Sunday, December 22, 2013

Madiba and Comrades: Ruth First and Joe Slovo

Nelson Mandela made it clear throughout his political life that his contribution in the struggle against apartheid always involved working with comrades.  Included were his close friends Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu and he expressed his love for Bram Fischer in Long Walk to Freedom.  There were many others, two of whom were comrades Ruth First and Joe Slovo.  First and Slovo married in 1949, but their relationships with Nelson Mandela started earlier, in the mid-1940s, while all three were students at the University of Witwatersrand.  Besides collaborating on various protest actions, they were often together at Ismail Meer’s flat, the hub for young revolutionary South Africans in Johannesburg between 1943 and 1946.  Mandela as well as other comrades described Meer’s flat as “dreary, badly furnished, and depressing,” yet Nelson Mandela recalled, “There we studied, talked, and even danced until the early hours in the morning.  It became a kind of headquarters for ‘young freedom fighters.”

Madiba also became acquainted with Slovo because they were both law students at Wits.  Joe Slovo described Mandela at the time, “A very proud, self-contained black man, who was very conscious of his blackness.”  Slovo’s description is intriguing because when the men met Mandela was wed to African Nationalism.  Also, it was Nelson Mandela, on more than one subsequent occasion that described Joe Slovo as nonracial man.  Ruth, Joe, and other comrades helped to convince Mandela that imperialism, class disparity, and racism were all connected.

In the beginning, Mandela and most of his ANC colleagues viewed resistance as a nationalist struggle with a goal of black emancipation.  Joe Slovo and Ruth First were members of the Communist Party of South Africa and their position stated that a nationalist movement could not end oppression because it did not address the essential issues of world imperialism and a class-divided South African society. But Ruth and Joe, and people like Rusty Bernstein and Jack Simons, worked hard to build an alliance, as did ANC members like Walter Sisulu and eventually Nelson Mandela. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes that his friendships with Moses Kotane, Ruth First, and Ismail Meer helped him to reconsider his position.  The understanding between the ANC and CP was that South Africa represented a unique struggle referred to as “colonialism of a special type.” Jack Simons reflected that it was the commonly shared understanding of the organizations that there was a direct relationship between the “national libratory struggle and the struggle for socialism” that brought the SACP and ANC together and nurtured resistance politics and actions throughout the struggle against apartheid. Almost fifty years ago, South African historian and Mandela biographer, Mary Benson, concluded that the alliance of white communists and the ANC led “to a large extent to the refusal of so many African leaders to turn racialist.”

“Good-looking, very proud, very dignified, very prickly, rather sensitive, perhaps even arrogant.  But of course he was exposed to all the humiliations,” was how Ruth First described Nelson Mandela in the late 1940s.  Mandela also remembered meeting Ruth and Joe.  “I met Joe Slovo and his future wife, Ruth First,” recalled Mandela. “Then as now, Joe had one of the sharpest, most incisive minds I have ever encountered.  He was an ardent Communist, and was known for his high-spirited parties. Ruth had an outgoing personality and was a gifted writer.”  Besides her work as a journalist, academic, and writer, Ruth First edited Madiba’s manuscript that was smuggled out of prison in the 1960s and became the book, No Easy Walk to Freedom.  She also wrote the preface and reminded readers that “some of his speeches are missing or unavailable because in police files.”

Ruth and Joe were both involved in the Defiance Campaign in 1952. Led by Nelson
Mandela, whom Joe referred to as the “Volunteer-in-Chief,” black South Africans protested against pass laws and other racist affronts.  The ANC ended the campaign in 1953 when over 8,000 people were arrested, many of whom were flogged during their detainment. Ruth and Joe also represented the alliance in their professional lives: Joe in his legal representation of black South Africans and Ruth in her work as a journalist and managing editor of The Guardian.  There were many ANC actions that led to the government pressing charges against Nelson Mandela, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, and 153 comrades who went to court in 1956 in the now infamous Treason Trial.  Joe spoke of Madiba’s position before and during the trial saying that Mandela  “did not harbor any illusions about the ultimate possibility of converting the ruling class without a tough revolutionary struggle.”

The Treason Trial, officially named Regina v. Adams and 155 Others, began on December 19, 1957, with a preliminary hearing. Besides Madiba, Ruth and Joe, defendants included, Lilian Ngoyi, Moses Kotane, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Gert Sibande, Rusty Bernstein, Z. K. Matthews, Ahmed Kathrada, Paul Joseph, Jack Hodgson, Helen Joseph, Chief Luthuli, and many others – all Madiba’s comrades. Of the 156 people charged, 105 were black, twenty-one Indian, seven coloured, and twenty-three white. Racialism even determined making bail — blacks paid 50 pounds, Indians and coloureds 100 pounds, and whites were charged 250 pounds. All of the people charged were released on bond within two weeks of arrest.  Despite prison conditions that mirrored South African societal racism, Nelson Mandela described the experience as “the largest and longest unbanned meeting of the Congress Alliance in years.”

People from all over the country gathered to honor and support leaders they viewed as people’s heroes. Leaflets were distributed and placards read, “We Stand By Our Leaders.” Singing and chanting went on throughout the trial days, and if anything, the crowds increased during the nine months of the trial’s preliminary stage. The people who gathered were clearly angry, yet there was still a celebratory spirit that was also shared by the defendants. Nelson Mandela, Rusty Bernstein, and Walter Sisulu, as well as Joe Slovo, described laughter and singing as they were driven to and from the Johannesburg Drill Hall in gray prison vans. Joe served as one of the defense lawyers even though he was a defendant, and witnessed the disorganization and incompetence that guided the beginning of the trial. He equated the continuing mishaps as directly corresponding to the farcical nature of the charges and the trial.

