Mixed-race patriarch takes his leave from the ANC: Joe Marks tells John Carlin in Cape Town why he went over to the Democratic Party

THE MOST charismatic political figure in South Africa's Western Cape sells fruit on street corners, plays darts and trains the province's fastest racing pigeons.

Joe Marks has been jailed, he has been banned, he has been a national leader in the liberation struggle, but much of his life's work pales, he says, compared to what he has achieved with his pigeons. One of his birds holds the record for the 800-mile Kroonstad to Cape Town run - 15hrs 35mins.

Mr Marks, 57, insists he is 'just an ordinary guy living in the ghettos' - in this case the 'Coloured' or mixed race township of Retreat outside Cape Town - but the description does not do justice to a uniquely imposing presence. A dead- ringer for Karl Marx, he sports a stupendous belly. His walk is stately, his demeanour patriarchal, his language gently persuasive and, often, foul. 'If those young popies (farts) in the ANC think they're going to worry me they can go fuck themselves', he said.

The reason why he thinks the popies might try to go after him is that two weeks ago he gave the African National Congress a political kick in the teeth the likes of which it has not had for a long time. He quit the organisation and joined the liberal, squeaky-clean, parliamentary Democratic Party. The likely upshot is that any lingering hope the ANC might have entertained of winning an election in the Western Cape, where 55 per cent of the population is Coloured and overwhelmingly conservative, has vanished.

Mr Marks' hope is that he will help the DP to keep President F W de Klerk's National Party, which he will always detest, from securing victory in one of the few federal regions where it believes it can win. If he deploys his political bulk to vigorous effect he may succeed.

Since Nelson Mandela's release no one of remotely Mr Marks' stature has left the ANC. Active in liberation politics since 1954, he was jailed three times in the Eighties and banned from all political activity between 1988 and 2 February 1990, the day Mr de Klerk unbanned the ANC. He was a founder member of the ANC's internal surrogate, the United Democratic Front, in 1983 and twice was appointed national vice-president.

He took up fruit-selling in 1976 after losing his job as a foreman in a construction company, fired for staying away from work for a day in protest at the massacre of Soweto schoolchildren by the police in the famous uprising of 16 June.

His decision to join the DP was the culmination of a gradual process of disenchantment which began not long after the day (11 February 1990) when Nelson Mandela was released, the happiest episode of his political career. Almost immediately, driven by a powerful sense of foreboding, he started arguing for the ANC to enter into talks with Inkatha.

'I made a lot of pleas over the issue. I knew a confrontation would come. But people on the ANC's National Executive Committee told me they could not and would not talk to Inkatha. I don't know what it achieved because thousands have died since then. Finally they're getting around to it now.'

The first crisis came at the ANC's national conference in Durban in July 1991. His problem was first and foremost with Mr Mandela, whom he says he admires tremendously 'as a person. He's a great man, no question.'

But at that conference he arrived, as did many other delegates, believing he would make a genuine contribution to the policy-making debate. 'Mr Mandela rode roughshod over our decisions. He dismissed so many of our decisions undemocratically. Many of our criticisms of the leadership he rejected with contempt.'

Then last year Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC secretary-general, and other leaders from ANC headquarters in Johannesburg came down for the ANC's Western Cape conference. 'After long debates we arrived at a position rejecting 'mass action', figuring it wouldn't go anywhere . . . But unashamedly Cyril and them turned down our decision. And on sanctions too. We wanted sanctions to end once and for all because the people in the ghettos were suffering like hell. The rejection of that caused me a lot of pain.

'From then on, because of my commitment to democracy, my stay in the ANC became unbearable. It was undemocratic practices that drove me out. I fought a long battle and I lost.'

He also quit the South African Communist Party, the ANC's most powerful ally. 'I joined in 1990 because I believed the working class needed a party to represent its dreams and aspirations. But I'm a realist. If I try something and it doesn't work I'll try something else.'

But why not leave politics altogether? Why join the DP? 'I went to a DP meeting last month. I liked what I heard. I liked the economic policy. I'm in politics to address the plight of the poor and have learnt that without economic recovery slogans will count for nothing.'

Naturally, he has been accused by the ANC of selling out. 'The DP . . . stood by the oppressed when there was no need for them to do so. In fact when it was deterimental to them as whites. I've met Zach de Beer (the DP leader) and I found him honest and straightforward. I was very impressed. And I'm seldom impressed by men.'

The question is, however, whether the DP, with its strawberries and cream image, can translate potential support into electoral success when all South Africans go to the polls for the first time next year. 'I've always seen the DP as a guy with no punch. So what we must do is go out in search of our people and only speak for them after we've spoken to them and heard their views. If we do that I think we can win the Western Cape. No question. Coloured people worry about the ANC and won't vote for them. So the National Party will walk away with it if the DP doesn't apply muscle. But Coloureds won't vote for the 'Nats' out of love and so we must convince them that in the DP they have a political home. It'll be a straight DP-NP fight. The ANC won't get close,' Mr Marks said.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent