Raymond Suttner’s long walk to graduation

The self-effacing struggle stalwart talks about finally receiving the degree he was denied during apartheid, and working for and then breaking with the ANC and SACP.

Fifty years after his thesis was withdrawn on political grounds, Raymond Suttner will, today, be awarded his master of laws degree. At 23, Suttner could not submit a thesis to the University of Cape Town (UCT) because he quoted a communist, Jack Simons, who was influential in the field of African customary law.

When the Communist Party was banned in 1950 by the Suppression of Communism Act, the government made a list of party members, which included Simons. This meant that Simons’s work could not be legally quoted by any publication, apart from proceedings in the courts or Parliament.

Suttner’s supervisor, Professor Donald Molteno, said he would not allow work to be examined that quoted a listed communist. Suttner chose not to submit the thesis.

New Frame sat down with Suttner to talk about his recent academic work, his two terms as a political prisoner and his views on the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

He guides us into his home in Observatory, Johannesburg. Scented candles burn in the foyer, and there are African art pieces and antiquities that he says his wife, Nomboniso Gasa, collected while working in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.

Suttner sits down in one of the downstairs rooms, which overflows with stacks of paper. He says Simons played a fundamental role in shaping his thoughts on customary law.

“I built on his ideas, but I couldn’t ignore what I had learned from him. I couldn’t cut out his ideas from my brain,” he says. “I owe a big debt to Jack Simons. He had nurtured me. He was very generous towards me, and I might not have written anything had this giant not decided to encourage me.”

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Last year, the UCT law faculty approached Suttner and asked if he would be interested in submitting his thesis. After months of searching for the work, Suttner submitted it with a new introduction and three pages missing. “I had accepted that I didn’t get that degree. When they approached me, I wasn’t very keen because I wasn’t sure where the thesis was. It took me months to find it.”

At 73, Suttner will receive his degree. “For me, the most important thing is not the content of this thesis but the decision I made 49 years ago, which I am pleased about.”

Life as a freedom fighter

Suttner was born in Durban on 29 August 1945, and raised by Bertie and Sheila Suttner. “Although my parents were not wealthy, I had opportunities that were not open to black people, [by] which I mean Africans, coloureds and Indians. I wanted everyone to have the same opportunities I had,” he says.

By 14, Suttner had witnessed incidents that he says made him join forces with vulnerable, oppressed black people. “I witnessed a car colliding with a scooter. Immediately, I sensed that the driver of the scooter would be blamed because he was a coloured man, even though the white driver of the car was at fault,” Suttner writes in his memoir, Inside Apartheid’s Prison.

He was first arrested for underground political work at 29. Suttner had been producing pamphlets for illegal organisations. He says his motive was to overthrow the state. “I was advocating armed struggle. I was involved in illegal struggle. I was not attacking buildings, but I was inciting others to commit sabotage and to overthrow the regime by violent means,” he says, folding his hands.

He adds that he wanted to see freedom flourish in the country. “No human being should be treated with indignity. I have this image in my mind of parents being humiliated in front of their children when they were asked for their passes.”

At the time, it was through underground literature that South Africans learned about the ANC and the SACP. “In a time when the ANC and the Communist Party were banned, people were getting literature that suddenly told them they were alive. People were hearing the organisations they thought were dead were not,” he says.

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While he was operating underground, Suttner worked at the then University of Natal in Durban as a part-time lecturer in comparative African government and customary law, and later as a senior lecturer in law.

He was first imprisoned from 1975 to 1983, and was later detained without trial from 1986 to 1988 under regulations during the state of emergency. But neither during his imprisonment nor as he underwent torture did he lose his sense of agency. “Even if I died, I had information. No one else had that information. I had a certain power over them, in that they had to try to get that out of me,” he says.

He braced himself for the worst. “You learn about generations of revolutionaries before you, and you have a sense that you are part of something bigger than you, and that you must be prepared to die. I was prepared to die.”

Breaking with the ANC

After years of commitment to the ANC and SACP, Suttner broke with both organisations. “I haven’t spoken to some people for 10 years, some of whom were in jail with me,” he says.

Although he supports President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration in cleaning up the ANC, he says there is more to be done. “There is also a question of compassion. When you get rid of [Jacob] Zuma, it doesn’t mean that you have recovered your compassion for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised,” he says, citing the example of the xenophobic comments made by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi – that foreign nationals were placing strain on the South African health system – to demonstrate the degeneration of the ANC.

“There are some people who would like me to come back, and a part of me is still there, in a sense that it was a big part of my life,” he says. “But what I want to do with my life, I will do better outside the ANC and SACP. I really don’t feel the desire to be in the ANC. I care about the things that they don’t seem to care about.”

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