SLA Fugitive Found a Place to Hide and Live Openly
For a radical leftist accused of murder and terrorism in America, southern Africa was a good place to hide. In a society making a transition from apartheid, it was easy to blend into a world where lots of people had pasts they’d rather not discuss.
Here James Kilgore, a former member of the anti-government Symbionese Liberation Army and a fugitive for 26 years, left behind his radical militancy for a robust career as a neo-Marxist researcher and activist.
While on the run, he taught school in Zimbabwe, married an American woman and earned a doctorate through correspondence courses. At the birth of post-apartheid South Africa, Kilgore settled in Cape Town under an assumed name, but otherwise lived an active public life.
The man South Africans know as John Pape has a national profile among unionists. For more than a decade, Kilgore held seminars for union members and published books and essays and sent letters to the editors of newspapers on poverty, union activism and global capitalism. He worked for a prestigious, left-leaning university think tank in the Cape Town community of Woodstock.
In this relatively affluent, seaside resort town, Kilgore found a lifestyle very much like what he had had as a youth in Northern California. He raised his family in the comfortable suburb of Claremont, rode in an annual long-distance bicycle race, doted on his two sons, now 8 and 12, and became an avid soccer and cricket fan.
He joined the once-outlawed African National Congress and counted among his friends some of the most powerful people in the country: academics, politicians and national union leaders in a society where Marxism is still credible and labor shares power with government.
After his arrest Nov. 8 on charges of possessing a pipe bomb and participating in the 1975 killing of Myrna Opsahl during a botched Sacramento bank robbery to fund SLA activities, a number of Kilgore’s friends showed up for two court hearings to support him and his family. They have even set up a John Pape Legal Fund to pay for lawyers here and in New York as they negotiate with U.S. prosecutors over his impending return to America. The search for Kilgore had intensified in 1999 after federal investigators arrested another SLA fugitive, Katherine Ann Soliah, who had changed her name to Sara Jane Olson. She was charged with planting two pipe bombs underneath Los Angeles police cruisers in 1975.
Investigators later learned that she had hidden in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and began to suspect that Kilgore -- her former boyfriend -- had also been there. But he did not emerge until a few weeks ago, after Olson and three other former SLA members pleaded guilty to the Sacramento crimes. Kilgore’s attorney has suggested he is prepared to also plead guilty to those state charges, but it is unclear if a deal can be reached on the federal pipe bomb allegation.
Militancy to Activism
More than disappointment, South Africans who know Kilgore -- and many who don’t -- see in the former SLA leader’s story their own national narrative: from brash militancy to mature activism, then to resignation and contrition.
“South Africa is a nation full of secrets,” said Rick De Satge, a rural development consultant to the government and a family friend for 20 years.
“If you go down to a suburb or to a township and start pulling people out of homes and ask them, ‘What is your history?’ you’re going to find people who were in the defense forces and committed civil rights abuses. You’re going to find people in the townships who executed suspected collaborators with very little evidence. You’re going to find government officials involved in forced removals of people from their homes, decisions that resulted in the deaths of thousands.
“There’s a lot of blood on the hands of South African people,” De Satge said. “You could almost describe South Africa as a nation of fugitives.”
Despite their close friendship, De Satge said he did not know anything about Kilgore’s SLA past until several weeks ago, when Kilgore contacted U.S. authorities about returning to America to face the charges against him.
Still unclear is whether Kilgore will return under a quick agreement between the United States and South Africa or whether he will go through full extradition proceedings -- a process that could take two months.
South African law prohibits jailhouse interviews, and Kilgore’s wife, Theresa Barnes, declined to comment when approached at home. Kilgore’s friends and co-workers say they were surprised by the news of his alleged involvement in the SLA murder, but not dismayed.
After his arrest, Kilgore’s family stayed at the home of De Satge, who had met Kilgore in Harare, Zimbabwe, where Kilgore is presumed to have lived from 1982 to 1991. In the early 1980s, the city was a way station for African National Congress exiles, freedom fighters from other liberation movements around the continent and fresh-faced college graduates from Europe and the U.S., bound by idealism bordering on naivete.
In that small community of expatriate activists, Kilgore’s unassuming manner and his immersion in the local culture gained him respect. Kilgore taught high school and in a university in Harare, and in Avondale he taught night school for domestic workers. He published an adult literacy magazine called Read On, which offered critiques of the economic policies being imposed on Zimbabwe by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Kilgore and Barnes, a young feminist historian, also created a new history curriculum for schools in Zimbabwe. This was an important step for a nation where the contributions of black people and the history of brutal white domination had been effaced by the white government when the country was known as Rhodesia.
