Patty Hearst, Robert McNamara, and the lefty SA university

By Douglas Racionzer.

The most money I ever raised was 100 million US dollars in 1985 when I was just 24 years old. I didn’t really raise it but it gets your attention, hey? I was at best, a part player in this seldom-told story. A tale of how the political turmoil of South Africa brought together big bucks, political compromise, secrets and ironic happenstance to found a university.

I was completing my final year studies at the University of Cape Town and all hell was breaking loose across the country. People were organising and fighting apartheid. The founding of the United Democratic Front in Mitchells Plain was the impetus for an incredible outpouring of popular dissent and mayhem on the streets of South Africa. The repressive measures taken by PW Botha’s apartheid regime led to spirals of violence from which we still have not recovered today. One of the key areas of struggle was in education.

School boycotts, university marches and demonstrations disrupted the education of an entire generation. Social Work students have to do hundreds of hours of fieldwork and so I found a placement at the Foundation for Social Development under the supervision of Salie Abrahams. Today Salie is the Vice Chancellor of the International Peace University, but back in those days he was involved in a number of community initiatives on the Cape Flats. In particular we worked on an after-school support programme for learners in Manenberg. We were just one of many thousands of non-governmental organisations trying to transform the dire circumstances poor people found themselves in.

In this way, just our support for the poor meant we were part of the anti-apartheid struggle. Anyway, Salie ‘phoned me up one day and asked me to come to the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Belgravia Road, Cape Town, that night to meet an American visitor. Back in 1985, Kentucky Fried Chicken had not yet disinvested from South Africa. It eventually did so some two years later in1987 under pressure from US activists promoting the Sullivan Code.

So we still, in 1985, could have some “finger-lickin good” chicken.

The American visitor at the KFC turned out to be Robert McNamara who had retired as head of the World Bank. Now Robert had a powerful yet checkered past. He once was President of Ford Motor Company and also served as Secretary of Defense under US President Kennedy, presiding over the Cuban Missile fiasco and the Vietnam War before a career at the helm of the World Bank.

So this was some heavy-hitting Yank with whom we were sharing the Colonel’s chicken, sitting on little raised seats around a small aluminum and plastic table. All designed for quick consumption and easy profits. The surroundings outside were some brick houses – Athlone was an established so-called “coloured” township with a mixed Muslim and Christian population. There was a motor spares shop nearby and the famous Belgravia roadhouse was a few shops up where you could get great rotis and, if you were poor, you could ask for “paape,” the crumbled off bits of fried samoosas. After some initial pleasantries, Robert got round to the matter at hand and asked Salie and me how we could start a progressive college in South Africa. He had found World Bank funds of 100 million dollars and needed advice.

To this day I don’t know where he got the money from. There was no official fund or programme with this kind of money available for starting a college. Some on the extreme left had warned about making an “elite compromise” with capital and this seemed like an offer to do a deal with the devil. What is certain is that the University of North Carolina would also offer degrees to students at this college. Now imagine the situation for an instant: here we were in a coloured township in a KFC, me, a fresh young naive “whitey” upstart social work student, and Salie, my social work field placement supervisor who was then in his late thirties and a devout Muslim who nonetheless enjoyed a smoke.

We were sitting with the retired head of the World Bank, who was also part of the American Democratic Party’s elite. His party was out of office, as it was the height of the Reagan era, and our country was up in flames: bombings, grenade attacks, and police in Casspirs driving by. The township was filled with white smoke from teargas, and black smoke from burning tyres used as barricades or in some cases as necklaces, and here we were being asked how to start a university with, oh say just a cool 100 million US dollars. Man, those were crazy days indeed!

We thought that Neville Alexander might be just the chap for the job as he had recently set up Sached, a popular education programme for lefties in South Africa. Neville was a leading light in a Trotskyite movement based on the Cape Flats called the “New Unity Movement”, a radical tendency within the broad left of the anti-apartheid movement. He had spent 10 years in prison on Robben Island for his activism in the banned Non-European Unity Movement . Upon his release, Alexander worked to re-establish the defunct Unity Movement. Calls were made and introductions done and about a year later, both Khanya College and the Turret Correspondence College were established.

Turret College was always conceived as a correspondence college for people unable to attend university in Johannesburg, while Khanya College was the university for the future “vanguard” of the revolution. Students were recruited from the labour movement and the broad left in the country. The curriculum included heavy doses of Marxist sociology, political economy and dialectical history. There were lots of seminars on feminism, the history of the unions and how racism masks the underlying class struggle in South Africa. Khanya College was the sort of place where fantasies of “the revolution” and “the general strike” were kindled and nourished. These two institutions have, over the years, built up reputations for excellent teaching especially among union members and the broad left in South Africa.

