The "Camelot" years in the anti-apartheid struggle
A fascinating feature of Alan Wieder's biography, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid (2013), is his reference to the 1950s as "Camelot" for white people who were part of the struggle against apartheid. As Wieder says, it was Gillian Slovo, one of the children of First and Slovo, who applied this term, and, one senses, she didn't do so entirely approvingly. The Slovo children clearly suffered from their parents' intense commitment to the struggle, as the children of other public men and women have often struggled, and Gillian Slovo's perhaps unhappy characterization of her parents' world should be understood against this background.
Nevertheless, the word may be apt. Nadine Gordimer's book Burger's Daughter -- a work of fiction, but connected to the actual life of a leading South African anti-apartheid lawyer, Bram Fischer -- vividly describes the partying of the day. It was, it seems, exciting to oppose apartheid in those years. And why shouldn't it have been? The whole world was moving away from doctrines of racial inequality, and surely South Africa would not sustain its isolation from this progressive trend indefinitely. Victory was coming. Meanwhile, though there were risks and consequences, they were much less severe than they would soon become. In the 1950s, of the many anti-apartheid leaders and activists who were accused in the Treason Trial, not one was convicted. And when police raided your house (as I think Stephen Clingman recounted in his biography of Fischer, Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary (2000)), you offered them tea -- if you were white. A measure of the romantic flavor of the time is that many people apparently didn't take the precautions their clandestine efforts really called for. And, while the political struggle went on, the opponents of apartheid were able to live a life that crossed racial lines -- lines that no other South Africans dared cross.
Things would soon grow worse. A state of emergency and a host of laws that made emergency rule part of regular life, a series of successful prosecutions (including of Bram Fischer), and the institutionalization of police torture changed the world of anti-apartheid opposition. It would take till the 1970s for a spirit of opposition to begin to flourish again. It's all the easier to understand how powerful the state oppression of those years was, when we know how much had been dreamt of and lost from the 1950s.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Monday, November 18, 2013
Of Champions And Martyrs
by Paul Buhle
Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid, by Alan Wieder, Foreword by Nadine Gordimer. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013, 356pp, ISBN 978-1583673560, $23.95 paperback.
(Swans - November 18, 2013) This remarkable book bears the tale of two South African (white) Communists who threw their lives into the cause of overthrowing the tyrannical system so effectively supported by the U.S. and Israel (among others) until the veritable end. To say they were courageous is a vast understatement. They were prepared to die, a hundred times over, and they suffered all manner of persecution over the decades. Today, people in South Africa with historical sense regard them as champions and martyrs.
Outside of South Africa and the networks of anti-Apartheid activists now aging, most especially in the U.S., they are more likely to be forgotten or treated as a mere discrepancy in the upward march of freedom (that is, meritocracy), anti-American to boot. But world-famous Nadine Gordimer, one of the small crew of revolutionary novelists at the top rank of living literary figures in any language, is among the rememberers.
We learn from here, in the condensed version of what is to follow, that the two were Jewish, Joe a military veteran of the anti-fascist war when they met. The war had produced a wave of anti-fascism with an anti-racist undertone, and it made sense to be a Communist as well as an ardent supporter of the African National Congress. Joe was a proletarian of Lithuanian immigrant parents, Ruth a typical middle class South African Jew who, however, had a college affair with a rebel of Indian origins. By the time Ruth and Joe connected, they were deeply into Communist politics. There hangs a tale.
Much as in the U.S., the postwar South African Communist Party (SACP) was under terrific government pressure, but unlike the U.S., the SACP dissolved, with hardly more sense than American Communist leaders had of what it meant to go underground in a society with a formal democratic structure, elections, and so on. Black South Africans actually rushed to join, the movement was effectively transformed, and the left's future set, it seemed, on anti-capitalism joined to anti-racism. Ruth and Joe sunk all their energies into making it turn out that way.
The number of projects they engaged, some legal, some illegal, the people they worked with (including top African National Congress leaders, Nelson Mandela among them), the complications and contradictions of the SACP's loyalty to Moscow -- these are beyond the scope of any reasonably-sized book review. Suffice it to say there was nothing easy for the couple put on trial for treason in 1956, prosecuted by a near-Nazi, and despised as Jews hardly less than as anti-racist Communists. The Party re-emerged, they beat the rap, faced new crackdowns with courage and resolve, and life went on. Ruth went into exile in 1964, as alternatives narrowed, joining Joe in London and setting themselves upon another phase of struggle: the protest and support movements from abroad. Much of Joe's work turned out to be clandestine, with meetings in various places, sometimes Moscow. Ruth would teach at Durham University, and become a theorist as well as a scholar of note, sometimes reaching wide popular audiences (The Barrel of a Gun, about coups in Africa, was read from continent to continent). Joe was ever the strategist, and the training of cadres to return to illegal work in South Africa was naturally his. She paid the heavier price: assassinated in 1982 in Mozambique. Almost certainly, the CIA had a hand in providing intelligence to the South African murderers.