In his 1958 book, The Treason Cage, Anthony Sampson wrote about Ruth and Joe in biographical chapters as leaders in the movement against apartheid. Interestingly, Sampson did not do the same for Nelson Mandela. In Sampson’s subsequent book, Mandela: The Authorized Biography, he explained in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner that at the time he believed that Mandela was too detached to be a future leader. He wrote that the names First and Slovo “were often on African lips,” and noted that “Ruth First, though only thirty-two, was already part of South African history.”  Sampson concluded, acknowledging the importance of both Joe and Ruth to black people and the struggle:

They were attractive, definite people, who epitomized what Africans required from Europeans: they gave large, expansive parties in their low modern house near Sophiatown, where all the races came together in a pocket of racelessness, and they worked with a sense of common purpose which helped to obliterate any resentment of domination or bossiness. Joe Slovo had what Africans most admire—a sharp and fearless legal brain, which could bully police witnesses and open up the cracks in the law, and the dislike of the workings of the state that Africans instinctively feel. Ruth First was the Johannesburg representative of New Age which voiced the scandals so discreetly hushed-up elsewhere. In its foreign policy New Age was as obedient to Moscow as the Daily Worker, but in its home reporting it reflected what all Africans were saying, and what many white Liberals would have said if they dared. Ruth First had the aura of New Age about her.

On April 13, 1958, the charges against the majority of The Treason Trial defendants were dropped for lack of evidence.  Ruth First spontaneously announced that there would be a celebratory party at their home.  Walter and Albertina Sisulu attended as did many of the other defendants and people from the Treason Defense Fund, including Ambrose Reeves, the Bishop of Johannesburg. According to Sampson, one of the attendees was an American named Millard Shirley who was later identified as a CIA operative. Notably missing was Nelson Mandela, who immediately went into hiding after the verdict. If later reports are correct, it was Shirley who provided the tip to the Special Branch that led to Mandela’s arrest in 1962.

Both during and after the trial, Ruth First continued her radical journalism.  Nelson Mandela as well as revolutionary leaders throughout the continent aided her in this work.  More specifically, as the editor of the paper, Fighting Talk, from 1955 to 1960, when the newspaper was discontinued because of the apartheid regime declaring a state of emergency, Ruth was able to attract an incredibly eclectic group of writers. The list of South African struggle stalwarts is impressive in itself -- Tambo, Kotane, Luthuli, Matthews, Mbeki, Dadoo, and of course Nelson Mandela.  But she also attracted from afar—Kenyatta, Ben Bella, Nkrumah, Touré, and Nyerere. Never before had there been a list of revolutionary African leaders who wrote for the same publication. Fighting Talk also published Father Trevor Huddleston’s farewell to South Africa in 1955 and letters from South African writer Eskia’ Mphahlele, who at the time was in exile in Ghana.

Although underground, Nelson Mandela was politically involved meeting with comrades and planning struggle.  The meetings included Joe Slovo and Ruth First.  After the infamous Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, an ANC and SACP joint committee that included Sisulu, Mandela, Nokwe, and Joe convened at the Slovo home in Roosevelt Park to plan a nationwide general strike memorializing the murders at Sharpeville and Langa. They decided to forcefully proceed on an anti-pass campaign. Chief Luthuli publicly burned his passbook in Pretoria. There were demonstrations throughout the country and for a moment some government ministers appeared to realize that a relaxation of apartheid oppression might be necessary to avoid revolution.  In addition to the mass demonstrations, the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, British Parliament, and the Dutch condemned the South African government. Members of Parliament publicly blamed the victims. A week later both the ANC and PAC, like the SACP, were banned as the government declared a State of Emergency. Police followed with pre-dawn raids arresting 19,000 members of the SACP, ANC, PAC, Congress Movement, Non-European Unity Movement, Liberal Party, and others who challenged, or who the government believed challenged, the apartheid state.

In 1961, Joe Slovo was directly involved in the forming of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the underground military operation, that though formed by ANC and SACP leaders, initially claimed itself an independent organization, a distinction that Joe referred to as a “necessary fiction.” He called MK “the people’s war.” Nonviolence as a tactic was criticized in a paper by Michael Harmel, a member of the SACP Central Committee, as being unrealistic at a time when the government treated passive resistance as treason. Using this paper as a foundation, leaders in both the ANC and SACP agreed that it was time for armed struggle. Thus, with some funding from African states and Communist governments, Umkhonto we Sizwe was secretly launched, with Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo as the High Command. Their deputies were Govan Mbeki and Jack Hodgson. Contacts made previously by the SACP enabled cadres to be sent to China for six months to train as soldiers. The extended plan was to station the cadres in other African states for further training and planning for armed struggle against the apartheid regime. Tactically, Mandela and Slovo chose to initiate the mission with a sabotage campaign within the country. Regional commands were formed throughout South Africa to engineer local acts of subversion. The plan was to bomb government buildings and infrastructure—with no attacks on places inhabited by people. Even within this campaign a small bit of hope remained that the oppression might end without all-out armed struggle. The apartheid regime did not agree.

Ruth and Joe helped organize the purchase of Lilliesleaf, the property that the government raided in 1963.  This lead to the infamous Rivonia Trial in 1964, when top ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, and Walter Sisulu, were convicted of sabotage. At the conclusion of the trial, except for Bram Fischer, the leaders of both the ANC and SACP were either incarcerated or in exile. Despite valiant attempts, the struggle inside South Africa was moribund. As Gregory Houston writes, “It was one of the most severe blows that MK, the ANC and SACP underground would suffer.”

While Nelson Mandela was underground in 1961, Ruth arranged for a television interview with the future president and British reporter Brian Widlake. It was in this interview, much to the dismay of some of his ANC brethren, that Mandela publicly broached the possibility of moving past nonviolent resistance. “If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent demonstrations we will have  to seriously reconsider our tactics. In my mind, we are closing a chapter on this question of non-violent policy.”

Evident to most people in the struggle by 1962, Nelson Mandela was the leader of the resistance. The future president’s underground freedom ended on August 5, 1962, after he had gone to speak at a meeting in Durban. As noted, Mandela’s whereabouts were probably revealed to the Special Branch by Millard Shirley, the CIA operative who attended Ruth and Joe’s Treason Trial party. Knowing that Shirley was at the party and that he was the person who exposed Nelson Mandela is one of many events that justify Joe Slovo often using the term, “Keystone Cops,” as a descriptor of some resistance actions—before, during, and after the early 1960s.

