When Castro, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh were fighting for freedom their wives, as far as most of us know, were back home cooking and looking after the kids. Not so Winnie Mandela, the most tigerish activist the anti-apartheid struggle produced, or Albertina Sisulu who, during the long imprisonment of her husband Walter and his best friend Nelson, emerged as one of the half dozen most powerful black figures in South Africa.
And then there was Joe Slovo who, as leader both of the South African Communist Party and the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), was idolised in thetownships as much as he was detested by the white establishment. His wife, Ruth First, used to be described by the white press as "the high priestess" of the ANC's Communist Party allies. She would have been a leading contender for a cabinet post in President Mandela's government had she not been blown to bits by a bomb the South African security police mailed her in Mozambique in 1982.
But what about the children of these heroic couples? How did they cope with the absence, both physical and emotional, of parents whose manifest priority was not them but the Cause? And, for that matter, how did the parents deal with the consequences of having deliberately chosen to neglect their children?
These are the questions at the heart of Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, by the second of the Slovos' three daughters, Gillian. The book is a biography of Joe Slovo and Ruth First told through the eyes of a woman, now in her forties, battling to reconcile her filial impulse to be angry and resentful with her rational understanding that her parents had made a courageous moral choice.
What she wanted to hear from her parents, but never quite did, were the words Nelson Mandela uttered to her and her sisters at dawn on 6 January 1995, hours after their father's death. One of the first to pay his respects at Slovo's Johannesburg home, Mandela was himself in deep mourning, having lost a comrade and friend with whom he had founded the ANC's armed wing in 1961 and whom he had appointed to his first cabinet, despite knowing he was dying, as minister of housing.
"He told us," Gillian Slovo writes, "how one day when he had gone to hug his grown-up daughter she had flinched from him, and burst out, 'You are the father to all our people, but you never had the time to be a father to me'. This, he said, was his greatest, perhaps his only, regret: the fact that his children, and the children of his comrades, had been the ones to pay the price of their parents' commitment."
Not all "the comrades" were as sensitive to the children's plight as Mandela. There are those who believe that for the likes of Gillian Slovo to whimper about how their parents abandoned them reveals the most despicable self-centredness.
She describes in the book a lunch meeting with Mac Maharaj, a former prisoner with Mandela on Robben Island, after he had become minister of transport. He mentioned that he had seen A World Apart, an autobiographical film made in 1987 written by Gillian Slovo's elder sister, Shawn, that wrenchingly describes the effect on her childhood of her mother's political involvement and imprisonment. "Mac said he had enjoyed the film," Gillian Slovo writes, "but then he added something different: some of his African comrades, he said, had decided that what the young girl in the film needed was 'a good slap'."
Mandela's words had soothed. Maharaj's had stung. Each was a valid response to a dilemma which to this day Gillian Slovo acknowledges she will never resolve. Speaking last week from her home in London, where she has lived since her mother took the family into exile in 1964, she said Maharaj's comrades were not the only ones who saw her as a spoilt brat.
"I know there are people in South Africa who will continue to believe that, and I think it's all part of the same circle. The Mandelas saying 'we sacrificed our children, it's our one regret', and those people who say 'one white kid - what she deserves is a slap'. There is no way of giving yourself to a cause like that and giving your children an easy time. It's not possible."
Did this mean that she had, indeed, reconciled herself to her parents, that she had forgiven them? For the answer to that question had not come across clearly in the book. "Forgiveness," she replied, "is not the right word. They did what they had to do and I suffered for it. I think now I have understood a bit more who they were. Through the process of looking into the past, I was searching for a truth that would put me at rest. But I think now that there is no such thing. But I looked it in the face, and that seemed necessary."
She looked it unflinchingly in the face. The book is a novel exercise in psychotherapy, one in which you seek to resolve your own problems by delving into the darker recesses of your parents' lives. On her journey of parental discovery Gillian Slovo acquired a keener understanding of the historically influential political roles her parents had played, one of the great frustrations of her life having been the furtiveness clandestinity imposed upon them, the imperative to keep the children in the dark as to what they did. But it was in the private domain where the biggest surprises came, where she stumbled across secrets far more shocking and painful than anything she had bargained for.
That, she speculates towards the end of the book, is perhaps why her father was so fiercely opposed to her writing his life story. She describes an encounter she had with him in Cape Town during the last weeks of his life. His body had become emaciated, his clothes hanging loose about his bony shoulders, and his head - once meaty and square - had shrunk into his thin neck. Yet he summoned up every ounce of energy he had left to snap at her, with venom, "I'm not going to tell you anything."
