Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Paul Joseph

Paul Joseph was totally committed to the struggle against apartheid and remains dedicated to social justice in South Africa and throughout the world.  As a young man he worked for Julius First, Ruth's father.  Below is a letter that he recently sent me about Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid.

Paul & Adelaide Joseph

Dear Alan,
Thank you very much for the copy of your biography on the lives of Ruth First & Joe Slovo ‘In the War Against Apartheid.’
In the course of convalescing I managed to finish the book. I found it absorbing, enriching in which there were so many facets that were new to me.
The way you sketched out these two characters with such poignancy, sensitivity & fascinating details brought out such vivid recollections of our association with Joe & Ruth over years of friendship.
As I was getting towards the end of the book I was listening to Nigel Kennedy performing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at a Proms night. He was accompanied by some musicians from Gaza.
He played with gusto. When he finished there was a tremendous applause. He made a short statement of how pleased he was with the end of apartheid. There was an explosion of applause.
At that very moment I was reading your description of how Joe’s life was seeping out.
I choked and cried at the way you described Ruth & Joe who gave their lives to end apartheid.
It was well after 1 a.m. I got up to go to Adelaide’s room. I wanted to talk to her about what you wrote about Ruth & Joe.
She was sound asleep. Her health is also not too good. I left her.
The next morning as she was preparing the coffee I briefly told her but could not continue as I broke down. She embraced me saying she understood how I felt about Ruth & Joe.
My sincere appreciation to you for describing the lives of Ruth & Joe as well as that of Tilly, Julius, Ronnie & the grand-daughters.
I think this book should be considered for a textbook for universities of South Africa which encompasses the CP, ANC, the Congress Alliance and MK.
The book will also benefit scholars, students and activists in Africa, Europe and the Americas & the Caribbean & Asia.
Many thanks for a work of true scholarship.
Sincere Regards,
Paul Joseph

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Africa Review - Kenya

Mandela achieved few of his big feats solo By DANA APRIL SEIDENBERG | Monday, March 24   2014

The towering figure of Nelson Mandela is often depicted as a lone warrior for justice and as the symbol of that nation’s triumph over apartheid.

Imbued with seemingly magical powers, he prevented that beloved country from being swept away in a tidal wave of resentment, the result of decades of ill-treatment at the hands of a sleaze-oozing, ruthless regime.
His magisterial No Easy Walk to Freedom has been savoured by millions who crave connection to him. Not to diminish Madiba’s larger-than-life legacy, he achieved few of his huge accomplishments alone.

American oral historian, Alan Wieder’s new dual biography investigates the lives of Ruth First and her husband Joe Slovo, passionate whistleblowers whose dangerous underground activities and personal sacrifice for revolutionary social change have earned both an honoured place in history.

First, Ruth First. In l963 after two soul-destroying stints of solitary confinement lasting 117 days in a Johannesburg prison, First fled to Britain where she taught political science at Durham University. She also wrote or edited several books including Mandela’s own work, and with Kenya’s Oginga Odinga, his l967 memoir, Not Yet Uhuru.

Having taken up a position at Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, First was targeted for assassination by the apartheid regime.

In l982 at age 57, this Red-hot academic was killed by a letter bomb she opened at her office desk after lunching with movement photographer, Moira Forjaz and others.

In l960 Mandela joined the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party to impose its armed struggle on the ANC leadership. Joe Slovo scripted with others the SACP/ANC Freedom Charter and organised the guerrilla movement.
Slovo, Spear of the Nation

After Madiba was sentenced to life imprisonment, Slovo assumed his exalted position as leader of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).

Held responsible for multiple acts of sabotage including the bombing of installations around South Africa, he, too, was on the run…living in exile …on and off with Ruth in Maputo. From “terrorist” to national hero, Slovo served in President Mandela’s government oddly as Minister for Housing until in l995 when he died of cancer. An official state funeral followed.

What is wrong with this schema? Why investigate the successes and travails of this particular courageous couple among the thousands involved in South Africa’s liberation and others around Africa in the late 20th century?

Still, their contribution as trusted comrades at the very top of the ANC movement hierarchy cannot go unnoticed. Aside from strengthening the ideological platforms of progressive political struggles elsewhere, their egalitarian message, social daring and achievements could serve as pointers for new generations of progressive political activists.

