Speaking to the Present in South Africa: The Ideas, Writings, and Actions of Ruth First and Joe Slovo
History and memory and how the past speaks to the present is a topic that should continually be revisited – ongoing conversations and analysis, of course, facilitate better understanding across time spans. Yet, it is a difficult task as each era is different and “history repeating itself” is at best an historical trope. Even if historians have no concern with the present time, what they write provides lessons on how we live our lives. I think, however, that you must be very careful when connecting the past and the present. Too often when we attempt the connection, we glorify the past and demonize today. In an article connected to the 50-year anniversary commemoration of the Rivonia Raid and Trial, Nicholas Wolpe spoke to the best possibilities and uses of this particular history. He wrote of the importance of preserving the “history, memory and legacy” of the struggle and the imperative of South Africa embracing “the ideals, beliefs and principles upon which our liberation struggle was predicated. He concluded: “Equally it is important that we continue to celebrate and draw lessons from the lives of those who shaped our country’s history and contributed to the freedom and democracy we enjoy today.”
Not only are Ruth First and Joe Slovo people “who shaped South African history and contributed to the freedom and democracy in the country today.” They are integrally connected to the house where we meet today – and thus both the Rivonia Raid and the Rivonia Trial. Joe helped plan the beginnings of MK right here and if he wouldn’t have gone out of the country with J. B. Marks to gain support for the underground struggle he would have surely been a defendant in the trial. Ruth visited Rivonia everyday and it was only happenstance that she wasn’t here when the Raid took place. As everyone knows, she was subsequently imprisoned for 117 Days and clearly believed that she was going to be part of The Trial. In the case of Ruth First and Joe Slovo, politicians and academics, some of them struggle activists, have opined on how Ruth and/or Joe might have spoke to the actions of government and the growing disparity that exists almost two decades after the first South African democratic election in 1994. A partial list of this group includes Zwelinzima Vavi, Jacqueline Cock, Jeremy Cronin, and Jay Naidoo. And each of these people provide questions and insights on how both Ruth and Joe might have led differently than today’s leaders. Issues included class disparity, unemployment, sexism, outrageous CEO salaries, disparate housing, education and healthcare, government and corporate corruption and hypocrisy, and censorship that were antithetical to Ruth and Joe’s “values and moral principles” for “equality and justice.”
The focus of this essay is different. Rather than trying to predict what either Ruth or Joe would say or do at the present time, I would like to review some of their ideas, writings, and actions as historical lessons for today. I refer to Jeremy Cronin’s memories of Joe.
What would cde JS make of our current ANC, SACP and Alliance? What would he have to say about our present government, or the prevailing South African and international reality? There is always the temptation to claim cde JS’s authority for whatever views we might personally now hold – but, let’s concede it, none of us can say with any certainty what he would have to say about our present.
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 was sometimes compared to Rosa Luxemburg. Her commitment to the struggle against apartheid is given as testimony throughout the interviews that I had with the people who knew her. Albie Sachs once described her as a product of Lenin and the 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 that I interviewed spoke of Joe Slovo as a revolutionary. And one after another of the young cadres who worked with Joe underground spoke of his total commitment to a democratic South Africa.
This essay, like my book, provides examples of their democratic, “peoples’ power” ideas, writings, and actions 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.
While it is impossible to holistically describe the ways that Ruth and Joe speak to the present, it is possible to reflect on their lives through selected examples. As a journalist and then an academic, Ruth First exemplified Edward Said’s dictum of “speaking back to power.” And she did so with a ubiquitous resolve toward people power and democracy. As she told John Heilpern in the mid-1960s:
I became a communist because it was the only organization known to me in South Africa that advocated meaningful changes. And because it wasn’t just a policy, but something positive. They wanted to do something. They were immersed in the struggle for equality. They were committed.
It is important to note, considering the present moment, that although Ruth’s writing and lectures were generally focused on the oppressors, she did not hesitate to also occasionally take on the SACP or even the ANC. She spoke loudly when the SACP, including Joe, supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Pallo Jordan commented on the issue in the context of Ruth’s depth, breadth, and political commitment and referred to her as a dissident communist.
