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
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker