Former Sunday Times editor Ken Owen died on March 19.  He gave a speech last month on his 80th birthday, February 21 and the Mail & Guardian first published it today in full.

Click on Ken Owen’s speech at the celebration of his 80th birthday to read the entire speech in which Ken Owen certainly pulled no punches, as was his want.

Some extracts to give you the flavour of the speech.

How in heaven do you offend Hugh Corder when he forgives you even before you have sinned?  But let me try.  I’ll start by saying that as I look back on my life I think I have always tried to find and hold the middle ground – between Hitler and Stalin, between left and right, between Afrikaans and English, between black and white.

. . . .

In faraway Lydenburg I knew nothing of this but my views hardened as I read more – this was a time when visitors to Russia were still crying out: “I have seen the future and it works!”, while five million Ukranians were starving to death.  But Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” drew a different picture.  Later Menachem Begin’s “White Nights” confirmed what Kravchenko had said.  In the end, Solzhenitsyn put an end to the argument with “The Gulag Archipelago”.  And Khrushchev confirmed it all in his denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress.

As you can imagine, my view that the Communists were no different from the Nazis put me outside the intellectual mainstream of my time.  Often I found myself standing alone, but I had no other choice.  All my life I played my hand as it was dealt.

. . . .

Algeria was a moral problem of the fifties in which I followed Camus, again not the phony revolutionary theory of Sartre.  Sympathy for the Algerians did not preclude the hope that if revolutionary violence could be avoided, a solution might be negotiated that would make it possible for the one million French colons to stay in Algeria as useful citizens.  You can see the relevance to South Africa.

In New York I heard a Hungarian say: “In the West the throwing of a stone is a political act, in the East it is a lamentable breakdown of self-discipline.” I understood what he meant.

I won’t bore you any further except say that these experiences hardened into a few ideas:

  1. I was hostile to romantic theories of revolution, so popular at the time, Che Guevara and all that.

  2. I came to believe that the manner of liberation would determine the character of the post-revolutionary government.

  3. I was convinced that success of armed struggle could only occur after civil war and would condemn us to totalitarian government by a vanguard party, which would impose democratic centralism on us; would deploy cadres to all positions of power; would subject the judiciary and the legislature to the will of the party; would centralize control of the economy; and enforce its will by controlling the security agencies.

That, essentially, is what we have got.  I watch with amusement as that trio of old-style commies, Ebrahim Patel, Rob Davies, and in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, try simultaneously to govern the country, centralise control of the economy, and overthrow international capitalism.  It’s ambitious!

Six people in the NEC decide who goes to form the majority in Parliament.  The same six control the security agencies, one appoints the judges.  Together they deploy cadres to fill all important posts.  Once in five years we get a chance to voice our disapproval, a futile exercise.  The ideology and intellectual framework constructed by armed struggle is what I feared when I tried to unmask the communist conspiracy behind the ANC and was accused of looking for reds under the bed.

. . . .

Have I offended you all? I’ll spell it out:

  • if you were more passionate about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg than about Hungary, then shame on you.
  • If you have ever condoned or accepted armed struggle, then shame on you.
  • And here’s the one to catch you all, if you have never worried about Reds under the bed, then shame on you.
  • Finally, if you have been part of the Left consensus, then shame on you.

. . . .

I am so grateful to you all my friends for coming here tonight, for what is probably my last gathering, and while it is a joy to see you, I must say to you that I relinquish life easily, and I hope gracefully.  It is time to go.