A daughter in the dark

Christopher Hope is moved by a memoir a childhood shadowed by repression and revolt in apartheid-era South Africa

Every Secret Thing

by Gillian Slovo,

Little,Brown, pounds 16.99

If you don't like being done in for someone else's good cause, South Africa can be a painful place. If you're going to explore its odd being, it helps to have a keen eye and the heart of a motherless child. Mother Africa was never very maternal. High ideals are for missionaries and politicians - when you can tell the difference.

South African politicians of all stripes tend to be closet moralisers. The old regime believed that apartheid was good for you. Thus is maintained a superior moral tone even while destroying those who disagreed with it. It looked to heaven but relied on the heavies. When politicians thanked God for the success of their policies, things were hotting up; and when they thanked the Minister, you knew the police van was not far behind.

The new South African administration contains a number of people who believe that communism is good for you. But no one kept the faith more devotedly than the late Joe Slovo, who headed the Party during its exile. He also ran military operations for the armed wing of the African National Congress, the Spear of the Nation. A man of many parts; none more remarkable than his transformation from "Sinister Slovo", the KGB colonel, into "Jolly Joe", Minister for Housing in the democratic government.

Now his daughter, Gillian Slovo, has written a memoir of her childhood and of her parents. Joe Slovo and Ruth First stand in a long line of martial missionaries, from Mrs Jellaby onwards, for whom charity not only did not begin at home, it was positively frowned upon. Doing good was something proper people did elsewhere, best of all in Africa.

The son of Lithuanian Jews, 10-year-old Joe Slovo arrived in South Africa in the mid-1930s. He served in the South African army, trained as a lawyer and married a like-minded activist, Ruth First. It was one of the great political liaisons in South Africa history, as momentous, in its way, as that of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. But for the three Slovo daughters, neglected as toddlers, deserted in their formative years and abandoned in their teens by parents who devoted themselves to the Party and the Cause and their lovers (not always in that order), it was devastating.

is a moving testimony to a childhood of absences, raids, alarms and mysteries. It is notable for its coolness of tone which can be wonderfully effective: "In most families it is the children who leave home. In mine it was the parents." And Joe and Ruth were habitual absconders. They might have been to jail, to party meetings, or into exile, but the effect was the same for their three daughters: absence, abandonment and fear. In her determination to explain the absent parents to herself, Gillian Slovo is trying to account for parts of her life which also seem to have gone missing.

She ransacks the past for the truth: her mother is dead and cannot say; her father fiercely refuses to tell her anything worth knowing. She tries to understand her country, which is infused with a "deathly intensity". Indeed, something of the same intensity grips her narrative, and might have choked it, were it not for the wry accuracy with which Slovo depicts the pain of separation. Again and again, it is the even tone that saves her story from the slightest tincture of self-pity.

As missionaries of Marxism, the Slovo's were expected to have a position. Ruth First was flexible and fought shy of ideology. Gillian Slovo's portrait of her mother reveals a mercurial, fashionable, flirtatious woman, more intellectually daring and less dogmatic than her husband. Her patient detective work which reconstructs Ruth First's life and death in revolutionary Mozambique, is the finest thing in the book. Ruth, as always, is up to her ears in work, and constantly moving house, from Julius Nyerere Boulevard to Mao Tse Tung to Frederick Engels. It was in Mozambique, in 1982, that she was blown up by a letter-bomb sent to her by South African agents.

Joe Slovo and the Communist Party were stoutly Stalinist and remained so until the fall of the Berlin Wall put an end to dreams of a new South Africa modelled on East Germany - with Cuban rhythms. But the Party continued to hanker after the other Uncle Joe. I remember sitting in Moscow in 1988 reading the African Communist, the South African Party's house magazine, and enjoying the adroitness with which Joe Slovo consoled readers troubled by Gorbachev's perestroika. It was just a spot of local difficulty, contradictions would be resolved, the Party would prevail. As late as 1991, when Gorbachev survived a putsch by the old guard, the South African Party struggled to congratulate the president when its instinct was to commiserate with the plotters.

Joe Slovo was never a particularly effective military commander and he was always an improbable secret agent. Gillian Slovo's investigation of the paraphenalia of secrecy has a fine comic touch: the false passport, the wigs, the dead letter boxes, ,the inevitable paranoia of a man demonised by the South African regime and marked down for assassination.

But it was in masking emotion that he proved to be a true master of disguise. So much so, that at the end of her investigation his daughter seem no closer to finding out what her father truly felt about his daughters, his dead wife, or himself.

Mandela's Minister for Housing, ensconced in his mansion, has his bodyguards, cabinet meetings, official limousines; but they seem like yet more devices to keep the world away. Even at the end, struck down by agonising bone cancer, Joe Slovo can turn on his daughter in fury because he believes she has been prying into his papers, and his life.

Gillian Slovo calls herself "a child of secrets", and it is the investigation of some of these secrets that makes this book, among other things, a fine work of detection. There is a meeting with the lover she never knew her mother had; the discovery of a half-brother (fruit of one of her father's affairs); and an encounter with the agent who may have helped to make the bomb that killed her mother. is a labour of love and bitter honesty. Gillian Slovo has written a brave book, as unsparing of herself as it is of her parents. It is also a mediation on the mercilessness of the high ideals to which Joe and Ruth were prepared to sacrifice everything and - it seems - everyone. To the last, Joe Slovo haunts his daughter. Of that enigmatic man, one has the feeling that his best kept secret was himself.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam