Monday, January 27, 2014

The People's Morning Star Review

A new book on Joe Slovo and Ruth First pays due tribute to an inspirational couple in the struggle for liberation in South Africa, says JOHN HAYLETT

Ruth First And Joe Slovo In The War Against Apartheid by Alan Wieder (Monthly Review Press, £14.50)

Alan Wieder has put his oral history expertise together with already existing material on Ruth First and Joe Slovo to construct a remarkable record of these two heroes of South African emancipation. When Nelson Mandela went to Camden Town's Lyme Street to unveil a blue plaque on the house where they lived in exile from 1966 to 1978, he noted their description as freedom fighters. "This means they were Communists," he explained to his audience, for some of whom this bluntly positive assessment of a political current that was supposed to be over and done was a little disquieting. Communist politics brought this couple together and provided the material for fierce discussions, often played out in company.

Both had their Jewish roots in the Russian empire - Slovo being born in Lithuania while First's parents found their way to South Africa from Lithuania and Latvia. Working class, he became a despatch clerk at a pharmaceutical firm, where he helped unionise the African workforce and was elected a shop steward. Slovo benefited from a scheme for second world war veterans to go to university, studying law before representing liberation movement comrades in a succession of cases.

First was a precocious and bright child of the bourgeoisie who became a brilliant journalist for left-wing publications before developing into a gifted academic after leaving South Africa.
Their political rows often revolved around what she viewed as his Stalinist orthodoxy and what he dubbed her willingness to adopt whatever ideas were in vogue. Despite First's disagreement with party policy, not least over the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia amid suggestions that she risked expulsion, she remained an SACP member until her parcel-bomb murder in Mozambique by the apartheid regime in 1982. Speaking at his wife's graveside, Slovo referred to their no-holds-barred discussions, recalling her wish in a letter to him during one of their enforced separations, "Oh for a good row in close proximity."

Separation was inevitable given Slovo's leading role in the SACP and in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the movement's military wing. Escalating mass activity in South Africa, married to more frequent successful MK operations and ever-tighter international anti-apartheid sanctions, led to the release of Nelson Mandela and negotiations to replace racist dictatorship with democracy. Slovo was an integral part of the ANC negotiating team, instrumental in drafting the "sunset" clauses that ensured public servants' co-operation in building the new South Africa. He turned a critical eye to his party's earlier positions, concluding that socialism without democracy was inconceivable, prompting his wife's close friend Hilda Bernstein to accuse him of belatedly coming round to their way of thinking.

South African communists hold an annual event at Slovo's grave in Soweto's Avalon cemetery, where they dedicate themselves to continuing his work.

Controversially, Wieder poses the revolutionary examples of these two great South Africans against the current situation, quoting suspended trade union leader Zwelinzima Vavi's view that First would be fighting against the Jacob Zuma government. This attempt to mobilise the dead against the living should not detract from a major work that sheds light on two people who dedicated their lives to a better world.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ruth First: Não Vamos Esqueçer (We Will Not Forget)

Review of African Political Economy 40th Anniversary

Since 1974 ROAPE has provided radical analysis of trends, issues and social processes in Africa, adopting a broadly materialist interpretation of change. It sustains a critical analysis of the nature of power and the state in Africa in the context of capitalist globalisation.

Ruth First: Não Vamos Esqueçer (We Will Not Forget)

The South African revolutionary Ruth First made an extraordinary contribution to activism and radical writing and research on Africa. She worked as a journalist in South Africa from 1946 until her exile in the UK in 1964. She then became an editor, co-author and author of a large number of books, as well as a lecturer. She was also one of the founding members of the Review of African Political Economy (RoAPE) in 1974, a radical journal committed to transforming (and understanding) Africa’s political economy.

In the late 1970s First moved to Mozambique as Director of Research at the Centro de Estudos Africanos at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo. In 1982 she was murdered in Maputo by the apartheid state. Drawing on papers presented at the 2012 Ruth First Papers Project symposium, RoAPE has produced a special issue that includes contributions from Anne-Marie Gentili, Gavin Williams and Alpheus Manghezi. The special issue on Ruth First is the story of First’s life in Mozambique, and her broad and substantial contribution to radical African studies.