The moral authority of Ruth First and Joe Slovo rested on their SACP membership. As brilliant Marxist-Leninist intellectuals only later did they become ANC strategists.

Looking back, Mandela, who met First and Slovo when the latter two were law students at the University of Witwatersrand, commented: “Joe Slovo had one of the sharpest, most incisive minds I have ever encountered. He was an ardent Communist… . Ruth had an outgoing personality and was a gifted writer.”

As the years went by, in Wieder’s view, Slovo remained an idealistic admirer of Soviet Communism while First dismissed the “workers’ state” as a gross deception.

First’s parents and Slovo were part of the large two-pronged turn-of-the-20th century Jewish migration fleeing Eastern European pogroms to the subcontinent and to New York.

Out of Lithuania and Latvia’s anti-Zionist Socialist Bund, came the Marxist-Leninist Firsts and Slovos…as did the family of Albie Sachs. (In Nairobi a few years ago Professor Albie Sachs — also in the book — was among those on the Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board charged with sweeping Kenya’s judiciary of its corrupt judges.

Abraham Block

Also targeted for assassination, miraculously Sachs survived.) Abraham Block, another Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant around whom a family biography, Abraham’s People, has just been published, had arrived in Kenya via South Africa. Hatched in the same nest, there the common narrative ends. A number of Johannesburg Jews became immersed in SACP/ANC politics.

The Blocks alongside Kenya’s Jewish and other immigrant populations focused mainly on business. Those who stayed put in Europe suffered a tragic fate at the hands of Nazi Germany.

Wieder has done a commendable job of interviewing most everyone who knew First and Slovo well. So painstakingly rendered is Wieder’s character study of the two, they could escape from the pages into your life. Unfortunately the work lacks a framing or over-arching perspective in which to contextualise events in their partnership.

The ANC/SACP, like the Paris Commune once described as a “sphinx” because of its mysteriousness, is too ill-defined to link the couple’s involvement to either of them.

Outside the ANC/SACP — the couple’s response to the Sharpeville massacre of l960, the Soweto uprising of l976, the Black Consciousness movement, and Steve Biko’s martyrdom — is sketchy too.

By April 27, l994 when Mandela became president, legislating away what Bishop Desmond Tutu called the “pigmentocracy” was a relatively easy, palliative move; the ANC, unlike other anti-colonial movements around the continent, having also contained an admirable mix of trusted Europeans, Coloureds and South Asians.

First and Slovo spent their lives destroying South Africa’s status quo.

It is known that the SACP not only wanted to end apartheid, but also to create a communist state. In the transition from colonial capitalism to a daringly re-imagined alternative society, what were the plan(s), policies or even ideals envisaged?
The infinitely greater challenge to overcome economic desperation that needed bold, often unpopular decisions on income inequality, land restitution and resource nationalism was ignored. Why were none of these goals or aims pursued during his presidency?

More First-Slovo multiple marriage memoir than engaged political history, Wieder’s work is informative, entertaining and emotionally open. But he might have taken a cue from First’s own university course “Politics of Class Alliances” where students read Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, Ernest Mandel, Eduardo Galeano, Rosa Luxemburg and others.
Wieder misses the moment for presenting their world in a salutary manner that connects it to the many ongoing struggles for social justice today.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

London Talk II

Review of African Political Economy 40th Anniversary
Since 1974 ROAPE has provided radical analysis of trends, issues and social processes in Africa, adopting a broadly materialist interpretation of change. It sustains a critical analysis of the nature of power and the state in Africa in the context of capitalist globalisation.

Ruth First: Não Vamos Esquecer (We Will Not Forget)

The South African revolutionary Ruth First made an extraordinary contribution to activism and radical writing and research on Africa. She worked as a journalist in South Africa from 1946 until her exile in the UK in 1964. She then became an editor, co-author and author of a large number of books, as well as a lecturer. She was also one of the founding members of the Review of African Political Economy (RoAPE) in 1974, a radical journal committed to transforming (and understanding) Africa’s political economy.

In the late 1970s First moved to Mozambique as Director of Research at the Centro de Estudos Africanos at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo. In 1982 she was murdered in Maputo by the apartheid state. Drawing on papers presented at the 2012 Ruth First Papers Project symposium, RoAPE has produced a special issue that
includes contributions from Anne-Marie Gentili, Gavin Williams and Alpheus Manghezi. The special issue on Ruth First is the story of First’s life in Mozambique, and her broad and substantial contribution to radical African studies. Much of Ruth First’s work and life remains unknown to a new generation yet her work was of such impressive scope, her activism so courageous. Join us to celebrate the extraordinary life of Ruth First and the launch of the Ruth First Special Issue.

