Partially a narrative history, partially the oral history of a partnership, the book aims to present Ruth First and Joe Slovo’s lives immersed in the context of their time, historical flow, cultural and social surroundings, community, family, friends, colleagues, and comrades. These were complex individuals: their partnership, early years and beyond, was tested by their individuality, irreverence, ideology, infidelity, and intensity. Ruth and Joe’s daughters, Shawn, Gillian, and Robyn, are
on record stating that they each paid a high price for their parents’ political commitment. Family, friends, and Ruth and Joe themselves have spoken of their intense private and public political disagreements. Yet letters between Ruth and Joe imply that the personal and political boundaries muddled, and in spite of the contrasts, they each believed that they made the other better, more thoughtful, smarter, and more effective.
Ruth First could be thoughtful, contentious, generous, academic, intellectual, revolutionary, and more. Joe Slovo was tough, humorous, soft, harsh, congenial, thoughtful, political, musical, and revolutionary. Ruth’s colleague at Durham University, Gavin Williams, spoke with me about Ruth, and his words might also describe Joe:
In many respects what you saw is what you got. With Ruth there was no bullshit. But, she lived a complicated life. Obviously the personal which comes out in Joe’s book, but she had so many commitments doing a wide, complex range of things that you can’t understand her by knowing her in one context rather than in all contexts. None of us could have known her
in all contexts.
Ruth was sometimes compared to Rosa Luxemburg. Her commitment to the struggle against apartheid is given as testimony throughout the interviews I had with the people who knew her. In fact, Constitutional Court justice Albie Sachs said, “I once described her as a product of Lenin and the LSE” (London School of Economics). Headlines from a newspaper interview with Ruth during her London years read, “I am a Revolutionary.” Finally, her friend at the London School of Economics and beyond, American Danny Schechter, told me, “She was not playing the revolution, she was making the revolution, or trying to.”
Everyone I interviewed spoke of Joe Slovo as a revolutionary. Probably the most poignant comment, however, came from Jaya Josie, who worked with Joe during the eighties in Lusaka:
For him the focus must be on South Africa and that was his main goal. He put every effort into the struggle and he took his role as leading Umkhonto we Sizwe very seriously. What drove Joe was his commitment, his compassion. It was almost as if he would be very distraught if someone was hurt. That
sort of commitment was almost religious in a way.
When I spoke with Helena Dolny, Joe’s second wife, she said, “I don’t own the truth on Joe.” Though I clearly do not own the truth on Ruth or Joe, this book represents my description and interpretation of their stories in the struggle against apartheid. Ruth First and Joe Slovo were both leaders among leaders. They had different styles. They had different roles in the struggle. Their complex and vital places in the fight for a democratic South Africa need to be portrayed for the people that knew them, and more important for those who have come after them, both in South Africa and throughout the world.