Kilgore took correspondence courses and earned a doctorate in only 18 months from Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, in 1990. He wrote his dissertation on domestic workers in Zimbabwe.
Having mastered one of the major languages in Zimbabwe, Shona, Kilgore became a favorite of the local Africans and was often invited out of the city to visit their countryside homesteads. As much as Harare drew young, idealistic sympathizers, it also drew spies looking to prop up the apartheid regime in South Africa. On the northeast border of South Africa, Zimbabwe was a sanctuary and staging area for anti-apartheid fighters who periodically infiltrated South Africa.
“People didn’t talk about their pasts much,” said De Satge. “There was a state of emergency on in South Africa, with bombs going off every other day, and from 1985 on, South African agents were in Zimbabwe recruiting ex-Rhodesian soldiers.
“A lot of people there were leading double lives,” De Satge said. “They might tell you that they’re going on holiday, but they were really going to [a neighboring country] for secret military training.”
By the late 1980s, members of the African National Congress were flooding into Tanzania because South Africa’s white supremacist government had banned the organization. Among the exiles was Derek Hanekom, an Afrikaner farmer who joined the movement after he became disgusted with the government’s treatment of blacks.
There Hanekom, now a member of the South African Parliament, met Kilgore and his wife. Hanekom was one of the friends who attended Kilgore’s hearings this month.
“Where I come from, you don’t abandon people in political trouble, however misguided,” he said. Hanekom said that he knew little about the charges against Kilgore and that what he did know, he did not condone. But he also said he could sympathize with a man who had taken up arms to fight for something he believed in.
But Annette Seegers, a political science professor at the University of Cape Town, said comparisons between South Africans’ principled struggle against apartheid and the bungling crimes of the SLA are unfair.
The African National Congress headed a mass liberation movement carried on by the majority of South African society, she said, while the SLA was composed of a few marginal extremists with the dubious goal of overthrowing a representative government.
“Every fanciful political cause isn’t justified in its use of arms,” she said. “Especially when it comes to the point-blank shooting of innocents. I supported armed struggle here, but I don’t support what Mr. Pape did. In fact, I resent the comparison and I think it cheapens us.”
Kilgore’s friends say that, while he supported the anti-apartheid cause, he stopped short of taking up arms to further his belief, unlike many of his neighbors.
In 1991, Hanekom, then a high-ranking member of the South African government, wrote a letter on Kilgore’s behalf to ease his passage into the country. Kilgore and Barnes settled in Johannesburg and joined the ANC.
Kilgore conducted voter education seminars and registration drives in advance of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. He also continued teaching, at Khanya College. Leonard Gentle worked with Kilgore in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and described his friend as a reserved and patient man dedicated to a thankless job.
“On one particularly hot day in Johannesburg, John was sitting in his office working with students who were queued up right out of the door,” Gentle recalled.
“People were all shouting at the same time, making demands on him, being really forceful, you know. And here’s this big white American guy who you would expect to be arrogant and bossy, just kind of sitting there and taking it.”
Glynn “Moses” Cloete, co-director of the International Labor Resource and Information Group, a University of Cape Town research center, hired Kilgore five years ago.
“He had published, he had taught, his answers to my questions were straightforward and to the point and full of nuance,” said Cloete. Kilgore eventually became the co-director of the labor think tank and its most prolific writer.
“John’s simple way of presenting complex concepts like globalization endeared him to many of us,” said Tony Ehrenreich, provincial secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the nation’s biggest labor organization. Unions across South Africa use Kilgore’s white papers. In August, Zed Books published a study co-written by him that criticized the government’s inability to provide water services to the poorest townships.
Another treatise Kilgore recently wrote, “Down With Missionaries and Objective Academics: Some Thoughts on Political Education for Unions,” argued that union leaders had to cultivate critical thinking among their members, not lock-step militancy.
“It is dishonest to pretend we don’t have opinions,” he wrote. “But it is also destructive to use our views as a sledgehammer to hit people over the head. Sledgehammer tactics will silence differing opinions.”
Though U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and other American officials have condemned Kilgore as a terrorist, local opinion pages and Internet sites show that ordinary South Africans have mixed views, generally supporting the man, if not his past.
In an interview, Jinny Mullins, a retired schoolteacher who lives around the corner from Kilgore’s house, said she was conflicted about her neighbor’s plight.
“One side of me says that when somebody is involved in murder, there must be a consequence; one has to take responsibility,” she said. “But the other part of me says ... I was a young radical myself, and I know what it is to be swept up in a revolutionary movement.
“There but for the grace of God go I.”