Much of Ruth First’s work and life remains unknown to a new generation yet her work was of such impressive scope, her activism so courageous. Join us to celebrate the extraordinary life of Ruth First and the launch of the Ruth First Special Issue.

Institute of Commonwealth Studies 1 May, 2014
Venue: Senate Room (First floor, Senate House, Malet Street,London WC1E 7HU)

Panel - 17:00 – 18:30
Ruth First: activism and research

Welcome by Gillian Slovo

‘Writing Ruth First’s biography’ Alan Wieder (Wieder is the author
of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid published
to wide acclaim last year).

Gavin Williams ‘Setting up RoAPE: Ruth and the first years of the

Chair Professor Philip Murphy (Director of the Institute of
Commonwealth Studies)
Launch - 18.30 – 20.00
Ruth First: Não Vamos Esqueçer Review of African
Political Economy

with Gary Littlejohn and Janet Bujra

Ruth First Papers Project

Convenor: Dr Leo Zeilig, Project Manager

All Welcome RSVP to

Daily Maverick (Johannesburg) Review

Your ‘to read’ list: Two set texts for all South Africans
As 2013 bled into 2014, I read two books that on the surface, had nothing to do with each other. Yet they led me to a startling realisation that made me think perhaps they should be set reading for all South Africans. By MARK HEYWOOD.

The idea that children should be educated has existed for thousands of years. The idea that all children have a right to a quality education is, however, a more recent idea, several hundred years old in some European countries, but only just turning twenty in ours. More recent, too, is the notion that education has more than just a utilitarian and practical objective. Education is about sustaining and deepening cultures and about building communities and nations.

Learning about literature (for a long time imperiously just called ‘English’) is an essential component of education, long a stock part of the syllabi. And so it should be. But how much organised thought, or debate, do we invest in understanding the role that literature can actually play in nation building or creating capable citizens? How do we inspire our teachers to teach literature and our learners to receive it? Is reading to be perceived as an onerous Dickensian chore of plot and quote learning, or can we make it into a gateway to creating national solidarity, empathy and social justice?

Two books I read over the holidays made me rethink these questions.

Every era and most nations have outstanding novelists and historians - the great writers who capture the spirit of the age, who labour over the intersections of life, embedding the personal in the political and vice versa. Great writers don’t lecture. They allow the accumulation of layers and colours until a picture begins to emerge. The great novelist or historian is able to portray the tectonic movement of social forces, the evils caused by some men (for it is usually men), and its impact on other men, women and children.

And then bang – suddenly a canvas exists where it all makes sense.

Although there is a tendency to separate fiction from non-fiction, the definitive history is also a work of art - pieced together by the meticulous and committed researcher, presumably aware of the higher end of history. A great work of history is a text that when all the cloth and button finding is done, sews together something that always was, but never would be – but for his or her dedication.

In many countries’ literary traditions the names of the great novelists and historians – or their hybrid, what we might call histovelists - come quickly to hand: there was Dickens, Tolstoy, Trotsky, Orwell, E P Thompson, Austen, Fitzgerald and maybe Salinger, Soyinka, Achebe, Ngugi, Roy and Rushdie... the list goes on and on.

But, surprisingly, one does not easily or immediately come up with the names of South Africa’s great historical works and their partners in fiction. Histovelists do not yet form a part of our national consciousness or indeed character.

Universities and schools still have a task to identify, excavate, elevate and embed our writers. Perhaps Paton, Schreiner or Mphalelele; Gordimer or Serote. But who else?

When they do – on the basis of the luxury of recent reading - I would argue that one little-known novel that must be given its place is The Lotus People by Aziz Hassim, first published in 2002. Similarly a ‘history’ that should be recognised as a definitive account of the struggle era and some of its key actors, is the recently published Joe Slovo and Ruth First in the War against Apartheid, by Alan Wieder.

Although very different books, unaware of each other, they intersect and draw from the same raw material, particularly the history of dispossession of the last 150 years.  And, as with all histories, they tell us a great deal about our present.