One example of her critiquing the ANC came when they banned the conservative newspaper Bantu World from covering an ANC conference. Ruth used the pages of New Age to remind ANC leaders of her own paper’s constant harassment and bannings from the apartheid regime. This, of course, is the type of voice needed today.
But most of Ruth First’s “speaking back to power” was directed at the apartheid regime. From the late 1940s till the time she left South Africa in 1964 her journalism exposed government horrors throughout the country.
Ruth wrote her most famous story in 1951 on the enslavement of Bethal farm workers. She also exposed government seizure of black people’s land and other land rights issues, township conditions, and political protests like the train boycotts, bannings, and a series on how pass laws affected the lives of black South Africans. One of the land rights articles was titled “Africans Turned Off the Land.” Ruth reviewed a number of cases from different regions of the country and used the voices of people whose land was taken by the apartheid government. Ruth First provided the same kind of reporting on the townships of Johannesburg.
With the activist Anglican pastor, Michael Scott, Ruth exposed the slave-like conditions in Bethal. Ruth would expand on the story in several articles and less than ten years later would report when slave-like conditions were rediscovered at the area’s farms. She witnessed police supplying forced labor to local farmers and revealed the unsanitary dwellings where workers were forced to stay with little food or water. They were paid 12 pounds for six months of labor. Ruth wrote about the conditions in The Guardian.
It is not every day that the Johannesburg reporter for the Guardian meets an African farm worker who, when asked to describe conditions on the farm on which he works, silently takes off his shirt to show large weals and scars on his back, shoulders, and arms.
Ruth published a series of Guardian articles under the headlines, “There Are More Bethals.” Prime Minister Smuts ordered an investigation that was at best a whitewash, something Ruth predicted in The Guardian. She reported on government-farmer collusion and photographed police incarcerating black people fleeing Rhodesia and transporting them to farms in Bethal. Joe went undercover and also helped in the investigations after accompanying Ruth to observe black people being taken from the courts to the farms. Concluding this writing was a February 1950 article titled “The Worst Place God Has Made - A State of Terror in Bethal.” Again, we might ask, in the wake of Marikana, do we need more of this type of journalism today?
Obviously, there are further examples of Ruth’s journalism that we might cite and connect to events like Marakana, its coverage, as well as the recent government restrictions on free speech and more. A second element of both Ruth and Joe’s lives as revolutionaries is their personal/political interactions and connections with comrades, friends, and colleagues. Again and again the people that I interviewed told me that Joe was able to have substantive and authentic conversations with everyone. Pallo Jordan recalled that “You could talk and disagree and we had differences. Joe was far less rigid about issues than his peers. Some say it was because he was married to Ruth. To some of his comrades a difference was a brawl.” Colleague at the bar, Jules Browde, viewed Joe as the leader who was also everyman. “Joe was first of all a fine human being. He liked people from all walks of life and all shapes and sizes - all colors, made no difference to him.” Browde and George Bizos both recollect Joe’s friendship with Gert Coetzee, an Afrikaner Nationalist, who became a leading South African judge and wrote a book titled, A Rational Approach to South Africa Becoming a Republic, in the early sixties. Browde and Bizos agree that Joe's friendship with Coetzee is an example of his humanity. While we will discuss negotiations and the sunset clauses shortly, might we again wonder how Joe might have interacted as an elder statesman today.
Even when one looked back at moments of inter-personal tension one had had with her it was also with the realisation that such tensions were not arbitrary ones, that almost invariably something important, intellectually and politically, was at stake. The seriousness of her engagement, the intensity of her concern, could never be doubted. Nor, if you were struggling to be as serious yourself, could such moments cast any doubt upon her personal concerns, her compassion, her continuing solidarity in the next round of whatever struggle, public or personal, was in train.
Joe’s tutoring also actually began at home before leaving South Africa in 1963. Ronnie Kasrils recalls viewing Joe as a teacher during Ben Turok’s trial. It appears that in Joe’s life there were always younger people whom he taught a great deal while at the same time trusting their commitment and judgment. At every stage, Joe recruited a younger deputy whom he trusted and respected, but did not micro-manage. Initially it was Obadi in MK, then Rashid in Special Operations, and finally Billy Cobbett at the Ministry of Housing.
