Aziz Pahad: A man of uncommon interests

Aziz Pahad was, for a long time, a member of the struggle and of the ANC government, where his understanding of Afrikaans played a part in determining his policies. Erika Gibson sat down with him to speak about his life in the struggle and his latest book

Corruption and greed have alienated many supporters of the ANC, and others joined the party for the wrong reasons, according to veteran politician Aziz Pahad.

“If we do not try to understand the fears and problems of those who are disillusioned, there will be an implosion in South Africa.

“The ANC must remain in line with the citizens of the country. We dare not forget that we are the servants of our fellow countrymen. The concept of ‘batho pele’ [put the people first before your own goals] is disappearing like mist before the sun.”

Pahad, who was deputy minister of foreign affairs until he resigned in protest in 2008 after former president Thabo Mbeki was recalled by the ANC, gesticulates energetically while he sits and talks about his recently published memoirs, Insurgent Diplomat.

He is older and greyer than six years ago, just like Mbeki, but he believes he is wiser and can make a contribution to rebuilding the continent for many years to come.

He says Insurgent Diplomat is the story of himself as one of thousands of people who were part of the struggle.

Pahad wanted to publish the book as part of the 20th anniversary of democracy – partly to explain the run-up to 1994 from an ANC perspective, but also as a criticism of the mistakes that have been made since then.

“It is now time to reflect seriously on the flaws in the organisation. We must be frank and honest, and hold informed debates about issues affecting our people.”

Pahad believes there must be in-depth talks on the defects in the ANC’s leadership.

“We must talk about the fear between whites, blacks and coloureds. This was, after all, how we negotiated for months and years prior to 1994.”

Pahad had his exposure to politics at the grass-roots level when he and his four brothers were forced out of white neighbourhoods to attend Indian schools in other areas as the Group Areas Act came into effect.

At the Central Indian High School in Fordsburg, Joburg, there were “few laboratories, but lively political discourse” because of the passionate teachers, who were also key figures in the resistance movement.

After school, he went to the University of the Witwatersrand.

His friends advised him to take Afrikaans rather than English as a major because the Afrikaans professor, Professor PJ Nienaber, was known to be “racist” and it was easier to pass with him. According to Pahad’s friends, Nienaber had as little contact as possible with his coloured students and let them all pass without much regard for their knowledge.

Ironically, it was then that Pahad developed his love for Afrikaans. In his second year, NP van Wyk Louw became his lecturer.

“I learnt more about the history of the country and the language from that great man than from anyone else. It was thanks to him that years later, in July 1987 during the first meeting with the group of verligte Afrikaners in Dakar, I could surprise them with my rusty Afrikaans!”

On top of that, Pahad’s Zulu lecturer was Robert Sobukwe, the leader of the Pan Africanist Congress.

Gerard Ludi, who was recruited by South African intelligence to infiltrate the Communist Party that had gone underground after it was banned, established a human rights committee at Wits along with Pahad.

It was ironically in these turbulent times that later, as Informant 007, Ludi identified one of the security police infiltrators in student movements.

Pahad received his degree with Afrikaans and sociology as majors.

The Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when thousands of protesters marched against the pass laws, was a turning point.

Pahad and dozens of others left the country to further the struggle against apartheid from abroad and underground.

Pahad’s book colourfully sketches the lighter moments of the struggle.

For example, as a cadre of the SA Communist Party in Luanda, Angola, for six months in 1977, he desperately searched the shops looking for some curry to give his staple food of tinned meat the taste of a typical Durban curry.

Exile led him, Mbeki, his brother Essop and others to travel across continents to school themselves for the battle ahead.

They were part of a mass protest in London against the US intervention in Vietnam. Mbeki marched proudly with an ANC flag when police stormed the demonstrators.

Mbeki and a police officer wrestled fiercely when the latter wanted to take his flag away. The next moment, the officer punched Mbeki and broke a front tooth.

The future president never fixed the tooth – for him it was a symbol of the struggle.

It was also Mbeki who tried to “culture” Pahad a bit, and taught him about the music of Berlioz and Verdi, among other things.

“He was a good teacher. To this day, I love classical music and when I was in Moscow for military training, tickets for the Bolshoi Ballet were a highlight,” Pahad says.

In his book, Pahad also lifts the veil on the so-called ANC penal camps in Angola. Little is said about exactly what happened there, except that there were abuses. Some young cadres did not get out alive.

Pahad says the camps in Angola were initially well-equipped for the number of people they had to accommodate.

After the SA Defence Force’s airstrike on the Umkhonto weSizwe camp at Novo Catengue in 1979, it was completely destroyed.

“We knew someone in our ranks must have given information about the location of the camp to the army. In fact, that finally confirmed infiltrators from the South African government were beginning to undermine us from inside.

“This led to endless frustration and uncertainty, together with a lack of mutual trust. We also had to move to where the infrastructure was scarce and the area was under control of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita).

“At the same time, we gained masses of new cadres. Some of them had almost no education and arrived out of the bushes. They grew up with violence enforced by a gun. There was a lack of sufficient instructors and quality soldiers. Along with enemy agents in our midst, there was rioting and sometimes it was violently suppressed – simply because there was no other way.

“Our own investigations into the discord showed that we had completely underestimated the discontent among our own people.”

And now?

Pahad has just been appointed as one of the government’s special envoys for peace in the Middle East. He is also a member of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.

“Our democracy is only 20 years old – nation-building is a long-term process. As far back as 1991, we identified the problem that our party structures are deteriorating. We must accept that some of our best cadres were swallowed up by the business world and are not serving in the government.

“The ANC will have to work hard to improve the quality of its leadership so that people’s confidence will be restored. We underestimated the long-term effects of Bantu education, because now the ANC has too few skilled and well-educated key managers to ensure the government functions well everywhere. We also have born-free people who have little hope and are very disillusioned,” says Pahad.

“When the ANC joined hands with the Afrikaners in Dakar and during many other secret meetings in the run-up to 1994, we spoke happily about sport and the weather, and the things in our country that are common to us all. We must return to those grounds of common interest so we can build on them and advance.

“That’s partly why I wrote my book: so the youth of today can realise what sacrifices went into the struggle. That it was driven by quality citizens, not by corrupt nepotists. That same flame that still lights our way today must be ignited among our young people again. They are, after all, the future of our country.”

BOOK - Insurgent Diplomat by Aziz Pahad

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