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)

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