Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid
By Alan Wieder
Monthly Review Press, August 2013
Monthly Review Press, August 2013
Review by Seth Sandronsky
Ruth and Joe, white secular Jews in apartheid South Africa, did not have to fight against that society of skin-color privilege. Yet they did because that social system doomed scores of people to lives of misery and poverty.
We discover the complexities of place, space, and time in Ruth and Joe’s lives among those with and without name recognition to overthrow white-minority rule in South Africa. Sadly, Ruth and Joe did not survive to see their long-distance fight bear fruit. The survivor’s role in political negotiations away from apartheid rule sparkles, with in-depth accounts from varied viewpoints of the arduous process. One gets a sense of an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. Against that backdrop, Wieder’s narrative is rich in context and details of Ruth and Joe’s activism as interviews with family members and friends highlight the duo’s union, “partnered and separated.”
Wieder’s work situates Ruth and Joe’s decades of anti-apartheid work amid the Cold War—Joe travels to and from the former Soviet Union and works closely with a colleague there. A parallel structure in the book evolves between the Cold War and Ruth and Joe’s lives. Their revolutionary actions evolve on the stage of what world system theorist Immanuel Wallerstein argues is a system of core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral nations locked in competitive conflict imbued with class struggle.
Ruth and Joe clash, as do their comrades, over what did (not) happen in the former Soviet Union and central and eastern European nations. Her sense of Soviet communism turns out to be spot-on. In the meantime, Ruth and Joe build and maintain solidarity and unity with apartheid opponents against an adversary with an overwhelming military advantage. Nobody achieves such progress without allies and tenacity and Wieder’s account of the ebbs and flows is fascinating.
Ruth and Joe work with the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party mainly. Both groups help Ruth and Joe, on trial—in and out of prison and exile—fight against the oppression of nonwhites in South Africa, as debates over dissident practice and theory push and pull the revolutionaries along.
Joe shepherded legal challenges of blacks and other nonwhites as an attorney. His plate is full with that and leading underground military actions against the apartheid state, helping to form the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, in 1961.
In Ruth and Joe’s time and now, South Africa is the site of vital natural resources for the global economic system. That fact propels Ruth to write articles, books, and reports on how people live and work on the African continent and the impacts of Western settler colonialism. She collaborated with scores of freedom fighters. One is Walter Rodney, the late author and activist from Guyana, the former British colony, who wrote the landmark How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in 1972.
Ruth more than holds her own in a male-dominated era. She is a whirlwind of activity, researching, mentoring, and teaching in nations such Angola and Mozambique. Wieder highlights how patriarchy is no peripheral issue, but central to human liberation struggles. It was a man’s world then, not so much now, the result of mass politics.
Wrestling with internal and external factors and forces involved with resisting apartheid complicated Ruth and Joe’s marriage. How they reared three daughters through this fire boggles the mind, on which Wieder presents ample perspectives. His primary and secondary research describes and analyzes the risks and rewards this activist couple encountered battling South Africa’s law enforcement policies such as the “pass laws” to restrict nonwhites’ mobility—think of New York City’s “stop and frisk” policing that targets blacks and Latinos on steroids.
Opposing apartheid drew Ruth and Joe deep into the economics and politics of South Africa and kept them there for a sustained campaign to create a new order. Thanks to Wieder, we can savor their work to birth an all-racial society from the ashes of a whites-only regime.
Seth Sandronsky writes and lives in Sacramento, California.