Following Mandela’s arrest, Joe Slovo was not only one of Madiba’s lawyers, he was also fully involved in a strategy to assist in his escape from prison. A working committee that included Joe Modise, Harold Wolpe, and Joe met at Rivonia where they reviewed various schemes. Most of them were unrealistic. For example, one proposal was for Arthur Goldreich, nominal owner of Rivonia, and in the not too distant future a prison escapee with Harold Wolpe, Abdulhay Jassat, and Mosie Moola, to devise a mask so that Mandela could impersonate a fellow prisoner. After much discussion, Wolpe, Modise, and Joe agreed on an intricate plan to facilitate the escape during Mandela’s trial.  The plan became moot. On the eve of the trial the South African government transferred Nelson Mandela to Pretoria to face his charges. Not only was the escape strategy defunct, Joe was no longer able to serve as Mandela’s attorney due to his latest banning order restricting him to Johannesburg. He appealed to the court in hope of being permitted to travel to Pretoria for the trial. Joe’s request was denied. This virtually ended his vocation as an attorney; he no longer could represent the people he had served throughout the country.

Ruth First and Joe Slovo had departed the country by the time Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964.  Joe had left in 1963, before the Rivonia Raid, and was on a mission with J. B. Marks to introduce Umkhonto we Sizwe to newly independent African countries.  Ruth was imprisoned in 1963 and her prison documentary, 117 Days, explains her certainty that she would be charged with Madiba and other comrades.  That did not occur, and Ruth went into exile early in 1964.  Both Joe Slovo and Ruth First longed to be back in South Africa and they both also felt that somehow they had failed their comrades who remained in the country.  Ruth spoke with a British reporter about both being in the United Kingdom and the apartheid reality in South Africa.

When I first came over to London and traveled on the tube I’d panic because I kept thinking black people would get into trouble for travelling with white. It was an automatic reaction. In South Africa you can’t even talk openly to an African without creating a scene—you’re supposed to walk past people you
know and like because they’re black. I remember once talking to Nelson Mandela outside the post office in Johannesburg—I’ve known him since I was a student—and as we talked everyone began to stare. Well, the more fuss there was, the more that proud handsome man kept on talking. But the fact, just the fact, that we were talking as equals was creating a sensation.

Shortly after arriving in London, Ruth completed Govan Mbeki’s book, The Peasants’ Revolt , as well as a collection of Nelson Mandela’s writings and speeches, No Easy Walk to Freedom. The latter, similar to 117 Days, was released in 1965. At the time of printing, Mandela was beginning decades of imprisonment on Robben Island. The preface to No Easy Walk to Freedom was brief. Ruth explained the book’s process and as noted reminded the reader that some of Mandela’s speeches were unavailable because their only home at the time was in the South African police archives. The book includes Mandela’s voice between 1953 and 1963.

Ruth First would never see Nelson Mandela again.  After agents of the South African government assassinated her in 1982, and various times thereafter, Madiba honored Ruth First’s inestimable contributions to the war against apartheid.  One example is his address to the Ruth First Tenth Anniversary Commemoration Trust in Cape Town.  Many comrades attended as did Joe, Shawn, Gillian, and Robyn Slovo.

Ruth spent her life in the service of the people of Southern Africa. She went to prison for her beliefs. She was murdered because of her acute political acumen combined with her resolute refusal to abandon her principles. Her life, and her death, remains a beacon to all who love liberty. Many of you here today also knew Ruth personally, and will pay fitting tribute to her. But for us the assassination of Ruth First was not only a personal tragedy of immense proportions. It was part of a pattern of the systematic elimination of leading opponents of apartheid. Ten years later this commemoration is most appropriate, because it is only now that information is beginning to come out about the death squads and the crimes committed in defense of apartheid.

Two years before Mandela’s speech, after he had been released from almost 28 years of incarceration, and after Joe Slovo returned from 27 years in exile, the two men were reunited in person for the first time.  Although there is not clear documentation, it appears that in the late-1980s Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Joe Slovo did speak by phone while Madiba was still in jail and Tambo and Slovo were exiled in Zambia.  The subject was negotiations about negotiations or more succinctly, Mandela’s talks with representatives of the apartheid regime.  Between 1990 and 1994, however, Nelson Mandela came to rely on Joe Slovo in various ways.  From the time Madiba gave his first speech in Cape Town after being released from Victor Verster prison February 11, 1990, it was clear to almost everyone in the world that he was the leader of the South African people.  But negotiations were imminent with the apartheid government, and it is here where Mandela and Slovo’s lives intersected.  Thus, on July 19, Joe Slovo made the announcement ending the armed struggle.  Just ten days later, Nelson Mandela was addressing the re-launch of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

The termination of the armed struggle was clearly a necessity for formal negotiations to commence.  And Joe Slovo was the perfect messenger.  The ANC’s National Executive Committee met on July 19. Joe proposed the unilateral cessation of the armed struggle. Mandela supported the proposal and the NEC approved Joe’s proposition.  The plan would be presented at the next meeting with the government, scheduled for early August. Joe Slovo presenting the idea was a powerful tactic because as a leader of both the Communist Party and the MK underground army, he more than anyone else had the credentials to negotiate the plan.

Concurrent to Slovo’s proposal and its acceptance, using false evidence, President de Klerk announced that Joe Slovo was still in fact involved in armed struggle.  Besides threatening arrest, he wanted Mandela to remove Slovo as a negotiator.  Headlines in South African newspapers were ablaze. The Natal Witness led with “Red Plot Allegations Denied by SACP’s Slovo” and The Sunday Times read “ANC Secret Cell Shock.” De Klerk demanded the removal of Joe Slovo from the planned August negotiations. De Klerk’s evidence was a handwritten document written at the secret SACP Tongaat meeting championing the continuance of armed struggle. The paper was signed “Joe.” However, Joe Slovo was out of the country at the time of the SACP assembly and the writing was actually that of Gebuza, whose alias was Joe. On the day of the SACP launch, the headline of The Sunday Times read, “ANC Stands by Red Joe.” Mandela had announced to de Klerk that Joe Slovo would be an integral part of the negotiation team. The president did not dispute the president-to-be.

