Rhoda: A Biography

Joel B. Pollak, Rhoda: A Biography: ‘Comrade Kadalie, You Are Out of Order!’ (Johannesburg: UJ Press, 2023)

CONTRARIAN is the word Joel Pollak chooses to best describe the complex Rhoda Kadalie. Her life moved from radical anti-apartheid activist to liberal and feminist critic of post-apartheid South Africa. This was hardly unusual and is readily explained. What defies logic is conversion, before emigration to the United States, to Trump and MAGA supporter. It suggests a fundamental shift of world view that Kadalie had avoided in a life of consistent principle.

She was born in 1953 in District Six but grew up in Mowbray where her father, Fenner (named after the British Labour politician Lord Brockway), superintended the municipal washhouse and worked as a pastor. Circumstances are described as idyllic. However, the family was evicted from Mowbray when the National Party MP for Maitland, collecting his laundry, spotted Kadalie’s many brothers playing football with local white boys. Her paternal grandfather, Clements, was the leader of the highly significant post-Great War black trade union, the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union that became a mass movement. In its anti-communist socialism and workerism it anticipated aspects of black consciousness.

Kadalie was brought up in an atmosphere of evangelical social welfare and influenced by the educationalist Helen Kies. At Harold Cressy High School she imbibed a political education of anti-racism and anti-communism. Instead of going to the University of Cape Town (UCT) where, apparently, she was required to submit a full photograph to obtain admission, she went to University of the Western Cape (UWC), in the early 1970s regarded as a bush college. The rector was Richard van der Ross for whom Kadalie had lifelong respect. There, in the midst of a great deal of student unrest, she studied Anthropology in which she later went on to lecture, although a UCT Masters thesis on Atlantis was abandoned. These were the heady days of black consciousness and liberation theology.

Kadalie married a white South African of German origin, Richard Bertelsmann, at a time when mixed marriages were still illegal. Their marriage took place in liberated Namibia in 1982 and they lived a precarious life in Observatory, Cape Town. Studying in Germany and the Netherlands provided respite and it was here, Pollak believes, that Kadalie became a critical activist and feminist. There was another defining moment when her questioning and probing nature caused her to be accused of spying on the ANC.

Back at home, UWC was now transformed into an intellectual vanguard of the left much influenced by Jakes Gerwel and the seductive call of the struggle. Meanwhile, in spite of the birth of a daughter, the Kadalie-Bertelsmann marriage was experiencing difficulties. She had finished her overseas studies. He had not and was under pressure from local family who found his marriage across the colour line problematic. This came to a head in 1990 when he badly assaulted her and the marriage ended. The given reasons aside, this tragedy is not fully explained: all the evidence points to Bertelsmann being an essentially non-violent person.

From 1992, Kadalie became the UWC gender co-ordinator, replacing AnnMarie Wolpe. Kadalie’s feminism was sharpened by the realisation that all was subordinated to the struggle in various guises. She became increasingly strident and confrontational about the oppression of women; and her distrust of the ANC and the undue deference it earned from the anti-apartheid movement made her one of few sceptics at the time about Nelson Mandela. Her warnings about patriarchy were prophetic and she cautioned against men who condemned the gender struggle as divisive. She also exposed the lie that patriarchy is a function of capitalism alone. Kadalie was mentor to Amy Biehl and warned the American student not to venture near Gugulethu township the day before she was killed. Kadalie swam against the tide by arguing that this racially motivated crime should not have been granted amnesty on political grounds by the Truth Commission.

From 1995 she served on the national Human Rights Commission under Barney Pityana, arguing in favour of a public complaint procedure. One of her major causes was the penal system, her geographical remit the Western and Northern Cape, and she inspected every prison in the two provinces. Her report was shelved. She gradually came to the conclusion that the ANC was more interested in transformation, that is to say cadre deployment, than the principles and protection of rights. Cases of racism became obsession and Kadalie argued that they were a convenient fig leaf. In July 1997 she resigned, citing incompetence, inertia and bias plus bad management and personality conflicts.

