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Protests, prison & poetry: Jeremy Cronin’s revolutionary past

Jeremy Cronin Protests Prison Poetry Sputnik Faith Art

Lex Loizides is a song writer, pastor, poet and historian. He’s one of those people who is always up to something, and, more often than not, that particular ‘something’ is far more noteworthy than what you happen to be doing. Therefore, it was not a massive surprise to hear that he’d conducted an in depth interview with the South African Deputy Minister for Public Works and the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party! The interviewee in question is Jeremy Cronin, who, apart from his political activities, is a renowned poet in his homeland and beyond. New Contrast, South Africa’s leading literary journal commissioned Lex to conduct the interview – first published in Issue 180, Volume 45, Summer 2017. It is reproduced here with permission.

Poet and politician Jeremy Cronin has been a key player in both crafting and steering the Restitution of Land Rights Act through Parliament and has been a tireless campaigner for democracy and justice in South Africa. He could easily have retired by now, but continues to serve the young democracy with energy and dedication. He has written three collections of poetry: Inside (Jonathan Cape, 1987), Even the Dead (David Philip Publishers, 1997), and More than a Casual Contact (Umuzi, 2006).

Jeremy was educated in Cape Town and became a lecturer in Philosophy at UCT before being imprisoned by the apartheid government for seven years for distributing anti-apartheid literature. I met with Jeremy in his rooms at Parliament during the course of September 2017.

LL: Jeremy, all three of your collections of poetry are so intricately bound up with your amazing life story. Can you tell us something of your background?

JC: I was born in Durban but grew up largely in Cape Town. My father was a naval officer, so until the age of ten I was living in Simonstown and Simonstown features in some of my poems. I have a sensuous memory of a coastal place with all of its contradictions. My father died when I was ten years old and we moved to Rondebosch where I attended a Catholic School. In 1968 I went to  UCT where I studied Philosophy and Literature. I had a vague sense of what I wanted to do, but it had something to do with being a poet, perhaps.

LL: When did you first start writing poetry?

JC: Probably adolescence. I was reading a lot of TS Eliot and reading eclectically. It was less what I was getting at school and more independent reading, as I was going to the Rondebosch library. I was attracted to what was then called the ‘Creative Writing’ section. My first out-of-school publication was with English Alive, edited by Robin Malan. Apparently, I was in the first edition of it. But the poetry was a bit pretentious.

LL: There was presumably a fairly narrow range of topics about which you could be published, in the school magazines.

JC: Well, you’re right, but there were some interesting ‘defrocked’ priests who were among the more interesting teachers.

LL: And being published both at school and in English Alive was presumably an encouragement.

JC: Yes, exactly. It was a huge encouragement and that’s the critical thing. And it’s so important. Some of my poems are set for Matric [high school diploma] so I do some class appearances, which are very interesting. At school I had even contemplated going into the priesthood, but I had seen a contradiction between some of the Catholic thinkers I was reading and the local parish church. There was a disjunction between white suburban life and the stimulating stuff I was hearing from the ‘defrocked’ priests. But my parents had warned me not to get into politics. After my father died, we were quite poor, but living in this kind of white welfare system. We didn’t own a car but public transport was good, there was a swimming pool in Newlands, and we had the library. So, I grew up privileged, but we were at the lower end of the scale in a place like Rondebosch. I was aware of class discriminations and I began to buck against that a little bit.

LL: Were you aware of black South Africans around you? Were they always at the periphery?

JC: I was aware, and aware that they were peripheral. I think that dawned quite early; an awareness that there were huge inequalities, and a kind of smugness in the place that I was staying. In the Criterion Bioscope in Simonstown, the Africans had been moved out and they weren’t allowed into the cinema, but in the upstairs balcony, the coloured audience were allowed to go in. That was fairly standard at the time. During a matinee, watching cowboys and Indians, and of course the Indians would be winning half way through, to great cheers from upstairs, and then when the finale came and the US Cavalry rode over the crest to the rescue, we were showered with popcorn, at best, and sometimes less mentionable things.

Ernest Cole Magnum Photos Pretoria South Africa
A segregated bridge at Pretoria railway station. Pretoria, South Africa. Circa mid-1960s. © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos

So quite early on, I was aware there was something wrong. There was this discomfort. And there were big removals happening in Simonstown while I was there. I was kind of aware. I think that’s why my parents said don’t get involved in politics. We were told it was the Afrikaaners who were messing it up and that was very much my outlook. My mother wanted me to have a good professional career. 1968 was the year of the global student uprisings, and the distant echo of that came to South Africa. At UCT there weren’t any African students at that time, very few people of colour. A small group of left-leaning white students began to gather. There were mass meetings and the occupation of university buildings. I was feeling uncomfortable with the privileges. I had a bursary. I was white. ’68 was a period of intellectual ferment in Europe, and Mexico. There were large youth uprisings.