50,000 people packed the stadium for the SACP launch.  People from all four of the apartheid-era ethnic designated groups were present, but the huge majority were black workers. Joe was on the stage with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu while other Party leaders sat in the front rows.  There were recognitions of fallen freedom fighters, speeches addressing the past, present, and future. Nelson Mandela spoke on the ANC-SACP alliance, and he warned the government about their attempts to sabotage the coming negotiations process—a clear reference to both the “Red Plot” and security forces’ incitement of violence.

The general secretary of the Communist Party, comrade Joe Slovo, is an old friend. There is an old established friendship between his family and mine. We went to university together. We were co-accused in the Treason Trial of 1956 to 1961. Over the years, we have shared the same views on fundamental issues to do with ending the criminal system of apartheid and the democratic transformation of our country. Today we share the same views about the vital importance and urgency of arriving at a political settlement through negotiations, in conditions of peace for all our people. This personal and political relationship has been able to endure over the decades precisely because Joe Slovo and his colleagues in the Communist Party have understood and respected the fact that the ANC is an independent body. They have never sought to transform the ANC into a tool and a puppet of the Communist Party. They have fought to uphold the character of the ANC as the Parliament of the oppressed, containing within it people with different ideological views, who are united by the common perspective of national emancipation represented by the Freedom Charter. Even when we got together with comrade Joe Slovo and others in 1961 to form the People's army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, we understood the specific role that Umkhonto had to play. We understood that despite the fact that state repression had compelled us to take up arms, this did not make the ANC a slave to violence. 

When Joe neared the dais, dressed in a gray suit and wearing his already famous red socks, he was met with cheers and chants—Viva! to the SACP, Viva! to socialism, and Viva! to Joe Slovo. After presenting a short history of the SACP, he referenced de Klerk’s charges of an SACP plot, outlining three lies as he waved his passport showing that he was in Zambia during the time of his supposed writing of the insurgent document. He concluded saying, “Government allegations of a Communist conspiracy are attempts to rubbish the Party. It is they who forced us to work in the cellars and shadows. Even now they are trying to force us back into the underground cellars.”  At the conclusion of Joe’s speech, the last of the day, amid the cheers and vivas, the dark clouds burst and rain fell on Jabulani Stadium.

Nelson Mandela was both a complex revolutionary and politician.  Besides sanctioning Joe Slovo to publicly announce the end of the armed struggle, he appointed Joe, Mac Maharaj, and Cyril Ramaphosa as the primary negotiators with the apartheid regime.  A cursory analysis would be somewhat confusing because of the apartheid government’s conservatism, the progressivism of the people elected was seemingly incongruous in the context of imminent negotiations.  And though it would be incorrect to deny the tensions between the African National Congress and the Nationalist Party during negotiations, might it be that Madiba actually knew that it was more important that ANC negotiators sell the struggle to their most radical struggle comrades.

In an article titled, “Negotiations: What Room for Compromise?” Joe Slovo proposed a “sunset clause” that called for compulsory power sharing in government and job security for agency bureaucrats for five years. Although the idea of a sunset clause within the context of the negotiations was first voiced publicly in Joe’s article, there is some disagreement about who initiated it. Kader Asmal gave credit to Thabo Mbeki, while George Bizos claimed that it was Mandela’s idea. 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.”  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 South African Communist Party, the KGB agent, the “Red Devil,” was the person proposing the compromise.  It must be noted, however, that it was imperative that Nelson Mandela give his consent.

In Danny Schechter’s new book, Madiba A to Z, he recalls Joe Slovo speaking with him in 1992 about Mandela and compromise.  Joe talked about counter-revolutionaries and the bloodbath in Chile and then said, “They have all the arms, the police, and military structures in place; the ANC does not.”

Negotiations ebbed and flowed but eventually the efforts led to South Africa’s first democratic election on April 27, 1994.  It was in his cabinet appointments, at least in terms of Joe Slovo, that Nelson Mandela again showed his brilliance as a politician.  As the election approached, Joe was again suffering from his cancer, yet, he expected an appointment in Mandela’s cabinet.  Since the first government was one of national unity, there were to be cabinet ministers representative of the various political parties—not only those from the struggle. Joe had anticipated an appointment in the Justice Ministry, and many people were surprised when he was chosen Minister of Housing. His selection was foreshadowed in one of his 1992 interviews with Padraig O’Malley:

I don’t think within five years we’ll be able to solve the housing problem of South Africa, but I think people are very patient and very understanding in general and this is something I’ve been convinced about since coming back to the country. I think it’s a question of honesty and honest politics, and really getting down to trying to do something using the resources that are available in the best possible way. I think people will understand that, and they will accept that we’re not going to have a Utopia in 1995.

Although there has been political analysis of Joe’s appointment by Mandela as Minister of Housing as a devaluation of the left, what is evident is that Joe, unlike some of his fellow ministers, immediately engaged in his work. His first act was hiring a new Director General to be the housing expert in the Ministry. The man he hired, William Cobbett, had a different perception of the debates surrounding Joe’s appointment:

It was either the smartest thing Mandela ever did or some less than generous thing of sidelining. The popular read was that it was a stroke of genius to put the most popular guy after Mandela more-or-less into what was agreed was a difficult challenge. The message I took was that they were taking housing seriously after all.

