On International Workers’ Day, ROAPE celebrates the life of activist and publisher Kevin French who died almost a year ago in South Africa. His life spanned decades of involvement in political struggles and reflected at its centre an activist who displayed immense integrity, commitment to working class politics and the relentless ability to think critically and independently.
By Vuyo Lufele, Ashley Fataar, Shaheed Mahomed, Shaheen Khan, Mzimkhulu Ngubeni
Kevin’s entry into activism in the late 1970s started at the University of Natal, when he was exposed to Marxism as a liberatory philosophy of the working class. As a young student activist in the Congress Movement, he was initially recruited by the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) to do research into the mining industry. Later while studying for a degree in Industrial Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, he wrote his dissertation on ‘South African capital restructuring: crisis and tendencies in the seventies’. For his postgraduate research he wrote a seminal thesis on James Mpanza and the Sofasonke Party in the development of local politics in Soweto.
Throughout his university days Kevin was continuously involved in numerous struggles, for example the Wilson Rowntree boycott in 1982 and the Mine Workers strike support committee in 1987. He and those around him would throw themselves into acquiring the skills to silk-screen posters and T-shirts to support worker struggles. In the early 1980s the apartheid security police began to focus on Kevin’s ‘suspicious’ activities. He was able to avoid arrest by disappearing for six months, hiding in various places throughout South Africa. Exile was not an option for him, as he always felt strongly that the struggle against the apartheid state should be fought within the country.
While at university, he developed skills in publishing. He was an enthusiastic and dedicated member of the Africa Perspective Collective. Africa Perspective, a journal published by the Students’ Representative Council of the University of the Witwatersrand, was a vehicle for the publication of original student work in the field of African studies. The journal went on to publish relevant student dissertations coming out of a variety of faculties in the early 1980s.
In the mid-1980s Kevin left university and became a full-time editor at Ravan Press, a bravely critical voice in the publishing landscape of the 1970s and 1980s. In the face of state repression and censorship coming from the apartheid regime, Ravan published challenging books in a wide range of areas, including fiction, poetry, politics, labour and academic studies, and popular history. It provided an outlet for countless writers whose work reshaped our understanding of South African society and its history. Kevin’s focus at Ravan was on the development of the Ravan Worker Series, a series of books produced in conjunction with the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU). The first two books in the series were The Sun Shall Rise for the Workers by Mandlenkosi Makhoba and My Life Struggle by Petrus Tom. Tom’s book was a rich political and cultural history of his experiences as a member of SACTU during the 1960s who went on to join the Metal and Allied Worker’ Union, a FOSATU affiliate, in the wake of the 1973 strikes.
Later on, Kevin became the editor who worked with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to bring out the immensely popular Workers’ Diary in 1986 and 1987. His passion for workers’ writing led to a workers’ poetry competition being initiated in Staffrider, the literary magazine published by Ravan Press. Kevin worked tirelessly at Ravan as an active member of the Press’s collective, devoting many weekends along with his colleagues to selling books to workers at trade union meetings; he was always enthused by the hunger exhibited by workers for literature. After leaving Ravan, in 1987 Kevin went on to start his own publishing house, Viva Books, together with his partner, Linde Woolley. They focused on making literature accessible to all South Africans, in particular by producing books suitable for newly literate adults.
Kevin’s political activism continued throughout this period. In 1986 he visited London, where he was recruited by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP-UK) to form an International Socialist Tendency (IST) branch in South Africa. As a committed socialist he seized this opportunity with both hands, but later split with the SWP. In 1988 he met with individuals who were involved in legal and illegal struggles in the ANC, Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) and Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) structures. He was involved in trade union and strike support activities throughout the 1980s. Together with some of these comrades, Kevin formed a group called the International Socialist Movement of South Africa (ISM), whose aim was to contribute to developing a working class movement that would be independent of bourgeois nationalist forces and also, in the short term, be organisationally independent of international political tendencies.
