The Nobel laureate on Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid, a new biography of South Africa’s revolutionary couple.
Joe Slovo and Ruth First. We are entering their paths.
Both grew up unbelievers in Jewish or any religious faith. They met when Ruth was at the University of the Witwatersrand, Joe just returned from the South African Army in the war against Nazi Germany. His motivation for volunteering, eighteen years old, unemployed, lying about being underage for military call-up—his early alliance with communism, and so to the Soviet Union under attack—was decisive in the act. But there remained the devastating racial dilemma in South Africa. He wrote: “How do you tell a black man to make his peace with General Smuts—butcher of Bulhoek and the Bondelswarts? ‘Save civilization and democracy—must have sounded a cruel parody. And ﬁght with what? No black man was allowed to bear arms…if you want to serve democracy, wield a knobkerrie [wooden club] as a uniformed servant of a white soldier.”
One is reading not of self-perceived martyrs but individuals greedy for life even while giving up so much personal fulﬁllment for a way of intense certain risk. A level of involvement, the process in making a life, living, hardly to be imagined.
Joe Slovo’s appetite for the pleasures of life is brought face-to-face with his political humanitarian drive when at the end of the war he took a holiday. From Turin to Cairo he went, and with other decommissioned soldiers somehow got to Palestine although travel was restricted because of Zionist resistance to British occupation; on to a kibbutz where “looked at in isolation, the kibbutz seemed to be the very epitome of socialist lifestyle… it was populated in the main by young people with the passion and belief that by the mere exercise of will and humanism you could build socialism as one factory or one kibbutz and the power of example will sweep the imagination of all… worker or capitalist.”
During Joe’s absence from South Africa, membership in the Communist Party (CP) had grown fourfold in the period 1941–43 with correspondingly the greatest call for action of the African National Congress (ANC). Joe and Ruth were both prominent in protests of the CP and ANC against racist laws; two events among others—squatters’ rights in townships outside Johannesburg and Defense of the Basotho Peasants Organization in Basutoland. Joe wrote that they became lovers in Basutoland. But he dated his “life with Ruth” as having “started off with political tension.” It’s not clear whether he is recollecting Students’ Representative Council meetings, the other student organization, Federation of Progressive Students (FOPS), or the Ismail Meer ﬂat where his initial response to Ruth and her friends was “sort of a little feeling of insecurity…these Smart Alecks could formulate speech and so on…were just too big for their boots…so my life with Ruth started off with quite a degree of political tension based on this nonsense.” We echo in our own minds their friend describing the differing qualities of Joe and Ruth—“She didn’t have a rapport with ordinary working class blokes…needed the better educated or bigger-thinkers…couldn’t bring herself to be one of them. And yet she would have given her life to protect them and their rights.”
Ruth and Joe had fierce arguments throughout their lives together, political and ethical, unlike the accepted domestic conﬂicts; the book speculates that culture, “upbringing,” hangover from “nature of respective childhoods contributed to their disagreements.” Ruth came from a middle-class Johannesburg family, went to a private school and on to university. Joe came to South Africa aged ten an immigrant from Lithuania, speaking only Yiddish. But for themselves disagreement was always an essential in the process of learning, discussions jolting one another out of too righteous a certainty that he or she understood, analyzed most clearly an issue of human lives. Here is self-honesty against revolutionary complacency.
In the many incredible contradictions in South African history, the Witwatersrand University and the University of Cape Town were the only “open” universities—half-open as students who were not white were permitted to do their course work there but excluded from “social, cultural, political, athletic activities.” Among such students at the Witwatersrand University was a young Indian rebel intellectual from Durban, Ismail Meer. A love affair bringing together race, difference, and the sharing of searching intellect and politics, First and Meer found each other. A parliamentarian (all-white parliament) announced he had been told of a love affair between a European girl and a non-European: “This state of affairs can no longer continue.” (Double entendre no doubt unintended.) A student afﬁliation of the Afrikaner Ossewa-Brandwag held protests against “black students and their fellow travellers, communists, and Jews.” Ruth and Ismail Meer joined a leftist student organization, Federation of Progressive Students (FOPS), many of whose leaders were members of the Young Communist League. (The early convolutions of the maze to be solved toward freedom.) The Communist Party accepted FOPS as means of inroad to the University; although FOPS had claimed that safer stance, progression as Trotskyites, others shunned it as a Communist front. Between denials, afﬁrmations, accusations, and manipulation of ANC elections, FOPS was unable to claim the ANC Youth League as an ally. But its ﬁrst chosen executive is seen as indeed Ruth First, the perfect conduit to the University. A newspaper calling itself Mambaran included a sideline that represented Ruth as “Truth Last.”