Hassim fictionalises the experience of Indian people in South Africa and describes the rise and demise of Durban as the port city that most gave expression to Indian people’s entrepreneurship, creativity and culture. In the course of a grand narrative that sweeps up 150 years, I understood how - but for Apartheid and its cruel bureaucratically enforced decision to reroute and physically relocate the Indian experience in South Africa - Durban might have evolved as quite a different city.

What has subsequently been made its periphery may well have been its heart.

The book buzzes with the life of the old Durban Casbah. It makes the reader want to retrieve maps of the old Durban it describes (alas, not easily done). But it is in its modest, patient, slowly created cast of family characters and their friends, and the story of how an apolitical family largely intent on going about its own business, bore the nonsensical depredations of Apartheid, that the book’s tragedy and nobility is found. Through it is possible to rage against the oppressors’ wrong that was inflicted on a segment of our country’s population. It is a rare book that after 500 pages maintains a momentum to its last page.

Wieder, by contrast, brings real people back to life from their fictions, both hagiographic and demonic. Through their own words he assists Ruth First and Joe Slovo to become real people once more, rather than cardboard cut-outs made of them in either their demon years, as depicted by Apartheid, or their angel years, as depicted by comrades. As I write both remain the subject of appropriation and contest in the battles raging in the Tripartite ‘Alliance’.

Ostensibly the two books appear quite different – their only coincidence that I read them as one year slipped into another.

But actually there is a great deal of overlap. On one level, the intersection occurs during years in the 1940s and 1950s when Hassim describes the reawakening of the Congress movement in Durban and its impact on the Suleiman household, its sons in particular. From the vantage point of their (soon to be no more) home in Verbena Road we encounter a range of real and imagined-real characters, including Dr Goonum, Fatima Meer, and others who came from Johannesburg to try to organise and conscientise the anguish that was being felt by the Indian community as the Ghetto Bill-process of ejection from their homes and communities gathered force.

Joe Slovo’s great friend and comrade Yusuf Dadoo makes a brief appearance in Hassim’s novel. Which character, I wonder, may have been based on Ismail Meer, Ruth First’s first lover?

But on another level the pages of both books recreate the spirit of age and the outrage that made “mensch” like Slovo and First into outstanding revolutionaries and catapulted them into a life they never intended or imagined.

What also links the two books is their enormous descriptive power. Hassim achieves it by weaving a family story around the sons and daughters of two nineteenth century émigrés from India, Yahya Suleiman and Pravin Naran. Wieder achieves it by building into the heart of a well-known history 77 oral interviews, which capture the anecdote that is the real stuff of life and the diversity that comes with multiple voices and memories.

Both books are an emotional roller-coaster. Anger and outrage at the murder of Ruth First in 1982 is revived as a result of now knowing more about her ideals, ambitions, quirks and contradictions. A similar anger and despair wells up with the description of the murder of Jake, one of Hassim’s main characters.  Sadness surges as Wieder describes Slovo coming to terms with his unavoidable death as a result of cancer at the very time when his intellectual and imagination was at its greatest.

But as I travelled both books’ pages they surfaced and then resolved an issue that has puzzled me over a long time.

Our country is universally praised for having faced down the past, for its Truth and Reconciliation. Yet those of us who live here know it remains fragmented and vrot. To First, Slovo or Suleiman it would seem inconceivable that those who benefitted materially from the past could benefit most from the present (although neither Joe nor Ruth would have made peace with it or wallowed in its material fruits as some of their followers have). But more worrying to me is why so many of those who live and luxuriate in the fruits of the democracy continue to show so little empathy or interest in the lot of those whose lives were blighted by Apartheid.

Why? Why? Why?

The answer lies in these books. It is found in the idea of identity.

At Slovo’s funeral the then Chief Rabbi, Cyril Harris, attributed Joe’s political commitment partly to his “humanitarianism” which, he said, “springs from a deep sense of identification with the oppressed, the ability to hear their cry, an acute awareness of the realities of poverty, a personal anguish at the suffering of fellow human beings.”

