Early foes of apartheid cut broad swath
Dec. 12, 2013 3:53 PM |
Special to the Courier-Journal
Until the recent commentary surrounding the death of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, many Americans knew little about apartheid, the brutal system of racial separation and subjugation that governed that nation for nearly half of the 20th century, or about how and why it ended.
Beginning with dissent inside the country and spreading to become global by the 1980s, the struggle against apartheid is one of modern history’s most dramatic social justice movements. Thousands of resisters suffered extreme reprisals — imprisonment, banning, exile, torture, even murder — at the hands of a regime increasingly desperate to maintain white control.
“Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid” by Alan Weider confirms that the battle against apartheid was headed by blacks, most notably Mandela, who spent 27 years imprisoned for his unyielding dissent. Yet the movement also had a small core of dedicated white leaders, many of whom were also Communists who saw racism and colonialism as the front lines of a wider attack on capitalism.
Journalist Ruth First and her attorney-husband Joe Slovo were particular thorns in the side of the apartheid government not only because they were white but also because they were among its most articulate, affluent, totally committed, and radical critics. Both also were longtime members of the South African Communist Party. Their quest to end apartheid began in the 1940s at its inception.
For First, living in exile in Mozambique, it ended in 1982 when South African security forces sent her a plain brown envelope that exploded when she opened it, killing her instantly. A question lingers in this volume and generally as to why First and not Slovo was the target. He was surely the more threatening, by then a leading strategist of the movement’s campaign of armed border incursions that ultimately proved instrumental in bringing the apartheid government to the negotiating table.
White in a black-led movement, a woman in a man’s world, and an elite who sought to end inequality of wealth, Ruth First used her typewriter as her sword but was rarely at ease with herself or others. Although Wieder devotes considerable attention to her extraordinary, complex persona, he draws a fuller portrait of the more affable Slovo, and the book flows most easily through Slovo’s later years, when he remarried and became minister of housing under Mandela in the new South Africa.
This is the first joint biography of Slovo and First, but there are other books about them. Notable among these is “Every Secret Thing,” a 1997 memoir by Gillian Slovo, their middle daughter. Readers interested in the entwining of the political and personal may find it a more accessible introduction to the couple because Wieder’s focus on their work and thought makes for a drier read.
Catherine Fosl is an associate professor of women’s and gender studies and director of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research at the University of Louisville.