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If the SA Com­mu­nist Party (SACP) got a rand for ev­ery time Jeremy Cronin used the word ‘okay’, it would have more than enough money to con­test the gen­eral elec­tions on its own, which many del­e­gates at the party’s con­fer­ence this week de­manded. On the side­lines of the con­fer­ence that saw Cronin step down from his po­si­tion of first deputy gen­eral sec­re­tary – hav­ing served in that po­si­tion for al­most 20 years – Cronin took some time out to walk me through his jour­ney.

Af­ter ev­ery few sen­tences, he looks up from his en­thu­si­as­tic nar­ra­tion, “Okay?” he says.

I don’t think it is a clutch word – it is a way to gauge whether or not I am grasp­ing what he is say­ing. It is the ac­tion of the teacher he would have been, had he not been en­ticed into a life ded­i­cated to an un­der­ground move­ment as an 18-year-old stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town.

He ad­mits that, although he grew up as a “poor white”, he was aware of the priv­i­leges he still en­joyed as part of the apartheid regime’s white wel­fare state.

Cronin was raised in Cape Town by his mother af­ter his dad died when he was still young.

Part of the rea­son Cronin (67) joined the strug­gle was out of guilt as a young, white male.

“What also in­spired me about the com­mu­nist party in South Africa is that there had al­ways been this deep non­ra­cial­ism. There were out­stand­ing white com­mu­nists and there were out­stand­ing African com­mu­nists and for a young white, that was en­cour­ag­ing,” he says with great nos­tal­gia.

He hints nu­mer­ous times dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion at dif­fi­cul­ties of be­ing white and in the lib­er­a­tion move­ment.

“He was gen­uinely non­ra­cial, which is not easy. Many black com­rades are non­ra­cial, but it is not nec­es­sar­ily in their guts,” he says of the late Chris Hani.

Cronin’s first real sense of be­long­ing to South Africa was when he was ar­rested in 1976 and re­ceived much sup­port from black peo­ple.

“When I fi­nally got ar­rested– if I can speak on an emo­tional level – what was won­der­ful was the strong, black sup­port when we were three whites on trial. And I sud­denly felt, although I was a cit­i­zen, that I was now be­com­ing a cit­i­zen of South Africa.”

When he was sen­tenced to seven years in prison, the judge is re­ported to have said to him: “As far as you are con­cerned, Cronin, I get the im­pres­sion from the po­lit­i­cal state­ment you made from the dock yes­ter­day that you are quite un­re­pen­tant. I do sup­pose that the prison sen­tence I am go­ing to give you is go­ing to re­form you.”

The blue-eyed, now sil­ver-haired ac­tivist did not un­dergo the kind of re­form the judge had in mind. Upon his re­lease, he sim­ply went back to the streets.

His ex­cite­ment builds as he gets to the part where the SACP was un­banned, along with other po­lit­i­cal for­ma­tions, and tough ne­go­ti­a­tions be­gan.

“I think the party played an im­por­tant and of­ten un­ac­knowl­edged role in the ne­go­ti­a­tions,” he says of the SACP in the 1990s.

While Cronin has stepped down as an of­fi­cial, he will con­tinue to serve as a mem­ber of the cen­tral com­mit­tee. “This is not an exit in­ter­view.”

A name that re­peat­edly passes Cronin’s lips is that of for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki. It is clear there is no love lost be­tween the two. The for­mer deputy gen­eral sec­re­tary falls short of call­ing the for­mer pres­i­dent a coward in re­call­ing how Mbeki failed to muster the courage to stand by sun­set clauses that he claims Mbeki sup­ported, leav­ing Joe Slovo to take the fall.

In 1998, when the SACP – along with Cosatu – ex­pressed con­cerns with Mbeki’s Growth, Em­ploy­ment and Re­dis­tri­bu­tion (Gear) macroe­co­nomic pro­gramme, Mbeki said: “None of us should go around car­ry­ing around the no­tion in our heads that we have a spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity to be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary watch­dog over the ANC.”

Cronin re­sponded, say­ing the SACP was not a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary watch­dog ... snap­ping from the stands”.

He added that the SACP would re­main in­de­pen­dent with the “courage of con­vic­tion”.

In 2002, Cronin’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer hung by a thread when he again faced off with Mbeki, this time for al­lud­ing to a “Zanu­fi­ca­tion” within ANC struc­tures where peo­ple could not openly air their views. Cronin was forced to apol­o­gise. In a veiled warn­ing to Cronin at the time, Mbeki said: “In the event that such per­sons feel they have ir­rec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences with the or­gan­i­sa­tion, they have an obli­ga­tion to re­sign and then act as out­side crit­ics and op­po­nents.” On re­grets of his ten­ure, Cronin pointed to a per­sonal loss that also stemmed from the Mbeki beef. “Pol­i­tics can be tough and along the way I have lost some close friend­ships. One of my close friends from prison was Ray­mond Sut­tner who was also an in­tel­lec­tual part­ner. In the case of Ray­mond, he was deeply un­happy, essen­tially about the de­ci­sion the party took at Polok­wane around [Pres­i­dent Ja­cob] Zuma. The break­down had come a lit­tle bit ear­lier, but in re­lated mat­ters, he felt that I had not stood firmly enough and maybe I didn’t.

“I was pub­licly known as not be­ing happy with Mbeki, but I was not a huge fan of Zuma, whom I had worked with at Lusaka, not with­out some re­spect, but I knew then that he was not en­tirely un­com­pro­mised as a per­son.

“I think peo­ple like Ray­mond, but not just him, felt that I did not play a suf­fi­cient role within the party in stand­ing up to that.”

With the SACP nowa­days gun­ning for Zuma at ev­ery turn, the party is con­stantly hav­ing to de­fend the sup­port role it played in prop­ping him dur­ing the ANC’s wa­ter­shed con­fer­ence in 2007.

Still Cronin main­tains there are no re­grets around Mbeki’s re­moval and that the Zuma era has not been all bad and has pro­duced “some pos­i­tives”.

“When you have a mar­riage of con­ve­nience, what hap­pens af­ter­wards is tu­mul­tuous and it has been. Quite early on we ran into those is­sues.”

Speak­ing of mar­riage, dur­ing the first year of his seven-year sen­tence his first wife died and he couldn’t at­tend her fu­neral or grieve prop­erly. He started writ­ing poetry to work through his grief from prison.

His poetry now forms part of the ma­tric syl­labus, some­thing he seems re­ally proud of.

Cronin looks for­ward to do­ing more lec­tur­ing and writ­ing with the ex­tra time he will have on his hands. He doesn’t plan on go­ing back to Par­lia­ment in 2019.

“I miss read­ing, teach­ing and be­ing among in­tel­lec­tual peers. I miss the Cape moun­tains and the beach.”

Jeremy Cronin

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