Those words ring true. They contain a universal truth. South Africa might have gone through a process of truth and reconciliation, but without identifying with the lives that were destroyed it seems impossible for those who directly benefited from their destruction (as most white people did) to feel empathy or solidarity.

Both books make “identification” possible by bringing the adversity and nobility in life to life.

At Slovo’s memorial parts of his favourite symphonies from Beethoven and Mahler were played. 

Towards the end of Hassim’s book, the main characters reflect on life of ‘Jake’ Yacoob Suleiman, murdered by the security police, and recall what they were taught from sections of Tennyson’s grand poem Ulysses. When Hassim’s character quips: “But you can’t make a bullet proof vest out of Tennyson’s poems” you can almost see Slovo nodding in agreement.

As we go into our 20th year of freedom, those people who were on the safe side of the Apartheid fence would do well to try and understand how devastating Apartheid was for the lives of people on the dark side. These two great books can help you get there. That is why they should not just be set texts for school and university students, but for all citizens of the new South Africa.

The Lotus People by Aziz Hassim is published by STE Publishers.
Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid by Alan Wieder is published by Jacana.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Leo Zeilig's review in International Socialism

Fighters against apartheid
Issue: 141
Posted: 9 January 14
Leo Zeilig
Alan Wieder, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Jacana Media, 2013), £20

Joe Slovo and Ruth First were South Africans who spent their lives (and in Ruth’s case gave her life) in the struggle against apartheid. They were also members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) for most of their adult lives. They married in the late 1940s and despite a stormy relationship remained together until Ruth First was murdered in Mozambique’s capital Maputo in 1982. Their lives are worthy of celebration (and study) and Alan Wieder has written the first thorough account of their lives. The book details the struggle in South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and their life in exile in Britain, and across sub-Saharan Africa. Wieder presents the politics of this revolutionary couple with the sympathetic though critical attention they deserve.

Both Joe and Ruth were exceptional activists. Ruth grew up in a privileged household in Johannesburg with left wing parents. Radicalised by the famous miners’ strikes in 1946, she wrote afterwards:

When the African miners’ strike…broke out…a great squad of volunteers of all colours helped them set up strike HQ in the most unlikely places, and from lodging rooms like the one I shared with a girlfriend, the handles of duplicating machines were turned through the night, while in the early hours before dawn white volunteers drove cars to the vicinity of the mine compounds and African organisers, hiding in their city suits their bundles of strike leaflets under colourful tribal blankets, wormed their way into the compounds.

When the strike was over she gave up her civil service job and became a journalist.

If First was only remembered for her journalism she would still be a remarkable figure. She wrote for papers such as Fighting Talk and The Guardian, writing as both a polemicist for the leading national liberation organisation, the African National Congress (ANC), and the SACP but also as a pioneering investigative journalist exposing the crimes of apartheid. Ruth’s journalism exposed slave labour in the 1950s which involved black South Africans, obliged to carry passbooks, arrested for “pass” offences and then forced to work out their sentences on white-owned farms. For more than 15 years she wrote about the poverty and desperation of black South Africans, but also their campaigns and protests.

Joe and Ruth lived for the struggle, frequently risking their lives. When the ANC called a general strike to protest at the killing of 18 people by the police in 1950, Ruth covered the event in Alexandra township (a huge shantytown in the north of Johannesburg). When the police charged the protesters Joe remembered: “Ruth rushed to the centre with her camera, faced the police and stood squarely taking photos of them charging towards her” (p78).

At the same time Joe became a lawyer, spending most of his time defending black South Africans charged with political crimes. He also became a leading member of the SACP, serving on its Central Committee (with Ruth), and later becoming both chairman and general secretary of the party. There can be little question that the SACP played an important role, with the ANC, in galvanising and leading resistance to apartheid in the 1950s, counting many of the country’s most committed and brave fighters as members.
But the party slavishly followed the Soviet Union, bending and twisting its tactics and policies to the wishes of Moscow (where Joe held meetings of the SACP in the 1970s and 1980s). Though the couple differed on the USSR, with Ruth arguing against the party line throughout her life, they were both loyal to the organisation. Towards the end of his life Joe regretted his unquestioning loyalty: “I was a blind defender. I’m deeply ashamed of it now. I feel very angry that I was taken in by what I now consider to be anti-socialist conduct in the name of socialism. You can’t have a cult without worshippers and I was a worshipper” (p57). Both Joe and Ruth were deeply shaped by Stalinised Marxism. Wieder’s exceptionally powerful and moving book describes how the couple were divided by events in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, but also shows how they remained party stalwarts.