Meer’s ﬂat was the meeting place for young leftists at the Witwatersrand University, revealed bluntly for readers by an habitué as “dreamy, bloody depressing…but warm with activity…always a hive.” Nelson Mandela, a law student along with Meer and eventually Slovo, described it as “here we studied, talked, even danced in cold early mornings.” He remembered “sleeping over” in the ﬂat. One is reading not of self-perceived martyrs but individuals greedy for life even while giving up so much personal fulﬁllment for a way of intense certain risk. A level of involvement, the process in making a life, living, hardly to be imagined. In this sense, among much else to come, this book is a revelation to be reckoned with.
Freedom ﬁghter himself, close comrade of Ruth and Joe, he was to share with Ruth paying for his political activism with his life, dying in the span of a life sentence, but alive forever in the story of the struggle for freedom.
The attachment between Ruth First and Ismail Meer ended, it appears, in circumstances that ring an odd note in lives emancipated from the edicts of religious taboo that then sounded from synagogue and mosque. Her family, leftist, yet objected conventionally to the idea of marriage with a Muslim. His family had the matching taboo on marriage of a Muslim to a Jewish girl. During this smoke rising from the bonﬁre being stacked against South Africa’s European-empowered and ﬁnanced, evidently invincible apartheid. A smoldering opposition repeatedly defeated in the mission for UBUNTU. “I am because you are.” The question as the pages are turned: What should have made humans in South Africa believe they were going to live and die, to attain this in their country?
Go for it.
Colloquial as that. The answers and denials of answers are in this book, the existence-odyssey of South Africans who wouldn’t settle to live for less.
Joe Slovo and Ruth First. They met at the University of the Witwatersrand on his return from the South African Army. When exactly their intimate relationship began is an element integral to the totality of their development as answerable to and for the dehumanizing of others. They worked together on two events among many others—squatters’ rights in townships outside Johannesburg and defense of the Basotho Peasants Organization. It was in Basutoland, Joe wrote, that they became lovers.
Taking on the regime of South African apartheid is shown not to be an easy ride on whatever path. Most of Ruth’s time was spent on party politics as a precursor for the battle for freedom. Ruth and Joe, who discussed everyone, everything, reﬂected on their personal perceptions of Nelson Mandela. We overhear Ruth remembering him as “good-looking, very proud, very prickly, rather sensitive, perhaps even arrogant. But of course he was exposed to all the humiliation.” Joe: “A very proud, self-contained black man who was very conscious of his blackness.”
Ruth worked with Meer on a socioeconomic survey of Fordsburg, an impoverished area of central Johannesburg. Very practical, they helped women develop cooperatives, while initiating actions against merchants they believed were “gouging” local residents. Meer was duly arrested and acquitted in court by the defense of Bram Fischer. It is intriguing to see the beginnings of the Afrikaner aristocrat becoming the famous lawyer in the Rivonia Trial of Mandela. In Fordsburg he carried food in his hands to the local people. Freedom ﬁghter himself, close comrade of Ruth and Joe, he was to share with Ruth paying for his political activism with his life, dying in the span of a life sentence, but alive forever in the story of the struggle for freedom.
Was there ever a more thorough, complete control by a self-elected ruling class over a color-designated outcast class?