LL: There was a sense of entering something much larger?

JC: Yes. It wasn’t sympathetic to established communism though. But I then began to receive underground literature and we formed a small reading group. During the sit-ins, they employed Stellenbosch University students to come and beat us up, and then the police intervened. And what was launched out of that was a radical students society and we produced a magazine, which I coedited, called Radical. Then we started to get deep underground and illegal pamphlets and so on. And also literature. Books would be smuggled in, and people would make precious photocopies of this or that. There was a great deal of respect, which has since been lost, for the book – smuggling them in, getting them into the country and so on.

There was a great deal of respect, which has since been lost, for the book – smuggling them in, getting them into the country and so on.

LL: At some point you were involved in the production of illegal pamphlets. Were you writing these?

JC: I was recruited into the Communist Party in 1968 and our first task was to develop an address list of progressive students. I was running the film society at that stage, so I went into the admin building and said we needed to write a newsletter. We were able to access the residential addresses of a few thousand students, which, along with other lists of addresses, we smuggled out of the country, so that the production units of the Communist Party had address lists.

LL: What was the content of the pamphlets?

JC: At that stage we were mainly using the magazine, but trying to hegemonise the content of the publication, presenting quasi-academic articles on the history on the Communist Party and so on. I was also using the Film Society very actively as well. It was kind of cultural and ideological activity.

UCT Student Protests Jeremy Cronin Sputnik Faith Art
UCT students protest Archie Mafeje’s dismissal in the 1960s

LL: In your poem A Step Away From Them, you describe delivering these pamphlets.

JC: I completed an honours degree at UCT and worked briefly for the Argus. I received a bursary to go to France and study at the Sorbonne, and I had more formal contact with the exiled communists, mainly in London. I would go to London and get training. London was quite central. There were lots of people in London. And, through a circuitous link I was set up with a person called ‘Frank’. He gave me a pile of books to read, which were all about horrific torture that people had undergone. The idea was to say, ‘we’re getting serious now and are you serious?’ And then there was lots of training in counter-surveillance techniques. How to make sure you’re not being followed and so on.

LL: So you’re moving forward with increased awareness of the consequences. The further you progress, the more you realise how dangerous it all is. And they’re wanting to know, are you with us?

JC: Yes, there were two things. Firstly, am I not a plant? So they were checking on me. But I had a bit of a track record. The specific task is to come back here and become a production centre for underground pamphlets. I was trained in secret ink communication and dead letter drops and was in communication with London. Mainly, they would send in the copy, which we reproduced on the old printing machines and then posted.

LL: So it wasn’t random leafleting?

JC: Well, the random thing was the bucket drops. We’d stuff a bucket full of pamphlets and put a small explosive underneath and plant them by black bus queues or train stations with a five minute delay and let them poof! They’d go up and there was a lot of excitement. We were saying, ‘We’re with you!’

LL: So this poem where you’re carrying the OK Bazaar plastic packet, going to post-boxes, and your heart is in the packet. What’s going on there?

JC: Well those were to mainly township addresses. It was using the postal system. I had developed a fetish for post boxes. Some have got larger mouths than others. Some you can post quite easily with a gloved hand, because you didn’t want to get fingerprints on them… it was fairly discreet. So we would stuff twenty or so at a time into a post box. I had a pretty good sense of every postbox in the greater Cape Town area.

There’s a poem called that
by Frank O’Hara, the American,
it begins: It’s my lunch hour so I go
for a walk… I like the poem, sometime
I’ll write it out complete, but just for now
I’ve got this OK Bazaars plastic packet
in my left hand, and my right
hand’s in my pocket (out of sight),
how else to walk lunch hour
summertime Cape Town with
one gloved hand? And now
I’m going past The Cape Clog
– Takeaways, it says it’s
The Home of the Original
ham n’ cheese – Dutch Burgers,
past the unsegregated toilets on
Greenmarket Square. A cop van’s
at the corner. On a bench
3 black building workers eat
from a can of Lucky
Star pilchards. They’re
in various shapes & sizes. It’s a fact.
Though you’d think
post boxes’d be all
just one size. I’m sweating a bit,
heart pumps, mouth dry, umm
Gone one, I say slipping
past the Groote Kerk when
an Iranian naval sailor asks
What’s the time? IRANIAN? – yessir,
it’s 1975, the shah’s
in place, the southeaster blows,
there’re gulls in the sky,
two cable cars are halfway
up or down (respectively) and
outside the Cultural Museum
an old hunchback tries
to flog me 10c worth of unshelled
nuts. He’s been here
since I was 15
trying to be Baudelaire, I’d maunder
round town watching women’s legs, but now
I’ve only eyes for postboxes and
my heart’s in my packet: it’s
one thousand
illegal pamphlets to be mailed.