Rashid and Billy Cobbett both spoke of Joe’s ability to truly engage. Rashid talked of Joe’s propensity to interact with the cadres. “Joe Slovo would come and talk to the cadres himself. He would be part of it. He would listen to it.” I should add that I received the same message from many younger MK comrades. Billy Cobbett had similar experiences working with Joe in the Ministry of Housing. On his first official day in the office, Joe called a full staff meeting for two in the afternoon. The meeting included everyone on the Ministry staff – highest bureaucrats, secretaries, and janitors. There were approximately 250 people, mostly white Afrikaners, many who still considered Joe Slovo a communist terrorist.
Joe walks into the room, you couldn’t have filmed this, everyone stood up. This is about Joe Slovo, the most hated white man in the country for this audience, walking in as their boss. He spoke to them for about 20 minutes. He told them a joke about Che Guevara and they didn’t know who Che Guevara was. He told them a joke about Castro and Che Guevara – Castro was the other bogeyman. Then he tells them that we are going to work together and it was all Kumbaya sort of stuff. He introduced me and says things like my door is always open which no one believes because the previous ministers’ doors were not open.
So while Ruth’s mentorship was more formal and Joe’s more personal – both of their lives in that role portray the importance of breadth and depth in ideas and actions that is an essential lesson for the present. Both Ruth and Joe’s publications in the 1970s – specifically The Barrel of A Gun for Ruth and “No Middle Road” for Joe directly link to South Africa today. Ruth First published her book in 1970. The substance of the book focused on Ruth’s ability to provide in depth case studies of military coups in Nigeria, Ghana, and Sudan within the context of colonialism and the decolonization of Africa. The book, however, was groundbreaking in that it provided a description and critique of post-colonial African leaders by an African socialist. As Ruth First stated at the outset of the book, “Harsh judgments are made in this book of Africa’s independence leaderships. Yet this book is primarily directed not to the criticism, but to the liberation of Africa, for I count myself an African, and there is no cause I hold dearer.” She emphasized her point early in the book. “Power lies in the hands of those who control the means of violence. It lies in the barrel of a gun, fired or silent.”
Ruth First exhibited a research strength that would be evident in her writing throughout her life. She possessed the uncanny ability to ask questions that combined societal, biographical, and political issues. Ruth was masterful at connecting colonialism and post-colonialism to the failure of progressive/radical change throughout the African continent. She bares the coopting of African elites by the West, including the United States, but in final analysis her writing in The Barrel of A Gun confronts independent African regimes. Once more, might we picture Ruth presently doing the same in South Africa today.
Joe Slovo’s essay, “No Middle Ground,” served as the “spark” for many young South Africans from the Soweto generation to enter the armed struggle against the apartheid regime. MK veterans who worked with Joe in Maputo and Lusaka in the eighties, all give credit to Joe’s essay as having great influence on their coming to join MK after the Soweto uprising. Keith Mokoape noted Joe’s sensitivity to young Black Consciousness (BC) cadres’ initial skepticism of the African National Congress (ANC) and remembered taking “guidance from Joe” when he left South Africa. Various people I interviewed suggested that it was Joe’s influence that brought BC to MK. And Pallo Jordan mentioned that “No Middle Road,” “would have an electrifying effect on young black South Africans who would soon become part of the struggle against apartheid.”
At the time, clandestine copies of Joe’s essay were smuggled into South Africa as pamphlets under pseudo-titles like “Wines Routes of the Cape.” Joe reviews history and builds on the SACP’s conceptualization of colonialism of a special type, that being internal colonialism, to emphasize the need for a political-military revolution that combines issues of class and race. In addition, corresponding to the title of the essay, he underscores the necessity of armed revolution on South African soil because the government had made any type of negotiations or liberal reform impossible through its own oppression and violence toward the South African people. Near the end of the essay, Joe linked workers and students in the country to the revolution.
