`That's no white man. That's Joe Slovo'
He had devoted his life to the liberation struggle and, as a leader of the ANC's army and the Communist Party, he had spent 27 years in exile. He died on 6 January, housing minister of the new South Africa. Here his daughter desc ribes the emotion s - private and public - on the death of a hero
Saturday 04 February 1995
At the memorial meeting inside, Khoisan X, a sweet-faced demagogue from the Pan African Congress, bounced up to the microphone and was addressing a tightly packed, mostly African crowd. He spoke of Joe at meetings where he tried to hold back the PAC frompushing the National Party too hard and at others where he urged them to push harder. And he repeated what one of his young son's friends said when he saw a photograph of the two men together: "Why is your father shaking hands with a white man?"
"That's no white man. That's Joe Slovo."
It had been the most public, and the most private, of deaths. For months, as he became steadily weaker, the newspapers kept speculating. And yet, with that old combination of political expediency, secrecy and fierce loyalty that had always been our modusvivendi, only those closest to him knew how near death he really was.
He died at home at three in the morning. We - his wife, Helena, his three daughters, his director-general, and his doctor - toasted him with whisky. The previous evening Joe's last visitor, Nelson Mandela, had, holding his hand, talked for half an hour. When the time came for him to go, Mandela leant forward, his cheek touching Joe's forehead, as he said goodbye. In that moment after Joe's death, we stood by his bedside and repeated the word that, almost his last, was Joe's farewell to his old friend: "Cheers."
An hour later, as mortuary workers carried the body out, Mandela sat with us. A moment of calm, the first discussion of the funeral. Joe had wanted a small ceremony at the Johannesburg City Hall which had been the site, in the Forties, of his first public meetings, and where, after his return to South Africa, he had gone every Thursday to listen to concerts.
The President listened carefully before saying that maybe the hall would be a little small. We nodded. Somewhere we had always known it would be thus: that the man who had dedicated his life to a country would, in death, be reclaimed by its people.
The night rolled into the dawn. I went to wake my daughter, Cassie, to tell her what had happened. She sat on my lap and seemed to cry but when I touched her face, her skin was dry. She was right: it was not time for tears. When we got back, the cameras were already rolling.
I had some idea of what to expect. When my mother, Ruth First, was murdered in Mozambique, I arrived to find the house full of comrades paying their condolences while, in the kitchen, others, groups of solid African mamas, cooked and cleaned and answeredthe phone.
The women who occupied Joe and Helena's kitchen were of an altogether different genre. A new breed of rising stars in South Africa, many of them had been in the MK, the army of the African National Congress. Now they took time off from high-pace jobs to run the house.
People flooded in: those who had known Joe in the old days, and those who had lived through exile with him. Some came and only sat: some told stories. It was they who meant the most - like the man who said sheepishly that he now worked in Wall Street. And then he told us that, when he had been in MK, Joe had sent him underground after warning him that the "other side" might know about the mission. Joe was right. The young man was arrested and spent years in Robben Island. And yet he put off his return to New York to come and pay tribute to his commander whom he had always affectionately called JS.
No one came empty-handed. Sandwiches, cakes, cold drinks, enough for a large rectory cake sale, filled the garage. And then the kombis (minibuses) arrived. Ordinary black South Africans who came from the townships, the first a group of women who filed through the house, went to the patio to sing of their Joe.
I stood beside Cassie, watching. When, some minutes later, I glanced down, I saw that she was crying, not sedately, or silently, but weeping openly in grief and in wonder at the soaring voices. The women hugged her and then began to toyi-toyi, two at their centre, dressed in old clothes, their skin mottled by poverty. But they were smiling as first one leg and then the other came down hard on to the ground, a beautiful, war-like, balancing act of celebration. They looked deep into the garden and saw prominent ANC people among the funeral committee which was in session: their sound swelled, projecting out into discussions of coffins and stadiums and food to feed 45,000 people.
It was to be, by Joe's wish, a simple funeral. Not for him the mahogany and brass of a ministerial coffin but simple pine, not a hearse but a gun carriage supplied by the army. Everything needed to be discussed and everything was political. The largest of the local undertaking firms faxed offering to do everything free (their offer ending with the words VAT included), but the committee refused their offer. Instead, they approached a group of smaller African undertakers and asked them to co-operate for this one funeral.
We gave ourselves a day off during the week. It felt sinful, and eerie as well, going to a game reserve near the bizarre fake playground of Sun City, riding open jeeps with other tourists, spotting rhino and dung beetles while trying to stop the tide of images of Joe's last days from taking over.
Then it was back to Johannesburg, back to receiving visitors - which is when I understood why the Jewish tradition of sitting at home in mourning is restricted to seven days. By the eighth, we were all at breaking point, no longer able to absorb what people had to say. Being "the family of the nation", as one of hundreds of condolence letters called us, had become hard work.