A Step Away From Them

LL: Then you get arrested. Was that a raid?

JC: I was working with two others, whose names I didn’t know. They didn’t have the same leftist profile that I did. I was now lecturing in political philosophy at UCT. They got arrested through effective sleuthing over many years. A couple of weeks before my colleagues were arrested, we had a received a secret ink communication from London, which looked a bit different from the normal ones. We think they had developed and read it, but couldn’t un-develop it and then conveyed the same communication themselves and posted it from the UK.

LL: So you were arrested and pled guilty. Was that a nerve-racking thing?

JC: Well, it wasn’t pleasant getting caught! I was arrested in 1976 and sentenced to seven years. They had us absolutely. I was in Pretoria Maximum Security, which is where the white male political prisoners were interred.

LL: So it was Afrikaans prison guards and predominantly English inmates?

JC: Yes, almost entirely.

LL: And your wife, Anne-Marie, died quite soon after that?

JC: Yes, within a year. That’s all pertinent. So in prison, I began to write.

LL: So during your actively political period you hadn’t written much poetry. Your creative energies had gone into that work. And now you’ve come from a lot of activity and suddenly there’s space?

JC: There is space actually and time! As a political prisoner, one of the things they gave us was the prisoner’s handbook which said all the things you’re not allowed to do, and it said, interestingly, if I can remember, ‘singing, writing poetry and any other unnecessary noise is forbidden’. One of the earlier titles of Inside was Unnecessary Noise.

LL: You’re not allowed to write poetry. Are you allowed to write anything? Letters?

JC: You were allowed to study through UNISA so we did have writing materials, but, in theory, you couldn’t write poetry.

LL: So how did you?

JC: I’m not an oral poet so I had to write it! And rework, and rework, and rework a great deal. So it was disguised as draft letters or assignments. But Dennis Goldberg, who was a Rivonia trialist, was also with me. He was an engineer and was good with his hands, so I could get the stuff out. I would write the poems on thin strips of paper with a tiny 0.5mm pencil and then – I might still have it here [he hurries off to a cupboard in the corner and brings out what looks like a shoe box].

It’s a filing box. I was working on a thesis on South African poetry and had this old box –and buried into the layer here [corrugated edges of the box] were little slithers of paper containing the poems.

Protests Prison Poetry Sputnik Faith Arts Cronin History
The filing box Jeremy used to smuggle poetry from prison.

LL: So that was allowed out?

JC: Yes. This one came out of prison. And I had a couple of other boxes too.

LL: There is something in us, as humans, that needs the word; and needs the word communicated to others. It’s a primal drive.

JC: Absolutely. Subjectively, the poetry I had written was quite self-indulgent and quite lyrical, because I tend to be attracted in that direction, and therefore about subjective emotions. And so, as a young, relatively privileged white, I felt there was a certain lack of authenticity or meaningfulness in adolescent love affairs. And so, in a curious way, becoming a minor victim of the apartheid system made me feel the emotions that I now needed to express, connected to a wider reality.

Funerals and social rituals provide spaces, structure and discipline to bereavement… Poetry became an important space to explore emotion, but also to give it a rhythm and a discipline.

And I think quite a lot of the poems reflect that: I’m not alone. Some people, who might not even be in prison, are having it a lot worse in a squatter camp and so it kind of liberated lyricism for me. Clearly then, the death of my wife gave rise to a deep need to deal with an overflow of emotions. You suddenly realise why bereavement and funerals and social rituals are very important to provide spaces, structure and discipline to these issues. Of course I didn’t have them. I couldn’t go to the funeral and I couldn’t burden my fellow comrades. They were supportive, but we were a small number. And they all had their own emotional challenges. So the poetry became a very important space to talk emotion, explore it, but also to give it a rhythm and a discipline.

LL: Were you aware that she was unwell?

JC: No.

LL: Not at all?

JC: Not at all! So the one poem about the visit, I Saw Your Mother.

LL: So that is the first moment you even knew anything?

JC: That she was unwell? Yeah.

LL: Was your wife visiting regularly before?

JC: As regularly as she was allowed, which was once a month for half an hour.

LL: And did she miss one or two towards the end?

JC: No.

LL: Wow. That’s brutal.

JC: It was, yes.

I saw your mother
with two guards
through a glass plate
for one quarter hour
on the day that you died.
‘Extra visit, special favour’
I was told, and warned
‘The visit will be stopped
if politics is discussed.
Verstaan – understand!?’
on the day that you died.
I couldn’t place
my arm around her,
around your mother
when she sobbed.
Fifteen minutes up
I was led
back to the workshop.
Your death, my wife,
one crime they managed
not to perpetrate
on the day that you died.

I Saw Your Mother

LL: Walking On Air, the poem about fellow-prisoner John Matthews, has a kind of defiant, triumphal ring at the end. Inside was published right in the thick of the apartheid era and yet they are resounding resistance poems. So you have both a suffering and celebratory note in these poems.

