End of an Elite
- Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography by Joe Slovo
Hodder, 253 pp, £18.99, February 1996, ISBN 0 340 66566 1
When Joe Slovo died in 1995 his body was carried on an army gun carriage through Soweto in post-apartheid South Africa’s first state funeral. Forty thousand people sat through the long tributes in Orlando Stadium, the ANC high-ups arriving in Nyala armoured cars. Impala jets – developed by sanctions-struck South Africa to fight the likes of Slovo – flew overhead in salute. Apart from this ceremonial flummery there was much genuine grieving, for in the last five years of his life Slovo had won an enormous army of admirers. In many ways he was an even more important figure than Mandela in South Africa’s transition. He was the man who made the key constitutional deals, who set the election date and who effectively removed socialism from the ANC’s agenda, thus making possible the symbiosis between white capitalism and the rising black middle class which is the central reality of the ANC’s ‘revolution’. It was an ironic achievement for a Communist.
The great question about Slovo’s life is whether the fame and tributes he won in his last five years were not bought by changing his mind (for which the Party phrase is ‘selling out’) about much of what he had spent his life fighting for. The picture that sits in one’s mind is that of Joe at Vice-President Thabo Mbeki’s 50th-birthday party, arm in arm with Thabo and Sol Kerzner, the multi-millionaire hotel/casino king (who was paying for the bash). Kerzner, the lord of Sun City and the Lost City, has now left the country amid a welter of long-standing but recently revived bribery and corruption charges. If at any previous point one had suggested that Slovo would cheerfully make his peace with casino-capitalism, the response would have been unprintable and, indeed, it is now out of order even to remember such things. Yet Slovo achieved something that most of us can only marvel at: for many blacks he was living proof that there were good whites; and there was no doubt that a majority of his countrymen were genuinely sorry that he had died.
The Unfinished Autobiography is an inadequate reflection of an interesting life, consisting of Slovo’s memories of the Fifties and a series of tributes, many of which are of the sort that one one heard at his funeral. There is a great deal about Joe’s sense of humour, the wonderful work he was doing as Minister of Housing, and the pleasure he took in drinking whisky and wearing red socks. There is also a lot of Party-speak, epitomised in ‘Joe Slovo: A Brilliant Teacher’ by the Chinese Shu Zhan or Harold Wolpe’s tribute to ‘the richness and innovativeness of his theoretical and strategic contributions’. Much of this material is presented as part of the serious historical record, but if you subject it to critical scrutiny you don’t get a whole lot of historical light, only outraged and grieving mourners after your blood.
The great outburst of feeling has to do, no doubt, not only with the passing of Slovo but with the passing of the whole of the old white (and largely Jewish) SACP élite, which dominated the Congress é1ite for most of the last half-century. Slovo had a focal significance for this group, partly because he was very much one of them – Lithuanian-Jewish, a lawyer (as so many others were) and with a lifelong and quasi-religious commitment to fight Afrikaner nationalism – and partly because he was politically by far the most successful of them and thus embodied the dream of countless such militants down the years, that they would one day avenge Auschwitz by defeating the Nazis of Africa, riding into the new Jerusalem on the wave of African nationalism. It has to be realised – and Slovo’s book is quite open about it – that early South African Communism had a strong ethnic bias to it that did not in the first instance have much to do with the South African racial situation.
It wasn’t only Auschwitz. The reason so many of Slovo’s Jewish working-class peers in inter-war Johannesburg were almost automatic Communists had a lot to do with the fact that their parents had fled from pogroms in the Russian Empire, that the Bolsheviks were seen as the enemies and overthrowers of those who had conducted the pogroms, as well as with Communist opposition to the Nazis (= the renewed threat of pogroms), and with the pro-Nazi sympathies evinced by many Afrikaner Nationalists. Having bought into Communism in self-defence against Fascism, many were at first quite discomfited to find that this might entail the acceptance of blacks as equals. Slovo recalls with great humour and fondness this now vanished ghetto world in which for armchair socialists ‘a kaffir remained a kaffir’ and describes how, as a young Communist, he himself was acutely uncomfortable, at his first meeting of the Junior Left Book Club, to find himself seated between black youths. Gradually, as a real commitment to racial equality grew, these young Communist intellectuals threw themselves into the role of latter-day Lafayettes who had ‘gone over to the people’, but the intensity of their partisanship often derived from deeper roots than many of them were fully aware of.
