Never make peace with the enemy: remembering Kevin French - ROAPE
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Never make peace with the enemy: remembering Kevin French

Never make peace with the enemy: remembering Kevin French

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.

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5 Comments
  • Antonio Neto
    Posted at 13:55h, 01 May Reply

    Dear friend:

    I read the text about Kevin. It was a pleasure. Kevin is an internationalist example for many people who are discovering the need for a new society.

    “Never do like peace with the enemy” is a phrase that can seem ultra leftist today. But, the problem today is not ultra leftism, it is opportunism. Many Marxists today only claim Marx on holiday days.

    Internationalism has become something eccentric.

    Long live Kevin’s class and internationalist ideas.

    NETO/PSTU/BRAZIL

  • Koketso
    Posted at 14:04h, 01 May Reply

    Socialism from below is the beginning of understanding class struggle history, May his Presence Rest in Power!

  • Peter Dwyer
    Posted at 22:59h, 01 May Reply

    I never got to meet Kevin whilst living in South Africa but I really wished I had. What a fantastic obituary. There are not enough who get their hands’ dirty’ right to the end in the daily nitty gritty of building branches in working class areas. Popularising political material is such an incredibly difficult and much under valued skill.

  • Linde
    Posted at 09:13h, 13 May Reply

    This is a tribute to Kevin that was sent through for his memorial last year:

    Dear comrades
    On behalf of Socialist Alternative in Australia, I would like to pass on our condolences on the death of comrade Kevin French.
    I was lucky enough to meet comrade Kevin in 2016, when I visited Cape Town and stayed with him and his family, but I was well aware of him some years beforehand.
    Kevin was an indefatigable fighter for socialism in South Africa. While many fell by the wayside after the heights of the struggle in the 1980s and early 1990s, despondent that things had not turned out the way that they hoped, Kevin stayed true to the cause. Right until his dying days, when he knew he had not much time left, Kevin gave the struggle his all, helping to pass on to new generations of activists the knowledge that he had gathered as a result of his political endeavours over a period of 40 years.
    Kevin’s political struggle was not an easy one. Being a socialist in most times puts you in a minority and forces you to fight your corner against capitalist adversaries in the education system, in the media, in the workplace, along with the entire apparatus of the state. But in South Africa, where Stalinism and nationalism of various stripes have long been dominant on the left, Kevin’s struggle for genuine socialism – the self-emancipation of the working class – ensured that he had to fight against those who used socialist language to sell a very different kind of politics. Unfortunately, those politics triumphed, leading the heroic struggle of the 1970s and 1980s, in which Kevin first found a political home, into a dead-end, the so-called “1994 settlement”, with the result that the Black working class is still cruelly exploited and oppressed today.
    In such circumstances, many less committed comrades might, and did, give up and retreat to their personal lives. Many, disgusted by the opportunism on display after 1994, with struggle stalwarts jumping on the post-apartheid gravy train, simply grew cynical.
    But Kevin always believed that the capitalist system was rotten to the core and that the only way out was a workers’ revolution. Passivity and accommodation to the system was not an option. Year after year, Kevin fought the good fight, knowing that while the working class might have been pushed back, it was not beaten. Kevin persevered because he knew that future upsurges of struggle would only be successful if they were led by organisations committed to smashing capitalism not trying to patch it up. Kevin devoted his life to building such an organisation.
    Kevin’s persistence and doggedness were the result of his steadfast commitment to the politics of working class liberation, but none of us carries on this struggle alone. Kevin was helped by the support of his comrades and his family and we particularly send our sympathies to them in their moment of sorrow today.
    The socialist movement is not made by individual heroes or the rare talents of particular individuals but the collective struggle in which we are engaged and the camaraderie we can find there. But this movement is nothing without figures such as Kevin who provide an inspiration to all of us wherever we might live. We are all of us part of the same fight to smash the capitalist system that threatens the entire world today with war and environmental destruction.
    Kevin’s life brings to mind a poem written by German communist Bertolt Brecht in 1930 called “The Indispensable Ones”:
    The indispensable ones.
    Those who are weak don’t fight.
    Those who are stronger might fight
    for an hour.
    Those who are stronger still might fight
    for many years.
    The strongest fight
    their whole life.
    They are the indispensable ones.

    We conclude by sending greetings to all of you gathered today in his memory. The best tribute we can pay to him is to carry on the fight for a better world that Kevin made so central to his life.

    Tom Bramble
    Socialist Alternative (Australia)
    http://www.redflag.org.au
    16 May 2019

  • Mzitho Ngubeni
    Posted at 10:43h, 13 May Reply

    Today, we mark the first anniversary of the death of this gallant fighter of a socialist society as envisaged by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and all other Marxists who walked this earth. We are reminded of his contribution to the emancipation of the international proletariat and his vision of future society. We are further reminded of his belief in empowering of the oppressed and exploited masses through education, particularly political education, Further believing that the working class has to be completely independent from all other influences to execute its historical mandate of emancipating itself from the yoke of capitalism.

    Long Live the Spirit of Comrade Kevin French Long Live!!!
    Amandla!!!
    ALL POWER TO THE WORKING CLASS!!!

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