End of an Elite

R.W. Johnson

  • 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.

Through the Forties and Fifties such men – and it was a largely male phenomenon – provided the Congress movement with most of its radical and intellectual backbone and, since so many were lawyers, also provided them with as much legal advice and protection as was possible. Their great period was the Fifties and it is no accident that their memoirs – of which there are now a growing number – dwell so heavily on this period, for it was a time when political resistance could still be marshalled openly and legally, allowing them to deploy their dramatic talents as advocates and tribunes of the people. Although the decade unfolded under the shadow of an increasingly repressive government, life was good: the economy was growing fast, living standards were rising and both population pressure and crime were far lower than today. Even Africans often speak with nostalgia of this era, with its music, its colour and its style, punctuated by the drumbeat of the advancing political drama, whose great events are still recited like the Stations of the Cross – the Defiance Campaign, the bus boycott, the Treason Trial, the coming of the Freedom Charter, the anti-pass campaign, the Emergency and finally Sharpeville and the adoption of the armed struggle by Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which brought down the curtain on the era of peaceful protest.

The new age of iron which this inaugurated – a time of dynamited pylons and derring-do, of bannings, house arrests, detention without trial, torture in jail and life sentences for sabotage – produced a new diaspora, as large sections of this radical intelligentsia fled into exile. It was, in good part, a Jewish diaspora and it often settled in Jewish areas of North London, Perth, Sydney, New York or even in Israel itself. Although many such exiles maintained strong sympathetic links to ‘the movement’ – you can still hear tales of the golden age of South Africa’s Left in many houses in Golders Green or Highgate – only a minority remained so seriously involved that they were willing (and it was a crucial test) to uproot themselves again after 1990 and return to South Africa. For the remnants of the old èlite who did return – and Slovo was their symbolic leader – it was a return in triumph but also in tragedy, for the fact was that the great change had come a little too late. Some had died in exile; many were simply too old to change countries again; others found the new South Africa a bewildering and difficult place. Having spent decades proclaiming that the ‘reform’ of apartheid was a sham, that nothing had changed, it was a shock to find that a lot had indeed changed. Others came out to find that they were shunted aside by the bustling new black élite and not allowed to play the leading roles for which they had hoped. And finally it was too late because too many had lost their strength or health: not only Slovo but now his lifelong friend, Harold Wolpe, has died.

The best parts of the Slovo book are the earliest: the picture of his Lithuanian childhood and his return to his native village of Obel during one of his many trips to the Soviet Union, and the picture of early Jewish Johannesburg. These worlds were not just part of Slovo’s family background, they virtually were his family background, for the exigencies of emigration meant that his father was ‘a man I first remember seeing when I was ten’ and there was little communication between them, for Joe soon lost his Yiddish and his father never mastered English. His mother died when he was still young, on a day he remembered less well than the day his pet dog died. The family had few means and the young Slovo left school at 14. He joined the Party as soon as he could and it became his family: the affectionate pictures he paints of the characters of the Jewish Left are recognisably family portraits, such as that of the Trotskyist leader, Itchke Skikne, who could never forgive his brother Larry for deserting ‘our great cause’ to become the millionaire film actor, Laurence Harvey. (Slovo doesn’t mention him but Sid James, of Carry On and Honcock’s Half-Hour fame, came out of much the same stable.)

Slovo was an able and ambitious boy, immediately conscious of the gulf that separated his boarding-house existence in working-class Doornfontein from the world of wealthy Johannesburg: ‘suburbs like Parktown, Lower Houghton and Dunkeld were legends in the mind of a Doornfontein lad.’ Ironically, he was able to achieve the social mobility he desired within the framework of the Party, for through it he met, and later married, Ruth First, daughter of Julius First, a former Party chairman. Slovo writes strangely of Ruth, his wife of nearly 33 years, paying tribute to her as one comrade to another and saying only that their married life was rather chequered and that Ruth, being independent-minded, had many arguments with him. One understands the sensitivity: it was not only a difficult marriage with long separations, but Ruth was murdered in 1982 in Maputo, without much doubt by a professional assassin hired by the apartheid regime. But if history is to be taken seriously a few things have to be added here. By marrying Ruth First Joe was, in every sense, marrying the boss’s daughter: not just because Julius First was a Party notable but because he was also a wealthy man. This had major effects on Slovo’s life. If you talk to the ANC activists who fled to Swaziland during the 1960 Emergency 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.