In the end, of course, the collapse of the East Bloc allowed US leaders to accept and even press for a post-Apartheid government with longtime collaborators with Communists at its apex. The AFL-CIO, ever collaborating with the CIA (this eased after the overthrow of the longtime leadership in 1995, but only to a degree), typified the strategy of the West, separating South African labor leaders from their membership with temptations of all kinds, fame to riches. The choice between compromise and bloodbath, in any case, was made carefully, after much discussion, Joe in particular part of the discussion. To say the outcome has been bitter is too simple. As housing minister in the new government, Joe, the undaunted Communist, continued the march to democracy. He was hailed at his funeral in 1995 by Nelson Mandela and a host of ANC officials, buried in the Soweto cemetery along with only one other white South African.
The telling of their story is an achievement for which author Alan Wieder deserves great credit. Writing as an oral history field worker and teacher, I conclude that the book could not have been done by someone who lacked the skill and patience of an oral historian such as Wieder. The entirety of this book has the personal touch and will reward reading and rereading.
Saturday, November 9, 2013
Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid
Book Review by Jeff Jackson
Alan Wieder, Monthly Review Press, 14.79GB
The fight against the inhuman brutality of the apartheid South African regime became one of the defining struggles of the second half of the 20th century. When Nelson Mandela walked free in February 1990, after 27 years in prison, it marked the end game for a government that was by then reviled as a pariah state by almost everyone save the most rabid right wing conservative racists.
That this was the case was due largely to the heroic bravery and continued resistance of black African workers and peasants who stood up to and continually defied the deeply oppressive regime of apartheid segregation that South African capitalism had imposed on the country after the election of the National Party in 1948 until it was forced out in 1994.
Ruth First and Joe Slovo were two central figures. They were from the minority of white South Africans who from the outset fought alongside black Africans in opposing apartheid. Their bravery and commitment would come at a high price. Both would be imprisoned and forced into exile. Ruth First would pay with her life when the South African regime assassinated her in Mozambique in 1982. After fleeing in 1963 Joe Slovo would not set foot in his country until the regime was on its last legs, when he would be central to the negotiations that lead to the first post-apartheid election.
First and Slovo met each other in 1946 at Witwatersrand University. Both members of the Communist Party of South Africa, they were married in 1949. Alan Wieder's well written and enjoyable biography, largely garnered from a number of interviews he conducted between 2010 and 2012 with people who worked with or knew them, is a fitting tribute. He paints a vivid picture of their life, weaving together a portrait that captures the "flesh and blood of human beings facing monumentally difficult decisions".
This is in no way an uncritical account of First and Slovo's pivotal role in the development of the struggle by the African National Congress and the Anti-Apartheid Movement - for example, Wieder stresses the problems of the CP's often slavish following of Soviet foreign policy and the tensions this caused.
But there is not enough detailed engagement with the important political disagreements that developed in the long struggle against apartheid, the split with the Pan African Congress, the move to armed guerrilla warfare to highlight just two. However, it would be trite to end a short review on a sour note. This is a book that should be recommended reading to anyone who is interested in how, in the face of overwhelming state repression, ordinary people can show extraordinary bravery in fighting for a democratic and non-racist society.
In the preface to Goven Mobeki's book The Peasants Revolt, which Ruth First helped to complete, it states, "This book has had a painful birth." Achieving a post-apartheid society would have a painful labour and eventual birth and this volume evokes that struggle and can help us understand it better through the vortex of the lives of two of its key revolutionaries.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Book Review: Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid
This biography of Ruth First and Joe Slovo – the husband and wife team who were leaders of the war to end apartheid in South Africa – intertwines documentary record with personal interviews to portray the complexities of this extraordinary couple and their efforts to navigate a time of great tension. Emma Lundin finds that Alan Wieder‘s work deserves to be well-read for its insight into the couple’s impact on political developments in South Africa and beyond during the 20th century and their relevance for understanding contemporary events in Southern Africa.
It was a stormy relationship that only a bomb planted by an apartheid agent could blow up. Ruth First was a great researcher and thorn-in-the-side of the apartheid government before her assassination by letter bomb in 1982; Joe Slovo was the lawyer turned guerilla mastermind, who blew up power stations and military headquarters before becoming a minister in Mandela’s first government, and laid to rest in Soweto’s Avalon Cemetery. Together, they were two of the most famous and important of South Africa’s anti-apartheid activists, and lived the sort of lives that made for great stories and even greater myths. Now, as the 20th anniversary of the first democratic elections in South Africa draws nearer, their lives’ worth and sacrifices are at risk of being relegated to the dusty shelf of history.