Institute of Commonwealth Studies 1 May, 2014
Senate Room (First floor, Senate
House, Malet Street,London WC1E 7HU)

Panel -17:00 –18:30
Ruth First: activism and research

Welcome by Gillian Slovo

‘Writing Ruth First’s biography’ Alan Wieder (Wieder is the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid published to wide acclaim last year).

Gavin Williams
‘Setting up RoAPE: Ruth and the first years of the Review’

Professor Philip Murphy (Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies)

Launch -18.30 –20.00

Ruth First: Não Vamos Esquecer Review of African Political Economy with Gary Littlejohn and Janet Bujra

Convenor: Dr Leo Zeilig, Project Manager

All Welcome
RSVP to olga.jimenez@sas.ac.uk

London Book Talk

BOOK TALK at Housmans Bookshop London, UK
‘Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War to End Apartheid’
with Alan Wieder
Wednesday 30th April, 7pm

On a rare visit from America, distinguished academic Alan Wieder discusses his new book ‘Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War to End Apartheid’, the first extended biography of the husband and wife who committed their lives to the war to end apartheid in South Africa.  Communists, scholars, parents, and uncompromising militants, they were the perfect enemies for the white police state. Together they were swept up in the growing resistance to apartheid, and together they experienced repression and exile.

Their contributions to the liberation struggle, as individuals and as a couple, are undeniable. Ruth agitated tirelessly for the overthrow of apartheid, first in South Africa and then from abroad, and Joe directed much of the armed struggle carried out by the infamous Umkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated as MK, translated as "Spear of the Nation"). Only one of them, however, would survive to see the fall of the old regime and the founding of a new, democratic South Africa. 
Wieder’s heavily researched work draws on the usual primary and secondary sources but also an extensive oral history that he has collected over many years. By intertwining the documentary record with personal interviews, he portrays the complexities and contradictions of this extraordinary couple and their efforts to navigate a time of great tension, upheaval, and revolutionary hope. 

Alan Wieder is an oral historian who lives in Portland, Oregon. He is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina and has also taught at the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He has written widely on South Africans who fought against the apartheid regime.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mail & Guardian Review

Bedfellows of a different feather

Gavin Evans
Joe Slovo and Ruth First quarrelled about major political issues, yet their marriage lasted 34 years.
Eventful lives: Ruth First playing herself in Jack Gold's film on her imprisonment with husband Joe Slovo during the treason trial. (Courtesy of Ruth First Papers Project, Institute of Commonwealth Studies)
Back in 1989, with the Berlin Wall about to fall, I enjoyed a long and leisurely dinner with Joe Slovo at his Lusaka home. The youngest of his three daughters, Robyn, popped in, but mostly it was just Joe, his friend Pallo Jordan and me, and it ended with a fine bottle of red wine.
"A gift," Joe said after absorbing our compliments, pausing for effect, "from Erich Honecker."
Jordan, an independent-minded leftist and no admirer of the ailing East German leader whose fortunes were taking a tumble, offered a raised eyebrow. I offered a nervous smile. Slovo burst into laughter, clearly relishing the irony of it all.
In Cape Town seven years earlier I had attended a memorial for Ruth First, who had just been assassinated by a parcel bomb. One of her comrades from the 1950s addressed us on First's remarkable struggle contributions over the decades, and rounded it off by telling us that "they were the glamour couple of the left".
She then turned her attention to the scruffier women activists of the student left, pointedly informing them that Ruth took "great care" about personal grooming.
Reading Alan Wieder's biography of this rather extraordinary couple, these moments came to mind. With their very different personalities, regular rows and often opposing views, they emerge as two of the most compelling characters within the ANC's historical cast.
First was known as an open-minded Marxist who refused to toe the pro-Soviet line. But she was also something of a martinet – the cliché "doesn't suffer fools gladly" pops up from several of Wieder's interviewees. Then again, her fierce intellectual rigour and clarity in debate seemed to disguise an underlying self-doubt and shyness. As her close friend Ronald Segal put it in a eulogy: "She was fascinatingly full of paradoxes: seemingly less concerned with the risks to her life than with having her hair done …"
The apartheid state did its utmost to demonise Slovo, portraying him as a ruthless KGB colonel and all-purpose bogeyman. But the mensch I briefly knew, and who emerges from the pages of this book, was warm, witty and charming – and, in private, a lot less doctrinaire than most other South African Communist Party (SACP) leaders I encountered.
Their close friend Wolfie Kodesh is quoted as describing Slovo as a down-to-earth and funny working-class intellectual.
First is portrayed as more complex. "She didn't have a rapport with ordinary working-class blokes … and yet she would give her life to protect them and their rights – of course, she did give her life," he said.
Wieder traces their parallel lives, moving from one to the other, blending the narrative with extracts from 78 interviews.
Inevitably, there will be significant details omitted in a book of this kind. For example, there's no mention of Slovo's role in securing Jordan's release from an ANC detention camp. Yet the book provides a rigorous account of their lives, mainly positive but never descending into hagiography. It is perhaps too detailed to appeal to casual readers, but for historians and anyone who engaged in anti-apartheid politics, it makes for a compelling read.
First, who came from a well-to-do Johannesburg Jewish communist family, threw herself into the struggle as a teenager, invariably emerging in leadership positions despite the patriarchal milieu of the time.
                                            Ruth First in Jack Gold's film on her imprisonment.Courtesy of Ruth First Papers Projects                                                                                                                             
Aside from her work in the SACP and the Congress of Democrats, her prime role came as an editor and writer for the pro-communist South African Guardian and its various successor titles, tirelessly campaigning, exposing slavery on white farms, championing causes, quizzing activists, always careful to check her facts.
Slovo, born to a Lithuanian family who emigrated to South Africa when he was nine, grew up in rougher circumstances – a working-class Jewish lad who left school at 15, joined the communists, forged his birth certificate to fight the Nazis and returned from war to get an ex-combatant's pass to study at the University of the Witwatersrand,where he completed his first-class law degree, while rapidly rising to become a party leader, a founder member of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) and a well-heeled advocate.
Both were defendants in the 1956 Treason Trial. First was listed and then banned. She was also detained without trial for 117 days (the first white woman to be detained under the 90-Day Detention law). She attempted suicide while in detention, and later wrote a book about her experiences, one of nine she authored or edited.
The great love of First's youthful life was her fellow party leader Ismail Meer, but that affair was doomed by the racial politics of the era, and later she and Slovo began their combative 34-year relationship. Both had affairs, although Wieder treads lightly in this area; for example, he does not mention the son Slovo had with another party activist.
First remoulded herself as a Marxist academic after joining Slovo in exile in London in 1963, and was open to the anti-Soviet views of the new left. Hardline party members demanded her expulsion and Slovo acknowledged that they would have succeeded had she not been his wife. They constantly quarrelled about major political issues (including the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia), but Slovo later admitted he was strongly influenced by her views.
His public orthodoxy was secured by the Soviet Union's role in bankrolling the SACP and the ANC, with Slovo regularly visiting Moscow and East Berlin, besides liaising with suspected KGB officers. He welcomed Gorbachev's reforms but only voiced criticisms of the party's paymasters after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The odd couple relocated to Mozambique in the late 1970s, where First took up a post as training director of the Centre of African Studies, which she relished, although some of her colleagues criticised her "democratic centralism" and her refusal to allow them to criticise Frelimo.
In those final four years she lived relatively frugally, let her hair frizz out, became more consciously feminist and regarded the time as the most fulfilling of her life.
The last third covers Joe's final years: his second marriage to Helena Dolny and his ever-increasing political and military role – chief of staff and head of special operations in MK (responsible for the key "armed propaganda" attacks on power stations and military bases in the early 1980s, and the key point man in Operation Vula in the late 1980s).
It also covers his major part in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa negotiations where, as SACP leader, Slovo astonished friends and enemies by proposing the "Sunset Clauses" that helped to close the deal —and finally his 21 months as minister of housing.
The book ends soon after Nelson Mandela bids his old comrade and friend goodbye.
Writing after Madiba's death, it's hard to avoid wondering what Joe Slovo would have made of the 19 years that have followed and whether he would have been able to maintain his avuncular optimism.
Ruth First, I am sure, would have been scandalised.