If there was a goal for the essay, it was to facilitate an acceleration of on the ground struggle in South Africa. While it would be an overstatement to designate “No Middle Road” as the blueprint for armed struggle, the essay did provide a theory-praxis foundation. Joe’s words echoed Ruth’s continual criticism of herself and the struggle in exile – why are we not taking the struggle home? In some ways, “No Middle Road” comes right out of the house where we meet today.
It should be noted that “No Middle Road” was a precursor to Joe’s writing “Strategy and Tactics” and the Morogoro Conference. The latter is important for various reasons, one being that it was the first of at least two occasions where Joe supported comrades whom he respected and trusted but who were in dire trouble with MK and the ANC. At Morogoro it was Chris Hani and eight years later it was Pallo Jordan. Hani and comrades were disappointed with what they viewed as corruption within the ANC leadership and the incompetence of the Wankie Campaign. They wrote a memorandum, often referred to as the Hani Memorandum that was submitted to the leadership of the African National Congress. Reaction from the ANC leadership was swift. Hani and the other signees were confronted and suspended from the ANC by an ANC Military Tribunal in March 1969. The Tribunal is said to have voted the death penalty for treason although that is not entirely clear. In any case, struggle stalwarts, including Joe Slovo, came to their defense. In the case of Pallo Jordan, he was accused as a traitor by MK security who among other charges claimed that he had disparaged Ruth First. Again, it was Joe who challenged leadership as he stood by Pallo’s side. Like Ruth, Joe was willing to challenge other SACP and ANC leaders. Again, a lesson for speaking back to power today.
There are many other examples of how the writings and actions of Ruth and Joe might speak to the present time in South Africa. When Ruth was assassinated in 1982, there were numerous eulogies that we might cite. One however, by journalist Joseph Hanlon, explained that while most academics would not understand, the murder of Ruth First was a warning for academics. “They should not attend conferences like the one Ruth organized, and they should not support or practice research or teaching that calls for socialist transformation.” Is it a warning that should still not be ignored?
There are three further experiences in Joe Slovo’s life after Ruth’s murder that I would like to discuss because they speak loudly to South Africa today. The first is his pamphlet “Has Socialism Failed?” The second is his part in negotiations and finally, the last is his time as the Minister of Housing. In each case, and important for today, Joe Slovo’s remarkable ability to interact with people is imperative – or maybe better put, Joe was a politician who truly sought a democracy of the people.
“Has Socialism Failed?” was published as a pamphlet by the SACP. Connected to the Gorbachev revolution in the Soviet Union, and critically received by both SACP and non-Party South African socialists, the essay served to nurture thoughtful political discussion and debate. The document is 28 pages and the underlying premise is that socialism without democracy is a contradiction in terms. Joe went to great lengths to argue that the merit of socialism over capitalism was not impugned by the failure of Stalin and the post-Stalin Soviet Union or the other collapsed socialist regimes. Instead, he asserted that the bureaucratic, state socialism in each of these countries distorted the canons through the practice of democratic centralism thus alienating and demeaning the working class as well as other citizens. As Joe was writing “Has Socialism Failed?,” he quietly told Allister Sparks, “You know, I must thank Ruth for whatever extent I am a civilized being.” Joe’s statement was potent due to his and Ruth’s long-term battles about Stalin, the Soviet Union, and other communist leadership throughout the World. Joe addressed the SACP’s responsibility for accepting the Stalinist doctrine and went so far as to assert that saying he and his comrades were misled provided an inadequate explanation.
In a gentle critique of “Has Socialism Failed?” Pallo Jordan noted that besides vast evidence of SACP intolerance of dissenting views, The Party exhibited “praise and support for every violation of freedom perpetrated by the Soviet leadership, both before and after the death of Stalin.” Albie Sachs had different historical reflections on the hardline position that Joe and some others in the SACP publicly held for almost five decades.
We disbelieved the attacks on Stalinism because they were saying that people like Moses Kotane and Slovo and J.B. Marks, whom we knew, were these horrible deceivers and liars and blood-thirsty and power hungry people. And we knew just the opposite. If they’re lying about people we know and things that we know, and their lies help to perpetuate apartheid in South Africa and perpetuate colonial domination, then the lies must extend to the slave labor camps and all the rest.
