Image: 123RF
Image: 123RF

While Peter Bruce was in conversation with Jacques Pauw at his book launch of "The President's Keepers" at Exclusive Books Hyde Park, the lights went out.

While Nomboniso Gasa was in conversation with Ronnie Kasrils as his book launch of "A Simple Man" at Love Books in Melville the lights came on. At least for me.

Ronnie's account of the fallout between himself and his former comrade Jacob Zuma reminded me of the fallout between Olive Schreiner and Cecil John Rhodes.

Olive Schreiner initially idolised Rhodes, and developed a chemistry with him of a particular compound. No other woman came close to cracking the formula.

“An accident to him would, I believe, mean the putting back of our South African development for fifty years,” she wrote to a friend when Rhodes was travelling in Mashonaland. When she heard he had returned safely she was relieved, but shortly afterwards woke in the night and found herself, ‘standing on the floor in the middle of my room, crying and wringing my hands. I’d dreamt that I saw Rhodes walking by with his old big felt hat on, drawn down very low over his head, and an overcoat on and his head sunk very low between his shoulders. I ran up to him and stood before him. He did not speak a word, but he opened his overcoat and as he turned it back I saw his whole throat and chest covered with blood and his face ghastly pale, like a dead person’s; he said nothing…”

Sometime later she learned that Rhodes had fallen off his horse and been badly bruised. It turned out to be an eerie omen of future troubles, and perhaps a window into the condition of his soul.

Things soon took an ominous turn when Rhodes began to show his true colours by supporting the notorious “Strop bill” which would have mandated rural magistrates to order the flogging of disobedient farm labourers. Schreiner and Rhodes disagreed strongly over the bill and she was never to see Rhodes in the same near-worshipful way again.

The Strop Bill preceded a political crisis. The media exposed one of Rhodes’ cabinet members, James Sivewright for awarding an 18-year monopoly contract (for the sale of food and beverages for all trains and stations of the expanding Cape rail routes) to a personal friend, James Logan, without putting it out to open competitive tender. The liberal members of his cabinet, John X. Merriman, James Rose Innes and Jacobus Sauer, threatened to resign unless Rhodes fired Sivewright. He refused to do so and instead manoeuvred to rid himself of the conscience-pricking liberals. He dissolved his cabinet and formed a new government without them.

A correspondent for The Cape Times, Vere Stent, lamented the departure of the liberals:

“High honesty, and a nice sense of honour, brilliant biting wit, and moral courage, erudition and fearless criticism, [all] left Rhodes’s cabinet, and the door was open for sycophancy, opportunism and time-serving.”

By 1892 Olive Schreiner, could no longer tolerate Rhodes’ lack of moral scruples. She met Rhodes and Sivewright in a final confrontation at Matjiesfontein station. Afterwards she wrote to her sister, Ettie,

“We had a talk, and my disappointment at Rhodes’s action was so great that when both he and Sivewright came forward to shake hands, I turned my heel and went home. I saw that he had deliberately chosen evil. The perception of what his character really was in its inmost depths was one of the most terrible revelations of my life. Rhodes, with his gift of genius … and below the fascinating surface, the worms of falsehood and corruption creeping.’ (Quoted in Meredith, M., Diamonds, Gold and War.)

Back to the present.

Ronnie really knows how to engage his audiences with challenging responses. When asked if he was still a communist, he responded by asking if the Christians in the audience were still followers of Jesus Christ. He then gave an exegesis on the Sermon on the Mount (without explicitly quoting chapter and verse) that would not have been out of place if spoken from a church pulpit.

Ronnie had correctly surmised that there were a number of Christians in the room because before proceedings got underway, we had a moment of silence to remember the former Catholic priest and Liberation theologian, Chris Langeveld, who died on 2nd November.  One of his mourning congregants, in words that echoed loudly with those of Olive Schreiner more than a century before, had eloquently challenged Ronnie for being part of a collective within the ANC who had not only seemingly negated the values and principles of the liberation struggle, but had facilitated Jacob Zuma’s ascendency to power, and with that, the abuse of women.

“Red” Ronnie fully took the chastisement and reminded us that is was only in 1956, that Stalin was finally denounced by the Soviet Communist Party.

“The delegates did not dare even to look at each other as the party secretary piled one horrifying accusation on another for four solid hours. At the end there was no applause and the audience left in a state of shock.”

Not many historians would bracket Rhodes, Stalin and Zuma in the same category of hubristic despots.  I do.

Now, as I read Ronnie's book, I put Ronnie and Olive Schreiner in a kindred category: prophetic voices that hubristic despots will always ignore, but whom those who elect such leaders into power must never fail to do.  That is what democracy is for.  A remedy and antidote to the intoxication of power.  

Three years after Rhodes' cabinet scandal, the worms broke through the once “fascinating surface” when Rhodes was forced to resign after his participation in the Jamieson fiasco was laid bare.

