Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Excerpt II: Joe Slovo, Black Consciousness, and Life in the Camps

An important NEC meeting in Luanda convened to address individual armed incursions into South Africa by sometimes renegade, but often just impatient, Soweto-generation cadres. This meeting took place prior to the September 1977 murder of black consciousness (BC) leader Steve Biko by agents of the South African regime. Mention of Biko is significant because many of the young people who were leaving South Africa to join MK were devotees, or at least greatly influenced, by the black consciousness movement. In the years preceding Soweto, and even in its aftermath, the ANC was critical of BC as a diversionary movement. Joe and Ruth counseled the organization to be cautious, positively noting that it was young BC supporters who were infected with the revolutionary “spark…” Indeed, it was Joe’s essay “No Middle Ground” that served as the “spark” for many of the new cadres. James Ngculu, Terrence Tryon, Mohammad Timol, and Keith Mokoape, MK veterans who worked with Joe in Maputo and Lusakain the 1980s, all gave credit to the essay as having great influence to their joining MK after the Soweto Uprising. Mokoape noted Joe’s sensitivity to young BC cadres’ initial skepticism of the ANC and remembered taking “guidance from Joe” when he left South Africa. Pallo Jordan and Albie Sachs suggest it was Joe’s influence that brought BC to MK. Jordan mentioned that the essay “would have an electrifying effect on young black South Africans who would soon become part of the struggle against apartheid.”  Sachs has detailed memories of Joe’s position, influence, and even humor regarding
black consciousness:

After ’76 and the Soweto Uprising and the emergence of black consciousness there were many black leaders in the ANC who said we don’t like this black consciousness, and saw it as a threat to revolutionary consciousness. Joe was the one who said it’sfantastic—they’re expressing their revolutionary consciousness through black consciousness, and they’re going to give enormous energy and strength to the armed struggle. So here was the paradox of the white person in the movement embracing black consciousness and blacks in the movement seeing themselves as old-time, non-racial, socialists.

Joe’s writing, his view of black consciousness, and his general humanity had a great impact on the new MK recruits. This is apparent in his work with cadres in the camps throughout the years of the armed struggle. Much of his time was spent in the military camps in Angola, where the MK soldiers were being trained.  ANC military camps were found throughout Angola, but most of the training was done at Funda, just outside of Luanda. The commander of the Funda Camp was Obadi (Montso Mokqabudi), an MK cadre who would become extremely close to Joe at the end of the 1970s. Though Joe did not live in the camps like Ronnie Kasrils, he was well known by the MK soldiers training at the camps. Cadres who came out of the black consciousness movement referred to Joe as Ijudi, meaning the non-racial Jew.  Three decades after he spent time in the MK military camps with Joe, Ronnie Kasrils is certain of Joe Slovo’s importance in the camps, his rapport with the cadres, and his humanity:

Joe became much more relaxed being able to go back to Africa and being absolutely part of the front line—at center stage. I would say he was the most popular person amongst the comrades in Africa. They absolutely adored him. Here is this old guy. Joe’s like an uncle and he’s very avuncular. He’s endearing, more than anyone they encounter. He was a great leveler, Slovo.

Pallo Jordan was also with Joe in Angola. Even though Jack Simons was more well-known for teaching the cadres politics and connecting South African apartheid, racism, and class disparity to the capitalist world, Jordan describes Joe Slovo as a principal teacher: Joe would have been sort of the principal teacher in the military at the time, the theoretical, strategy side of things.

There were regular talks, lectures, and discussions that took place. There was interaction between him and the rank-and-file soldiers. That also contributed to the degree of popularity he enjoyed amongst the MK cadre. Because remember, a lot of these new crop of MK cadres, the ’76 generation, were people who came from high schools and universities. So there was sort of that inclination anyway. You know, grappling with ideas—the young and exciting new ideas. So he was very attractive to them.

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