Two other points more or less demand comment. One is that Slovo, who took advantage of a postwar scholarship to go to university and qualify as a lawyer, repeatedly lets us know of his academic success and suggests that at various points in his career he might have become an academic. Parallel with this runs his admission that Ruth’s independent and critical views led to her being marginalised by the Party (and thus the ANC) in her later years. If the historical record means anything at all, certain blanks have to be filled in here. One is that Ruth, undoubtedly a difficult personality in many ways, was a brilliantly able journalist, writer and academic whose intellectual gifts far surpassed Joe’s. Anyone who knew her will remember her impatience with the leaden tread of his orthodox Party views. Joe could hardly have been unaware that he had married someone who was his intellectual as well as his social superior, and his repeated (and not very realistic) suggestion that he might have been an academic has to be viewed alongside the fact that Ruth was that, and more. Ruth, moreover, could not stand cant while Joe, to put it mildly, had a considerable tolerance of it.

This was well brought out by the row that developed in the late Seventies over the revelation that the Zapu leader in Rhodesia, Joshua Nkomo, was being funded by Tiny Rowland’s Lonrho. Since the SACP was supporting Zapu, Joe joined in the charge against the ‘bourgeois press’ who, by printing such allegations, were attempting to defame a leader of the liberation movement etc. Joe did this knowing that the allegations were true, while Ruth was indignant at seeing the press denounced for telling the truth. One could multiply such examples but the point is simply that there is a world of difference between a truly independent mind such as Ruth possessed and Joe’s more conventional Party mind. ‘I never allowed her to float comfortably in the sea of criticism against so-called orthodoxy which characterises the changing fashions of critics on the left,’ he writes, but this is merely a heavy-footed piece of male condescension, an attempt to assert that he was somehow intellectually in charge – for it obviously bothered him that he wasn’t. The same sort of thing occurs when he has to deal with the accusation that the SACP’s support for the Gandhian tactics of the Defiance Campaign was anomalous. Such charges, he writes, ‘demonstrated once again that the content of Marxism is far richer than is dreamt of in the philosophy of some of its would-be apostles’. This is classic boss talk, declaring critics off-side by making a privileged (and quite bogus) claim to authority as a Marxist theorist. Actually – and pace Wolpe – Slovo was no theorist: his political genius was shrewdly practical and when he resorted to theory it was merely (as here) to reinforce tactics.

Slovo also settles some old political scores, notably with Colin Legum, the one-time chairman of Johannesburg City Council’s Non-European Affairs Department (and later Observer journalist), who, Slovo alleges, led ‘the postwar assault on the homeless and the hounding of city blacks under pass law, influx control and curfew regulations’. It has always infuriated the South African Left that, as Slovo puts it, Legum should ‘in later life’ have ‘posed as the liberal friend of Africa’. For Slovo, of course, all liberals are hypocrites and he is happily illiberal. When lsmael Meer asked to write the biography of the SACP chairman, Yusuf Dadoo, Slovo was, he says, happy to support the proposal ‘subject to ultimate editorial control by the Party’. Even at the end, this sort of censorship seemed quite natural to him.

A danger – a minor one perhaps – of the anti-apartheid struggle was the overwhelming sense of moral righteousness that went with it. This is on display at many points in Slovo’s memoirs, and occasionally gets out of hand, as, for example, in his account of the defence he conducted in a cattle-culling case in Maun in the mid-Fifties. His tribesmen clients had refused to cull their cattle and the administrator, Mr Gold, tried hard to convince Slovo with maps and surveys that this could only result in a dangerous degree of soil erosion and the collapse of agriculture in the region. Slovo admits that this was all ‘technically accurate’ but records, more in sorrow than in anger, that Gold, ‘like all serving technocrats, either did not see or did not want to see that the problem had nothing to do with too many cattle and had everything to do with too little land’. Slovo attempted to point out to Gold that ‘science and technology can hardly persuade a man who has been dispossessed of most of his land and then told that the forced reduction of his stock is in his deepest interests.’ At this point we know that the unfortunate Gold has been set up for a crushing piece of self-righteousness – and, sure enough, here it comes: ‘Gold mumbled something about politics not being his business – this from a man whose working life was devoted exclusively to the application of the politics of segregation.’ Slovo has conveniently forgotten that Maun is in Botswana; that the tribesmen there were never dispossessed of their land; and that Gold, a British colonial official, had never had to apply apartheid policies anywhere, let alone in this all-black area.

