Terrorist or compassionate humanist, wild-eyed revolutionary or a deep-thinking philosopher? Which description fits James Kilgore, alias Dr John Pape, the University of Cape Town academic arrested on Friday on charges of being a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army?

By all accounts, it is the compassionate humanist tag that fits best, a "champion of the poor", an intellectual devoted to the struggle for workers' rights.

James Kilgore was an unlikely recruit to the Symbionese Liberation Army. The group, which was active in California during the heyday of the Sixties and early Seventies - from 1967 to 1975 - had as their slogan "death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the poor".

Their symbol, a seven-headed cobra, represented "unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, co-operative production, purpose, creativity and faith". The SLA's manifesto said "the name Symbionese is taken from the word symbiosis and we define its meaning as a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interests of all within the body".

The SLA's goals were simple: "To unite all oppressed people into a fighting force and to destroy the system of the capitalist state and its value systems." The organisation crudely combined Marxist slogans, muddle-headed liberalism and a radical and, in the end, totally ineffective and woolly military strategy.

But we have to remember this was the Sixties, and times, as Bob Dylan said, were a-changin'. The youth of America were in full rebellion against the war in Vietnam and sex, drugs and rock 'n roll became in themselves symbols of protest against the conservative US state.

But at the core of the SLA's programme of action was a simple statement of intention that is no different from revolutionary guerrilla movements worldwide, from the African National Congress to the Zanla guerrillas in Zimbabwe.

In April 1976, the SLA's leader, William Harris, told New Times magazine that "the SLA was based on the need to develop a guerrilla front with the idea that armed actions along with above-ground political organising educates and mobilises people in support of revolution".

But, says Terry Anderson, who wrote The Movement and The Sixties, the SLA was "so over the edge that nobody wants to relate to them. By 1974, when the SLA kidnapped Patty Hearst, most historians felt the Movement had extinguished itself... the troops were coming home from Vietnam, the Paris Peace Accords had been signed. I just see these SLA people as leftover radicals".

Certainly, SLA documents contain some typically Sixties injunctions. In their Codes of War of the United Symbionese Liberation Army, the SLA said it subscribed to the Geneva Convention in its treatment of captured "prisoners of war".

But members could be disciplined if they took drugs like "heroin, speed, peyote, mescaline, reds, pep pills, whites, yellow jackets, bennies, dexies, goof balls, LSD and any other kind of hallucinatory drug". Alcohol and marijuana (dagga) were exempt.

"The past has shown that once true revolutionaries have seriously undertaken revolutionary armed struggle, marijuana and alcohol are not used for recreational purposes or to dilute or blur the consciousness of reality, but very small amounts for medicinal purposes to calm nerves under times of tension, not to distort reality".

So where did John Pape, the studious UCT academic, fit in? Firstly, it is important to understand that he was a recruit to the SLA, and not a founding member.

According to Monday's San Francisco Chronicle, in the early '70s, "Kilgore was a fiery young radical, freshly minted from (University of California) Santa Barbara, where he had met and become the lover of Kathleen Soliah (now Olson) a former high school pep rally leader who, like Kilgore, had become radicalised in the heady ferment of anti-war and civil rights fever then sweeping American campuses. They came to Berkeley and soon joined other radicals who would ultimately form the SLA".

The Berkeley campus of the University of California was at the epicentre of the anti-war movement, and was to produce some of America's finest radical thinkers of the era.

The Los Angeles Times, in a July 30, 1995 article, reported speculation that Kilgore could be the notorious anti-technology "Unabomber" and said "those who knew him from the turbulent days of rebellion, arrest warrants and eventual flight from the law say Kilgore does not fit the stereotype of an anarchist bomber and is an improbable Unabom suspect" (in any case, Kilgore was in Johannesburg at the time).

"Patty Hearst, an SLA kidnap victim who later helped rob a bank, described him in her book as a source of calm amid egocentric hotheads who made up the terrorist clan. She called Kilgore, a one-time graduate student in economics at UC Santa Barbara, the model of reason'."

