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:

Walter was a man of outstanding intelligence. Just the sort of man the Party was keen to recruit. He was sent off on a tour of Eastern Europe which had a tremendous impact on him. He said it was the first time he’d ever been treated like a human being. But Nelson had a greater charisma than Walter. He was, from the start, a dominating presence – but also warm and thoughtful. He and Buthelezi always got on like a house on fire. I’m nine days Nelson’s senior so I’ve always told him he has to listen to me. But the fact is I’d do anything for Nelson.

Rowley found himself becoming increasingly critical of the autocratic style of the Johannesburg-based Communists who ran the underground SACP and, through it, the ANC. ‘They tended to announce campaigns and expect the masses to follow their orders – which they didn’t. Luthuli and I took the approach that we had to wait and see what the popular struggles were and then put the ANC at the head of them.’ This they did to great effect; one photo of the time shows Rowley being carried shoulder-high by the cheering women of the Cato Manor squatter camp (who also insisted that he be made an honorary Zulu). While elsewhere ANC membership stagnated, in Natal it soared to 20,000 by 1959.

Not that this made Luthuli popular with the Jo’burg lot. I remember when Mandela came back from his tour of Africa in 1962 and wanted to report to Luthuli as the ANC leader. Joe Slovo and Ruth First were very contemptuous of this – they saw Luthuli as sidelined and rather irrelevant. Mind you. Slovo was upset about Mandela’s trip in general: ‘We sent Nelson off to Africa a Communist and he came back an African nationalist,’ he used to complain.

The crunch came early in 1960 with the Pondoland insurrection against the Government-imposed bantustan policy. The Pondos were fiercely suppressed – and naturally turned to the famous Arenstein for help.

I had to go down to Pondoland to defend all of them I could – many of the Eastern Cape Communists had been detained and since I had gone underground for the duration of the Emergency I was, in a sense, more available. When I got back to Durban a great delegation of Pondo leaders came to see me. I said: how can I help? They said: we have to have arms, give us guns. We want to fight. I said no, the ANC believes in non-violence and anyway, where would I get guns from? Then I explained to them that they were only part of a much larger movement – I explained all about the existence of the ANC and about African nationalism in the rest of Africa and how, even at that moment, Lumumba was leading the people of the Congo to independence. They were terribly impressed and went back to Pondoland and told all their people: you must join this wonderful new movement called the Congo movement.

Through the normal secret channels Rowley duly reported all this to the SACP leadership.

The result was a dramatic visit from Ruth First:

She came tearing down to Durban and was very angry. ‘How dare you tell them they can’t have guns? How can you take it upon yourself to deny them weapons?’ I was amazed and said: but non-violence is the official policy of both the SACP and the ANC. What else was I to tell them? Anyway, where on earth would we get guns from? She just laughed and said: well that might he the policy now but maybe not for much longer. And don’t worry, getting guns will he no problem. I was staggered. It was the first sign that the Jo’burg clique was considering a turn towards armed struggle, towards violence, You see, Ruth was very struck by the fact that the Conummist Parties of both Algeria and Cuba had opposed the turn to armed struggle and then got marginalised when the national movement successfully waged such a struggle. It was essential to prevent this happening in South Africa. By the sound of things they must already have been in touch with the Russians over getting arms.

And so it was to be. The Jo’burg group within the Party effectively staged a coup, decided on armed struggle and set up Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) with Mandela at its head.

Luthuli was simply brushed aside. He was told that MK was separate from the ANC, that the ANC should stay committed to non-violence but that he shouldn’t expel individual ANC members who participated in MK. They also promised him that MK would be very careful to control the way it used violence – above all, no one was to get killed. But it was in the nature of violence that people would get hurt and killed – and pretty soon that promise went out of the window.

A turning-point had been reached in Arenstein’s political life. He opposed the use of violence on principle, predicting that it would bring catastrophe to both the SACP and ANC. He resigned from the Party – which angrily insisted that he was not allowed to resign but that he was in any case expelled. This did not in any way mitigate the Government’s perception of him as one of their most dangerous enemies. His work in Pondoland earned him house arrest (‘My daughter Bess was pleased at this. “At least you won’t be going out to meetings every night, Daddy,” she said’) and two armed attacks on his house by the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK is not a South African organisation and no one knew who its ‘members’ really were – they may even have been the Security Police out of uniform. Rowley received a tip-off about the first attack and had a large contingent of ANC activists hidden in the garden to ambush the Klan. Among them was the writer Tom Sharpe, who peeped out from behind a tree at the wrong moment. He was seen by the Klan, who opened fire and then retreated, guns blazing, under a hail of sticks and stones. ‘I remember thinking, this is mad,’ says Rowley. ‘We were only armed with stones and there we were chasing after people firing guns at us. I always wondered if Tom would put it in one of his books.’