Although his cancer was progressing at a disturbing pace, Joe Slovo immersed himself into his work as Mandela’s Minister of Housing.  Relying on the expertise of Cobbett and others at the Ministry, he worked feverishly to introduce a bill in Parliament.  In truth, he understood that his days were numbered.  He was sick and frail when he attended the December meeting of the African National Congress.  By this time everyone, including Nelson Mandela, realized that Joe Slovo was close to death.  The key event at the Congress was the presentation to Joe of the ANC’s highest honor, the Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe Award. Acting on the decision of the National Executive Committee, Nelson Mandela presented the award, enumerating Joe Slovo’s multiple contributions to the struggle—mediating work in the ANC-SACP alliance, Umkhonto we Sizwe, strategy and tactics, and his work as Minister.  Madiba also elaborated on Joe as a model of non-racialism.  “I am not sure, Comrade Joe, if you ever thought of yourself as a white South African. In a country in which there is a racially oppressed majority, non-racism is not an outlook that can be simply taken for granted.”

Joe’s response to the presentation was brief: “As far as I’m concerned, what I did, I did without any regrets. I decided long ago in my life that there is only one target, and that target is to remove the racist regime and obtain power for the people.”

Nelson Mandela visited Joe just before his comrade died.  Two days later he told Helena, “When I visited Joe and he stood and embraced you, I think he was saying good-bye.”  Madiba also rushed to the Slovo home in the early morning hours after he was informed that Joe had died.  Schechter relays a story of the bond between the two men through an interview with Amina Cachalia.

He liked Joe a great deal.  I remember when Joe died.  He told me that morning when he phoned, saying, “You must go.  Joe has died.  Go now.  Take Yusuf and go to Joe’s house before the crowds of people come.  Go and spend some time with the family.  Will you go right now?” I remember saying to Yusuf then, “I don’t think Madiba realizes how much he is going to miss Joe.”

Of course, Nelson Mandela spoke at Joe Slovo’s funeral saying:

Comrade Joe Slovo was one of those who taught us that individuals do not make history. Yet, in each generation there are a few individuals who are endowed with the acumen and personal bearing, which enable them to direct the course of events…. JS did not see himself as a white South African but as a South African. He was a full part of the democratic majority, acting together with them for a just and democratic order. Joe Slovo was among the few white workers who understood their class interest and sought common cause with their class brother and sisters irrespective of race…. We shall forever remember Slovo as one of the embodiments of the alliance between the ANC and the SACP. Joe knew that the interests of the working class in our country were intimately bound up with those of the rest of the oppressed majority in pursuit of democracy and a better life. He knew too that, for the working class to realize these interests, it had to play an active role in the liberation struggle and the liberation movement.

There is a photograph of Nelson Mandela speaking at the funeral in front of a larger than life banner of Joe Slovo.  The lives of Ruth First and Joe Slovo are important for the same reason that the world celebrates Madiba.  All three were humans, with strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly comrades, who gave their lives for the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and social justice throughout the world.  People do not fight imperialism alone – they work as cadres.  Nelson Mandela, Ruth First and Joe Slovo are representative of that struggle.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela

Madiba From A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela
Danny Schechter (Jacana Media, (South Africa), Seven Stories Books (United States), 2013)

Conceptually, Madiba A to Z appears to be a simplistic format, but thankfully, the book is both thoughtful and inclusive.  Written by Danny Schechter, it is connected to the recent release of the movie, Long Walk to Freedom, and Schechter’s forthcoming documentary film, Inside Mandela: The Making and Meaning of Nelson Mandela’s Story.  Topical sections are broad and eclectic, but it is Schechter’s willingness, using interviews with Mandela comrades, journalists, scholars, and actors in the film, to tell Madiba’s story(s), the complexities of Mandela as revolutionary, politician, and much, much more.  As an oral historian who has worked with and collaborated with people to tell the stories of South Africans who fought the apartheid regime, I am very impressed by Danny Schechter’s ability to include the recollections and reflections of people he spoke with while researching his book.

It is also important not to underestimate Schechter’s own credentials, both within the South African struggle and as a political journalist.  The former is addressed briefly in the book, but the story of Schechter going into South Africa in the mid-sixties as part of the African National Congress’s propaganda campaign is told in more depth through his chapter in the book, London Recruits.  In addition, Schechter’s work as a journalist in South Africa, the United States, and throughout the world is unassailable.  Madiba A to Z addresses Nelson Mandela’s emotional and political lives.  The book honors Madiba, but it also speaks to the personal and political complexities as well as the great man’s flaws.  While I will not speak to everything from A to Z in the book, there are various issues that I will touch in this review.

According to Schechter his goal was to help people “join the conversation at a deep level.”  One of the first themes that stands out in the book is that Nelson Mandela viewed himself as a comrade – the work of the struggle, negotiations, and governing was collective.  There are stories of camaraderie throughout the book – within the struggle, from prison, and also during negotiations with the apartheid regime.  Schechter relates a story from Mandela’s university days when he would spend evenings in conversation at Ismail Meer’s flat, the political hub at the time.  Various people might be in attendance including Ruth First and Joe Slovo, whom Schechter writes of at various times in the book.  There was intense political discussion and organizing, but Mandela spoke holistically of being with comrades.  “There we studied and even danced until the early hours of the morning, and it became a kind of headquarters for young freedom fighters.”

Ronnie Kasrils, who has recently questioned aspects of both the negotiations and the early economic decisions of the post-1994 government, presented a comprehensive portrait of the comrade Mandela within the struggle against apartheid.

He was a man of defiance.  He led the masses in militant struggle, and he led us in armed struggle.  This is conveniently forgotten under the olive branch of Mandela the Saint.  If one has to understand him in total, you’ve got to look back to the man who with his colleagues, with his contemporaries, created this ANC, led our people through chapters of struggle, and then at a crucial point when nonviolent struggle became an impossible way to change the system, putting his head together with others, including with young people and the rank and file, was saying, “We’ve got to find another way and now we need to rise up with weapons.”

On being a comrade, Schechter also spoke with Verne Harris, who directs research at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

It’s a tension that has played out inside of him too because there’s part of him that enjoys the adulation, there’s vanity.  He enjoys the crowds and the elevation.  But there’s another part that precisely feels uncomfortable with that.  “I’m part of a collective, I’ve always relied on others, I’ve had mentors, I’m part of a movement.” It’s complex.

