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
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.