In 1962 Rowley again began to receive threatening phone calls warning that the Klan were coming to kill him, the more worrying this time because he was by now under house arrest and thus a sitting duck. Moreover, almost all those who had rallied to his defence on the previous occasion were now in jail or exile. I was an 18-year-old student at the time and had never met Rowley but was, nonetheless, one of the four people who could be found to stand guard at night outside the Arenstein house – a measure of how tight things had got. After several months of this the Klan finally attacked, and my friend Barry Higgs (who later edited the ANC paper Sechaba from East Berlin) and I had the dubious pleasure of seeing them off. It has to be said that there is no pleasure quite like watching a carload of armed men wearing stockings over their heads drive angrily away – though our pleasure was heavily diminished by the Special Branch raid (quite possibly the same men without the stockings) which took place a few minutes later. The police caught Barry and me breaking several different laws by dint of being in Rowley’s kitchen celebrating our achievement. All manner of trouble followed.

Rowley was detained without trial in 1964, subjected to ‘statue’ torture, went on hunger strike and was released. In 1966 he was sentenced to four years’ jail for ‘furthering the aims of Communism’ – ironic enough given his break with the Party, doubly so when the prosecution tried but failed to pin on him a charge of belonging to the SACP. In jail he formed a strong attachment to the SACP leader Braam Fisher – ‘one of the finest people you could possibly meet’ – and successfully waged a legal battle for the improvement of prison conditions. When he was leaving jail Braam asked him if he would promise him one thing: ‘that whatever happens you won’t criticise the Soviet Union.’ Rowley declined.

In 1970 Rowley emerged from jail to find that his worst fears for the ANC had been realised: it had been so utterly smashed that it had effectively ceased to exist – with Buthelezi a lonely exception. When Buthelezi was offered the Chief Ministership of KwaZulu he sought Rowley’s advice, and that of the exiled ANC. Both agreed that he should accept – but refuse to take independence.

Rowley, who remains an unrepentant Marxist, spent the early Seventies helping to build up a black labour organisation – the great Durban strike wave of 1973 was evidence of his success – but he maintained his links with Buthelezi. The relationship between the radical socialist Arenstein and the avowedly pro-capitalist Buthelezi raised many eyebrows, but the two men themselves never seem to have found it odd. After 1973 Rowley saw many of his dreams come true with the mushrooming of black trade unions – the nucleus of today’s powerful COSATU federation. When the giant Frame Group dismissed all its striking textile workers and the union movement in Durban seemed on the point of collapse, Arenstein put the union leadership in touch with Buthelezi – who told Frame that, since all its workers were Zulus, he would regard it as an unfriendly act if they were all dismissed. They were taken back and the textile union was saved.

The concurrence of views between Arenstein and Buthelezi was based on their loyalty to the ‘old’ ANC. Both felt that the ANC had been hijacked by SACP exiles. ‘The adoption of the armed struggle was a sort of original sin,’ Arenstein says now:

It was always pointless – and worse. One should never forget that the Boers took on British imperialism at its height and fought it to a virtual standstill: MK was never going to be more than an irritant to a force like that. But what it could and did do was to encourage a belief in ‘legitimate political violence’, with results we see all around us. But you know the SACP never analysed the thing in proper Marxist terms. If you did, you realised that South Africa was never a fascist system, not even under Vervoerd. If it had been fascist, then I agree: all you could have done was fight it with arms. But it wasn’t. It was a form of racial capitalism and you could always work within the system. In the end the expansion of the forces of production would force change. Which is what has happened. Now everybody agrees about negotiations. Even the SACP and ANC have given up the armed struggle now. They’ve come round to accepting what Buthelezi and I have been saying all the time.

How could a Marxist support the procapitalist Buthelezi? In Arenstein’s view:

Any attempts to move directly to socialism would produce disaster. White capitalism would never accept it – you’d only inherit smouldering ruins if you tried. Anyway there first needs to be a large expansion of the forces of production under a period of black capitalist rule. Buthelezi offers just such a prospect. Maybe you could have socialism in a hundred years from now, but not before.

In 1988, despite the vehement protests of the Government, Buthelezi nominated Arenstein as one of his negotiating committee with Pretoria. P.W. Botha wanted to veto Arenstein’s nomination, but Buthelezi simply said: ‘No Arenstein, no committee.’ So Cabinet ministers had their first experience of having to negotiate with a self-confessed Marxist.

We just kept telling them that we couldn’t have proper talks until they released Nelson Mandela and unbanned the ANC. Nelson knew we were working for him. When the Commonwealth Eminent Persons’ Group came out, he gave ex-President Obasanjo of Nigeria a message: ‘Tambo and Buthelezi are both my brothers.’