When Ruth followed her husband into exile in the UK in 1964 after a spell in prison, she wrote a number of extraordinary books including Libya: The Elusive Revolution, denouncing Gaddafi’s so-called Green Revolution when much of the left saw the new regime in Tripoli as an advance for socialism. Many of her books were an attempt to unpick the “failures” of African independence and the regimes that had come to power in the late 1950s and 1960s. Decolonisation, she wrote in 1970, was exposed to be a “bargaining process with cooperative African elites… The former colonial government guarded its options and…the careerist heirs to independence preoccupied themselves with the ‘Africanisation’ of the administration.”

With Joe she hoped that independence in southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s would buck the trend. These were anti-colonial struggles led by “critical” national liberation movements committed to far-reaching socialist change. It was to Mozambique, shortly after independence, that Ruth moved to work at the Centre of African Studies advising and assisting Frelimo, the ruling party.

Yet her writing and life were continuously strained by an ambiguity on the question of whether the revolutionary movement was led from below by the working class and poor (who had inspired her early activism) or “progressive” parties and national liberation movements promising to transform society from above. Sometimes she seemed to point to one of these approaches, then another, and occasionally both at the same time.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed so too did the ideological moorings for a generation. There is a strong sense in Wieder’s book of Joe searching for political alternatives in the early 1990s as the ANC/SACP negotiated with the apartheid state. After a visit to China he returned enamoured of “progressive changes in the Chinese economy” (p329). Joe became one of the most important architects of the new South Africa that emerged in 1994—today that is a decidedly mixed legacy and one clearly marked by his political trajectory in the SACP. Joe did not seriously challenge globalisation; indeed he saw in China the possibility of “adapting” to the market. As Wieder writes, “Joe took much too long to admit the toxic nature of Stalinism as well as the bureaucratic, oppressive reality of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes” (p356).

There is little doubt in Wieder’s book that had Ruth First not been killed by a letter bomb sent by the South African secret service in 1982 she would have become a trenchant critic of the new South Africa. She would have been disgusted at the legacy of apartheid in the poverty, shantytowns, and mass unemployment that have continued effortlessly (and devastatingly) into the new century.

Wieder’s book is a triumph, describing his subjects with compassion and criticism. The book will help, as he concludes, to “remind generations across the board, old and young, of the possibilities when courageous and brave individuals join together to fight oppression” (p356).

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Review -- African Libraries Newsletter

Thirty-one years ago, Ruth First, a prominent member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National Congress (ANC), was murdered in her Mozambiquan office by a parcel bomb sent by the South African apartheid goverment.

Well-known among anti-apartheid activists and academics, this biography of First and her husband, SACP leader Joe Slovo, will hopefully expand the numbers of people familiar with her work. Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid is a biography of these two fighters against apartheid. Given the nature of their life’s work, it is also a history of the ANC, the SACP, and the struggle against apartheid. Thus, it includes a love story, focusing on the tensions of attempting to build a family and maintain a relationship while being dedicated to a political cause and the political struggles, both internal and external, within the organizations to which they were committed.

In telling this story Wieder utilizes a large number of interviews with friends and associates of First and Slovo, their writings, newspapers accounts, and academic articles and monographs. One need not be a specialist in South African history to appreciate the details of the relationship between the ANC and the SACP, and both organization’s relationship with the USSR, which supplied much of the military training for the ANC’s armed wing, the MK.

As an historical narrative, the book also does justice to explaining the ANC’s turn to armed struggle and the problems, organizational and ideological, that had to be overcome to successfully prosecute that struggle. In the wake of the recent death of Nelson Mandela, this book also serves to bring attention to many of the other giants in the fight to overthrow the apartheid system - not just Slovo and First, but also their comrades - including Chris Hani, Joe Modise, Ronnie Kasrils and Moses Kotane.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review - The Washington Socialist

The Washington Socialist – January 2014

By Carolyn M. Byerly

Review of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid, by Alan Wieder, Monthly Review Press, 2013.