Hearst also wrote that Kilgore had vehemently argued against the use of firearms in the bank robbery the SLA carried out on April 21, 1975, during which customer Myrna Opsahl was killed when a shotgun was accidentally discharged.

The LA Times quotes a former close friend of Kilgore's, Michael Bortin, as saying that of all the SLA members, "Jim Kilgore probably was the most level-headed". Bortin says Kilgore was a supporter, rather than a member, of the SLA, and he was "an idealist" who had considered entering the priesthood.

And an idealist he remained. While his SLA comrades assumed fairly ordinary suburban identities, Kilgore re-invented himself as John Pape, radical intellectual. He dropped out of sight in the US sometime in 1975, quite possibly using the "underground railroad" to first travel to Canada, and then onward, perhaps even to Australia, although this has not been verified.

Shortly after Zimbabwean independence in 1979, he moved to that country - his girlfriend, Kathleen Soliah, who was arrested in 1999, was also in Zimbabwe then.

He stayed in Zimbabwe from at least 1982 until 1991, teaching at high schools in Harare, at the Harare Polytechnic, and was a supervisory teacher at Avondale College, a night school for domestic workers.

It was while he was in Zimbabwe that he met his future wife, fellow-American Theresa "Terri" Barnes. It was also while he was here that he wrote his PhD thesis on domestic workers in Zimbabwe, a PhD that was awarded by Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, in 1990 - although it is unclear whether or not he travelled to that country for the graduation ceremony.

About ten years ago he and Barnes moved to South Africa, where he first lectured in economics at Khanya College in Johannesburg, before accepting a post as a co-director of UCT's International Labour Resource and Information Group, Ilrig, in 1998.

So much for the missing years: what about the ideology?

If anything, Kilgore remained true to his SLA ideological framework and Marxist (some would argue neo-Marxist) roots, becoming a passionate campaigner against globalisation and privatisation, and for workers' rights.

In an Opinion page article for Cape Times on August 27 last year, Pape wrote in defence of municipal workers striking against privatisation. "When workers go on strike this week, political and business leaders will condemn their actions as irresponsible," he wrote, concluding that "the only way to address their needs and to attack the scourge of poverty is to make government accountable for improving the public sector and to ensure that services are properly planned and resourced. I say let's join hands with them (the workers) to develop a more effective public sector in South Africa".

In a June, 1998 presentation to the South African Democratic Teachers Union, Pape analyses the impact of government economic policy on education and slams current trends.

Asking the question, "who benefits from neoliberalism?" he provides the answer that "the trends come from those who make profits and increase their power from this approach - the transnational corporations, the international financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and rulers and elites of the industrialised countries, and a narrow layer of the wealthy and powerful from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

"If we continue on this path, the end result of neoliberal economic policies will be education only for those who can afford it - in South Africa that will ultimately mean most whites and a small minority of the rest of the population."

But the clearest indication that Pape/Kilgore has matured in his thinking way beyond the crude sloganeering and sloppy analysis of the SLA days is contained in a 1998 conference paper titled Down with Missionaries and Objective Academics: Some Thoughts on Political Education for Unions.

In it he says "it is dishonest to pretend we don't have opinions, but it is also destructive to use our views as a sledgehammer to hit people over the head. Sledgehammer tactics will silence differing opinions. Not everyone with a dissident view has the confidence or will to debate the facilitator, especially if their opinions may not be shared with the majority... dissident views are very important to the learning process".

A far cry from the Symbionese Liberation Army disciplinary code which included among its offences "lack of responsibility and determined decisiveness in following orders".

Whatever James Kilgore did on that fateful day, 27 years ago, his colleagues and friends in South Africa to whom I have spoken in the past few days agree: if he is extradited to the United States, his influential thinking and, many say, the deep friendships he and Terri Barnes have made, will be sorely missed.