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.”