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.

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