The memoirs stop short of Slovo’s flight into exile as an MK leader, leaving many questions unanswered which will have to be tackled by a later biographer. One is about the flight itself. Many old SACP members and Robben Island inmates, who were told that Party members must not leave the country, feel bitter that Slovo should have broken this injunction, and pointedly compare his behaviour with that of Bram Fischer, who observed it so completely that he returned from Britain to the certainty of a lifetime in jail. It may be, of course, that Slovo was ordered abroad by some secret Party directive: we just don’t know. Everything that followed depended on that derision to leave and yet it is mysterious.

There is no doubt that Slovo lived a life of complete political commitment and extraordinary derring-do between 1960 and 1990, but it is hard to assess the personality beneath. He travelled and worked tirelessly for the movement: on endless trips to the Soviet bloc and Cuba for arms and training, to many countries in Africa, particularly Angola, Mozambique and Zambia, whence the armed struggle was directed, and anywhere else that the dictates of the Party and the struggle demanded. His faith in Communism was unshakeable. In his later years he loudly denounced the Soviet labour camps and admitted he had been long deceived about them. Yet a great deal was already known about the camps in the Forties. Slovo kept on blindly supporting the USSR long after that, getting the SACP (and ANC) to endorse the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, upholding Brezhnevism to the end and beyond – even when he himself was running into increasingly pronounced anti-semitism from Soviet officials. It just won’t do to say he didn’t know, that he was deceived. There are those who think that Slovo remained a true believer to the end, that the more liberal formulations of his last years were merely another tactical feint. His change of heart certainly seemed genuine, but again, we don’t really know.

Similarly, by the end we all had a picture of kindly Uncle Joe, but there is no doubt that Slovo was capable of great ruthlessness. When David Kitson emerged from twenty years in jail for his part in the armed struggle – he had refused to flee the country and carried on the fight as a member of the MK High Command – he was told by the Party on reaching London that his first duty must be to denounce his wife, Norma, at the annual meeting of the Anti-Apart-heid Movement: if he did not do this, the Party would ensure he lost his job, his pension and his membership not only of the Party but of the ANC. Kitson – the greatest hero of the armed struggle to emerge from jail until Mandela himself was released – refused to denounce his wife and was duly stripped of everything by the Party he had sacrificed his freedom for. There is no doubt that Slovo backed this decision all the way and may even have originated it.

There are many other murky corners which could do with a bit of light. The apartheid regime always insisted that Slovo was a KGB colonel. This is pretty certainly batty: the KGB did not enrol foreigners, let alone give them rank. More interesting is the question of what Slovo’s relationship was with British Intelligence – under whose protective umbrella, after all, the ANC operated in London. There is also the fact that the head of the ANC in London for many years, Solly Smith, a man who certainly deferred to Slovo – and backed the decision to persecute Kitson – was later revealed to have been working for South Africa’s BOSS all the time. Smith was, amazingly, allowed to return to South Africa by the Party and even to assume a leading post in the ANC before he died under mysterious circumstances. No doubt BOSS was keen to damage Kitson’s cause and was, at the least, supporting the Party in its persecution of him, thus enabling Smith to serve both BOSS and the Party at the same time. One cannot but wonder what exactly Slovo knew about all this. Not much escaped him.

Yet I must end as I began. Slovo’s achievements in nudging the constitutional negotiations through to a successful conclusion were greater than anyone else’s. Strategically, he was the dominant figure of the transition. Despite all the plaudits, he did not achieve much at the Ministry of Housing – indeed, the rate of house-building under him slowed down sharply from what it had been under de Klerk – but there was no doubt that he genuinely wanted to provide homes for poor blacks. The irony of Slovo’s life was that he often failed to display the humanity for which he was later celebrated and may not in the end have achieved that much for poor blacks. Disentangling the myth from the reality in all this will test the powers of the most gifted biographer. One can only hope that he or she will not have to write ‘subject to ultimate editorial control by the Party’.