That is exactly what Alan Wieder – a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, with previous appointments at the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University in South Africa – has set out to prevent by publishing this, his most recent book on South Africa’s apartheid history. He is on a quest to stem the tide of forgetfulness that means that “few young South Africans know of the contributions or the sensibilities that Ruth and Joe represented regarding the social justice and the revolution against class disparity and racism in the world” (p. 353).
Wieder knows his subjects well and cares deeply about them. Their stories have been written before: Ruth First’s prison memoir – the short 117 Days – and Joe’s posthumous Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography form part of Wieder’s sources, but he also makes use of his skills and contacts as an oral historian to gain better insight into the First-Slovo dynamics, and their relationships with each other and others. As a result, his book comes stamped with the approval of many of their contemporaries, and contains interviews with several anti-apartheid activists who all help to bring a clearer picture of the protagonists to the fore.
As the first chapters make clear, Joe and Ruth were very different. She was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Latvia, a well-educated middle class journalist who grew up in a communist household and was not afraid of the risk involved in telling the stories of those most oppressed and impoverished by apartheid. He was an immigrant, a poor Jewish boy from Lithuania, who served in the Second World War before becoming a streetwise lawyer representing – among others – Nelson Mandela. They met at Wits University in Johannesburg and were fused together by passionate politics, channelled through the African National Congress (ANC) and its close ally, the South African Communist Party (SACP) – both banned and forced underground by the apartheid regime.
Their differences shaped their relationship: Joe was a seemingly loyal communist and a senior-ranking SACP member, while Ruth’s academic mind saw her move much closer to the New Left than the SACP was comfortable with. Chapter three contains detailed accounts of their arguments – often public – about Stalinism and the invasion of Hungary in 1956, which gives a clear insight into a household divided along ideological lines. Wieder does not shy away from the controversies of his subjects – among them SACP’s close ties to the USSR, and its resolve to use violence in the quest to the liberate South Africa from minority rule. Personal flaws are also laid bare: Ruth in particular comes across as a ruthless reviewer or other people’s ideas and intellects, while Joe’s complicated relationship with his daughters is a red thread throughout the chapters. In fact, Wieder’s oral history method works particularly well when it adds to the information the reader might have picked up from the autobiographical works mentioned above, including the hardships and heartbreaks of life in exile, and Ruth’s great reluctance to leave South Africa even after it became obviously dangerous for her to stay, as outlined in chapter six.
But one comes away with a wish that Wieder had spent more time deciphering the gender ideas of the generation born, like Slovo and First, in the 1920s. Yes, they were of a generation for which even women working full-time for a revolution needed to bear the lion share of the housework, but the attributes given to Ruth and Joe by many of Wieder’s interviewees often seem very gendered, amplifying the former’s feminine vulnerability and the latter’s masculine certainty and strength. Ruth does seem to have undergone a feminist awakening during what would prove to be the last decade of her life: in chapter eight – “Academics and Revolution: Taking the Struggle Home” – Wieder details how Ruth “blossomed” after moving to Mozambique from London in the late 1970s to take up a position as Director of Research at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane’s Centre of African Studies in Maputo, where she began to leave her hair natural and abandoned the need to stay fashionable. It seems something of a missed opportunity not to explore the impact of this awakening and transformation on her political ideas further.
If given another few hundred pages to tell the story, the author might very well have addressed these issues (a similar title by another author, Elinor Sisulu’s Walter & Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime, is a couple of hundred pages longer and still filled to the brim). Wieder might then also have been able to devote more space and time to charting Ruth First and Joe Slovo’s separate political deeds, thoughts and developments in a clearer way, with more time dedicated to their differences, which would help those readers who are not yet familiar with their lives and work. Regardless of that, however, this is an interesting book that deserves to be well-read for its insight into the impact of Ruth First and Joe Slovo on political developments in South Africa and beyond during the last half of the 20th century, and their relevance for understanding contemporary events in Southern Africa.
Emma Lundin is a PhD candidate in the history department at Birkbeck, University of London. Her doctoral thesis, which is funded by the AHRC, investigates links between women in the Swedish Social Democratic Party and women in the ANC from the early 1960s until 1994. Her research interests range from the historical impact of transnational relationships to ideas about southern Africa and Scandinavia, gender and equality, and the histories of international socialism, cooperation and activism.