Vol. 18 No. 8 · 18 April 1996
From Hilda Bernstein
I do wonder about the ANC activists who fled to Swaziland during the 1960 Emergency and who told R.W. Johnson (LRB, 21 March) that ‘one of their sharpest memories is of Joe and Ruth, anomalous figures among their fellow refugees, riding around in a limousine with a black chauffeur provided by Julius First’. Were they hallucinating? Joe was in Pretoria Central Prison for the full period of the Emergency. In fact he and my husband were the last two white detainees to be released.
From Gillian Slovo
In the first paragraph of his review of Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography, R.W. Johnson makes the mistake of confusing Joe’s funeral with that other well-televised occasion – Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. At the inauguration, Impala jets flew over in salute: not so at Joe’s funeral.
Johnson then describes how, during the 1960 Emergency, Joe and Ruth rode around Swaziland in a chauffeur-driven limousine. He has obviously not bothered to properly read the book he purports to review: Joe devoted a chapter to describing how he was forced to spend the Emergency in prison.
Johnson goes on to write about a secret Party directive which could have sent Joe abroad in 1963, concluding: ‘we don’t know.’ In fact we do know. Joe, as a member of the MK High Command, left the country before the Rivonia arrests in order to procure weapons and training for MK.
Later Johnson digresses into a discussion of the treatment of David Kitson, implying that Joe backed and might even have originated the decision to suspend the Kitsons from the ANC. I have no idea what Joe thought about the matter, but I was present at a packed meeting of ANC members in London which took the suspension decision – I was in fact one of only a handful of members who voted against suspension. Joe was not there: he was not even in the country.
Finally he makes use of innuendo, a confused tale about Solly Smith and about the Kitsons, to imply that Joe might have been co-operating not only with British Intelligence but also with BOSS. ‘Smith,’ he writes, ‘was amazingly allowed to return to South Africa by the Party.’ Does Johnson think that the Party should have prevented Smith, who was a South African citizen, from returning to South Africa? If it had, I’m sure that Johnson would have been the first to accuse the Party of wrong-doing. And besides, Johnson must know more about the South African settlement than his incredulity implies. If Solly Smith had lived he could have applied to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for indemnity – just as others, like the former South African policeman Craig Williamson (who has confessed to his involvement in my mother, Ruth First’s, murder), will do.
Vol. 18 No. 9 · 9 May 1996
From R.W. Johnson
Hilda Bernstein and Gillian Slovo (Letters, 18 April) make a number of criticisms of my review of Slovo: The Unfinished Biography.
1. The story about ‘Joe and Ruth riding around in a limousine with a black chauffeur’ in Swaziland. Having rechecked my sources I must confess to error on this point. Quite right, Joe was not there, although the rest of the Slovo family, together with the black-chauffeured limo, was. I apologise for this bad mistake.
2. I am taken to task for saying that there was a fly-past by Impala jets at the Slovo funeral. This information was taken from an eyewitness account of the funeral on p.197 of the Unfinished Biography.
3. Slovo’s flight into exile. Here, if anything, I was too kind: it seems pretty certain that he left the country against the Party’s express orders – as indeed did quite a few other leading Communists (as Hilda Bernstein can attest). Inevitably, a great deal of autobiographical revision then took place in exile in London. It is arguable that the point behind the shameful treatment of David Kitson was that he had refused to flee – and that he had had a major ideological difference with Slovo, who had used his position to prevent the Kitson view being put, despite strong support for Kitson from his Party cell. Kitson was then caught, given the usual statue torture, still refused to testify against his friends and served 20 years in jail – by the end he was being guarded by warders who had not been born when his sentence started. When Kitson finally arrived in London in 1985 he was thus an implicit threat to all those who had jumped ship. As by far the most senior resistance fighter to re-emerge from jail, with a record of heroic sacrifice none could match, he might plausibly have been a leadership candidate. Those who had fled accordingly turned on him and drove him out. I applaud Gillian Slovo for having voted against this disgraceful act.