“Has Socialism Failed?” concluded with discussions on the need of SACP collaboration with trade unions and a democratic vigilance to assure the assent of “people’s power” in the new South African state. There were two critical reviews in The African Communist questioning Joe’s thesis. What is important about these reviews for the present is that the authors were still unwilling to criticize Stalin or the post-Stalin Soviet Union. And while others were critical they did view the pamphlet as an initial warning toward the SACP of the necessity of facing their own history while reaching out to the people and organizations that criticized The Party – again, a lesson we need to pay attention to regarding government in general, in South Africa and throughout the world.
In the later years of the 1980s, Joe was well aware of the fact that informal negotiations or what Oliver Tambo referred to as “talks about talks” had begun. Joe gave a speech where he said, “National liberation implies more than formal participation in the electoral processes and more than the replacement of black faces for white ones in the Mercedes Benz.” In August 1992, “Negotiations: What Room for Compromise?” was published in The African Communist. Joe explained that compromise was inherent in successful negotiations – it was a political process. He also asserted that while it would be impossible for the ANC to achieve everything that the struggle intended, it was a stage in moving toward democratic liberation. There were some premises that Joe viewed as non-negotiable. Most importantly: (1) no minority veto and (2) no permanent power sharing. He explained that the line in the sand had to exist because concessions on these types of issues would block possibilities of a non-racial democratic South Africa.
The next topic in “Negotiations: What Room for Compromise?” provided the drama. Joe proposed a “sunset clause” that called for compulsory power sharing in government for five years. Although the “sunset clause” within the context of the negotiations was first viewed publicly in Joe’s article, there is some disagreement about who initiated the idea. Kader Asmal gave credit to Thabo Mbeki while George Bizos claimed that it was Mandela’s himself. Most believed, however, that it was the brainchild of Joe Slovo, the man Allister Sparks once referred to as “a sheep in wolf’s clothing.” Joe had alluded to the idea in an April 1992 interview with Padraig O’Malley.
We recognize that the day after a new flag flies over the capital the economy is exactly the same as the day before and it can’t be altered by decree. It has to be altered as a process and the people you inherit on the day after are exactly the same as they were on the day before when their enthusiasm and razzmatazz was calmed down.
Whether originator or not, Joe was the perfect person to promote the idea and there was great irony in the fact that the head of the Communist Party, the KGB agent, the Red Devil, was the person proposing the compromise. There was immediate debate and discussion on the sunset clauses. Winnie Mandela accused the ANC of being in bed with the Nationalist Party. “The only thing red about Slovo is his socks,” said one member of the SACP. Dan O’Meara, however, spoke of Joe’s political acumen as it related to the “Sunset Clause.”
Politics was not just about the hardline; it was about the art of the possible. He had a very nuanced sense of what could be done and what couldn’t be done in South Africa and in politics generally and that a bloodbath might eventually bring complete black power in South Africa but it would destroy the economy and ruin any possibility of South Africa becoming a decent country. So by first of all saving the negotiations with the National Party, Joe was one of the two most important architects of the new South Africa.
Joe Slovo was well known for saying “we will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” He was reading Tony Benn’s Office Without Power at the time and his thinking on the “Sunset Clause” was twofold. He knew that politics was an important part of the negotiation process and that making state bureaucrats secure in their jobs would ease much of the white opposition to negotiations and a democracy premised on one person, one vote. Also as a politician, Joe believed that the country needed the expertise of the people that filled government jobs. He warned his colleagues, “We can win political office, but we won’t have political power.” Thus, negotiations were successful at least partially because of Joe Slovo’s ability as a politician – because of Joe Slovo’s ability to talk to everyman.