As the world was saying goodbye to Nelson Mandela in early December, I had my nose in Alan Wieder’s well-researched new biography Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Monthly Review, 2013).  First, Slovo and Mandela were part of an ensemble of revolutionary comrades who together reshaped South Africa from the 1950s to the end of apartheid in 1991. The book is full of these and other familiar characters in a level of detail that would impress the most ardent Talmudic scholar.  Wieder’s research involved hours and hours of interviews and immersing himself in court records, other documents and the personal papers of Slovo, First and others from the apartheid era.

This article – a summary more than a critique – has the goal of drawing a profile of revolutionary lives that were fully committed but also full of contradictions, interesting but also mundane in many ways.  Because their lives individually and jointly tell the story of apartheid and its liberation, it is impossible to separate the “personal and political” of these two remarkable historical figures.

Ruth First (, a journalist who was assassinated by the South African security forces with a mail bomb in 1982, made her mark reporting on the atrocities of the apartheid government for the Guardian and other left-leaning newspapers, beginning in the mid-1950s.  Joe Slovo (, a lawyer, made his mark challenging the regime by legally defending poor black Africans against everything from petty crimes to more serious allegations.  He died of leukemia in 1995 while serving as the minister of housing in Mandela’s government. 

The husband and wife political team came to their radical inclinations quite differently.  First was born in South Africa of Jewish socialist parents who had immigrated to South Africa from Lithuania and Latvia to escape persecution.  Her father became a small businessman in Johannesburg and did well, allowing Ruth to grow up in middle class surroundings and to intellectually engage in politics.  Joe was born in Lithuania of poor Yiddish-speaking, observant Jewish parents.  Not long after his family immigrated to South Africa, his mother died, leaving his father to support and raise several young children.  They shifted from one boarding house to another, the father working at jobs where he could, but spending time in jail for debts when he had no work. 

Ruth went to college from high school; Joe was forced to work.  His lodgings put him among a rag-tag bunch that included some Zionist-Marxists.  Having already abandoned religious Judaism, he also turned away from Zionism, feeling that the Zionists cared more about events in Palestine than the oppressive situation going on around them.  Joe became immersed in the latter. It was the 1940s and the coming of the apartheid era.

The Union of South Africa, formed by merging former British colonies with those of the Boers (Afrikaners), had been historically racist in its policies but would become more so after statehood.  In 1913, the Land Act was passed, forbidding blacks from buying land outside the reserves set aside for them.  These were followed by the infamous “pass laws” (requiring blacks and coloreds to carry ID cards) and other measures to control the interaction of the races. The institutionalized racism known as apartheid came dramatically in 1948 when the National Party came to power.  Laws ( were passed forbidding both sex and marriage between whites and those of other races and restricting residency of native Africans to townships. In 1950, the Population Registration Act required every South African to be classified by race, a law that would form the basis for a totally racialized society. In 1951, the Native Building Workers Act limited the places where skilled blacks were allowed to work; and in 1953, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act allowed racial segregation in public facilities and vehicles.  In 1956, the Industrial Conciliation Act forbade formation of racially mixed labor unions and legalized the reservation of skilled jobs for white workers.

Blacks had formally organized resistance to white repression around the time of the nation’s founding.  The Native National Congress (later the ANC), founded in 1912, and the Communist Party, with ties to Russian Bolsheviks and later Stalinists, were the strongest opponents.  Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Chris Hani were among the ANC’s leaders and would become close allies of First and Slovo, who held membership in both organizations.  These groups led mass protests, strikes, burned passes and otherwise resisted the repression. Living a revolutionary life meant social and political circles overlapped closely for First and Slovo, who had met through CP activities. Ruth, Wieder says, was a “remarkable journalist” who was “wholly concerned with identifying and exposing the horrors of racial rule.”  Her most famous story was written in 1951 on the enslavement of Bethal farm workers. She also reported on the government seizure of black land, township conditions, and other atrocities.  Her stories and commentaries, it was said, “kept the spark alive.” Her paper, the Guardian ( was banned numerous times, each time to re-emerge under a new name with similar oppositional stories.  She also engaged in political protests, particularly in support of black women, who felt the brunt of apartheid strongly.  Some noted that her journalism often had a participant-observer aspect to it, as when she reported on the Federation of South African Women’s campaign against passes, a campaign she was herself involved in.  Her reporting “provided both motivation and ground rules for future women’s actions,” according to Wieder.  She mentored young black writers to enter the profession and report from their own perspectives.

