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.

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