Rowley Arenstein, friend of Mandela, supporter of Buthelezi, talks to R.W. Johnson

President de Klerk’s further instalment of reform leaves no doubt that South Africa is moving away from the era of apartheid at some speed. His speech follows hard on a truce agreement between the ANC and Inkatha – the first step towards ending a conflict which has cost some five thousand lives in Natal and on the Reef since 1985. Whether the truce will hold and whether it will stem the creeping ethnicisation of black politics remains to be seen. But Mandela’s public embrace of Buthelezi has inaugurated a new and intense phase of politicking within and between the two organisations. With Inkatha now poised to play a major role alongside the ANC in the negotiations for a new constitution, it will in any case be harder for conventional radical opinion to maintain its simple demonisation of Inkatha and its leader.

One man has a uniquely privileged insight into the two camps: Rowley Arenstein, the 72-year-old Durban lawyer who surely ranks as one of the sub-continent’s most remarkable characters. Arenstein – Rowley, as he’s always known – has been active in left-wing politics for 53 years and has been by turn a Communist militant, an organiser – through the Congress alliance – for the ANC and, latterly, an adviser to Chief Buthelezi, whom he supports on Marxist grounds. His whole-hearted support for Buthelezi would normally put him out of bounds for the Left, but even the toughest radicals have to admit, usually with equal mixtures of puzzlement and exasperation, that Rowley has more than paid his dues. He has suffered the longest period of banning (28 years) in South African history and endured the longest house-arrest (18 years), with his wife Jackie not far behind: she was house-arrested for six years, banned for 19. To this day, Arenstein remains struck off the official list of attorneys – a punitive measure by the Government which has been in force for twenty years – and has to practise from modest offices disguised as a ‘business adviser and consultant’. Nonetheless, de Klerk apart, he is one of the very few people whose calls both Mandela and Buthelezi will always take.

Rowley was one of the generation of South African Jews impelled towards the Communist Party by the shock of Hitler’s takeover in Germany. Conscious that their parents had fled to South Africa to escape from pogroms and political persecution (Rowley’s own mother had taken food to her Menshevik sisters in a Tsarist jail), many young Jews were traumatised by the fact that the pogroms had begun again – in Germany of all places – and saw the CP as the natural leader of the anti-Fascist struggle. Inside the CP Rowley mingled with figures such as Hilda Bernstein (‘the best speaker we ever had, a fantastic money-raiser. She didn’t have a particularly good political brain but she was our Passionaria’); the university teacher and future CP chairman, Jack Symons (‘He was not one for revolutionary rhetoric – he was too liberal-minded for that, which meant he ran the Party well’); the future Party leader, Michael Harmel (‘the brains of the Party and one of the laziest men I ever knew. Both things came from his private income – he didn’t have to work so he just sat around and read books’); and Ruth First (‘a tremendously able woman but very arrogant – and very tough’). He also met Joe Slovo, today the SACP leader and the dominating figure on the ANC’s team in the early negotiations with de Klerk.

Joe used to go everywhere with Ruth First [whom he married] and my brother-in-law, Barney Fahler. They were in the CP Youth League together and were virtually inseparable. Of course, Ruth was very much the dominant figure – she was clever, confident, a very strong character. Joe was very modest, somewhat unsure of himself, and kept in the background. He did not then display any of the authority he’s since come to have. When the Party told us to go and fight the Nazis both Joe and I joined up and fought in Italy – I was in the infantry, he was in the Signals. Together we set up what was probably the only Communist cell inside the South African Army.

After the war Rowley’s reputation grew apace among Africans in Natal: here was a lawyer not afraid to take on political cases, always willing to help blacks, frequently for no fee. In 1950, ahead of the passage of the Supression of Communism Act, the CP decided disband (though, naturally,s an underground SACP was soon set up) and throw in their lot with the ANC. For Rowley this meant working closely with Chief Albert Luthuli and the young man Luthuli regarded as his political son and heir, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Buthelezi had been expelled front Fort Hare University for his ANC activities and had come to work at the Durban Commissioner’s Court, the administrative experience being thought useful to the future chief. Rowley and Buthelezi became close friends, and Buthelezi had decided to become one of Rowley’s articled clerks when the chieftaincy of the Buthelezi clan was offered to him. This caused fevered discussion within the ANC: Luthuli had been brutally deprived of his chieftaincy because of his ANC activities and it seemed clear that the same would happen to Buthelezi. But the ANC were keen to have one of their militants in such an influential position – Buthelezi was to be the Zulu King’s prime minister – so he was told to accept the chieftaincy and keep his ANC activities discreet enough to stay out of trouble. ‘What made Buthelezi so popular with the ANC was that before he would carry out any “orders” from the Government he would always say that Zulu law and custom meant that he had to consult his tribe in a proper democratic fashion. White officialdom hated this and often tried to harass him.’ Rowley helped Buthelezi defeat an early challenge to his chieftaincy and became his legal adviser.

Among the ANC activists with whom Buthelezi mingled at the Arenstein house were Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu – who always visited Rowley when they came down to Durban to visit Luthuli:

The full text of this interview is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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