Joe, who had eventually completed law school, traveled around the nation to defend blacks accused of violating the apartheid laws.  He had a brilliant legal mind and compelling courtroom manner.  By the mid-1950s, his life became more secretive, attending political meetings at night and sharing only necessary details with Ruth and others.  His activities included planning and abetting massive strikes in protest against repressive labor laws. First and Slovo were both stalked by the government and eventually put on trial for treason with scores of black Africans.  Charges were eventually dropped, but in 1963, they fled.  Other major leaders also went into exile, as the ANC had become a banned political group.  Mandela was tried for treason, given a life sentence and sent to Robben Island.

First and Slovo’s long exile was spent mostly in London, where Wieder observes they “had a full social life.”  One of the contradictions in these radicals’ lives was their class privilege, which allowed them to live well even while they fought against the squalor and injustices others’ experienced.  While living in Johannesburg, the family (Joe, Ruth and their three daughters) had taken annual vacations to the beaches of Cape Town; they had black domestic help, and otherwise lived a bourgeois life.  Joe, who had grown up very poor, came to enjoy “a good meal and a cigar,” and both liked to party.  They differed from most white South African bourgeoisie by having a multicultural circle of friends, who included the other revolutionaries of all races who came to enjoy social gatherings at their home – something expressly forbidden by law. 

In London while exiled, they went to the theater and enjoyed other cultural events.  But “good food and good company did not preclude politics for Joe Slovo or Ruth First” during their exile.  Joe became involved in recruiting Irish leftists for political propaganda forays into South Africa, Wieder says, and Ruth continued her “torrid pace of writing”, including speeches and media work. She produced a special on Frantz Fanon for the ATV Network in London, and completed research for and first draft for her book The Barrel of a Gun, a socialist critique of post-colonial African leaders.  The book, which emphasized that power lies in the hands of those who control the means of violence, would catapult her into the academic world.  The book’s complex analysis, which involved politics, economics and other factors, broke new ground in explaining post-colonial Africa and was well reviewed in academic journals.  Though having no PhD, she was sought out by the sociology faculty of Durham University, where she served from 1973 to 1978, teaching courses on Marx and Weber, as well as the sociology of gender, the last of these signaling her shift into feminist scholarship and feminist politics. 

Joe’s life became more international, as he shuffled between Europe, Moscow, Berlin and various African nations interacting with communist and other leftist political leaders.  Joe and Ruth had always held fierce political differences on some issues, one of them being his support for Stalinist policies in the USSR. In addition, both had always had extra-marital affairs, which caused conflict but also a kind of freedom in their individual pursuits.  Though their expatriate life settled into its own brand of normalcy, both desired to return home and questioned why ANC leaders weren’t doing more to bring themselves home and resume the fight against apartheid. 

In 1978, exiled comrade Oliver Tambo organized a contingent of ANC members, including Slovo, to travel to Vietnam for training in guerrilla warfare.  Ruth was living in Maputo, Mozambique, by then and Tambo’s campaign enticed Joe to also return to Africa.  Now at the Center for African Studies as director of research, Ruth hired young researchers to assist her with studies in Marx; academic research and writing occupied most of her time.  In the role as director, she was also able to initiate agricultural projects that required city-bred African students to go into villages and live with goals to revolutionize agricultural production.  She considered this period to be the most militant and productive in her life, bringing theory and practice together.

