A politician with principle


COSMAS Desmond, one of the most principled politicians I knew both during my own political activities here and abroad when I was in exile, died after a most unfortunate attack of Alzheimer’s disease that left him more or less paralysed for a long while.


Desmond was a member of the Pan Africanist Congress and a genuine Africanist and socialist in a principled manner. It has been rare for non-Africans to be members of the Pan Africanist Congress, and as a white person it was even rarer. At the time that I was getting to know him it puzzled me what had led him down this path, when so many others volunteered towards the centrist ANC. I discovered that Desmond was rooted in the fundamentals of the African situation, and that he was not blinkered by the circuitous confusions that racism has affected the South African public and politicians. He was not enamoured by idealistic notion but the reality on the ground.

Desmond did not allow his Pan Africanism to blind him to his socialist ideals on which he stood very firm. He did not separate the two.

As the PAC began to collapse after the end of apartheid he gave up in despair, as he saw that he could not make any political contribution to the numerous problems that the country was facing. He could not believe the sheer bankruptcy of the organisation that had access to an automatic mass base if it was mature enough to take advantage of its opportunities. He slowly withdrew from the political world as he realised that he had no active role to play.

Even his political writings came to an end. He had written two political books, one of which, Discarded People, was a history of land dispossession in Namibia. He was quite an expert on the land question, and PAC members often referred to him on this matter, as on other political issues. He was very scathing about talk on reconciliation when he knew that racism was still deeply rooted in the white masses.

After a stint with Amnesty International, he came to work at the London Strategic Policy Unit (LSPU) in London which was established after Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council (GLC). It was there that I got to know him better as we discussed the future South Africa we would like to see. Humble and unassuming, he had a sharp intellect that accompanied his moral integrity.

The centre stage occupied by the ANC left many talented people who did not agree with its policies isolated. In this way South Africa lost the abilities of these people who had worthy contributions to make when incompetence in the ruling party (as with its corruption) is leading us from the ideals that so many thousands valiantly sacrificed and fought for.

Desmond, of course, will not be given the sendoff that he deserves, and this, too, is a great shame. His own party is too disorganised to do that, and the ANC certainly will not give him due recognition.

The political life of Desmond in the context of the South African situation is that you can be white or Chinese, what matters is the conviction of your political truth. For Desmond it was the rehabilitation of the African masses, who comprise 90% of our population. They were the decisive factor in the construction of a transformed South Africa where the humanism of Africanism would meet both the most oppressed section of the South African population and also give equal rights and citizenship to all citizens regardless of their nationality. This is the true meaning of reconciliation, and the way forward to a meaningful nation-building.

Desmond was more truthfully Africanist than many Africans in the PAC, many of whom were political charlatans. The dismal state of the PAC today is the evidence of that. Robert Sobukwe will be turning in his grave to know what has become of the organisation. But as he said, you can even be white, as long as you stand for the rehabilitation and dignity of the African masses, you are entitled to the highest office in an African government.

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