Finally on the same topic, the book quotes Mandela.

A cardinal point that we must keep constantly in mind, the lodestar which keeps us in course, as we negotiate the uncharted twists and turns of the struggle for liberation is that the breakthrough is never the result of individual effort.  It is always a collective effort and triumph.

There are more examples and they all lead to questions for today – what does comrade now mean and what are the ANC connections with people on the ground?

Besides comprehensive themes there are snippets-so-to-speak – insights on Madiba throughout Schechter’s book.  The first chapter is titled “Athlete” and among other things it addresses the competitiveness through a prison visit story related to Schechter by Mandela’s long-time lawyer and friend George Bizos.

So they brought a wonderful tray of sandwiches and I noticed that I was having more sandwiches than Nelson was having.  And I said, “Why aren’t you having more?”  He then said that someone – I don’t remember who – had beaten him at tennis a couple of days earlier, and he had decided to become fitter in order to take his revenge.

On one occasion during negotiations competitiveness corresponded to both morality and the struggle.  The event occurred at a public meeting where speeches were given and President de Klerk positioned himself to talk last.  Madiba had already spoken and de Klerk used his time to attack the African National Congress.  Nelson Mandela was furious and strode directly to the microphone when de Klerk finished.  Sahm Venter, who works at The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, remembered the moment.  “He just got back up on the stage and let him have it, you know, cutting him off at the knees.  He could do that.  I think he stands with a great deal of moral authority.”

Madiba From A to Z includes an exemplary oral history of Mandela’s release from prison by combining Pippa Green’s journalism with the voices of Trevor Manual, Archbishop Tutu, Dullah Omar, Thabo Mbeki, and Jay Naidoo.  The release story is also the perfect bridge from prison to negotiations with the apartheid regime.  When Richard Stengel, the ghostwriter of Long Walk to Freedom, asked Mandela about the greatest affect of prison, he responded, “I came out mature.”  Archbishop Tutu spoke with Schechter.

He grew in his magnanimity.  He became able to put himself in the shoes of the other…. When he came out, only someone like him could have said to – especially these young angry types – that no, we’ve got to go for negotiations.  Very many of them had expected that they were going to march into Pretoria at the ends of the barrels of their guns.

The book is arguably most thoughtful when discussing Madiba’s role in negotiations with the apartheid regime.  Schechter writes about early talks that Mandela took part in while still in prison, and is careful to remind his readers that there was contact, through his lawyer, George Bizos, and also eventually by phone from prison, with Oliver Tambo and I would add sometimes Joe Slovo.  Schechter also addresses come of the criticisms of the formal negotiations, specifically from Ronnie Kasrils, but also provides the counterpoint through journalists Shaun Johnson and Allister Sparks.  Johnson argues that without the compromises that Madiba initiated, again with comrades, the country would have descended into civil war.  Sparks has written most prolifically on the negotiations – his book is entitled, The Mind of South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid.  Sparks strongly asserts, “The idea that Mandela sold out is absolutely rubbish.”

The chapter called “Negotiator” captures Nelson Mandela’s economic twists and turns – both in negotiations and as the President.  Opposing lead negotiators Cyril Ramaphosa and Rolf Meyer are introduced and one of the critics of the new South Africa’s free market economic plans, Patrick Bond, is quoted at length.  We are reminded of Madiba’s early assertions of nationalizing the mines and the banks, and also of Sampie Terrenblanche’s story of Mandela’s weekly lunches with Harry Oppenheimer, the CEO of Anglo American.  In addition, we are reminded of the agreements with the IMF as well as American businessmen and others at the Davos World Economic Forum, having a great effect on Mandela changing as a “free marketer.”  The chapter ends with critiques of the position from Kasrils and Jay Nadoo.

There is so much to learn about Nelson Mandela in this book – things that were yet to be written.  While internationally there has been both disappointment and criticisms of President Mandela’s addressing HIV-AIDS, we learn in this book of his apologies to the AIDS activists upon leaving office as well as his attempts to influence President Mbeki on the issue.

We learn of powerful non-public actions that Mandela took – honoring, helping, and celebrating individuals whose names we don’t know.  Yet, while Danny Schechter’s book honors Madiba, the author does not shy away from the critiques.

There is some irony, of course, in the fact that Madiba A to Z was released just before Nelson Mandela died.  In a chapter entitled “Onward,” Schechter opines on how the memorialization would play out.  We now know the breadth of eulogies and articles – mostly of course honoring and some making Madiba a saint not a man.  Danny Schechter does treat Nelson Mandela as a man – a great man, but a man.  This is a book with new insights on Madiba, quite incredible because the list of prior books and articles is vast.  The book is special because the format, laying out Madiba A to Z, clearly facilitates the portrayal of the complexities of Nelson Mandela.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

City Press -- Ten Best Books on the Struggle

The 10 best … books from the generation of the struggle (other than Long Walk to Freedom)
Charles Cilliers #Mandela 15 December 2013 10:50
As we bid our first citizen farewell on the road to his final journey, Charles Cilliers compiles a list of the 10 best books that encapsulate the spirit of those who were at the forefront of the fight

1 Odyssey to Freedom by George Bizos
Legal legend George Bizos’ life was dedicated in almost every respect to defending the ideal of human rights. Barely 13, he had to flee his ­native Greece during the Nazi occupation in 1941 (after helping to save six New Zealand soldiers). He and his ­father arrived in Joburg with just the clothes on their backs. At the start, ­Bizos was unable to speak any English, but he went on to be part of the defence for the Rivonia Trial, the Cradock Four and so many more. This autobiography is an absorbing read and it passes the 600-page mark without breaking a sweat. A tome for all time.
Published by Umuzi, R288.64 on

