SOUTH AFRICA: Activists pay tribute to 'fugitive' John Pape

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BY PATRICK BOND

JOHANNESBURG — On November 8, James Kilgore, the last fugitive member of the 1970s US terrorist group, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), was arrested in Cape Town. He was known in South Africa as John Pape, the respected left and labour movement activist. Across the region, there has been an outpouring of support for Pape from comrades, friends and mainstream colleagues who worked with him during his Southern African sojourn.

A 55-year-old trade union and community educator, Pape is employed by the University of Cape Town and director of the influential International Labour Resource and Information Group (ILRIG). 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 (see <vice_Delivery_in_South_Africa.html/>).

Pape is the father of two young boys, husband to Terri Barnes (a noted feminist historian) and a model of commitment to the cause of social justice. His arrest came after 27 years of living underground, first in Australia, where he studied history and economics at Deakin University in the late 1970s, then in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, where he taught in a township high school and researched his doctorate on the plight of domestic workers, and finally in South Africa, where he has lived since the early 1990s. Pape became a widely respected radical intellectual and activist, notwithstanding his prominent position on the US FBI's most wanted list.

By all accounts a coincidence, Pape's arrest occurred a day after four fellow ex-SLA members in the US had plea-bargained various crimes, including an accidental murder during a 1976 bank robbery. According to a book by Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress turned SLA supporter, Pape warned the group against taking the rifle on the bank job.

Pape had apparently instructed a US lawyer to negotiate his surrender several months ago, expecting to return to the US to face trial before the year's end. He may now receive a similar sentence to that agreed to by the other ex-SLA members: 6-8 years in prison.

Pape's arrest came at a time when the African National Congress government has been clamping down on political criticism. Pape remains in jail awaiting an extradition request from the US authorities. He will appear again in court on December 6.

Trevor Ngwane, secretary of the Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation Forum and chair of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, wrote the following tribute, which reflects the feelings of many on the South African left. It has been abridged:

"Comrade John Pape was respected by many on the left in South Africa. In hindsight, he tended to work 'quietly' but he did not hide his politics nor stay in the shadows. I always thought he was a comrade who was averse to political grandstanding, 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 [in Johannesburg]. 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 was outstanding. Recently, building on John's work, the college has been 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 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 when his support and willingness to go beyond the line of duty shone through and left a lasting positive impression on me... Comrade John's supportive actions were not, in my assessment, calculated as part of his 'cover'...

"I don't feel betrayed, tricked or taken for a ride with the 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 have made me an accomplice which, knowing John, is the last thing he would want to do.

"As a Marxist, I do not agree with 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).

"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 workers, 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 method 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 on the left who regarded John as a comrade and a friend. So too 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 liberation struggle in worker education programs 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."

Messages of solidarity can be sent to John Pape c/- ILRIG at <ilrig@wn.apc.org>. Visit the ILRIG web site at <http://www.aidc.org.za/ilrig/>.

[Editor's note: When Green Left Weekly writer Norm Dixon visited South Africa last year, John Pape provided invaluable help by introducing many left and grassroots activists. Pape's stature on the left was prominent and he was in no way leading an "underground" existence. Pape was a regular reader of GLW. We offer our heartfelt solidarity.]

From Green Left Weekly, November 27, 2002.

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