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How communists paid the price and capitalists scooped the pool in post-apartheid SA

When Mandela first met with Sol Kerzner it was not, as was the case with most of his post-release meetings with big-hitting capitalist exploiters, to solicit (or more accurately, quietly demand) a large donation for black upliftment projects. Instead, the purpose was purely political. This was mid-1990, a time when it was not at all certain which way the country was going. Increasingly, the remaining apartheid laws were becoming dead letters, but in one crucial way apartheid remained in force, and that was that the various homelands, ‘independent’ or not, were still very much in existence. Mandela recognised that in order to reincorporate these territories back into South Africa proper in the post-apartheid dispensation, certain homeland leaders might need a little tactful persuasion. That included Lucas Mangope, whose Bophuthatswana had been relatively one of the more successful Bantustans and who genuinely believed he could make a go of it regardless of which way the rest of the country chose to go.

That, of course, was where Sol Kerzner came in. When Mandela first met with him, it was not to get him to sign a large cheque but to assist him in getting Mangope to co-operate in the process of reincorporating Bophuthatswana into South Africa proper. One of the reasons why the homelands experiment was somewhat less disastrous in Bophuthatswana’s case, ironically, was due to Kerzner’s very involvement. It was there that he established his Sun City hotel empire, taking advantage of the fact that being officially independent of South Africa, the normal restrictions on gambling and other designated vices did not apply. At his first meeting with Mandela, Kerzner did not skirt the issue, asking him what he had first thought when learning about the Sun City project. According to him, Mandela replied that he had felt a sense of relief that through it, thousands of jobs would be created that in turn would make life a little easier once it came to dealing with the post-apartheid economic legacy. Kerzner duly did what he could to influence Mangope to accept that change was coming and that there would be no place for independent homelands in the new South Africa.

I heard all this from Kerzner himself, when I was conducting research for our book Jewish Memories of Mandela. The book came out in August last year, and in general it was quite warmly received. However, resentment was expressed in some quarters over the fact that Jewish businessmen, who had prospered under apartheid and even in some cases co-operated with the system, were being allowed to share in the credit for South Africa’s transformation. Indeed, the latter parts of the book include a strong focus on the relationship between Mandela and various Jewish business leaders who made substantial contributions to the social upliftment projects he championed.

In thinking this over, I mulled over the stark contrast between how Jews like Sol Kerzner had experienced apartheid with how it had been experienced by Jewish activists within the ANC-led liberation movements. The majority of the latter were committed communists, lived lives of near penury and frequently endured state-sponsored persecution, including bannings and imprisonment. A great many were ultimately forced into exile, sometimes one short step ahead of the security police.

One such activist was Michael Harmel. He was one of the leading intellectual lights of the underground SA Communist Party, and probably its foremost theorist. Receiving only the barest remuneration for his efforts, he devoted his life to studying and writing on communist political theory, preparing the ideological groundwork for the workers’ utopia he and fellow Party members sincerely believed was destined to replace the apartheid regime. In Harmel’s dedication, self-sacrifice and abiding faith, there was something akin to the impoverished East European Talmudic scholar of a bygone era. Dying in the mid-1970s, he did not live to see the demise of apartheid, but at least was spared witnessing the wholesale collapse of the international communist system to which he had devoted his life.

The cruel reality is that for all the heroism and self-sacrifice of its adherents, communism proved in the main to be a gigantic exercise in futility. Little was destined to become of all the solemn party conferences, intensive and often acrimonious debates, policy papers, earnest theorising over the minutiae of Marxist doctrine and everything else associated with the movement in South Africa. Instead, when Mandela was released, it was to the hated capitalists that he went to provide the wherewithal for building a new society.

Maybe Mandela was merely being diplomatic when he answered Kerzner’s question, but that did not mean that what he said was untrue. In the end it is people like Sol Kerzner who have succeeded in making a real difference to the lives of the long-suffering proletariat, and in the areas that really count – jobs, income, opportunity, infrastructure. For the thwarted dreamers of the hard left, it must have been a very bitter pill to swallow.


  • David Saks

    David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.