There are many stories surrounding Joe’s appointment as Minister of Housing. And those of you who knew him are well aware of how sick Joe was at the time. That said, his humanity in that role again exemplifies the dispositions that are sorely needed today in South Africa. With the help of Billy Cobbett and other people at the Ministry, Joe quickly learned the political aspects of housing issues. Less than two weeks after becoming Minister, he spoke at Parliament, arguing that the government’s role was to orchestrate housing, but not to build houses. This too is important to emphasize for the present as Joe’s position was certainly not popular with many of his ANC and SACP colleagues. He also outlined the pressing problems and differing views of the housing stakeholders. Finally, he told the legislators, “The cornerstone of my approach will be to seek an end to the undeclared war between communities, the state and the private sector.” On June 9th, Joe repeated the message, albeit with more detail, at a meeting of the Finance Week Breakfast Club. The meeting was at the Sandton Sun Hotel and Joe concluded his talk with a struggle-like challenge.
Housing is not a privilege; it is a fundamental human right. To live in an environment of degradation is to produce a degraded people. We have striven endlessly for freedom and liberation. Now it is time to deliver. The April election – in itself a miracle – did not deliver liberation; it has only provided us with a launching pad to build a liberated South Africa. The complexity of our task is not an inseparable obstacle, it is an historic challenge, which we must face and overcome. And together we shall overcome.
Cobbett also recalled a visit to the Eastern Cape that affected Joe very differently. The ‘trappings’ of government, the showy security that Joe abhorred, and corruption were all part of this particular trip.
We flew down for example to the Eastern Cape with a few shocks when we arrived – there were ten limousines lined up at the airport and ten guys with submachine guns. And then we came to the premier’s house and we’re just surrounded by bodyguards. This Joe didn’t like at all. Then we went with the MEC, the assistant minister, and he commandeered a helicopter and we went and visited some small towns. But there was this one amazing scene. There was a group of people marking out plots for their own settlements but these were not the poor. These were people who arrived in 4 by 4s and in our view were taking advantage of the change in circumstances to grab a bit of the pie. Joe directly challenged these guys. I remember him saying to this one guy and feeling his suit, ‘My friend, your suit is more expensive than mine.’ Just wanting to make the point to this guy, ‘you’re not the poor. This is not why we did what we did. We didn’t come into power to enrich you.’
Joe Slovo died in 1995 twelve-plus years after agents of the apartheid regime murdered Ruth First. I would hope that their writings and their actions, reviewed today, as well as your further memories, might be re-emphasized in the present moment. Dan O’Meara, who is cited above, recently wrote to me saying:
Neither Ruth nor Joe ever believed that it was 'we' who have made the world unlivable. But rather 'them': the rich and the powerful who put private interest and greed before public good. The mendacious, small-minded tyrants whose inhumanity created apartheid in South Africa and who have now given us the obscene worldwide apartheid that goes by the name of globalization. Ruth and Joe died trying to change the world; they died not in the arid despair of the mind, but in hope at the possibility of change, knowing that only 'we' could wring such change from the grasping bloody hands of 'them'. Unfortunately, that group of 'them' now includes many of Ruth and Joe's (and my) former comrades.
O’Meara’s statement also parallels my purpose in sharing Ruth and Joe’s stories. Their actions always confronted the vile ruthlessness of power that initiated, fostered, sanctioned, and protected class disparity and racism. Ruth’s work as a political activist, journalist, writer, academic, and Director of Research at the Center of African Studies, challenged commonplaces and injustices, class disparity and racism, in South Africa and throughout the Continent. Joe, first as a radical lawyer and initial member of the reemergence of the Communist Party, Chief of Staff of MK, and leader of the SACP, combined strategy with action to fight unwaveringly against the apartheid regime. Then, with the same zeal that he employed as the chief strategist of the armed struggle, Joe was first a significant and central player in the negotiations with the government, and then Minister of Housing, all part of his breadth and depth in helping to fight for a democratic, non-racial South Africa.
Often one wonders, how would Ruth have responded and reacted and you can’t say for sure. In terms of things going on—what would her critique have been? It is a pretty fruitless enterprise except that the continuing reminder is to be alert, to be critical, but critical in an engaged way. Critical not just in the pleasure you get knocking down something that deserves to be knocked, but with the view to improve, to advance.
To be alert, to improve, to advance, is what I hope these stories from the lives of Ruth First and Joe Slovo help us do – they provide many, many lessons for South Africa today.