Arenstein’s devotion to Mandela is undimned. When Winnie Mandela was denounced by the Left for the notorious ‘Mandela FC’, Rowley offered his help – which she eagerly accepted. ‘My attitude was simple: I don’t care what she’s done – she’s Nelson’s wife.’ When Mandela was released Rowley phoned and, doubtless to the surprise of Mandela’s ‘handlers’, quickly had his call returned. ‘I told Nelson that the greatest priority had to be to stop the political violence between the ANC and Inkatha in Natal – and that to achieve this he had to meet Buthelezi. He agreed and told me to arrange such a meeting.’ Perhaps inevitably, the meeting quickly became snarled in symbolic politics: the Inkatha stronghold of Taylor’s Halt was chosen as a venue and Mandela had to back out under furious pressure from his own militants: ‘If I’d gone ahead with the meeting they would have throttled me,’ he admitted afterwards.

Not long after this breakdown the ANC-Inkatha conflict spread, murderously, to the Reef. Rowley, appalled but not surprised, felt that the fighting had unequivocally exposed the ethnic substructure of black politics. He argues, as always, from first principles.

You have to go back to Stalin’s work on the national and colonial question where he writes that ‘a nation is a historically-constituted stable community of language, country, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in the community and culture.’ Stalin – and you have to remember that Lenin worked with him on this matter – said that if any of those elements is missing, then there’s no nation. But what that means is that the Zulus are a nation, and so are the Xhosas. So are the Afrikaners and the Tswanas and the English-speaking whites. South Africa is, like the Soviet Union, a multi-national state. People like Joe Slovo and the ideologues of the ANC who talk of ‘forming one nation’ are really very dangerous. Look at India and Pakistan, at Sri Lanka, at Cyprus. If you try to override these differences and pretend they don’t exist, you get terrible violence. You have to respect what is.

There’s something you have to understand about the violence on the Reef, Rowley remarks, and that is Zulu pride. For years now the Zulus – at least the ones who support Inkatha – have felt that they were being ignored, pushed aside. The ANC have tried to claim that it is the sole authentic representative of the South African people – and yet the leadership is almost wholly Xhosa. Not long ago, in the coalmines at Newcastle in northern Natal, the miners, who were Xhosas, taunted the Zulus: when Mandela comes out of jail, they chanted, your Zulu King Goodwill will have to become his tea-boy. The Zulu miners chased the Xhosas out for that. Recent events on the Reef have again shown how the ANC has underestimated Zulu feeling, even hundreds of miles outside the Zulu homeland. King Goodwill went up to the Reef to preach peace but when he came back he said he also felt proud of the way the Zulus had demonstrated that no one could walk over them.

What to do now that violence has broken out’? ‘The problem is the same as it was in Natal,’ Rowley replies.

You can argue, if you want, about what the causes of the violence are, about who started it. But you find that whoever you speak to always says they are acting in self-defence. So it’s more sensible to concentrate on means of stopping the violence. When the violence began here in Natal I went straight away to Archie Gumede, the UDF President, and said: ‘Look, we have to have a common adjudication procedure so that when trouble occurs Inkatha and the UDF/ANC work together to bring people to book. They have to hold joint meetings and say: “violence against the ANC is violence against Inkatha, and vice versa.” ’ Archie agreed with me and in some cases in Natal – at Empangeni, for example – we have managed to bring peace by such means. But the problem always was that the UDF was so amorphous that no one would ever take responsibility for such a move – and when Archie wanted to do anything, he was always immediately made to back down.

Rowley was, of course, delighted that Mandela had finally overcome these resistances and met with Buthelezi: ‘Those two were always friends when they met in Durban in the old days. I’m sure they could he again.’ But one must remember, he warns, that Mandela as always to worry about the SACP majority m the ANC national executive and the veto this gives the Party over all such initiatives. ‘Mind you, it looks as if even the Party is split on the matter now. Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani are both Party members, but Mbeki clearly wants talks with Inkatha while Hani doesn’t.’

Rowley is a man of peace and he is, at every stage, entirely convincing. There is about him an air of rabbinical modesty and intellectually. At 72 that may seem to be natural enough, but I remember him in his forties – he was a Maoist then – and he was just the same. He quotes unself-consciously from Marx and Lenin as talmudic authorities. He admires Buthelezi and Mandela quite equally – but doesn’t believe in the cult of personality. ‘Stalin once said: “No one sees more than 10 per cent and that’s why we have to have collective leadership.” It’s one of the few things Stalin said that was correct – though he never practised it of course.’ He feels serenely confident that his views will triumph. ‘Of course here will have to be recognition of national groups. The ANC can resist all it likes, but the fact is that the Whites have the power and they von’t surrender it until Leninist principles bout national groups are accepted. Which means you can’t have simple majority rule – you have to have some power-sharing.’

So, I ask, you think de Klerk and Buthelezi are, in effect, standing out for Leninist principles against the Marxists of the ANC? ‘I wish they were Marxists,’ sighs Rowley. ‘But yes, hat’s quite a good way of putting it.’ And if hat doesn’t happen? ‘There will be no peace in South Africa until it does.’