The ISM’s activities in the 1980s and early 1990s were primarily based in the East Rand, in particular KwaThema and Daveyton. The ISM held regular meetings focusing on socialist education, publishing a newspaper, Revolutionary Socialist, which became a central organising tool for drawing socialists into ongoing political discussions. Kevin led the ISM’s participation in the Conference for a Democratic Future convened by the United Democratic Front (UDF) and AZAPO in 1989. He later led the organisation’s involvement in the Conference of the Left called by the South African Communist Party (SACP) and COSATU in Crown Mines, Johannesburg in 1995. It was at this conference that he met Terry Bell, the leading member of the International Socialist (IS) group in Cape Town and a well-known writer for the first time. Discussions began around the merging of the two groups, the ISM in Gauteng and the IS in Cape Town, under the banner of the International Socialist Movement of South Africa (ISM). Kevin was instrumental in influencing the ISM to participate in the Workers List Party jointly with the Workers Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA), led by the late Neville Alexander, which was the product of talks between left groups in South Africa who decided to participate in the first democratic national elections in 1994.
Writing and publishing materials on political themes were important aspects of Kevin’s political activism. In 1989, he contributed to the international publication The Memory of May Day, in which he wrote the ‘Workers’ Day in South Africa’ section, outlining the long history of celebrating Workers’ Day or May Day in South Africa spanning the period from 1904, when class-conscious immigrant workers held a procession and meeting in Market Square, Johannesburg, to May Day celebrations in the 1930s and 1950s as well as in the late 1980s. Kevin also worked as the distributor of Searchlight South Africa, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a journal that aimed to recover the radical and communist history of South Africa.
Kevin chose to start a family late in life, in 1994, as he and his partner, Linde, had wanted to devote themselves solely to the struggle. But Kevin became a father with the same energy, love and commitment he had shown politically. He was a youthful, energetic and incredibly engaging father.
As a committed socialist, Kevin believed in the capacity of the working class to bring about fundamental change in society. This was shown in his activities during this period. South Africa activist Salim Vally recalls:
Kevin was very supportive of the struggles of workers in our union CCAWUSA (the Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time CCAWUSA was the third-biggest union in the country and known for its militancy and for being adamant about working class control, accountability and class independence. When this union was attacked by state repression, the bosses and undemocratic elements in the union, we could rely on Kevin’s unstinting material and political support to defend CCAWUSA. As I was the education officer of the union, Kevin assisted greatly in various ways including donating the wonderful and accessible books he and his partner Linde produced. Kevin’s political organisation worked closely with WOSA to form the Workers List Party in 1993.
Through Kevin’s input and tactical advice, the ISM became involved in two new formations in 2012, the Democratic Left Front (DLF) and the United Front. The DLF was an attempt to build a serious and credible alternative to political parties. Its aim was to argue for politics from below, in order to unite the struggles of the working class. It was there that he met comrades in other socialist organisations. By that time, he had moved together with his family to live in Cape Town.
Working in the trade union and political education committees of the DLF, alongside Ashley Fataar, Kevin demonstrated his lack of political sectarianism. However, the DLF’s resources came under the control of NGOs, and both Kevin and Ashley felt that their political energy was being stifled. It was in the United Front that Kevin met a wider group of comrades who he felt were genuine about building a real alternative. The United Front had been initiated by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). This was part of the realignment of socialist politics that took place after the Marikana massacre of 2012.
In 2015, Kevin was arrested along with Markus Trengrove, Nathan Taylor, Chumani Maxwele, Kgotisi Chikane and Lindsay Maasdorp during the Fees Must Fall uprising that had been initiated by students at universities across South Africa. These activists had separately forced their way into the parliamentary precinct in Cape Town. They were detained overnight in Bellville, a suburb of Cape Town, and were interrogated by the Hawks (a police investigative unit), then charged with high treason. These charges were later withdrawn. The ‘Bellville Six’, as they became known, were part of a wider group of 29 students who were arrested that day.