We hid ourselves in the study, were only reluctantly dug out, and even the most poignant of moments could suddenly seem funny. And, with the shock waning, I couldn't help clocking the remorseless networking taking place: the house was a stopover for South Africa's major politicos and while they transacted business in corners, others came to press their flesh.
On the ninth day at a private memorial in the City Hall, the Johannesburg symphony orchestra played Joe's favourite music. Beethoven's Eroica swelled up, pushing us all into a well of misery until the telecommunications minister, Pallo Jordan, an urbane black man, took the mike to tell Joe's favourite off-colour Jewish jokes, brilliantly Then, finally, came the funeral. We couldn't have the small affair we'd first imagined. Not just the country, but the state as well, was claiming its minister. What Mandela had said became the general consensus: the city hall was too small, Joe needed a stadium. As the days wore on, as more and more memorial services were held throughout the country, nobody could guess what the turn-out might be. I had visions of Joe lying in state in a half-empty stadium.
It didn't take long to get to Soweto - the roads were clear - or to see that almost every seat in Orlando stadium was occupied. We filed past the coffin, past a waxy corpse dressed in the suit that Cyril Ramaphosa had picked out (the one Joe had worn during the pre-election negotiations) and in a tie we had given him for his last birthday. Former members of MK stood honour guard, changing sporadically and jerkily enough to show that parade drill had never been part of MK daily life.
The stadium throbbed with speeches: Nelson Mandela's measured tones; Chief Rabbi Harris's passionate defence of Joe's life; Jeremy Cronin's rendering of Joe's favourite poem - Brecht's "In Praise of Communism" - and the union's; John Gonomo's vow that hewould not rest until those who had murdered Ruth were named.
There are 12 kilometres between the stadium and Avalon cemetery. It took us more than two hours to get there. We couldn't go any faster: the whole of Soweto had come to say goodbye. Standing by the roadside were groups of men, their fists clenched at shoulder height as they saluted their leader's passing. Others ran alongside the cortege, their feet hitting the dirt as they chanted a proud, rhythmic "hoff- hoff". His face was everywhere, on every third breast. Among them, an original - a black and whiteT-shirt on which was printed: "Goodbye, Nelson Mandela" and, underneath that: "Cheers, Joe Slovo".
There was a poignant moment, which was hilarious as well when my elder sister, Shawn, discovered she had her own, personal praise singer. He ran up to us, saying he'd known our mother in Mozambique and asking which one of us was Shawn. When we told him, his clenched fist shot high up in the air. "Viva Shawn," he shouted, not once, but many, many times as he kept pace with our car.
In front of us, the car in which Helena and Joe's two stepdaughters sat, overheated. No problem - the crowd pitched in. And so we drove the last kilometre with our driver trying to avoid running over any of the scores of people jostling for the honour ofpushing Joe's widow's car.
Nobody had expected so many people. When the organisers realised just how dense was the crowd elsewhere, they had diverted 500 of the 1,000 monitors to other points along the route. But there were many thousands at the cemetery itself and as time passed they grew restless, pushing forward to see Joe's grave, intent on placing stones on the coffin. Meanwhile knots of besuited men conferred about the practicalities of sending a military helicopter to carry us over the final leg.
It had rained that morning. The earth had turned to a reddish sludge. We walked to another podium. This one was opposite Joe's canopy-covered grave. Behind us, friends and relatives straggled. Many of their cars had got so bogged down that they had walked the last few kilometres. We watched them, climbing to join us, thick mud caking their shoes, tights and trouser legs.
No time for grief here. The crowd was restless, shouting when they were told to sit that, sure, they would if chairs were provided. The tradition at the graveside is that one of the chief mourners, a man, should give thanks. Joe's family of women broke that tradition: his wife Helena was to give the speech. For a moment it looked as if she might not be able to, so great was the noise. Then Cyril Ramaphosa finessed the situation, singing loudly into a microphone. The crowd joined in and, as soon as they finished, Cyril pointed at Helena to speak. There was extraordinary, dignified silence - except that is when she talked of Joe's messiness, and of his love for peanuts, cigars and whisky, wine, women and song. The place erupted in laughter and applause.
I remembered so distinctly that moment in my mother's funeral when mourners had queued up to cover the grave with earth. I was waiting for it to come again, but I missed it: against the press of people and the huge canopy, I could see nothing but frenetic spades arching up into the air, dirt spraying out in their wake.
And then it was over. Time for normal life, to mourn Joe in privacy. As we filed along the podium, hands were outstretched, young men anxious to greet Thabo Mbeki. Among them, a familiar figure, fist clenched, shouting "Viva Shawn".
In death as in life. Returning to Cape Town, I phoned for help with a computer software glitch. When I gave my name, the telephonist asked: "Are your related to our hero? It hit me then - why hundreds of thousands of South Africans had come out for his funeral. Joe was unique - a Communist, a military leader, a housing minister - and he was theirs.
I knew, then, that normality could not return. Those few days when he had been dying he was ours alone. Now South Africa had reclaimed him.
Gillian Slovo's new novel, `Close Call', will be published by Michael Joseph in April.
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