JC: I was released in 1983 and it was a very different climate. There was a resurgence of unions and organisations and I went back to the underground and was active in the broad front of social movement type struggles. There were lots of rallies happening, typically around funerals. And so I got to read/perform quite a lot of the poetry. But I hadn’t really had a sense of an audience. I was writing for testimony. What was very interesting in the 80s was a huge cultural flowering: street art, t-shirts with wonderful designs, Zapiro was producing fantastic posters and teaching others in Salt River. There was a kind of cultural revolution happening.

Apartheid Protests 1980s
Apartheid Protests in the 1980s

I was wheeled out as a veteran of the struggle to rallies. I got into political education and journals but I was active as a performing poet. It was a time when the genre was called ‘protest poetry’. I always wanted to defy that genre, firstly, because the academy located that poetry as protest poetry and didn’t look at its craft, and often it was quite well crafted. But also the poets themselves were often oral. So it was oral crafting, which the academy couldn’t recognise. I wrote some pieces at the time arguing for the skill that was involved, the poetics. I wanted to insist that poetry could be political but lyrical, aesthetic. And my aesthetic wasn’t quite the same as the performing poets. I quickly discovered that some poems didn’t work in a larger audience. And, particularly, it wasn’t a poetry audience, it was an audience there for a funeral and helicopters were watching us, and kids running up and down. It was exciting but the irony in some of the poems didn’t carry.

LL: Were you aware that there was a burgeoning new style of poetry happening?

JC: I had been aware before going in to prison. I wanted to connect to the largely white South African poetic tradition but also to connect with the emerging mainly English, and brilliant Afrikaans poetry.

A poem about a sunset is never politically innocent… [you] can’t observe the sunset without understanding that the sunset is going to be observed from different places.

LL: Do you feel that protest poetry is less relevant now? You use a phrase about the struggle of ‘trying to make the too good to be true be true’. Are we there yet? Is there space for South African poets to write about sunsets? Or would that feel like we’re a bit off-topic?

JC: I wouldn’t like to be a policeman about what is legitimate or not. Mainly, because I want the poetic licence for myself. But I think a poem about a sunset is never politically innocent. That was what was interesting in looking at Roy Campbell and Plomer and so on. I love landscape. But the way in which the South African landscape is perceived – it’s quite interesting to trace the development in South African English language poetry. The early writers – Thomas Pringle, who wrote some wonderful poetry – it’s seen as a non-European exotic terrain, and it’s beautifully crafted, but there is a framing: exotic, savage, barbaric. The Plomer, Campbell generation, assert their South African-ness, but lurking in the landscape, is a ‘the barbarians are coming’, the drums. There’s formal structure, and effective poetry, but the version of the landscape is unsettling. The natives are out there. Plomer is sympathetic to the natives but troubled by it. So talk of a sunset is not neutral.

But to this hard category of the protest; the political: I’ve always wanted to say the personal is political. I think a lot of the agony and the problems in South Africa have to do with the unresolved subjective issue. There’s a lot of post-traumatic stress. The factional behaviour, the moral decline, have profound unresolved subjective issues surrounding them. The South African project has suffered quite a setback. There’s a disconnect between the subjective and the political project. And the poetry that I tried to write was making the connections.

LL: In all three collections of your poetry, the social context, and the incidents arising from within them are so immediate and powerful. Is there still a need for passionate, rallying poetry?

JC: I don’t want to give a definite answer. Out there, in the non-poetry world, there’s a lot of protest happening, and anger, and turmoil. I don’t want to prescribe a role. Writing, narration, means we have a responsibility to try and connect with that anger and also to lead it out of its angst, out of the vicious cycle.

LL: Towards something more constructive?

JC: Yeah. I’m not saying a poem can do it, but the poems I’d like to see and to write, would… well, hopes were raised after 1994 and there were real achievements. And the last great aesthetic moment, arguably, was at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And some great poetry came out of it, Antjie Krog, and Ingrid de Kok, in particular. It was an extremely powerful cultural intervention, but that was seeking to find reconciliation in truth-telling about the past. But the present failed to resolve the deep structural problems. which are obvious: continued poverty, racialised spaces in urban settings and, hence, pent-up frustrations.

For me, protest is around in any case. Poetry that is going to be meaningful in South Africa can’t ignore the reality of this protest; can’t observe the sunset without understanding that the sunset is going to be observed from different places. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy the sunset and celebrate the sunset. I do think that the aesthetic disciplines are important to bring to bear in that space, and poetry that is just a poster or a string of slogans is OK (I’m still writing headlines for pamphlets) but poetry has the ability to go a bit further. I see a continuum between the pamphlet and the poetry but the poetry isn’t a pamphlet and would be selling itself short if it was.