Now I want to take you on a small detour to revolutionary hippy San Francisco in the 1970’s and their hatred of the US imperialists, World Bank executives and notorious Vietnam war promoters such as Robert McNamara. One extreme example of this scene was an American self-styled left-wing revolutionary group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army whose members robbed a number of banks and killed people.

One of the SLA’s most notorious adventures involved the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the heiress to the Hearst media empire. In exchange for her release, one of the SLA’s demands was that a foodbank be established by the Hearst family under the direction of the SLA. Stir-crazy and violent revolutionaries these were! On their public hit list was the then head of the World Bank, none other than Robert McNamara, doubtless because of his role in directing the war in Vietnam and because the World bank was seen as one of the mainstays of global capitalism and US imperialism. Eventually the entire gang was hunted down and arrested, except for one man, James Kilgore, who disappeared during the FBI manhunt. Kilgore had managed to evade arrest by simply changing his name to that of a baby who had died, obtaining a US passport in that baby’s name and moving on to Australia and then Zimbabwe. The FBI were clueless. They thought Kilgore had probably done a bunk and gone to ground in Canada. I remember reading magazine articles about the crazy antics of the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

The FBI had web pages with Kilgore’s mug shot and a host of aliases he might be going under. James Kilgore was still on the FBI most wanted list at the turn of the millennium with a $10,000 bounty on his head.

Meanwhile, back at Khanya College, the scheme initiated and paid for through the good offices of Robert McNamara, Salie Abrahams, Neville Alexander and I were bearing fruit. Lefty students and lecturers flocked to its downtown Johannesburg campus and it was growing. The courses teaching Marxist theory and class analysis were filled with old and young calling each other “comrade” and dreaming of the revolution. A winter school was set-up which still today runs popular workshops on the history of class struggle in South Africa. You know the sort of scene? Most knew nothing of the capitalist provenance of its inception. Even its “comrade co-coordinator “in the 1990s, John Pape was clueless.

Pape was a good example of the sort of lefty, socialist type that walked the dingy halls of Khanya College. He was an economics lecturer at the College and about eight years after the founding of Khanya, was appointed as the College Co-coordinator. (It was too egalitarian to have vice chancellors, principals, etc.). Described by his peers as a warm, dedicated and committed socialist, Pape led the college ably until his move to Cape Town with his partner, a renowned feminist scholar, and their two boys in the 1990s where he continued his academic career employed by the University of Cape Town as the director of the influential International Labour Resource and Information Group. He is the author of many articles and books, including a highly regarded radical economics textbook. Most recently, he was co-editor of a book about grassroots struggles in black townships.

John Pape, however, had a dark secret. Plumpish, mild-mannered and balding with spectacles, this academic father of two kept his secret close to his chest. He chose to fly under the radar. By early 2002, he started seeking ways to deal with his secret but things were moving slowly. Lawyers were consulted and arrangements made but still he hesitated. By November 2002 he realised that the game was up. That month he answered the door to a young women asking about wine and he realised she’d managed to get his fingerprints on the bottle.

Later he was approached by a stranger at a school cricket game he was watching who started asking pointed questions about his past in Zimbabwe. Within days the police brought him in for questioning. It took two years of careful negotiation with lawyers and various police and security organisations to bring Pape’s secret out into the open.

In April 2004, John Pape turned himself over to US authorities in Cape Town who flew him immediately to trial in the United States. He had been a fugitive from US justice for 27 years and, yes, you guessed it, his real name was James Kilgore, the last member of the Symbionese LiberationArmy to remain on the run. So James Kilgore, or John Pape, who, in the 1970s had plotted to kill Robert McNamara headed-up Khanya College which his erstwhile enemy had helped set-up. Curious irony, eh? And perhaps a lesson to us all about how the world and politics really works.

It’s not about who is leftwing and who is rightwing, it’s not about a contestation of ideas as much as about the compromises we make with our political enemies and our allies. Politics and history is also about what is left unsaid, the silences and secrets kept away from the glare of publicity and news, the deals struck in tacky KFC outlets that lead to chains of future events unknown.

Pape was released on parole in 2009, after having spent about five years in jail, and is now living quietly in Illinois with his family. His wife teaches feminism at the University of Champagne in Urbana, Illinois. He visited Cape Town in 2012 to launch his book: “Freedom Never Rests”.

The old lefties were all there to share some wine and slap each other on the back. Robert McNamara died in 2009 but I’m sure his ghost was there too.

– Racionzer is a WHAM! Contributing editor. This article was first published in Playboy SA.