Then followed a brief period with George Soros’s Open Society Foundation; and involvement in District Six land restitution, an issue of byzantine complexity exacerbated by government ineptitude, which earned Kadalie death threats. Being her own boss seemed the best fit for her personality (direct and confrontational when necessary) and preoccupations. She founded Impumulelo, which focused on development projects and social innovation with an emphasis on best practice. This approach was seen as antidote to ‘good intentions but poor results’ (p. 273). Kadalie rightly felt she was addressing grassroots matters done while the HRC she had left was preoccupied with isolated cases of racism. The government was simply uninterested.

Nevertheless, Impumulelo made a contribution to the nation and the ANC’s professed objectives. At the same time, although she found writing hard, Kadalie started a new career as newspaper columnist in which she took the government, and other targets, to task. Her animus was directed towards both radical socialists and racial nationalists who had common cause in exaggerating racism. Similarly, she found patriarchy everywhere together with gender violence. She gloried in her self-parodied role as a coconut intellectual exposing the absurdities of the Native Club and its race essentialism in the mid-2000s; and also described herself as a thoroughbred mongrel.

In this fashion she carried a torch for the 1980s non-racialism of the United Democratic Front (UDF), which she personified in many ways. And likewise, she moved on as a liberal becoming close to Helen Suzman. The ANC, Kadalie regarded as thugs and thieves, operators of a kleptocracy fuelled by a toxic combination of white guilt and black entitlement. She questioned the role of an unelected communist party in government and identified a pernicious theology derived from the vanguardist national liberation movement. In the meantime, civil society had become a pale shadow of itself amid moral decay and increasing intolerance of diversity and dissent.

Kadalie’s context was the concept of loyal opposition, expressed by her in trenchant and robust terms. One object of her scorn was the overused term transformation: from what to what, she asked; concluding that it was a front for racial essentialism. About thuggery on university campuses, she was similarly forthright. Her historic view of the struggle was astute: the UDF did indeed represent South Africa’s triumphant moment killed by Stalinism. Similarly, her view of the world divided into open and closed societies was prescient. Casting her net widely, she correctly fingered the Palestinian issue as a useful South African distraction. However, her growing Zionism was based on somewhat dubious historical assumptions and this leads on to the matter of Donald Trump.

Having experienced a couple of unsettling burglaries, feeling unsafe in Cape Town and wanting to be near her daughter and grandchildren, Kadalie emigrated to the United States. There she lauded Trump as a constructive skollie, hailed his election win as a triumph of good over evil, and then indulged in electoral denialism when he lost. The United States under the Democrats, she absurdly claimed, was experiencing a reign of terror en route to communism. She even indulged in QAnon-type speculation about the deep state. Her language was so extreme that she was excluded from social media platforms.

Authorship of a biography by a relative, albeit an in-law, has potential pitfalls and it is not certain if these have been avoided. The text is over-long at nearly six hundred pages and there is a great deal of repetition. There is a sense that the book was written in segments, then simply bolted together. There seems to have been minimal editorial work or proofreading by UJ Press: thus, errors such as Brandtfort, fiend (friend), variant spellings of Mamphela Ramphele (Mamphele, Ramaphele), and Frederick (Frederik) van Zyl Slabbert. Similarly, some of the judgements appear slapdash. In the conclusion Kadalie is described as having been a Marxist (p. 575) when a constant in her life was Christian faith.

Rhoda Kadalie died in 2022 before becoming an American citizen and perhaps this was apt; a reminder of her indelible roots in District Six and her best days as constructive critic of the South African struggle. She was undeniably a significant figure as a fighter for genuine democracy, non-racism and the rights of women. What she believed and achieved continues to speak to us today.

What defies explanation is her conversion to right-wing populism. There is no logical route to it from liberalism of any type. To pose an obvious question, how could a long-term feminist and non-racist support the cause of a crude misognynist, racist and fraudster like Trump? The label of contrarian is entirely inadequate; and indeed, should have protected her against the popular dimension of populism. This and other lapses suggest that a truly balanced account of Kadalie’s life will have to await another interpreter, one whose biography is hopefully more succinct.

Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld