Whites recognise debt to Slovo

It took a death to show how far South Africa has come since the electio ns, writes John Carlin in Johannesburg
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The Independent Online
It is impossible to overstress the fear and loathing Joe Slovo generated, until very recently, among white South Africans, almost as impossible as it is to account for the overflow of regret with which they responded to his death.

As chief of staff of the military wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), Slovo, who died of cancer on Friday, was the master terrorist responsible for the deaths of innocent white civilians; as the general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), he was the evil brains (for blacks could not really think for themselves, could they?) behind the ANC's schemes to close down the churches, to seize from the rich and give to the poor, to wreak horrible, gulag vengeance on the Oppressor; as a white man he was a despicable traitor.

Shortly after his return from exile in May 1990, he was asked by a reporter how he felt about his status as white South Africa's Public Enemy Number One. On balance, he said, he did not feel at all bad. For every white who hated him there were three blacks who saw him as a hero. He had achieved this without the help of Saatchi and Saatchi, he said. "I had Botha and Botha doing the work for me."

On Friday, the final day of the Third Test between South Africa and New Zealand, the flags at Newlands cricket ground in Cape Town were at half-mast in memory of Slovo, who had been Nelson Mandela's Minister of Housing. South Africa scored a series-clinching seven-wicket victory. Yet the white television commentators found time to lament Slovo's death and during the lunch break, while the suspense was still at fever pitch, Martin Locke, South Africa's Desmond Lynam, interviewed not a local Geoffrey Boycott but Steve Tshwete, the Minister of Sport. Locke ignored the cricket and talked to the minister reverentially, and to the exclusion of all else, about Slovo.

An Afrikaans bank manager in Johannesburg spontaneously volunteered the thought on Friday morning that Slovo's death was "a terrible loss to the country, he was a very fine and noble man". An Afrikaans school teacher, a pious member of the Dutch ReformedChurch, said at the weekend she had long viewed him as a dangerous atheist. "But in recent years I came to see him as a man of tremendous honesty and integrity. It's funny thing to say about a man who does not believe in God, but I think he was a fine Christian."

No better measure exists of the success with which South Africa has banished the ghosts of the past, of the distance the country has travelled in a remarkably short space of time, than the editorial the Johannesburg Citizen carried on Slovo in Saturday'spaper.

Right up to the April elections the Citizen epitomised hard reactionary white South African opinion. Saturday's editorial described Slovo as a "once feared Communist . . . highly respected for his intellect, his wisdom and, surprisingly, his moderation.

"Among the people . . . who contributed to the birth of the new South Africa, Mr Slovo has an honoured position . . . to Mr Slovo's family, to the ANC and to the SACP, we express our deep condolences. An outstanding leader and true South African has died."

Apart from the fact that Slovo was a good man and goodness, in the end, will out, the Citizen was giving expression to the dawning realisation among white South Africans that they owe him a huge debt. If the spirit of "non-racialism", the bedrock philosophy of the ANC, has survived against all odds among the vast majority of ordinary black South Africans it is in significant measure due to the example of altruism and generosity that Slovo set.

At a party in Johannesburg on Friday night, four black people were talking about their fallen hero in precisely such a light. "Thank God for Slovo," one said. "He taught us that just because they were white it didn't mean they had to be bad."