Review: Vivien Horler
Rhoda – A biography, by Joel B Pollak (UJ Press)
Mention Rhoda Kadalie’s name in any group and you will get an opinion, often several. She was bright, determined, outspoken, and didn’t care if she alienated people with her views – she believed in speaking her truth, loudly.
She was a fierce defender of human rights, she launched the Gender Equity Unit at the University of the Western Cape, she was by all accounts a wonderful mother to her daughter, Julia Pollak, and a great cook.
She was extraordinarily articulate, and would say things others would not. On the few occasions I spoke to her as a journalist, by phone, my note-taking couldn’t keep up. She was just too quick, too mercurial and I was charmed.
Towards the end of her life she emigrated to the US to be with Julia and her family. She died in Los Angeles of lung cancer in April last year, aged 68.
The headlines of two obituaries published in SA after death give something of her flavour. The first, by long-time friend and journalist Marianne Thamm in the Daily Maverick, was headed: “In memoriam: Rhoda Kadalie, friend and mentor, political provcocateur and good bek”.
The second, by Jerome September, also a friend and now dean of student affairs at Wits, was headed in the Mail & Guardian: “Rhoda Kadalie, the loudmouth, is dead”.
Now her son-in-law Joel Pollak, senior editor-at-large for the rightwing US news organisation Breitbart News, has written her biography.
Considering Kadalie’s origins, it seems extraordinary that she and Pollak had anything in common, other than Julia and their children. And yet it seems they did.
Kadalie was born in District Six, the third of nine children. Her grandfather was Clements Kadalie, SA’s first black national trade unionist, and her father was the Rev Fenner Kadalie, who ran two churches in District Six.
Her family was not forcibly evicted from the area – they moved to Mowbray for her father’s job – but the Group Areas Act later forced them to move from Mowbray to Primrose Park.
Kadalie went to Harold Cressy High School, and later to UWC where she obtained degrees in library science and anthropology.
At the university she met Richard Bertelsmann, a man of German descent, and they married in Namibia as mixed marriages were still illegal in SA at the time.
She later went to the Netherlands, where she obtained a master’s degree from the Institute for Social Studies at the The Hague, where she developed her ideas on freedom and feminism.
In 1986 she returned to UWC as an academic, and helped bring feminism into the broader battle for liberation.
She had a stellar career as an outspoken academic, was appointed a commissioner of the interim Human Rights Commission alongside Helen Suzman, served on various boards and headed the Impumeleo Innovations Awards Trust.
She was also a regular newspaper columnist and became a household name.
But this is a grootbek we’re talking about, and it wasn’t long before she became disillusioned with both the Human Rights Commission and, soon after that, elements within the ANC, particularly President Thabo Mbeki.
She was excoriated for her criticism, responding indignantly: “Whereas my feminist voice had been nurtured and cultivated during the struggle and by the struggle, I was suddenly expected to shut up after 1999.” She didn’t.
After the EFF staged a violent protest in Parliament during Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address in 2015, she wrote: “Frankly, I was not shocked to see Parliament’s descent into anarchy.
“It was the logical outcome of years of abuse against the opposition and criticism. In this all sectors of society were complicit… What we sowed, we have reaped, and the fruits are rotten.”
She began to sound increasingly strident and combative in comments and columns, which unnerved many of her former admirers.
Chapter headings document her move to the right, from “Contrarian” to “The Struggle Within” to “Opposition” to “Trump”.
Not a huge fan of Barak Obama – “one cannot help but feel a bit queasy about the hagiography” she said, after he won the presidency – she hated the Clintons. When Donald Trump stood as the presidential candidate, she said approvingly: “America needs a skollie.”
In an obituary Chris Barron wrote: “[Kadalie] hated political correctness and identity politics… She loved that Trump gave them both the middle finger… She saw in Trump someone brash and outspoken enough to take on the wokish tide, and she identified with that.”
Her writing became even more combative, even abusive: “If people are going to call me alt right, then I am going to call them alt stupid. Alt delete!” She described Trump’s eventual election as “good for the world”.
Pollak says her shift from left to right was poorly understood by her critics, and by many of her friends. “But where some saw superficial discontinuities, for Rhoda there was a constant, underlying theme: the love of freedom.”
Well I dunno. She had been such a determined and committed activist it was hard for those watching her not to feel let down by her segue to the right.
In an editorial note Pollak says this biography is aimed at a general audience, but I doubt if it will find much of one. Whole chapters on feminist theory and race and gender do not make for light reading. And the book itself is not light – it weighs a ton.
I have to admit there were sections I skimmed, although I found the account of her early years and her personal life interesting. You’d need to be a devotee of Kadalie’s or a committed scholar – or a better book reviewer – to get through it all.