In 2018 Vuyo Lufele, the Western Cape NUMSA Regional Secretary, invited Kevin along with others to join a provincial steering committee to begin setting up the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) in the Western Cape. Kevin participated in this initiative with great enthusiasm, coming up with the idea of establishing a provincial working group which would co-ordinate work among all the provincial steering committee meetings. This idea made it easier to establish branches in the Western Cape.
Kevin called for the establishment of an education unit in the party in order to empower the branches. He felt that education should be done in small groups as he wanted comrades to participate more fully in the education programmes. He always valued everyone’s contribution during political education. Disseminating socialist literature, and at times rewriting texts to make them more accessible to working class comrades, was always a priority for him. Kevin, along with other comrades, was the first to pilot political education for the SRWP in Philippi which was later rolled out to other branches. He led the drive to produce badges, T-shirts and banners which assisted in giving branches a presence within their communities.
Kevin argued that Khayelitsha, a huge informal housing settlement in Cape Town, was the home of the working class in the Western Cape, and so it was there that socialists should organise. He galvanised an informal grouping of socialists in the area and held discussions with them; out of this the first branches in the area were set up. At branch inductions and launches, he spoke passionately and clearly on why the working poor needed a working-class party. Khayelitsha led the way in setting up branches, and as a result formed the province’s first sub-district. Kevin also travelled to Saldanha Bay, George and Plettenberg Bay to assist in setting up branches there. He became the first head of a provincial political education unit of the SRWP and helped to draw up theoretical topics and produce reading material for political education classes in all provincial districts where the SRWP set up branches, carrying out political education passionately.
Shaheen Khan recalls that ‘Kevin remained true to his principles and beliefs until the very end. While many persons who consider themselves as freedom fighters fell by the wayside through fatigue, faintheartedness, or plain desertion − in his famous words, “made peace with the ruling class” − Kevin never lost faith in the struggle for freedom, justice and an equitable distribution of wealth in society and in the Socialist future.’
Kevin spent his life in protests and socialist politics. Though he was never satisfied with protests alone, he attempted – for many decades – to build movements and develop continuity between different struggles. He knew that the only way to sustain the gains won in struggle was in transforming society fundamentally. Kevin was a revolutionary socialist to his last day.
Vuyo Lufele has been a Regional Secretary of NUMSA since 2009. Vuyo is also the interim provincial facilitator of the SRWP in the Western Cape province. Vuyo has been a trade unionist for more than a decade. He has also been a provincial leader of the United Front.
Ashley Fataar has been active as a socialist since 1989 in Zimbabwe. He now lives in Cape Town and is also a member of the International Socialist Movement.
Shaheed Mahomed is a member of the SRWP Western Cape interim Provincial Steering Committee. He is also a member of Workers International and has been a trade unionist and an organiser of unemployed workers. Whilst a University lecturer, Shaheed helped students in the Fees Must Fall protests and was dismissed for this. He is a well-known workers rights and community activist in Cape Town.
Shaheen Khan is a member of the Central Committee of the SRWP and serves on the interim Provincial Steering Committee in the North-West Province. Shaheen was a member of the national co-ordinating structure of the United Front and he was also the co-ordinator of the UF in the North-West Province. He has been active in left-wing politics for the past 40 years or so; serving as a legal advisor to the trade union movement, participating in various political parties and organizations, part of the leadership structure of the Reform Puk #feesmustfall movement at Potchefstroom University etc. He lives in Potchefstroom and is active in the local struggles there.
Mzimkhulu Ngubeni’s political background is the Black Consciousness movement. He was a member of Azasm and Azapo in the early 1980s and became a member of ISM 1989 after he was recruited by Kevin. He is presently a member of the SRWP, deputy chairperson of Ekurhuleni District and also Regional Chairperson of Ekurhuleni United Front.
Featured Image: a portrait of Kevin French by his daughter Lara.