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.