2 When Hope and History Rhyme by Amina Cachalia
Cachalia and her husband, Yusuf, represented everything that was inspiring and hopeful about the ANC-led march to change in South Africa. It’s also clear in this book that Madiba always nursed a playful crush on the lovely Amina, who helped to organise the 1956 women’s march and arranged the escape of Arthur Goldreich, Harold Wolpe and others from Marshall Square Prison in 1963. In these pages, which Amina wrote shortly before her death this year aged 83, Mandela’s ­generation comes to life
sometimes inspiringly and often with quite unflattering honesty.
Published by Picador, R212.93 on

3 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
This book is based for the most part on a journal that Madikizela-Mandela kept while imprisoned by the security police for 18 months. Starting in 1970, the book provides a painful insight into the psychological torture that Madiba’s then wife was subjected to. While the more recent years may have tarnished her image, this window into the psyche of a determined anti-apartheid voice is a reminder of why Winnie has been the mother of the ­nation and why her views of what should have happened in South Africa post-apartheid have been so radically different to Madiba’s.
Published by Picador, R156 on

4 Memoirs by Ahmed Kathrada
As a fellow Robben Island political prisoner and a highly reflective intellectual presence, Kathrada became the trusted confidant of Madiba, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and other political prisoners on Robben Island. In his small patch of garden on the island, Kathrada buried the original draft of Long Walk to Freedom, ­until it could be unearthed and smuggled to London by Mac Maharaj. Only one of several books by Kathrada, this one offers unique glimpses into the lives of the biggest names of the anti-apartheid movement.
Published by Zebra, R216.47 on

5 The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa by Denis Goldberg
As a young civil engineer, Denis Goldberg campaigned with the ANC and joined Mandela’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe. He was sentenced to life in prison with seven of the other trialists, but was not sent to Robben Island as the prison system, like everything else, was racially segregated. After Goldberg’s release in 1985, he went into exile in London and continued his work with the ANC. This tireless activist memorably said: “Being black and involved [in the struggle] meant you had the support of many people and it meant you got to be part of a community. Being white and involved meant ­being isolated.”
Published by STE, R195 on

6 Walter & Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime by Elinor Sisulu
Authored by the Sisulus’ daughter-in-law, this political love story spans five decades. It is a warm contrast to the tragic pairing of Madiba and Winnie. Walter and Albertina grew up just a few villages apart in the Eastern Cape and not even history’s greatest forces were able to ultimately separate them. As Walter saw out his 26 years in prison with Mandela, Albertina played a crucial role in keeping the ANC alive underground, waiting for the husband she knew would return to her some day.
Published by New Africa Books, R177.01 on ­

7 Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid by Alan Wieder
The Slovos were at the forefront of the struggle and constantly presented an enormous challenge to the apartheid state, from within its borders and later from exile. Joe was at the helm of much of Umkhonto weSizwe’s armed struggle and Ruth lost her life to a letter bomb posted to her by an apartheid spy. This is the first extended biography of the couple and Wieder weaves together the existing documentary record with his own interviews, collected over many years, to paint a remarkable portrait of two people united by love and a common cause.
Published by Jacana, R257.07 on

8 Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary by Stephen Clingman
Fischer turned his back on all he had been raised to believe in after his birth into a prominent Afrikaner nationalist family. He went on to lead the legal defence at the Rivonia Trial and was himself later sentenced to life imprisonment for his activities against the apartheid state. Like Mandela, he was forced to go underground and spent nine months in disguise, becoming South Africa’s most wanted man. This book paints a compelling portrait of how dedication to a higher cause ­supersedes loyalties to race, culture and even family.
Published by Jacana, R239.04 on

9 No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu
Madiba’s close friend and fellow Nobel laureate has written several books, but this one chronicles Tutu’s life in the lead-up to perhaps his most defining period as the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Written with all the honesty and wit that we have come to associate with the Arch, Tutu points out the important lessons from the TRC for other parts of the world that have to deal with the aftermath of painful political division and conflict.
Published by Rider, R157.84 on

10 Armed & Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to freedom by Ronnie Kasrils
Kasrils’ autobiography begins with the underground resistance of the 1950s and 1960s in the SA Communist Party and how he fled the country after the arrest of Mandela. He went on to set up Umkhonto weSizwe training camps as far away as Cuba and became notorious as the Red Pimpernel, slipping in and out of South Africa in disguise on secret missions. The book ends with the description of Kasrils’ involvement in the disastrous march on Bisho in 1992, which ended in yet another, but final, apartheid-era massacre.
Published by Jacana, R225.50 on

Friday, December 13, 2013

Counterfire - London

Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid

Friday, 13 December 2013 21:06
Written by Paul Hartley
Two leading activists of the fight against Apartheid, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, for the first time have received a comprehensive biography
Alan Wieder, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid (Monthly Review Press 2013), 390pp.

As tributes to Nelson Mandela continue to fill the pages of newspapers it is right that we remember his legacy and his leadership of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. But it is also right that we take a sober view of South Africa’s complex history without forgetting the many other figures that stood beside Mandela in the war against apartheid.

Alan Wieder’s Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid is a remarkable political biography of two activists who devoted their lives to the struggle for equality in South Africa. For their part in the fight against apartheid Joe Slovo and Ruth First were hunted and persecuted by the regime. Both were arrested, banned from speaking, exiled and targeted by the apartheid regime’s killers. Slovo, although more centrally involved in the armed fight against apartheid, survived to serve in Mandela’s government in 1994, but First was assassinated by the regime in 1982.

Ruth First and Joe Slovo are arguably among the most important of the anti-apartheid activists. They remained at the heart of the struggle throughout their lives, although their contributions to it were very different. First was a journalist, an academic, a teacher, and a public intellectual who contributed to the worldwide understanding of apartheid. Slovo was one of the principal leaders of the armed fight against the regime as a founding member, organiser and chief tactician of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He oversaw the training of MK fighters in Angola, and masterminded many of its successful operations, such as its attack on the SASOL oil refinery in 1980.

