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 (http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/ruth-herloise-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 (http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/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 (http://africanhistory.about.com/library/bl/blsalaws.htm) 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 (http://www.theguardian.com/world/southafrica) 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.