Remembering Joe Slovo, 20 years on

7 January 2015

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Joe Slovo, the general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and a founding member of the Congress of Democrats.

A stalwart of the struggle against apartheid, Slovo died on 6 January 1995.

Slovo was chief of staff of Umkhonto weSizwe and he served on the revolutionary council of the ANC from 1969 until its dissolution in 1983.

He served in South Africa’s first democratic Cabinet as housing minister.

Childhood

Slovo came to South Africa as a child when his family emigrated from Lithuania to escape Europe’s anti-Semitism.

Educated in Johannesburg, he was influenced by a militant Irish teacher, John O’Meara. He left school after Standard 6 (Grade 8). He worked as a dispatch clerk at SA Druggists, joining the National Union of Distributive Workers. As a shopsteward, he was involved in organising a strike.

Slovo joined the South African Communist Party in 1942, dedicating himself to gaining power for the people and removing the oppressive apartheid regime then ruling South Africa.

Influenced by Red Army heroism, he left his surroundings in Doornfontein boarding house and volunteered to fight for the allies in World War II. He later became very active in the Springbok Legion.

Political activism

Between 1946 and 1950, he attended Wits University in Johannesburg, where he completed his law degree. As a student, was politically active and involved in civil disobedience campaigns of the 1950s.

In 1949 he married Ruth, the daughter of SACP treasurer Julius First. Both First and Slovo were listed as communists under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1954 and could not be quoted or attend public gatherings in South Africa.

First was killed in 1982 by a parcel bomb, believed to have been sent by the apartheid regime to her office in Maputo, Mozambique.

Slovo and First had three daughters – Shawn, Gillian and Robyn. Shawn’s account of her childhood “A World Apart” was turned into a movie.

Slovo was a founder member of the Congress of Democrats. He represented COD on the national consultative committee of the Congress Alliance which drew up the Freedom Charter.

Exile

He was arrested and detained for two months during the Treason Trial of 1956. Charges against him were dropped in 1958. He was later arrested for six months during the State of Emergency declared after Sharpeville in 1960.

In 1961, Slovo emerged as one of the leaders of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the ANC.

In 1963, he was forced into exile – first to London, where he completed his LLM at the London School of Economics.

First joined him in exile after her own detention later in 1963. While in exile Slovo continued his work for the SACP and ANC, moving to Mozambique in 1977 to establish an operational centre for the ANC.

Two years after the death of Ruth First in 1982, South Africa and Mozambique signed the Nkomati Accord and Slovo was forced to leave Mozambique.

Slovo was elected general secretary of the SACP in 1984. He was also MK’s chief of staff and a member of the national executive council’s working committee.

Return

Slovo returned to South Africa in 1990 to participate in the early “talks about talks” between the government and the ANC. Following a short period of ill health, he said he would not stand again as SACP general secretary.

At the party’s congress in South Africa in December 1991, Slovo was elected SACP chairperson; with the late Chris Hani elected general secretary.

Slovo was a leading theoretician in both the SACP and the ANC. He wrote numerous articles for the African Communist, of which he was former editor, as well as countless pamphlets. He also contributed to several books such as “No Middle Road”.

Always portrayed as an arch-Stalinist by the former South African government, Slovo surprised his critics with his “Has Socialism Failed?” pamphlet in 1989, acknowledging the weaknesses of socialism and excesses of Stalinism.

In 1992 an adapted form of his “Sunset Clause” document, allowing for a form of power sharing with the government, was adopted by the NWC.

Commemoration

Slovo loved classical music, particularly the work of Mahler, and his favourite book was Gogol’s “Dead Souls”. He was married to agricultural economist Helena Dolny and lived in Johannesburg.

Dogged by ill-health from the early 1990s, Slovo died on 5 January 1995.

At an event held at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of Slovo’s death on Tuesday, Blade Nzimande, the party’s current secretary general, called on tripartite alliance partners – the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu – to use 2015 to forge unity.

Read the speeches and writings of Joe Slovo on the SACP’s website: www.sacp.org.za/people/slovo

SACP and SAinfo reporter