The book is also a reminder of how central the South Africa Communist Party (SACP) was to the struggle against apartheid. It provided the ANC with a broader theoretical perspective, linked apartheid to worldwide problems, and gave a political direction to the ANC’s direct action. The SACP believed that ‘a nationalist movement could not end oppression because it did not address the essential issues of world imperialism and a class-divided South African society’ (p.67).
First and Slovo were among the SACP members who understood the importance of setting the ANC’s local, nationalist tactics within a wider struggle against capitalism and imperialism. When the SACP and the ANC formed an alliance in 1950, First and Slovo were instrumental in laying the groundwork for co-operation. It was First who persuaded Mandela to work with the SACP. Slovo later helped Mandela to found MK, the SACP-ANC joint military force. Both men became important military leaders, with Slovo taking the reins of MK after Mandela’s arrest.

The couple met at the University of the Witwatersrand during anti-racist activities of the Communist student association. Joe Slovo had returned from fighting in the South African army during the Second World War, where he was witness to the cruel irony that even during the war no black South African was allowed to bear arms. He wrote that if a black man ‘wanted to serve democracy he could do so wielding only a knobkierie (fighting stick, club), as a uniformed manservant of a white soldier’ (p.45). Slovo studied law alongside Mandela, and became a practicing lawyer who defended blacks who were detained under the apartheid regime. Ruth First became a journalist and later editor at the Johannesburg Guardian – the paper was forced to change its name many times due to government censorship – and documented the brutality of the regime against the black population.

Weider does not shy away from the contradictory position that Slovo and First occupied as white, middle-class activists in a largely black struggle. Their experience of the anti-apartheid struggle was very different to that of the black activists. Although both suffered severe persecution at the hands of the apartheid regime, and both were imprisoned ­– Ruth First particularly brutally, spending 117 days in solitary confinement without being charged with an offence – as Weider makes clear, even in prison they had a ‘white’ experience that cannot be compared to the treatment of the black activists. Slovo himself, remarking on the fact that all the prison diaries were written by white comrades, reflects that, ‘as bad as [prison] was for whites, it was bearable. But for blacks it was hell and they didn’t want to speak about it’ (p.283).

Although the book purports to be about Ruth First and Joe Slovo as a married couple, the extent to which it is necessary for Weider to treat his two subjects separately is notable. There are clearly several reasons for this. First, despite both being public figures in their own right, they kept their relationship a relatively private affair. Secondly, and more importantly, although their dedication to the anti-apartheid cause and socialism was shared, First and Slovo adopted divergent theoretical and practical methods; so much so that tempestuous disagreements frequently broke out between them. Slovo remained committed to the South Africa Communist Party and its ties to the Soviet Union throughout his life, and despite his warmth and humanity was often unfairly depicted as a ‘rabid Stalinist’ (p.210). Ruth First’s relationship with the USSR and party orthodoxy was much weaker, and the couple fell out publicly over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, for example. Any attempt to sketch a single narrative for the couple would therefore be futile.

When the couple entered political exile in London in 1964, Slovo threw himself into party work, and maintained his leadership of MK’s armed activity. He organised the MK’s military incursions into South Africa and sabotage operations from the ANC’s offices in Goodge Street, around which buzzed a lively expatiate community of South African political exiles, including Yusuf Dadoo and Ronnie Kasrils.

Ruth First used the exile period to write and study, becoming involved with the New Left, whose theoretical perspective was frowned on by the SACP. She got to know figures such as Tariq Ali and Ralph Miliband, whom she studied under at LSE and befriended. Miliband later described her as ‘the least “utopian” of revolutionaries; but she was not in the least “disillusioned”… she deplored the shortcomings, stupidities and crimes of her own side. But this never dimmed her sense that there was a struggle to be fought’ (p.157).

First remained grounded in Marxist revolutionary theory, but the New Left perspective enabled her to tread an intellectual path away from the Communist Party orthodoxy to which Joe Slovo remained committed. In London, as she started to become known as a public intellectual, she expounded a unique perspective on the South African political situation. She gave public speeches at Trafalgar Square, and her wide-ranging intellectual activity during this period included work on Frantz Fanon, and a study with Jonathan Steele of the London Guardian into the mutually supportive relationship between large-scale capitalism and the apartheid regime.

When the couple returned to Africa to be more closely involved in the struggle in 1977 – Ruth First, in particular, was uncomfortable being so distant from the activists who remained in Africa – the difference between their methods became even clearer. Slovo principally spent his time overseeing the military camps in Angola, where the MK’s fighters were being trained. By the late 1970s, he had become ‘the principal teacher in the military at the time, the theoretical, strategy side of things’ (p.213). He learned from a number of revolutionary sources, applying their methods to the South African struggle. In 1978 he was part of a group of MK leaders who travelled to Vietnam to learn from the successful guerrilla war there.

Ruth First settled in Mozambique and, until her assassination in 1982, taught at the Centre for African Studies in Maputo, where she developed a radical socialist pedagogical method that combined teaching with ‘direct revolutionary force’ (p.225). This was both a world away from Slovo’s military approach to the struggle, and a means of combining the diffuse aspects of her life’s work; in Maputo the ‘political struggle was directly integrated into her everyday work of teaching, research and writing’ (p.226). She continued to teach central Communist texts, and she argued that Lenin should be taught not as a model for all to follow, but because ‘his analysis of forms of rural social formation … and his theses on co-operation are highly relevant here and now’ (p.226). She aimed to find ways of teaching poor workers to apply socialist theory in practice. She regarded this as being the most productive period in her life.

Although Ruth First and Joe Slovo have both written short autobiographical works, Weider’s is the first complete biography of the couple. Given its wealth of detail, the wide range of interviews that Weider has conducted, and the letters to which he has been granted access, it deserves to remain the definitive biography of First and Slovo for a long time. In a study of this sort there is a delicate balance to maintain between the personal and the political lives of the subjects, but Weider renders both with clarity. The interviews flesh out the political and historical context from the perspective of those who were involved in it, such as former members of MK, while allowing the complexities of First’s and Slovo’s personalities to emerge. Their passion and commitment to the struggle becomes more comprehensible through the eyes of those who knew them closely. This timely book should be read by all who seek to understand the remarkable couple and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in depth.