Joe Slovo was one of my heroes

Joe Slovo was a key leader of the armed and exiled resistance against Apartheid. He was also the most visible white face of that movement.

Joe Slovo in the front. Pallo Jordan, another SACP and ANC leader, is in the background.

When, as a teenager in 1980s Apartheid South Africa, I first learned of Joe Slovo, I thought he must be black since most whites at the time did not necessarily side with the liberation struggle against Apartheid.  There were reasons for my ignorance. Since my working-class parents rarely talked about the liberation movements – by the 1980s, they were devout Christians; we had little “struggle” connections; and my parents were too busy staying alive and raising seven children to think of anything else – I had to find out about Slovo (1926-1995) and the liberation struggle elsewhere.

One reason for learning about Slovo on my own was the general environment, which was censorship, especially of images, voice recordings, and visuals of the jailed and exiled movements. Images of ANC leaders in jail or the underground could not be published in the newspapers or shown on TV until the late 1980s.

The first time a newspaper in South Africa published an image of  Nelson Mandela was in 1986 when the government gave The Weekly Mail permission to put an image of Mandela on its front page. The image was taken before he went to jail when he was 45. By the 1980s, Mandela was already in his 70s. As we would learn later, more recent photos of Mandela did exist, taken on Robben Island and in Pollsmoor prisons,  but they circulated among security operatives only.

Then there was a famous case in 1985, when the editor of the Cape Times, Tony Heard, interviewed Oliver Tambo in London and quoted Tambo directly in a story accompanied by a photo of Heard and Tambo chatting. This was against the law. The government made many threats, and Heard risked being sent to jail for three years’ imprisonment for publishing the Tambo interview.

You also have to remember the syllabi in our “History” courses in school made little or no references to the liberation movement. If you learned of local resistance, it would be of brave Afrikaners and their leaders in their struggles with British colonialism. However, it helped that the 1980s was the period of “mass democratic struggle,” and high schools were at the heart of this strategy. The way you’d learn or read sympathetic accounts about the exiled and banned movements like the ANC, SACP, and PAC, was during what was called “alternative education” sessions set up by boycott leaders or through newspapers and magazines like “Grassroots,” “South” and “Upbeat” and, crucially, through the student teachers coming especially from the University of the Western Cape to do their “practicals” at coloured schools.

But back to the first encounters. Around this time, in 1984, when I was around 14 years old, I think someone at school passed around faded photos of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Joe Slovo.  When a classmate pointed to a white man and said that he was Joe Slovo, I have to confess I was surprised to learn he was white, even though I had also been shouting his name for a long while. Songs about Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and, of course, a certain Joe Slovo were everywhere at the time.

It is true that by 1984, it was the time of the United Democratic Front inside South Africa. But the UDF was only one year old, and although a small number of committed whites were involved in the UDF, this was still early days. Movements like the End Conscription Campaign, which organized young white conscripts who refused to serve in apartheid’s army, would come later. The thing about Slovo, however, was that he was particularly singled out for vitriol and hate in the white media and the state. Mainly because he was the face of the Communist Party (apartheid ideology was very Christian) and, even more, because he was the leader of the ANC’s armed wing.

By the late 1980s, I began seeing more Joe Slovo images in South Africa’s mainstream media. It made sense. By then, South Africa’s apartheid government was unofficially negotiating with the ANC, and the media had become emboldened. Tony Heard was eventually fired by the owners of the Cape Times, but the alternative press was defiantly publishing images and statements of the ANC and the SACP. But when I first saw Slovo’s image, it was a revelation to me.

The son of Jewish immigrants, Yossel Mashel Slovo first became involved in ANC and liberation politics in the 1950s when the resistance against Apartheid (then still a new policy) was organized on racial lines. Slovo came to the ANC via the Communist Party of South Africa. The CPSA was banned in 1950, and white communists formed what became known as the Congress of Democrats. They would fight alongside the ANC (representing black Africans), the Indian Congress, and the Coloured People’s Congress. During this time, Slovo was arrested, charged, and briefly jailed for “treason.” When the ANC decided to turn to armed struggle, embarking on a series of strategic bombings of government installations, he emerged as one of the leaders of its armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). In 1963, he went into exile and, over time, also became general secretary of the Communist Party (now called the SACP) during its long exile. During this time, his first wife Ruth First was killed in a bomb attack in Maputo, Mozambique, by death squads of the South African dictatorship (in 1982).  Slovo contributed to the ANC’s strategic thinking as head of the SACP, most notably the idea of a “two-stage revolution” (first political and then economic power).

When the ANC was unbanned, he played a leading role in negotiations (he should take credit for some of the compromises the ANC made in dealing with Apartheid’s army and civil service. Known as the “sunset clauses,” Slovo suggested the new government retain the top echelons of the civil service to secure a smooth transition. Though deemed necessary at that moment, not soon after, white army and police generals were accused of undermining the new democracy from the start by spreading bogus rumors of a left-wing coup or formenting third force violence or proxy wars.

Finally, Slovo served as the country’s first democratic housing minister (his record was mixed)  for one year before dying of cancer in January 1995.

Some of Joe’s zingers:

It’s not difficult in South Africa for the ordinary person to see the link between capitalism and racist exploitation, and when one sees the link one immediately thinks in terms of a socialist alternative.”

Sometimes, if you wear suits for too long, it changes your ideology.”

Earlier this month, Slovo ‘s life and times were the subject of a spirited discussion on BBC4’s “Great Lives,” a biographical series in which “… guests choose someone who has inspired their lives.” One surprise was the appearance of David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, who met Slovo as a child and who expressed his admiration for Joe. David’s father, Ralph, was a close friend of Joe. David Miliband recalls a visit to his school by Slovo. Other than that, Miliband comes across as awkward–perhaps deliberately with an eye on votes–and at one point labels the ANC and Slovo “terrorists.”  Luckily, Shawn Slovo, Joe Slovo, and Ruth First’s daughter joined Miliband and the program’s host, and they could respond to this nonsense.  Miliband and the program host’s comments are reflective of the revisionism that has seeped into public (and scholarly) discussions of how the anti-apartheid struggle is now talked and written about in the West and especially in South Africa where you can’t find anyone, especially among South Africa’s white population who either never supported Apartheid or benefited from it. You can listen to that BBC program here.

Joe Slovo was buried in Avalon Cemetery, a public graveyard in Soweto, first opened in 1972 by apartheid local authorities as a graveyard exclusively for black people.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.