Interview: Themba Sono

"I've supported different movements at different times but that's just because times change. My values haven't."


You're known as an outspoken intellectual of independent views. But you've travelled quite a political odyssey, haven't you?

Well, I would say that I have been quite consistent in my values throughout. I've supported different movements at different times but that's just because times change. My values haven't.

Which different movements have you supported?

Well, as a high school teenager in the 1950s Sobukwe's PAC was my cup of tea. As students at Turfloop in the early 1960s we were very attracted to National Union of South African Students [NUSAS], then led by committed liberals like Adrian Leftwich and Jonty Driver. For us those were the good guys. But the government wouldn't allow us to affiliate to NUSAS.

Later, Barney Pityana recruited me into the South African Students Organisation (SASO) and I heard all about Steve Biko. I travelled down to Durban and had long talks with him. I was very impressed by his broadmindedness, the generosity and liberal spirit of his views.

Weren't you President of SASO?

Yes, that's right. I was part of the Black Consciousness movement until I left the country in 1972. I had resisted doing that before but by 1972 I felt that both black and white were rigid and stuck in their views. I went to the US then - though I travelled all around -and only came back in 1992.

In exile I supported the ANC - they were so obviously the most serious liberation movement. I badgered everyone I could on their behalf and to try to get the Nobel Prize for Nelson Mandela.

And when you returned home?

I found the new atmosphere of fanatical, self-righteous, almost religious devotion to all the major black parties - the ANC, Inkatha Freedom Party, PAC and SACP - quite repellent. One could understand such emotions existing during the struggle, but the struggle was over. I couldn't sympathise with this "partyism", this passion and exuberance for organisational identity.

The whole style was obsessive: people loved their parties the way the early Christians loved their religion and this produced a group mentality, group think, if you like. I felt very distant from all this - and I knew its dangers. I had seen how Black Consciousness had moved away from its initial broad humanity towards race consciousness and ultimately racial chauvinism. We had to stop somewhere before we drifted to a race consciousness akin to the NP's of yesterday.

You sound like a man without a party. Would you call yourself a liberal?

Yes to both questions. I'm a man without a party and I've always been a liberal with a small "I" even though I despise all labels. It is how you live your life, not what label you go by, that is the criterion of measurement.

Not everyone would understand that from your admiration for Sobukwe and Biko.

Nonsense. Sobukwe was a real intellectual, a man of total integrity and courage. He could never have been a racist. He always insisted that there was just one race - the human race. He rejected the ANC's multi-racialism with its racially separate congress movements for Indians, Africans and so on, in favour of non-racialism. He had the courage to go right against the populist current and denounce communism not only because he believed it was wrong but because it allowed the domination of an African movement by whites and Indians. He was against racial domination of any kind, just as Mandela preaches. And I have absolutely nothing against Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi either. He too has an important role to play.

But that would seem to make you an African nationalist.

I regard nationalism in the same light as tribalism, chauvinism and xenophobia. What I respected in Sobukwe was the way he stood up for African dignity; he wanted them to be proud to be Africans, not copies of whites or Indians.

Was he the greatest influence upon you?

The greatest influence was my father; then Sobukwe, Mandela and Helen Suzman. And, of course, my own extensive reading. What those four people had in common was a willingness to stand up for principle. It's not just a matter of what views you have. It's important how you live and standing up for principle takes courage.

My father had that, Sobukwe had that and so did Mandela - I attended his trial, you know, and got badly assaulted for it. The magnificent thing about Mandela was his refusal of racism. And Helen Suzman had that. She stood up for African rights against Vorster when few others.

It hasn't prevented her from being attacked by people like Jon Qwelane recently.

Such people have no political past and are trying to develop one by attacking an innocent woman. I don't remember such people condemning her when she used the same principles to stand up for them.

But Qwelane is appealing to African nationalism. That wave has swept through the whole continent. In the rest of Africa many people are now waking up from 30 years of it, as if from a bad dream. But don't you feel that we too have to go through the whole psychic experience of that too?

You need nationalism to fight colonialism. But that's gone now. We don't need nationalism now, just constitutional rights, citizenship and individual freedom. There's no such thing as social freedom, only individual freedom. If we're not all individually free, then we're not socially free.

But nationalism is still powerful.

It's a monument to apartheid. Apartheid did such damage. Many Africans still identify with it. They find "security" in group think, group rights, communal solidarity. The characteristics of group think are a tendency to moralise, an illusion of invulnerability - because the group is powerful - and a willingness to surrender all moral and intellectual judgement to the dictates of group solidarity. One reason why Africans often find it easier to get on with traditional Afrikaners than with liberals is that deep down they were convinced by apartheid, the separate "groupness" of ethnic consciousness.

Why do many Africans find liberals hard to take?

We come from a traditional culture of group-mindedness. Secondly, liberation "movement-ism" submerged the individual rights championed by liberals. It's not a matter of rejecting a philosophy - actually most Africans know perfectly well that the future is one of individual rights, a market economy and so on. But they incorporated the apartheid criticism of liberals and also accepted the communist criticism that liberals, because they wouldn't get into the trenches for violent action, were hypocrites.

But liberalism is also more of a threat to nationalism of any kind. Liberals are more rational and more formidable on actual issues. And while Afrikaner nationalists accept group rights, liberals challenge them. In, for example, the university context, genuine liberals would in general stress excellence and want appointments on merit. It's a lot easier if you can get those jobs as part of your group rights. But anyone with two marbles between their ears can see that this way of thinking is doomed.

So liberalism has to be re-interpreted by blacks?

Indeed. Africans will not accept a liberal order whose champions and paladins are all white, but in practice they want to move towards a modern liberal culture, not towards an African nationalist culture. The latter is now banal. Look around you. You see more and more African women with twin surnames: Sisulu-Guma, Matsepe-Casaburri and so on.

That would be unthinkable in traditional culture. But even those who call themselves nationalists don't want to go back to chiefly rule, to traditional courts, to African customary law, to tribal authorities. Mythologising the extended family is absurd too in an age when even the nuclear family is not holding together.

Such views won't necessarily make you popular.

True, but truly liberated and free Africans would find no threat in my views. Liberation without free expression is impossible. There is great intellectual confusion over what liberation means. Some are confused enough to think liberation means having to oppose, for instance, property rights. If Africans had had property rights what happened with Sophiatown and forced removals could not have happened.

In any case, I have seen Afrikaner intellectuals so degrade and abase themselves since 1948. Very few stood up against apartheid. Africans should not be like Afrikaners of yore and fail to stand up when their own side makes mistakes. You have to stand up when you see your own people going wrong, regardless of the consequences.

Well, the rewards for conformity are always greater.

Oh yes; then and now. And there's a price to pay for non-conformity. As Martin Luther King said, you can do what you want but you have to be willing to pay the price. Tough, but true. As the Irish writer, Mignon McLaughlin put it, every society honours its living conformists and its dead troublemakers. But, as I say, the way you live is important. I grew up in a rural area, shepherding my father's livestock in the mountains, the monarch of all I surveyed. You get a sense of freedom you never lose. And that doesn't just mean freedom to be a praise-singer.