Many of us look back on the great struggles of history with a type of 20/20 vision that we may not have had at the time – adamant that, given the same situation, we would have done what we now see was so obviously the right thing to do.
Of course, we delude ourselves. To actively oppose the fascist regime in South Africa (whether black, white, ‘coloured’ or Indian – indeed, regardless of race) was an act of courage and a commitment that should never be underestimated. One cannot imagine the alienation and suffering that those who stood up to the regime endured. Joe Slovo’s life epitomised these elements.
Dubbed ‘South Africa’s most wanted man’ in the latter stages of the anti-Apartheid struggle, Joe Slovo is emblematic of someone so dedicated to his cause that putting his life at risk became the only way he knew how to live. A white man living in Apartheid South Africa, he was not an immediate beneficiary of the cause he fought so virulently for, the struggle that came to define him.
A law graduate of Wits University, Johannesburg (where he was a prominent student activist and shared classes with Nelson Mandela), Slovo married fellow anti-Apartheid activist, Ruth First, whilst he was still in education. Both were active in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National Congress (ANC). Following two arrests – he was detained for two months during the infamous treason trial of 1956 – Slovo was eventually exiled in 1963. His life in exile proved to be the most productive period of his part in the struggle.
Slovo had already emerged as the leader of the MK (the military wing of the ANC), which he continued to run from guerrilla camps based in Mozambique and Angola. As such, one might dispute his heroism on the grounds of his apparent advocacy of violence. This notion should be dispelled. The MK was a vital organ in the anti-Apartheid battle, without which the ANC would have been repressed early on and with ease. Although Slovo’s former classmate, Mandela, initially insisted upon a peaceful struggle, it quickly became clear that this was fanciful, fruitless and practically impossible. Surrendering its’ pacifism, the ANC went out of its way to ensure as few civilians as possible were harmed, focusing instead on causing maximum damage to South African infrastructure.
Slovo also provided invaluable ideological guidance for the direction of the anti-Apartheid movement, aligning communist ideals (he became General Secretary of the SACP in 1984) with the more straightforward ideological battle of fighting for equal rights for non-white citizens. Indeed, his quest for social justice extended beyond the confines of the South African borders, pleading with fellow South African exiles to help foster democracy and stability throughout the rest of post-colonial Africa.
Perhaps Slovo’s most tangible achievement was the ‘sunset clause’ he proposed in 1992, which represented a major breakthrough in the dismantlement of the Apartheid government. The clause proposed a coalition government for five years after South Africa’s first democratic election, demonstrating the art of compromise that was so important in Nelson Mandela’s fledgling government. Later, he became a minister in the Mandela government, before tragically succumbing to cancer in 1995.
Vital though they were, Joe Slovo’s importance resided not only in the practical and theoretical roles he played – it lay in the example he set. For a white man to risk everything in Apartheid South Africa can have been nothing other than a beacon of hope for the countless people who suffered under an unrelentingly cruel regime every single day. He himself suffered terribly – in 1982, his wife was killed by a letter bomb on the order of Apartheid police. To know that Slovo was willing to endure so much for a cause that he could have quite easily ignored was of profound importance.
I am privileged to say that I know a little of Slovo on a personal level – my grandparents were also ANC members and anti-Apartheid activists, and became good friends with the man who has become my hero. They always spoke so highly of him as a friend as well as a political figure; indeed, they too went into exile in 1963, continuing to live and work in post-colonial Africa. It is this small community of South African activists that Slovo is so wonderfully representative of. There were many who struggled like him, but Slovo went above and beyond the lengths that fellow activists were prepared to go to; for this, he deserves special recognition.
Today, Joe Slovo is remembered as a hero of the Rainbow Nation, so much so that in 2004 he was voted one of the 100 ‘Great South Africans’. Roads and townships across the country are named after him.
But it wasn’t always this way; there was a time when his life was well and truly on the line as he gave everything for his cause. He was at the heart of the anti-Apartheid struggle from its earliest days, and devoted his life to fighting injustice until the bitter end. Slovo did not have the benefit of hindsight we have now – he simply had an irrefutable sense of right and wrong.