Joe became deputy of the Operations Unit of the ANC after returning from Vietnam.  He trained 20 soldiers at a time, teaching them to destroy oil refineries and other facilities.  Joe’s units were successful in bringing “huge financial damage” to the regime.”  Though gaining renown for these field operations, Joe came home to Ruth in their comfortable lifestyle, again pointing out the discrepancy of class relations in revolutionary work. 

With increased coverage of the group’s violence against the state by the South African press, which demonized the ANC, the government began what Wieder calls its “reign of assassinations of ANC operatives in both South Africa and the border states.”  Ruth, a “brilliant orator” since high school, “had a remarkable way with words” and was speaking frequently in these days.  She also continued her scholarship, completing work on the book Olive Schreiner and beginning research for Black Gold; Joe also began to write more and to travel, including a trip to the Soviet Union.  Ruth was in her campus office, chatting with others around her, when she began to read her mail on the morning of August 17, 1982.  One of the envelopes contained a bomb that exploded, killing her instantly.  Those around her were injured but survived.  Word of her death spread around the world quickly and comrades and friends and family reacted with eulogies, articles and concerts in her name.  Heads of state and other dignitaries from around the world came to her funeral.  Ruth’s friend Ron Segal gave the eulogy, honoring her as a writer revolutionary, intellectual, feminist and teacher. 

Friends surrounded Joe, who was devastated.   Those who knew Ruth and Joe said they always imagined it would be Joe they killed first.  After the funeral, he began a regimen of swimming daily, meetings and writing.  He worked through his grief by writing Joe Slovo: An Unfinished Biography.   He returned to his special operations work against the government, from his new base in Lusaka, Zambia.

The world was changing.  The Berlin wall came down in 1989 and soon after came the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  Joe connected these dramatic changes to possibilities for similar shifts in South Africa. President de Klerk was giving signals that there would be a new future.  He had released Walter Sisulu and Thabo Mbeki from prison; he unbanned the ANC; and in February 1990, he released Nelson Mandela.  Joe returned to South Africa in April that year, after 27 years in exile.  In Johannesburg, he would participate in negotiations that became the basis for the new South African Communist Party.  At the same time, he reacted with culture shock at what he was seeing – blacks and whites on buses together, talking in the streets, middle class blacks living in white areas.

Both the ANC and SACP began to redefine themselves to participate openly in the political process.  On July 19, Joe proposed the unilateral cessation of armed struggle, something that Mandela supported.  But there would be a power struggle within the SACP over the issue, something the press covered, but the problem eventually was resolved.  Mandela’s election in 1994 brought many of his old comrades into government, something they could not have imagined decades earlier.  Instead of appointing Joe to the Justice Ministry, as everyone supposed would happen, Mandela asked him to be Minister of Housing.  Joe Slovo, who some called the “most hated white man in South Africa” took over an agency still full of staff from the apartheid era.  To build trust and good relations, he established collaborative principles of working and dispensed with formalities, including a chauffeur.  He began to lunch with the rank and file staff.  He summoned leaders from banking, building industries and civic organizations to develop plans for public housing. 

It would be his last mission to put his politics into practice.  Joe Slovo was diagnosed with leukemia in 1994 and died a year later, leaving his second wife, Helena Dolny and daughters Gillian, Robyn, and Shawn.

Personal reflection.  Having spent a week or so in Johannesburg four or five years ago, I read this biography knowing full well that the “new” South Africa is still a long way from being realized.  The wealthy Afrikaner bankers and industrialists, who brokered the end of apartheid and to whom Mandela ultimately sold out, still dominate the economy.  Mandela’s government was never able to bring about education, redistribution of resources, or even better housing for the masses of poor black Africans before it passed to the hands of his successors, and neither have they fully accomplished these things.  The nation is still racially divided in many ways for all of its advancements, not the least of which is its progressive Constitution.  And yet there is an admirable progress and, among those I met of all races, a determination to look forward, not back.  Alan Wieder’s interesting critical account of First and Slovo’s lives is at once a social history and a biography.  In the end, it reminded me that revolutionaries are real flesh and blood people – passionate, complicated, imperfect, and with varied levels of success in what they are able to do given historical circumstances.  The lessons in these and other things, replete through the book’s 390 pages, may inform our own activist impulses.