When as a teenager in 1980s Apartheid South Africa I first learned of Joe Slovo, I thought he must be black since most whites at the time did not necessarily side with the liberation struggle against Apartheid. Joe was a public exception and paid a heavy price for his commitment. For that he is one of my heroes.
The son of Jewish immigrants, Slovo–a close ally of Nelson Mandela–was leader of the armed wing of the then-banned African National Congress and general secretary of the country’s Communist Party during the ANC and SACP’s long exile. During this time his first wife, Ruth First, was killed in a bomb attack by the South African dictatorship. He contributed to the ANC’s strategic thinking as head of the SACP, most notably the idea of a “two stage revolution” (first political power and then economic power). When the ANC was unbanned, he played a leading role in negotiations (he should take credit for some of the compromises the ANC made in dealing with Apartheid’s army and civil service; he suggested retaining them over the short term–not everyone thinks that worked out too well). Slovo served as the country’s first democratic housing minister (his record was mixed) for one year before dying of cancer in January 1995. Joe is buried in Soweto.
Some of Joe’s zingers:
It’s not difficult in South Africa for the ordinary person to see the link between capitalism and racist exploitation, and when one sees the link one immediately thinks in terms of a socialist alternative.
Sometimes, if you wear suits for too long, it changes your ideology.
Recently, Slovo was the subject of a spirited discussion on BBC4’s “Great Lives,” a biographical series in which “… guests choose someone who has inspired their lives.” One surprise was the appearance of David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, who met Slovo as a child and who expressed his admiration for Joe. David’s father, Ralph, was a close friend of Joe. David Miliband recalls a visit to his school by Slovo. Other than that, Miliband comes across as awkward–perhaps deliberately with an eye on votes–and at one point labels the ANC and Slovo “terrorists.” Luckily Shawn Slovo joined Miliband and the program’s host and could respond to this nonsense. Miliband and the program host’s comments are reflective of the revisionism that has seeped into public (and scholarly) discussions of how the anti-apartheid struggle is now talked and written about in the West and especially in South Africa where you can’t find anyone, especially among the South Africa’s white population who either never supported Apartheid nor benefited from it.
Shawn Slovo’s parents raised her right.
You can listen to the program here.