsically Jewish; and moreover, he evinces annoyance/hurt at other Jews who’ve taken offence at his views, instead of accepting that you mess with the Zionist (and Orthodox) at your peril, even if you’re a nice Jewish boy with an engaging smile. The Zionist and Orthodox have plenty of those of their own [2].

As one progresses into the second half of the book, in which Kasrils deals with what he “should do” in life (he’s bored stiff with law studies, much preferring partying among the “bohemians” of Hillbrow), thinks sombrely about Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism, writes poetry, and makes what ends up being a disastrous and ill-considered marriage – well, I felt myself warming to Kasrils. Wragtig. For it is a heart-warming tale.

Kasrils doesn’t deny being what my mother would have called a “crazy, mixed-up kid” – and his “struggles” with the meaning of life and encounters with the fairer sex (if you’re still allowed to call them that) evince sympathy and even affection.

Of course, Catching Tadpoles could have easily gone, as it were, in another direction. Apparently Kasrils’ publishers – it had nothing to do with him, LOL (p. xv) – made it clear that the point of the book was to show “whites, who did not take your route and blacks, both young and old, but particularly the ‘born frees,’ ... why someone like you would give up your privileges for, effectively, their sake,” and moreover it was apparently also made clear to Kasrils that his story has a “universal message,” presumably like the Bible or Das Kapital.

Also, given that the sub-title of the book is The Shaping of a Young Rebel (read: “The Shaping of an ANC revolutionary”), there could have been a great deal of unalluring didactic stuff. And I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t any at all.

But thank heavens, Kasrils loves the sound of his own voice and keeps taking centre stage in his inimitable way; consequently, Kasrilian explanations of Marxist theory or suggestions of how SA can be fixed are hard to find. And though Kasrils does take himself enormously seriously, the plain stuff of real life keeps getting in his way.

My favourite passage in the book is, at the end, a letter from Kasrils’ beloved grandfather Abe Cohen, sent to Kasrils when Ronnie was in exile (p. 266). This is what it said:

“Dear boy, I am happy you made good your escape thanks to God. These meshuganas would have strung you up. ...My considered advice is stop being meshuga yourself. Get out of politics. Find an honest career. ... It will help you settle down and raise a family. Politics is a dirty game. These ANC people you are helping won’t thank you in the end. Last piece of advice and I won’t bother you anymore. Get out of Africa. Go to America. Make your fortune there.”

Kasrils doesn’t tell us what his answer would be now. I suppose the rest of the Afterword is presumably his attempt at a reply. But I have the feeling that smart, witty and humorous Abe Cohen wouldn’t find it all that convincing.

“Tadpoles,” by the way, are Kasrils’ metaphors for the memories and experiences that he reproduces in this book. I read somewhere that in Ancient Egypt, a hieroglyphic representing a tadpole was used to denote the value of 100 000.

Don’t know about 100 000, but I’d give Red Ron 7/10 for this one.

End notes:

[1] A silly mini tadpole can be found on p. 60. Kasrils writes that one of SA’s “favourite [rugby] players was Okey Geffen ... [who] was a big man who played flank forward and took the penalty kicks.” Even the greenest of rugby neophytes knows Geffen played prop – and only prop. But, hey, not even Kasrils can know everything, though he often likes to suggest he does; and why would Alison Lowry, apparently the editor of this book, and a very highly acclaimed editor too, be expected to know about rugby? A more serious tadpole can be found at end note 33 (p. 274) where Kasrils completely airbrushes Jock Isacowitz out of the Springbok Legion; this is in line in with the general Commie airbrushing out of Isacowitz (because he wasn’t a party member) – but still, play fair, Ronnie.

[2] Kasril’s attitude reminds me of an anecdote/joke I read recently. “An Afro-American man was sitting in a subway in New York, wearing a black hat, thick glasses, clothed in black, head to toe, with earlocks, reading the Yiddish-language Forverts. A Jewish Hasid gets on the subway, and he can’t believe what he’s seeing. After squirming about a bit, finally his curiosity gets the better of him and he asks his neighbor: Ir zayt a yid? (‘Are you a Jew?’). The other man looks up from his Forward and says, dolefully: Dos felt mir nokh (‘That I need like a hole in the head’).”