A white man who worked miracles

John Carlin in Johannesburg remembers how Joe Slovo was revered by blac k people
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The Independent Online
Joe Slovo, who died yesterday, learned that he had bone marrow cancer at the end of 1991, a few days before the first South African Communist Party congress held inside the country in more than 30 years. The event was not a particularly happy one for Mr Slovo, then the general secretary as well as one of the leading figures in the national executive of the African National Congress.

Alive to what he described as "the anti-democratic perversions of Stalinism", he argued at the congress that the party's new constitution should pledge its commitment to "democratic Socialism", instead of a terse, unqualified "Socialism". He also proposed that "Leninism" be dropped from the "Marxism-Leninism" formulation. On both counts he was outvoted by purists in the rank and file.

A few minutes after his defeat, I saw him standing alone in a corridor adjoining the congress chamber. He was smoking a cigarette. I was just about to light one myself when a young "comrade" dressed in a T-shirt, trousers two sizes too big for him and a pair of laceless shoes came up to me. "Sorry, comrade. If you wish to smoke you must go outside." I said, "Fine, but what about Mr Slovo over there?"

He glanced over his shoulder, nodded and strode purposefully towards his general secretary. I didn't hear what the comrade said but I saw Mr Slovo's reaction. Wearily, he raised his eyes to heaven, shrugged his shoulders and stepped out into the bright December sunshine After Nelson Mandela, no political leader was more revered by black South Africans than Joe Slovo, a Jew born in Lithuania in 1926. Like Mr Mandela, and like few other political leaders in South Africa or elsewhere, his behaviour in private was consistent with the public man. His speeches dwelt much on democracy, compassion and the wretched of the earth and when you met him over a drink or a cup of tea he was - if slightly abstracted, slightly professorial - kindly, pleasant, passionatein his loathing for apartheid and utterly unassuming.

He was the first South African politician I ever met. It was in London in 1989, while he was still in exile. I had expected someone rather more fearsome. He was chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the ANC's military wing as well asthe Great Unreconstructed Communist, a man the white South African population viewed at the time as the devil incarnate. I left the meeting with a better understanding of why the ANC's armed struggle had been such a fiasco - too much milk of human kindness flowed through these people's veins. He was a favourite-uncle type, the sort of person, I reflected at the time, that I would like to take home to meet my mum.

Yet his gentle disposition masked a brilliant, hard-nosed political strategist described yesterday by President Mandela as "one of the sharpest and most incisive minds I have ever encountered". The success of the South African miracle owed as much to himas to anyone else. The critical breakthrough in the four years of constitutional negotiations between the ANC and FW de Klerk's National Party government came at the end of 1992 following a Slovo initiative. In October that year, he proposed in a document that while full-blooded majority rule was a good thing in principle, it did not offer a practical solution to South Africa's immediate problems.

Better to share power for a while, to meet Mr de Klerk half-way. As if this were not heresy enough, he suggested that civil servants, including police and army officers, should be given guarantees that they would keep their jobs and pensions in post-apartheid South Africa.

In an interview with the Independent at the time, he said his starting point was that since no side had won the struggle for power during the long years of resistance, neither side could be expected to surrender at the negotiating table. The broad test for compromise was whether it would permanently block progress towards the non-racial democracy which had always been the ANC's number one objective. "There are a number of areas where concessions could be made that do not conflict with our bottom lines, with our principles. I ask people to consider the possibility of a period of power-sharing - perhaps three to five years - after a new constitution is adopted."

"Monstrous", "unbelievable", "terrible" were some of the responses in African Communist magazine. But Mr Mandela and the rest of the ANC executive accepted his proposal as policy and now that South Africa is led by a coalition government of national unity, his vision and wisdom have been vindicated.

It was a wisdom based on sacrifice and loss. He was a brilliant young lawyer in the 1950s. He could have become rich and lived in a large house in Johannesburg's affluent northern suburbs. Instead he joined the Communist Party and the ANC and endured privations in exile, none greater than losing his wife, Ruth First, in a parcel bomb attack in 1982. During his three decades in exile he acquired a mythical reputation in the townships - school after school was unofficially named after him all over the country. Like Mr Mandela, his homecoming in 1990 did not diminish the myth.

In contrast with some ANC "strategic thinkers", he paid frequent visits to the townships, especially those worst affected by the political violence of recent years. Be it Boipatong, Thokoza or Soweto, each time he would be greeted by thousands of enraptured black faces. As he was at the ANC congress in Bloemfontein last month when - yellow-skinned, gaunt, face like a bird - Mr Mandela awarded him the organisation's highest honour, Isithwalandwe Seaparankoe (He who wears the leopard skin). The 3,000 delegates roared their approval. "What I did, I did," he said. "It's all been worth it. I won't have any regrets - ever."

His passing was more muted, but no less moving. Mr Mandela, alerted on Thursday night that his old friend was in his death throes, went to his bedside.Joe Slovo had been working to the last. He had brought to his job as Minister of Housing these last eight months the same dedication as he had to the long struggle for liberation. As late as Thursday afternoon he had been studying policy and signing ministry documents at home.

But now he was spent. He could barely breathe. Mr Mandela held Slovo's hand. Slovo looked up at South Africa's first black president, the flesh and blood consummation of his life's work. His blue eyes smiled. He whispered just one word: "Cheers."

Obituary, page 42