4. There are strong indications that the Party decision to hound Kitson out was actually taken in the first week after his release, perhaps even before he touched down in London. Slovo was certainly in London when Kitson arrived (the two men met) and he was far too senior a figure in the Party not to have been part of such a major decision. Also, given their early ideological disagreement, Slovo would have had most to lose from Kitson being restored to his old seniority in the movement.
5. That Solly Smith, for years the head of the ANC in London, should have been allowed to return to become head of an ANC branch in the Free State after 1990 is not amazing for the physical fact of return – after all, the ANC and SACP were not then in government and it was de Klerk’s decision as to whom to let back into the country at the time. What was amazing was that the Party later announced that it had discovered Smith was a police spy as far back as 1987 – with the implication that his treachery went back years before then; that it had then kept this fact entirely secret while watching Smith re-attain senior office; and that it only finally revealed the truth at the time of Smith’s mysterious death.
Vol. 18 No. 10 · 23 May 1996
From David Kitson
On the question of Joe Slovo’s departure from South Africa in 1963, Gillian Slovo writes (Letters, 18 April) that her father wanted to leave the country to procure weapons and training for Umkhonto we Sizwe. But there were top cadres assigned to this task and already in place. Joe had to convince the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party – which had issued a directive that no member should leave the country – that his own departure was essential. His protégé, Patrick Tembu, had been detained and was talking to the secret police and Joe feared he would be arrested. Some members of the Committee thoroughly disapproved of his intention to leave, but he left in spite of this.
Gillian Slovo is wrong that a meeting of ANC members in London decided on the suspensions of Norma and myself. What happened was that Solly Smith, the chief representative of the ANC in London, later a self-confessed agent of the Boers, sent me a letter in November 1984 – a few months after my release from prison and my arrival in Britain – saying that he had suspended me from the ANC in consultation with the Regional Political Committee. There was no mention of any meeting. My wife, Norma Kitson, also received such a letter. This method of suspension was in violation of the ANC Constitution, for we were given no opportunity to defend ourselves. Indeed, all our attempts to communicate with ANC officials in London were in vain.
But a week or so later M.B. Yengwe, the chairman of the RPC and a former member of the ANC Executive Committee who was living in London, asked to meet us. He spent an evening with us and Steven, our son, in our house. He told us that if Norma and I made statements denouncing the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, our suspensions from the ANC would be ended. He also said to me that if I toed the line, I would be free to take up my post on the staff of Ruskin College, which would then be funded by my union, TASS. This implied joint action between Ken Gill, then General Secretary of TASS, and the SACP/ANC. We rejected this political blackmail. Shortly afterwards, M.B. Yengwe resigned his chairmanship of the RPC and Francis Meli, like Smith a spy for the Boers, took his place.
TASS was obliged to start funding my post in December 1984. It took them 18 months to end the funding at their annual conference, attended by Smith and Meli as fraternal delegates from the ANC. Ruskin College was appalled and issued a press statement saying that this violated academic freedom. They made me their first emeritus fellow. In the face of constant harassment by the Boer agents, a fight-back started, with many sympathisers from Ruskin College, TASS branches, branches of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the labour movement generally, to try and get my funding back. Alfred Nzo, then General Secretary of the ANC, dragged his feet until Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu emerged from jail in 1990 and insisted on our reinstatement. Despite this, we were never reincorporated and have been prevented from playing our part in the new South Africa. In 1993 it was agreed in discussions between the MSF, the successor union to TASS, and the ANC that I had been victimised. The ANC wrote to the MSF that they ‘were determined that action would be taken after [the elections] to deal suitably with those who had suffered in the liberation struggle’. So far I have received no compensation for the loss of my job. The withdrawal of income was a standard technique within the liberation movement for bringing people to heel.