BOOKS: One good white

SLOVO: Unfinished Autobiography by Joe Slovo, Hodder pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
HOW did Joe Slovo manage it? Until his death a year ago, he was always there in news stories about South Africa: a stocky grey-haired white man, smiling and sunburnt, among the stern black faces of the African National Congress. In 1985 he was the first white man elected to its National Executive. What is more, he was a communist - the still-socialist leader of the South African Communist Party long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. When apartheid collapsed, Slovo was one of the first appointed to Mandela's cabinet; when he died, his coffin was drawn through Soweto on a gun-carriage donated by the army he had spent his life fighting. All in all, enough to confound a Daily Telegraph reader: but how?

"Commentators continue to be puzzled by the staying power of the SACP," runs Slovo's own answer. "It is time to divulge one of the lesser known secrets of our public relations success. No, we have no contract with Saatchi & Saatchi ... We rely on the firm of De Klerk and Botha ..." His half- joke makes a central point. In South Africa, even the most squeamish liberal could see the communists were the on the right side, and Slovo was largely responsible for this. In the epilogue here, a black leader called Thenjiwe Mtintso, "convinced that the communists were white and were manipulating the ANC", describes how he gradually became convinced of the communist leader's rectitude. "But then Slovo always had the reputation," he concludes, "of being an exceptional white."

His autobiography adds to this reputation. Slovo patched together his memories as therapy after his wife and fellow activist Ruth First was killed by a South African security services letter bomb in 1982. He begins with a trip back to the Lithuanian village of Obel, where he was born in 1926. He mixes childhood memories - winter sledging with dozens of others on a single, packed sled; the village's "pinkish-cream" apples - with an unsentimental wit, as he describes a frantic few hours careering round the local Party headquarters and cheese factory, trying to make time to see his old house.

Slovo and his Jewish family escaped from Lithuania, and genocide. His father tried first Argentina, then South Africa, where he sold fruit and delivered bread on the streets of Johannesburg. Slovo draws the immigrant step-ladder well: the social gradations of the Jewish suburbs, and his rapid assumption of the nickname "Bolshie" for his near-Russian origins. Perhaps this mild discrimination - and what was happening to Jews back in Lithuania - allowed him to see with rare clarity, on joining the Party as a teenager, that race, not class, was the country's major divide. Rather than simply organise strikes for better (white) wages, he helped black factory workers set up illegal newspapers. He was sacked as a militant for the first time at the age of 18.

During the Fifties, apartheid still maintained a judicial veneer; like Gandhi and Mandela, Slovo felt that practising law was the best way to expose the oppression beneath. As a barrister he learnt to use stealth, rather than confront a vastly stronger system. On one occasion, defending some laundry workers accused of striking illegally, he was approached by the magistrate hearing the case, who had indiscreetly allowed himself to be photographed with a black woman. Could he help prevent the photos being published? Slovo agreed - on condition that the laundry workers were acquitted.

Subsequently, the battle became nastier. But Slovo does not let his tone become bitter. His account of his time in jail in the Sixties focuses on the far worse conditions for the black prisoners, and the "euphoria" of a successful hunger strike. There is a faint awkwardness in his brief treatment of the campaign of violence by the ANC and SACP. He tells a good story about going to plant a bomb in a barracks, activating the delayed detonator, and then being disturbed by an unsuspecting army officer before he can remove it from his bag - the sweating Slovo had to walk off with the holdall - but, as the campaign's leader, he ducks the issue of innocent victims.

The book is incomplete, its "writing" interrupted by apartheid's death- throes during the late Eighties: Slovo simply became too busy to do his dictation. For an account of his life beyond 1965, it relies on tributes from old comrades, friends and family. One of them notes that, once in office as Housing Minister, Slovo sought to put roofs over heads using distinctly un-communist methods, saying that a new South Africa could not be built "purely on the basis of entitlement". But this pragmatism only confirmed his one, overwhelming goal: black emancipation. And this was not striven for joylessly - the Party boss even told funny socialist jokes.