Interview: Joe Slovo: look, no horns]: A Communist from Lithuania, once one of the most hated men in South Africa, is almost as popular as Nelson Mandela. That's politics . . .

Hunter Davies
Monday 18 April 1994 23:02

The taxi driver wouldn't take me to the front door of the headquarters of the African National Congress in Plein Street, Johannesburg. He dropped me at the end of the street, leaving me to walk. Not surprising. Two days previously, 53 had been killed when a Zulu march turned violent. Eleven deaths were outside the ANC building. The day before my visit, snipers were still taking pot shots.

The ANC building is still called Shell House, despite the fact the oil folks moved long since. The ANC now has the whole block. All 22 storeys. To the right of the front door is the ANC souvenir shop - the Movement Trading Store. Good place to buy presents for my children, but closed by the look of it. What am I doing, thinking about stupid presents? Let's get inside, out of the line of fire.

Joe Slovo, Communist Party chairman and leading ANC executive committee member, was already at his desk, plump face, silver hair, kindly uncle figure, specs like Angus Wilson. Formerly one of the most hated, most wanted men in South Africa, now the second most popular. Only Nelson Mandela beat him in an ANC popularity poll.

It'll mean a top cabinet job, when the ANC wins the election next week. Hence the smiles, the kindly face. Very understandable, when you think what he has gone through, and how long he has had to wait.

Smell of cigar smoke. Should he be smoking, and so early in the morning, when he has been so ill? He didn't really want to talk about it. He is a politician, with a pretty important election, and it was a bit embarrassing how he discovered his ill-health. But he left his desk, sat down on a sofa, lit another small cigar, and told me.

'About three years ago I was being interviewed by a French journalist, in another office. He was going on about the ANC being unable to organise anything. I was saying, of course we are very well organised. I got up to open the door, to let him out, and found someone had locked us in. Everyone had gone home. To get out, I had to climb through a louvred window, above the door. In doing so, I hurt my ribs. For weeks, it never got better, so I eventually had blood tests - and I was found to have a form of skin cancer, multiple melanoma. I've had chemotherapy. It wasn't too intolerable.

'At the moment I feel fine. I am in remission. No, I'm too busy to worry about the future. Anyway, death is part of life.'

He was born in Lithuania in 1926. His dad, to escape the pogroms, went first to Argentina, lost his job, decided to try South Africa instead, starting as a street hawker, then ran a little fruit shop.

Joe arrived in SA aged eight, speaking only Yiddish. He left school at 14 to be a clerk, then studied in the evenings for the law, later going to the University of Witwatersrand. That was where he first met Mandela, who was six years older, also studying law, as a mature student. 'We had violent arguments in the corridor. He was very anti-Communist.'

Joe's nickname when young was 'Bolshie' - long before he'd ever thought of politics. 'I was riddled with lice, had my hair shaved, and came from Eastern Europe - so in the playground I was called Bolshie.'

It was at secondary school that he first became politically aware, thanks to an Irish teacher who was very left-wing and anti-British. 'I later joined a Marxist-Zionist group, till I realised they were not compatible.'

He became a strike leader, till he got the sack, then a student agitator, but managed to qualify as a lawyer, won prizes, and for 13 years practised successfully at the Bar, making a good living. In 1949, he married Ruth First, whose wealthy parents had helped to found South Africa's Communist Party.

In 1961 he joined Mandela in launching the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Until then, his strength had been as a political strategist, organising the Communist Party against apartheid. Now he was into terrorism. Did you kill anyone? 'It was armed propaganda, not armed combat. We blew up telephone lines and pass offices, making symbolic attacks, mainly on property. We were telling our supporters, 'It's not too late to do something' and telling the government, 'This is only the beginning, it will escalate'.

'I laid bombs myself - we felt it was not fair to let the rank-and-file members take all the risk - but we didn't hurt anyone. I think the only injuries were to our own members, blowing themselves up.'

In 1963, he went on an ANC mission to see Oliver Tambo, then deputy president of the ANC, in Tanzania. While he was away, Mandela and others in the military wing were imprisoned after the so-called Rivonia raid - and Mr Slovo spent the next 27 years in exile.

From 1964 to 1976, he lived with his wife and three daughters in London, a city he'd passed through once before, aged eight, on the way from Eastern Europe to catch a boat to South Africa. 'All I can remember is the fog. Coming back as an adult in 1964, it was very liberating and cosmopolitan.

'I remember getting on a bus and seeing races mixing together. When I saw my first black and white couple, walking down the street together, I feared for their safety. I wanted to go and warn then. In Jo'burg they would have been arrested at once, or shot.'

He made his home in Lyme Street, Camden Town, and his daughter Gillian went to Camden School. He can't remember where the others went. 'One went to a private school, but I've forgotten the name.' But you were a Communist in exile. How on earth did you get the money?

'I was working for the party, on a very low salary, but my wife had some money. She also had a good job, lecturing in African studies at Durham University.'

His three daughters, now grown- up, are still living in London. Gillian is a detective novelist and journalist, Robyn and Shawn work in films. Shawn Slovo wrote the prize- winning film A World Apart, based on her life as the daughter of two political activists. From what she and the others have said, it seems to have been a difficult childhood. At times they felt neglected, both parents putting the Party first, personal relations being seen as self-indulgence. Did he regret any of this?

'They did have a hard time. It would have been easier if they'd been born black. In South Africa, we would then have lived in a black community, which would have been sympathetic and supportive. We were in a white community - which was totally hostile. The girls were made to feel like pariahs, outsiders, the daughters of bloody Commies.

'Yes, I'm sure it did them psychological harm. If I had my time over again, perhaps I might do things differently.'

How? 'I couldn't talk about my activities. My work was underground, organising things which were dangerous. I couldn't tell my kids what I was doing - and I didn't realise at the time the traumas they were going through.

'I should have taken more risks, explained the whys and wherefores, but the requirements of conspiracy means secrecy. I never did resolve the problem of commitment to the cause and commitment to my family.'

In 1976, he was moved from London to Angola, leaving the girls behind. Today, he feels close to them again - though he senses they have become British. 'But they do talk of returning some day.'

In 1981, Ruth was killed by a parcel bomb in Mozambique. Some years later, a dirty tricks rumour was put about that he had engineered it, and he successfully sued a newspaper for damages. He himself has had death threats and several assassination attempts, one of which killed a Portuguese electrician, who happened to be wearing similar spectacles.

He returned to South Africa in 1990, after Mandela's release, and has been at the forefront of the negotiations to achieve democratic elections. His life is still in danger from extremists, and he has armed bodyguards, night and day. 'That's very unpleasant. We can't go out for a meal or the cinema without them. It's a great intrusion in our life.'

He remarried in 1987, to Helena Dolny, an agricultural economist, 25 years his junior, who had worked with his first wife. 'Don't call her Helena Slovo, or you'll be for it . . .'

So, after more than 40 years of struggle, one end is now in sight. Did he ever get depressed, feeling it would never happen?

'I remember standing just round the corner from here in 1948, outside the offices of a Jo'burg paper, the day the National Party got into power, and thinking, oh well, in five years we'll get rid off them. And that's how I continued to think. Each time I'd say in another five years, it will all be over. It was the optimism of will over the pessimism of intelligence.

'The worst moment was in the early Sixties, after the Rivonia raid, when our organisation was destroyed. It seemed virtually impossible that apartheid would ever be defeated.'

Going from Demon Figure, as portrayed by Pretoria, to Mr Nice Guy, now being courted by the nation's businessmen who formerly hated him, must surely have made him pretty cynical. 'Not really. All I feel is a sense of achievement.

'You have to understand the historic background. We had no access to the media. Any publicity about us, even photographs, was not allowed, so people did come to believe the propaganda against us, that we really did have horns. Some people probably still think that. We've left the horns at home for the moment, but we'll bring them out later . . .'

He smiled, lit another cigar. 'But as I go around, people in the street do come up to me and say, 'I still don't agree with what you stand for, but I admire what you've done'. This happens all the time to me in Jo'burg. Perhaps in a stronger Afrikaans region, there might not be quite the same reaction.'

Did you, in turn, think the National Party leaders had horns?

'I've always tried not to judge people personally, but I have found a lot of them nicer than I expected. Many genuinely believed in what they did, and it would be wrong to accuse them of dishonesty. It was just that what they believed in was racial and sectarian. They didn't realise their own motivations. But it's been easier to relate to them than I feared. We have all, of course, changed over the years.'

He was a fierce Commie, wanting nationalisation of everything. There are still some on the far left who think he and Mandela have sold out, promising things like security for the civil service, police and army, instead of sacking them.

'It's not compromise. It's in the nation's interests to make transformation as peaceful as possible. We will win the election, but we'll be in office, not in power. The structure of apartheid is still here, with a white police and army. That will have to be changed slowly, giving opportunities for all, but at the moment we need them. They have the skills.'

If change happens too slowly, there could be a backlash. People in the townships aren't going to have a car and a house overnight. Could disappointment lead to violence? 'If they see we are making changes, I think people will accept what we are doing. I think the mass of people do understand the situation.

'We have done something unique in South Africa - we have achieved success by negotiation, despite people trying to stop the process. There has been no civil war. That's a miracle, if you think about it. The rest of the world must be impressed by what we've done.'

He likes to think the SA Communist Party has played a vital part. 'From the 1920s, we were combining with the black liberation movements. That's unique. We were the only non-racial party, the ones to build the trade unions. We campaigned on 'Votes for All' before the ANC. It is our alliance with the ANC which has brought about the present situation - because the blacks have seen that not every white man is their enemy.'

The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe did, in a way, make him less of a bogey to the whites. 'When De Klerk unbanned us, he said Communism is no longer a menace. Of course, once the election started, one of his main planks is that we are all still Communists and not to be trusted. But that's politics . . .'

Once in power, he says, they will pursue a mixed economy, encouraging all investors, privatising some things, not others. 'It will depend on the best interests of South Africa. We have no ideological models. You don't achieve anything by kicking out company directors and putting in party bureaucrats.'

Yes, but where will the money actually come from? 'All resources will be more equally spread. At the moment, 23 per cent of the Budget goes on education, the bulk on the white community. The eight homelands are wasting money - with eight different sets of civil service and police. We'll save money there.

'In future, the 80 per cent of the population who had nothing, and were nobodies, will be able to say, this is our economy, not theirs. People will work harder, feel prouder.'

And yet there is a feeling among some South African cynics that once he is the President, Mandela will reveal a headmasterly, even an authoritarian side, using the police to clamp down on the Zulus, restricting the press once more.

'He has never been a repressive person. His personality will not change. He has not had office before, but he has something more important: status. Yet he has never exploited this status. It has not gone to his head. Why should it now?'

What position did he himself think he might have? There has been talk of the Ministry of Defence. 'Rubbish, but I don't want to spell it out. Nothing has been decided. Now I must go to a meeting. Give my regards to Camden Town.'

On the way out, I buy three ANC T-shirts, two ANC table flags, a Nelson Mandela plate and a Winnie Mandela jigsaw. Yes, Winnie. She was a baddie, only yesterday.

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments