OBITUARY: Joe Slovo
Saturday 07 January 1995
Joe Slovo was a key personality in South African revolutionary politics for four decades. He was not only the leader of the South African Communist Party and its principal theoretician but also the most influential white member of the African National Congress and its chief military strategist. After the unbanning of the ANC and the party in February 1990, Slovo returned from enforced exile to play a critical role in South Africa's democratic transition and after the election last April won wide respectas Minister of Housing in the government of national unity.
Perceptions of Slovo varied more widely and changed more radically than those of any other political personality in South African history. In the 1940s youthful nationalists like Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela opposed co-operation with the Communist Party in which whites and Indians were prominent. (Slovo joined the party's youth league in 1942 at the age of 16.) After the party was outlawed in 1950, however, and the regime tightened the screw on the ANC, Slovo was active behind the scenes in a multi-racial alliance led by the ANC. He became, and remained throughout his life, a trusted ally of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela.
From 1950 onwards, "Africanists" in the ANC condemned joint action with white radicals: and in the 1970s "black consciousness" spokespersons advocated black self-reliance. Yet in the 1980s militant African youth in the townships celebrated Slovo as a folk hero. Contributing to this epiphany was the demonising of Slovo by the regime and its popularising of his shadowy role as chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's armed wing.
A shift in perception also occurred among whites. During the later years of his exile, when he could not be quoted or pictured in South Africa, Slovo was depicted by the regime's propaganda as an "evil genius", the mastermind behind ANC "terrorism" in the interest of the Soviet Union. Once negotiations began, however, Slovo was an exemplar of moderate pragmatism. Stalled negotiations reopened when the ANC accepted his proposal for a transitional sharing of power and job and pension guarantees for whiteofficials. Late last year, as terminal illness became worse, he drove himself to arrive at a national housing strategy based on negotiations with all parties. A spokesman of the business-supported Democratic Party lamented the prospect of losing Slovo's"rationality, reasonableness and understanding".
Slovo was born in Lithuania in 1926 and came to Johannesburg at the age of nine, speaking only Yiddish. His father barely made a living for his family as a fruit vendor. Although Joe grew up in a religious household, he became an atheist while retaining respect for "the positive aspects of Jewish culture". Forced to drop out of school early, he became a warehouse assistant and, at 16, was elected a shop steward. He helped lead a strike which won benefits for white workers but not, he was distu rbed to see, for African workers.
At 18, he lied about his age in order to enter the army and served abroad. Back in South Africa he became active in the Springbok Legion, a radical ex-servicemen's league. During the five years following the end of the war in 1945, Slovo's professional, personal and political life took definitive shape. Although he had never attended high school, he was admitted to the University of the Witwatersrand and won a law degree with highest honours. He was at the beginning of a career as an outstanding barrister specialising in political cases. In 1949 he married Ruth First, the brilliant daughter of the Communist Party's treasurer. They became a couple of legendary appeal. Although Slovo continued his legal career for over a dozen years, his primary commitme nt was political.
In 1953, he participated in reconstituting the Communist Party underground. Inconsequential and with only a few members, it did not make its existence known until 1960. Politically, the 1950s were a busy and optimistic time. The regime lacked the professionalism and brutality that it attained in the late 1960s. Slovo was a founder of the white Congress of Democrats. Although banned from gatherings and organisations in 1954, he assisted in writing the Freedom Charter of 1955, which introduced a nationalisation plank and which the ANC later adopted. Meanwhile, the Slovo home was a centre for radicals and inter-racial partying and Slovo a popular personality. Mandela came often, saying later that only "Communists . . . were prepared to eat with us, talk with us, live with us and work with us."
Communist solidarity with the African liberation movement was strengthened in December 1956 when Slovo and his wife were among 156 people arrested for high treason. Slovo informally joined the defence team. Midway through the lengthy trial, he and his wife were among the many released.
The Sharpeville massacre of March 1960 was a watershed in Slovo's life. After five months in detention, he emerged as the party's key link to the ANC in the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe. It announced its existence with a campaign of sabotage in December1961. The ANC and the party, respectively, appointed Mandela and Slovo to organise the high command, which operated with lax security out of a farmhouse near Johannesburg. A catastrophic raid in July 1963, while Slovo was briefly abroad, decapitated theANC-SACP underground and cut off the leaders outside.
The situation was "pretty bleak", in Slovo's words. His wife and three daughters joined him in London, but remnants of the party's central committee were scattered in exile. Not until the ANC's 1969 conference in Tanzania was the alliance with the ANC firmly established, highlighting the controversial question of Communist influence. ANC membership was opened to non-Africans except on the executive committee. An ANC multi-racial revolutionary council was established, and Slovo became its only white member.
The personal influence of Slovo and other Communists within the ANC was profound. Communists were strategically situated and engaged in elite recruitment. The importance of the clandestine party itself, however, is questionable. Since 1969, the relationship between the party and the ANC has been so symbiotic, with dual membership and agreement on short-term nationalist goals, that the party virtually lost any identity as a working-class vanguard.
Slovo and his wife were vulnerable to assassination by South African agents. In 1982 she was killed by a package bomb in Mozambique. Ruth First was more independent-minded than her husband and out of favour with the party "because of her outspoken aversion to the ghastly crimes of Stalin", in Slovo's words.
Although based for some years in Mozambique, Slovo was frequently on the move. After travelling with Tambo and others to Vietnam in the late 1970s, he wrote a seminal report, "The Green Book", on strategy for the 1980s: the need for integrating politicaland military action, mass mobilisation, and a united front, which came to fruition in the United Democratic Front.
