Monday, 11 June 2007

Mac Maharaj: our own Che Guevara?

The book Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa reveals Maharaj as a striking figure of SA’s transformation and raises interesting issues for South Africanness and South African identity.

The book, authored by Padraig O’Malley, (with much of the text featuring the direct narrative of Maharaj himself) contains a remarkable foreword by Nelson Mandela. This is no standardized Madiba endorsement - one gets the sense that Mandela has engaged deeply with the text, knows the person intimately and was really moved while reading the book. Madiba describes Maharaj as a founding father of the struggle and says that Mac’s advice helped to enrich his decision-making.

The book reveals Maharaj as a distinctive character: often stubborn, not always easy to get on with, “arrogant to a fault”, proud and zealous, but always driven by the larger concern for social change and adding value through his inventiveness, boundless energy and extraordinary courage.

Mac grew up in a small KwaZulu-Natal town, Newcastle, which embodies all the homeliness and the parochialism of such places. His rebelliousness brought a major clash with his father – and caused him to head for Durban. There, he stirred opposition to apartheid practices at university, and quickly made his way into the ranks of activists.

Maharaj endured unbelievable torture at the hands of the security police – but he remained unbowed. He spent his 12 years on Robben Island organizing, planning and generally being a thorn in the side of the system. He was always at the centre of survival plans – getting news, getting access to “news”, smuggling money into the prison from abroad. Eventually, it was Maharaj who, in the eighties smuggled Mandela’s autobiography from the island jail so that it could be published.

‘Shades of Difference’ portrays Maharaj as a natural born underground operator, our very own Scarlet Pimpernel or Che Guevara. He was a master of disguise and, in the words of Mandela, “popped up in the most unlikely places”. Thoughtful and razor sharp, he knew his enemy, prepared thoroughly, and - despite being on the state’s wanted list for most of his life - provided key connections between activists in exile and in the country, those in jail and out, the armed wing and community-based structures.

Sadly, the book ends on a pessimistic note. In its closing pages, it paints Maharaj as a victim (which is completely out of kilter with the pro-activeness that otherwise always characterised Maharaj’s life). O'Malley notes that midway through penning the book, Maharaj – who had resigned as Minister of Transport in 1999 – felt that his life was falling apart. He had a major run-in with the Scorpions and was entangled in the high profile commission set up to determine whether the then head of Scorpions, Bulelani Ngcuka, had been an apartheid spy in the eighties.
Mac was in the thick of ANC infighting – and, strangely (or not so strangely given the power issues involved), when comrades fall out they can be nastier to each other than to former apartheid leaders who once gave orders to torture or kill them.

O’Malley recounts occurrences which show Maharaj's political sidelining and he argues that this came about because Mac is of Indian descent. In the last chapter, Hush! Apartheid Thoughts of a Different Kind, he brings this theme strongly to the fore. O’Malley notes that “in the new mythology (an emphasis on Africanness) there is little room for an Indian dimension, little room for the likes of Mac Maharaj. He is an anachronism, an artifact of the struggle.”

I think it’s a pity the book ends on a note of bitterness and regrettable that O’Malley insinuates that Mac’s life work has been largely in vain. While it is good that such views are aired (so we can debate them), I disagree with O’Malley. I don’t agree with such extreme views, in the same way that I reject the tone and content of Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi’s comment that the ANC can be compared to the Nazis of Hitler's day.

To be sure, I too have witnessed among some in the ANC, a worrying chauvinism, a view among some new leaders and many foot soldiers in the ANC that non-Africans can have no place in the leadership of democratic transformation. And yet … I firmly believe it is better to remain involved and engaged (with the transformation project) than to retreat into bitterness and outrage. Such bitterness is paralyzing, and retreating leaves the field wide open for such retrogressive thinking to flourish and grow in influence.

In the end, ‘Shades of Difference’ disturbs and disrupts the comfort zone of the hard core Africanist. It shows how people like Maharaj have largely shed their ethnic loyalties and embraced a commitment to justice, human rights and democracy - and that no one can deny them their place in the struggle.

‘Shades of Difference’ is a compelling book, rich in detail and insights about the freedom struggle. It helps in a small but important way to fill out the picture of where we come from, what the struggle involved and the intricate organizational dynamics of the broad liberation movement.

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