Joe Slovo was one of my heroes

Joe Slovo was a key leader of the armed and exiled resistance against Apartheid. He was also the most visible white face of that movement.

Joe Slovo in the front. Pallo Jordan, another SACP and ANC leader, is in the background.

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.  There were reasons for my ignorance. Since my working class parents rarely talked about the liberation movements – by the 1980s they were devout Christians; we had little “struggle” connections; and my parents were too busy staying alive and raising seven children to think of anything else – I had to find out about Slovo (1926-1995) and the liberation struggle elsewhere.

Then there was the general environment: it was one of censorship, especially of images, voice recordings and visuals of the jailed and exiled movements. Images of ANC leaders in jail or the underground could not be published in the newspapers or shown on TV until the late 1980s. The first time a newspaper in South Africa published an image of  Nelson Mandela was  in 1986, when the government gave the Weekly Mail permission to put an image of Mandela on its front page. The image was taken before he went to jail when he was 45 years old. By the 1980s, Mandela was already in his 70s. As we would learn later, more recent photos of Mandela did exist, taken on Robben Island and in Pollsmoor prisons,  but they circulated among security operatives only.

Then there was a famous case in 1985, when the editor of the Cape Times, Tony Heard, interviewed Oliver Tambo in London, and quoted Tambo directly in a story. The story was accompanied by a photo of Heard and Tambo chatting. This was against the law. The government made a lot of threats and Heard risked being sent to jail for three years’ imprisonment for publishing the Tambo interview.

You also have to remember the syllabi in our “History” courses in school made little or no references to the liberation movement. If you learned of local resistance it would be of brave Afrikaners and their leaders in their struggles with British colonialism. But it helped that the 1980s was the period of “mass democratic struggle” and high schools were at the heart of this strategy. The way you’d learn or read sympathetic accounts about the exiled and banned movements like the ANC, SACP and PAC, were during what were called “alternative education” sessions set up by boycott leaders or through newspapers and magazines like “Grassroots,” “South” and “Upbeat” and, crucially, through the student teachers coming especially from the University of the Western Cape to do their “practicals” at coloured schools.

But back to first encounters. So, around this time, 1984 or so, someone at school passed around faded photos of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo.  When a classmate pointed to a white man and said that was Joe Slovo, I have to confess I was surprised to learn he was white despite the fact that I had also been shouting his name for a long while. (Songs about Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and of course a certain Joe Slovo was everywhere at the time.)

It is true that by 1984, it  was time of the United Democratic Front inside South Africa. But the UDF was only one years old and although a number of whites were involved in the UDF, this was still early days. Movements like the End Conscription Campaign would come later. The thing about Slovo was that he was particularly singled out for vitriol and hate in the white media and the state. Mainly because he was the face of the Communist Party (apartheid ideology was very Christian) and, even more, because he was the leader of the ANC’s armed wing.

By the late 1980s you’d see Slovo’s image in South Africa’s media more. Remember by then South Africa’s apartheid government was unofficially negotiating with the ANC and the media had become emboldened. Nothing had happened to Tony Heard and the alternative press – the Weekly Mail had published the old image of Mandela in 1986 – was defiantly publishing images and statements of the ANC and the SACP. But at the time I first saw Slovo’s image, it was a revelation to me.

The son of Jewish immigrants, Yossel Mashel Slovo first became involved in ANC and liberation politics in the 1950s when the resistance against Apartheid (then still a new policy) was organized on racial lines. Slovo came to the ANC via the Communist Party of South Africa. The CPSA was banned in 1950 and white communists formed what became known as the Congress of Democrats. They would fight alongside the ANC (which represented Africans), the Indian Congress and Coloured People’s Congress. During this time, Slovo was arrested, charged and briefly jailed for “treason.” When the ANC decided to turn to armed struggle, embarking on a series of strategic bombings of government installations, he emerged as one of the leaders of its the armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). In 1963, he went into exile and over time also became general secretary of the Communist Party (now called the SACP) during its long exile. During this time his first wife, Ruth First, was killed in a bomb attack in Maputo, Mozambique, by death squads of the South African dictatorship (in 1982).  Slovo 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. Known as the “sunset clauses,” Slovo suggested the new government retain the top echelons of the civil service so as to secure a smooth transition. Though deemed necessary at that moment, they were soon not viewed very favorable since the white generals and police chiefs were accused of undermining the new democracy from the start (spreading bogus rumors of a left wing coup, for example).  Slovo served as the country’s first democratic housing minister (his record was mixed)  for one year before dying of cancer in January 1995.

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.”

Or this: “Sometimes, if you wear suits for too long, it changes your ideology.”

Earlier this month, 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, Joe Slovo and Ruth First’s daughter, 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. You can listen to that BBC program here.

Joe Slovo was buried in Avalon Cemetery, a public graveyard in Soweto, first opened in 1972 by apartheid local authorities as a graveyard exclusively for black people.

Further Reading