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Trevor Ngwane © 2002


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[Editors' note: We're pleased to reprint the text of an open letter, circulated by Trevor Ngwane, following the arrest of John Pape, an activist in Southern Africa at the International Labour Resource and Information Centre , allegedly of The Symbionese Liberation Army. South Africa Indymedia has an ongoing solidarity campaign here .]

Dear Comrade Dixon

Greetings. I am happy that you are ready to vouch for Comrade John Pape's credentials in spite of everything. I cannot comment on his activities during his youthful days but I certainly can tell you about the John Pape I know. My organisation, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, is going to formally discuss the matter today and probably issue a statement and decide what further action to take on this issue. But here I want to say what I knew of John Pape on a personal and individual political level.

Comrade John was respected by many on the left in South Africa. On hindsight I can admit that he tended to work on the "quiet" side but he did not hide his politics nor stay in the shadows as media sensationalism will want to project him after "his cover was blown". I always thought he was a comrade who was averse to political grand standing, big talk and theatrics. He seemed to prefer long-term spade work, working on research and on education. He certainly did solid work as principal and rector at Khanya College. This left-wing institution has produced many leading activists and progressive left-leaning professionals in South Africa. Its work in the trade unions during Comrade John's time has been outstanding. Recently, building on John's work, the college is at the forefront of encouraging debate and discussion to find a working class way forward following the disorganisation and disorientation of left forces here due to the ! ANC betrayal and capitulation to neo-liberalism. John's latest research and publication work at ILRIG has been outstanding. He edited a seminal book on the impact of globalisation on the working class in South Africa which is arguably the clearest and most accessible academic commentary on the subject for working class activists to date.

I got to know Comrade John much better during a difficult time in my life where his support and willingness to go beyond the line of duty shone through and left a lasting positive impression of this former SLA operative on me. This was when my friend and comrade, Bongani Shingwenyane, was shot and killed by political assassins in April 1993. Then there was a spate of murders of activists to clear the way for the sell-out political settlement in South Africa. At the time Comrade Bongani was employed as a teacher at Khanya College where John was rector. The college, through John, supported the family and us friends through the bereavement in material and emotional ways far beyond what was required of them. During this time Bongani's father Jack Shingwenyane, a retired worker and lay Christian preacher, relied heavily on John and to this day regards him as his close friend and confidante. I still have the hard task of breaking the sad news to Baba Jack. Comrade John's supportive actions were not, in my assessment, calculated as part of his "cover" but he was motivated by a genuine compassion and sympathy for the deceased's family and friends. His solid active support ensured that Bongani's child and fiancee were left financially secure despite the tragic loss of a loved one. That is the John Pape I know.

I don't feel betrayed, tricked or taken for a ride with these revelations about John Pape's real identity. Instead, and perhaps strangely, I feel more respect for him. He certainly was not in a position to tell me who he really was. If he had done so he would of course had made me an accomplice which, knowing John, is the last thing he would want to do. As a Marxist I do not agree to the use of terror as a political method. I think it is counter-productive because it plays into the hands of the enemy (look how Bush was able to get away with murder in Afghanistan and is still using the momentum of the September 11 terror attacks to whip up war fever in the USA against Iraq and has unashamedly used this to win the elections). But everything Comrade John did in South Africa showed that he had broken with terrorism as a method of struggle, preferring the hard patient slog of building among ordinary work! ers, in the trade unions and among working class youth. He exchanged his guns and masks for pen and paper. He stopped living between the cracks and in the night; he built a new life, took care of his family and contributed to the struggle of the workers. He turned his back on terrorism, bank robberies and murder as a political methed and embraced the Marxist method of mass education, mass mobilisation and mass action.

Life could not have been easy for John. Living under cover is very strenuous. The emotional turmoil, the anxiety, the fabrications, the tension. But clearly John was a strong person. He managed to excel in his day job and in political activism despite everything. Twenty-seven years on the run is a long time. This and the contribution he has made in the struggle of the South African working class is enough, in my opinion, atonement for his earlier follies and sins. I personally would support a call for pardon for John Pape.

John always gave the impression of deep quiet strength, commitment and determination. His wife and children loved him because he was a good husband and father. If he spends his last days in prison they will suffer the most. But we will suffer too we in the left who regarded John as a comrade and a friend. So will his colleagues and many other people who were touched and inspired by him especially his former students at Khanya College. So will many shop stewards who studied the history of the struggle in worker education programmes organised by John.

I never met James Kilgore but I know and respect John Pape. It is because of this that I want to be counted among those who will stand with Comrade John during his hour of greatest need.

Thank you. Thank you again for taking this initiative. I will inform you soon of the position taken by the Anti-Privatisation Forum on this matter.

Wishing you all the best

Your comrade

Trevor Ngwane




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