Rhodes was impenitent and vowed to be back. The ousted liberal members of the cabinet hoped that British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who had started out well with Rhodes, but who eventually hated him, would assist their efforts to expose Rhodes for what he was.

Just as Schreiner advised the sacked John X Merriman to take a principled stand against Rhodes, so Ronnie relates in his book how, in July 2005 in a meeting in the Communist Party Headquarters with Blade Nzimande, Gwede Mantashe, Jeremy Cronin, Yunus Carrim, Ben Martins and Buti Manamela, he tried to do the same with respect to Jacob Zuma.  Mantashe and Manamela dismissed the criticism of Zuma’s conduct as a construct of “bourgeois morality” and the “mainstream media”. 

Ronnie writes.

“Oh, come on,” I interjected, “comrades Gwede, Buti, if you are speaking of bourgeois morality, the word you are looking for is hypocrisy.  But don’t imply there’s no such thing as morality.  What are we about, from Marx to Lenin to Che Guevara, is revolutionary morality.  We are not the corrupt bourgeoisie hypocritically attacking Zuma over his morals.  As revolutionaries we should be in the fore, taking him to task as a corrupt and immoral leader and consequently the corrupter of others.  He is a dangerous man”. 

He was unsuccessful. The SACP could not face the inconvenient truth that the worms of falsehood and corruption had become endogenous to the revolutionary movement itself. 

I wonder if Ronnie may have had more success by drawing inspiration from Schreiner's advice to Merriman.  She said that Chamberlain “would only do what is best for himself’ and urged him not to pin his hopes on any enlightened or principled intervention from the British Imperial government.

“Yes, I have no doubt Sivewright has a hold on Rhodes! There must be many men who have. Rhodes's career will probably come to an end forever, when one of his confederates in evil is so filled with anger that he refuses to be bought & speaks the truth.”

By way of atonement Ronnie told us that at the end of Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 a lone voice at the back of the vast hall piped up: "So where were you in that time. Why did you not question what was going on? "

To which Khruschov rejoined: "Who said that?"

After a long silence the Soviet Premiere stated: "Just like you I hid myself."

Ronnie has come out of hiding, and must be applauded for writing a book that I believe will nerve young politicians to speak up at the very first signs of hypocrisy, scapegoating and denial.

For the rest of us, those who elect them, lets take this insight of Schreiners to heart.

“But after all - the old sorrow comes back again. We fight Rhodes because he means so much of oppression, injustice, and moral degradation to South Africa; - but if he passed away tomorrow there still remains the terrible fact that something in our society has formed the matrix which has fed, nourished, and built up such a man”.

Will we ever exorcised that “something in society”.

A prophet is never loved in his or her own country, nor appreciated in his or her own time. In 1923, three years after Schreiners death, a writer, Moore Ritchie, had begun to appreciate her for being “incontestably the most formidable interpretive intellect that South Africa has produced” stating,

 “Most remarkable to anyone who knows latter-day South Africa is the author's apparent gift of prophecy; her forecasts written in most instances not less than a quarter of a century ago have all come true to-day. But then to prophesy is only to possess the gift of thinking so deeply and so logically as to be able to pronounce the outcomes of one's conclusion. ...' (Moore, Ritchie, 1923, Olive Schreiner on South Africa, The Bookman September 1923, pp284-5)

He was referring to the outbreak of war, the entrenching of racial injustice in the Union of South Africa, the passing of the 1913 Land Act all of which were the ominous fulfilment of what Schreiner said to John X. Merriman in the rest of her 1897 letter;

“It is the far future of Africa during the next twenty-five or fifty years which depresses me. I believe we are standing on the top of a long down-ward slope. We shall reach the bottom at last, probably amid the [outbreak] of a war with our native races (then not the poor savage but generous races whom we might have bound to ourselves by a little generosity & sympathy - but a fierce & half educated much brutalized race, who will have their own).

I see always that day fifty or sixty years hence; & it is with reference to it that I judge of many things in the present. The men to come after us will reap the fruits of our "native policy", as we today in a smaller fashion are reaping the fruits of the "Dutch Policy" of sixty years ago. One tenth of the consideration that the Dutch have wrung from us during the last 15 years, yielded them from motive of humanity & with sympathy & respect, would have blended us into one people emotionally long ago.’

While listening to the lively discussion at Ronnie's book launch, it occurred to me that perhaps we will only "save this blessed land", as his inscription to me says, if we go deeper and heed that extraordinarily prophetic advice.

A Simple Man contains a very simple truth.  We have allowed the proliferation of too much rotten matter for the worms to feed on. 

However, as bad as Zuma may be, the one big difference between 1898 and 2017 is that over the past 20 years another 'matrix' has formed - the Bill of Rights and a modern democratic Constitution. 

It means that Zuma will be the last despotic ruler we shall see, so long as "we the people" realise that the bill of rights belongs to us, not to politicians or the parties that elect bad men to lead them.

John Clarkes book The Promise of Justice can be ordered online from, or in e-book from 

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