Slovo officially became Umkhonto's chief of staff in 1985 and also the first white member of the ANC's National Executive Committee (then open to non-Africans for the first time). During the 1980s some mutineers and others suspected of disaffection in Umkhonto's Angolan camps were tortured and killed. One critic has maintained that, although Slovo abhorred what was happening he distanced himself from it. He left the chairmanship of the party in 1986 to become general secretary. Impressed by the rise of black trade unions, he resigned a year later as chief of staff to concentrate on building the party. In 1991 he resumed the chairmanship.
Slovo's strategy during most of his 27 years in exile assumed the necessity for prolonged guerrilla war and the "seizure of power" but underestimated the regime's strength and ruthlessness. His world-view distorted his assessments of the possibility of Western sanctions, the durability of socialist systems, and the regime's willingness to negotiate once stalemate occurred. He consistently supported the policies of the Soviet leadership but toward the end of the 1980s vigorously criticised the failure of"socialism without democracy" in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. While retaining this belief in the scientific and democratic nature of Marxism, he expressed shame for his long and uncritical acceptance of Stalinism.
In the 1990s, Slovo, more than anyone else on the Left, stimulated open debate but faced deep divisions in the party and the scepticism of outsiders who believed that a culture of arrogance and intolerance was ingrained in the party. Slovo was candid in admitting to failures in democratic accountability, and firm in rejecting a one-party system as "a recipe for tyranny". He identified himself as a democratic socialist in arguing for pluralism, constitutional entrenchment of political freedoms, and a bill of rights, but critics were troubled by his continuing admiration for Marx and Lenin as mentors of democracy.
At home in South Africa, remarried and a grandfather, Slovo was a genial figure. How important he was in redefining the role of the Communist Party in a politically democratic society remains for future historians to judge. Meanwhile, he stands as a South African of dedication and integrity who furthered the cause of non-racialism by fully identifying himself with the black struggle for liberation.
Thomas G. Karis
Joe Slovo should never have been in South Africa, writes Richard Dowden. His father intended to go to Argentina, when he left Lithuania in the 1930s, but at the last moment boarded a boat for Cape Town. The family followed soon after. One wonders what Argentina might be like if Joe Slovo had grown up there.
After Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, Slovo is probably the most important figure in South Africa's recent history. There were two people who held the African National Congress together between the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the movement in 1990. One of them was Oliver Tambo and the other was Slovo. While Tambo's gentle charm kept the personalities together, Slovo organised structure and policy. It was the mission he was trained for by the Communist Party. The South African Communist Party was so intertwined with the ANC that it was impossible to distinguish the two organisations. The style of organisation and the rhetoric were clearly Marxist-Leninist and the key posts were all occupied by Communists. Slovo was the key organiser.
He was an old-style romantic Communist, the type Graham Greene would have instantly recognised. His faith was absolute, his goals were millenarian but he was also urbane and humorous. But he also knew that horrible deeds must be done that good might come. As head of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, he well knew the arguments to distinguish between indiscriminate terror and dramatic acts of sabotage to politicise the masses and terrify the oppressors.
Lusaka, the headquarters of the ANC in the years of exile, is one of the most depressing capitals in Africa and the ANC at that time was not an inspiring organisation. Many of Slovo's comrades spent their time drinking and dreaming in the Pamodzi Hotel. Through all the hopeless years and the bickering Slovo kept the organisation alive. But he always kept in the background and in 1988 I was lucky to be given the first interview with him for many years. The Pamodzi had run out of Zambian beer but had a few cans of Castle, which is brewed in South Africa. To touch anything South African at that time was mortal sin for anti-apartheid campaigners but Slovo shrugged. "Needs must," he said, swearing me to secrecy with a smile.
He was a regular visitor to Moscow and, although he was anxious about Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, he believed that Communism would be strengthened by them and continue to spread. However he said he regarded apartheid as "imperialism of a peculiar kind" and openly doubted if socialism was the best system for South Africa to adopt immediately when apartheid was overthrown. Later, during the negotiations with the de Klerk government, it was Slovo who proposed the historic compromise of powersharing and itis his vision of a powersharing structure which has indeed come about.
In 1988 Slovo attended one of the early meetings between the ANC and South African politicians and academics in Germany. It was soon after the release of A World Apart, the film about the sufferings of his family during his exile. Though it was written by his daughter Shawn, he had not seen it. We watched a video copy in a hotel room. By the end of the film he was weeping uncontrollably. Wynand Malan, a former National Party MP, took him in his arms and embraced him. This was perhaps a precursor for theastounding metanoia and reconciliation which South Africa was to undergo. Later Slovo said he had never really come to terms with the pain he had caused those close to him by his commitment to the cause.
I last met him during the election campaign at a small rally on a bleak windy field in a coloured township near Cape Town. He was exhausted but, as he said, an open election in South Africa was the event he had waited and worked for all his life. The sound system wasn't working properly and the crowd heard little of what he said. It mattered little. They had come to see the legendary guerrilla leader and they were happy. So was he, full of joy and work.
Joe Slovo, lawyer, party leader: born Obelai, Lithuania 23 May 1926; member, South African Communist Party 1942-95, General Secretary 1986-91, Chairman 1991-95; founding member 1961 Umkhonto we Sizwe, chief of staff 1985-87; member, national executive committee, African National Congress 1986-95; Minister of Housing 1994-95; married 1949 Ruth First (died 1982; three daughters), secondly Helena Dolny; died Johannesburg 6 January 1995.
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