"'You have no right,' he said.
He overrode whatever it was that I was about to say. 'It's my life', spitting out bitterly at the last word, and repeating it as well, 'My life. Not yours.'
I guess he couldn't have put it any clearer than that. His life, not mine; his secrets, not mine; his property not mine. His - all of it - and I was trespassing."
What the trespassing yielded was the staggering discovery that more than 20 years earlier he had borne a son with the wife of an ANC comrade but whom he had only seen, fleetingly,twice. Michale Sachs is his name and she only found out about his existence, and then met him, a matter of days after Joe's death.
"It was a terrible time to find out I had a half-brother," she recalled. "I was just getting over the turmoil of the funeral and I was looking forward to a few days of reflection when this came along. But Michael is a very nice young man, though I don't know him very well at all. Maybe I'll get to know him, but maybe I won't."
But did she have no curiosity to find out more about him? "Yes, of course. Every time I go to South Africa I'll look him up."
If she sounded oddly matter of fact it was perhaps because talking to her you sense a woman who has been so buffeted by life and death - she tells in the book how after the letter bomb killed her mother people were "scraping what was left of her off the wall" - that she has learnt to adjust, get on with her life, after experiencing dramas which would leave most people shattered and terminally scarred.
The book's other devastating revelation comes when she meets a man who tells her he had an affair with her mother in the early Sixties. She describes her horror at the dawning realisation as the conversation wears on that they had had not a fling, but arelationship that lasted four years - years which were the most harrowing in Gillian's and her sisters' lives. During that time her father fled the country and in the last year of the affair her mother's political activism landed her in jail, where she tried once to commit suicide.
Today she appears to have come to terms even with that betrayal, though as she speaks a hint comes through that her writings have not altogether purged the pain.
"I know that my parents did not have an exclusive relationship. That is the bargain they made and that, in a way, is their business. Though it went on for four years, a hard four years in my life. But it's their life, you know, and... so what?"
It wasn't all that "so what" for her father. The most disturbing scene in the book takes place in one of South Africa's loveliest settings. The balcony of Blues restaurant in Cape Town, looking out, under the shadow of Table Mountain, at a row of palm trees, a beach and the Atlantic Ocean. Father and daughter are having lunch and father, almost in the spirit of a deathbed confession is spilling out his true feelings about Ruth First.
"He was talking," she writes, "almost as if saying the unsayable, he had to be aggressive. His lips were stretched tight, a sadistic smile, or a sad one?"
He told her how humourless her mother had been, how phony, how viciously competitive with him on the political terrain, and how hurt to the marrow he had been by her infidelity. The poison poured out of him and she didn't try to stop him. "I felt his anger at Ruth. No, not his anger. I felt mine as well. She had betrayed him. She had betrayed all of us. How could she?" As he keeps talking she finds herself suddenly looking at the marriage from her mother's side, pondering what she might have said in rebuttal and concluding that she too would have had reason to complain.
"I caught myself swinging back in judgment, and I wondered how I had ended up arbitrating between them in my mind, hating first one and then the other. Was this my punishment for daring to tread in a past that did not belong to me?"
Like any good exercise in psychotherapy, Gillian Slovo's investigation into her parents' lives was bound to have its moments of harrowing illumination. But today, it seems, the arbitrating is at an end. She has found neither the whole truth nor complete peace, but the anger has abated. The catharsis came at her father's funeral in Soweto, when 60,000 people turned up at Orlando stadium for the speeches and the whole township, seemingly, lined the route to the cemetery.
"My anger at my parents," Gillian Slovo said, "was essentially because they had a passion in their life and it wasn't me, it was South Africa - especially for my father. At the funeral I realised that was his family and that the family considered him theirs. It was such an amazing experience but I just thought, 'How can you kick against this? It's bigger than you.' I suppose I had always known this, but the funeral was the manifestation of just how big it was and how important he was to that country."
Taken all in all, Every Secret Thing is not a chronicle of recriminations. If you listen carefully the note that rings through conveys something else altogether. It is the testament of a proud daughter. It is a song of tortured love to two complex, generous and ruthlessly dedicated people in whom Gillian Slovo has discovered, in the end, more to admire than to despise.Reuse content