Back from war, Joe Slovo had joined the Springbok Legion, a non-racial body for South African Army veterans. A predominantly white group (remember, blacks were not given arms!), its manifesto pledged to oppose any entity that sought to undermine democracy and support any individual party or movement working for a society based on the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Ironically again: the appearance of Springbok Legion numbers transferred leadership roles in FOPS from founders like Ruth to men such as Joe. Ruth and Joe were fellow revolutionaries together in the Deﬁance Campaign of 1952. Their activism becomes breathless, compulsive to follow. Ruth’s gifts as a writer were harnessed to their beliefs as she began work as a journalist at The Guardian in 1946, the year of Joe’s return, and soon she was reporting ﬁrsthand on squatter camp conditions in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. These as a warning of the violence that was to emerge with even more ferocity when the Nationalist Party won the 1948 elections: the entrenched apartheid regime. The Communist Party dispatched Joe, Ruth, and another comrade in an attempt to convince black township people that their massacre was probable if they followed their plan of resistance against their ghetto existence—a decision for human survival against political action? Police arrived at a township protest and people were beaten. As Joe, Ruth, and Rusty Bernstein were leaving, the police stopped them. Joe: “One asked us what were we doing so late at night in the veld?—Suddenly it seemed to dawn on him… he leered at Ruth… gave Rusty and me a winking look and giggled ‘Jesus, and with those natives too, next time you’s better ﬁnd a safer spot. Weg is julle!’” (Get out!) The reaction reminds us about the era: “Government employees, police could not believe their eyes, whites in a black township, hardly suspect that these individuals were ﬁghting against oppression of fellow South Africans wretchedly living there.”
The “relationship,” love affair of Joe and Ruth, emerges as their own business. Not a show for public curiosity to relish, or for us in our serious intention to understand them fully as we read. In his quoted autobiography, unﬁnished by his death, Joe says they started living together in 1949 and eight months later “we took off half-an-hour from our respective ofﬁces to get married.” It comes as a commitment met among many others that are shared personal fundament. They are prominent in the Anti-Pass Campaign against the “passbook” every black man had to carry on his person and produce to any policeman anywhere; a white boss/madam could supply a letter of authorization for him to be in the streets after 6:00 p.m.
Was there ever a more thorough, complete control by a self-elected ruling class over a color-designated outcast class? Racial divisions had existed in the mainly white Party in 1950, the year it was banned under the South African Unlawful Organizations Act. But the answer to the ban was the steep rise of black membership, while Party policy decisions were being taken in concurrence with Cominterm dictates “causing schisms.” The Central Committee, which included Joe and Ruth, voted to dissolve the Party without any discussion among Party members. It was suggested (a recognition of realities?) this signal of the Party’s lack of strategy to go underground at that stage in the Struggle was because “the rank and ﬁle would not be prepared or able to face dangers and difﬁculties of underground work.”
She was concerned ﬁrst of all to get the facts and to get them right.
On the government side the Minister of Justice appointed a “liquidator,” a term usually associated with business—indeed, to seize the Party’s assets. And compile a list of South African Communists. Joe’s account of the way the Communists met with total liquidation is typical of his, and Ruth’s, challenging, zestful bravado (which he dryly remembered as “bordered on extreme folly”). “Since none of us was ashamed of having been a communist, we would write a joint reply… that we would not resist being ‘named’… indeed the liquidator’s list was a roll-call of honours.” Reading goes pell-mell with the radicalized ANC emerging with a newly created Youth League including Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu, and underground meetings of the communists which would lead to the home-grown South African Communist Party, SACP. The ANC was beginning to rebuild itself with the American and British-trained doctor, Alfred Xuma. Meanwhile, because Smuts had eased Pass Laws there were increasing numbers of black people moving to Soweto and Alexander townships and with them issues of poverty and resistance between original inhabitants and the local immigrants. As I read this book, the same situation, now on a scale called xenophobia, exists between South African blacks and the inﬂux of refugees from conﬂicts in other countries of Africa, neighbors near and far.
The SACP’s position on the ANC was that a nationalist movement could not end oppression because it did not address the issues of world imperialism and a class-divided—instance here, by color—South African society. Joe and Ruth, independent free thinkers ready to disagree even with Party discipline, work hard along other named persons to build an alliance of the emerging SACP with the ANC. As from the ANC side, did Sisulu and eventually Mandela. There’s the claim that the profound influence of the alliance of white communists and black leaders “led to a large extent to the refusal of so many South African leaders to turn racialist as a result of white oppression.” A perception, idea (depends on the political beliefs of the reader) that there was a direct relationship between a national liberation struggle of black victims under white-master government, and the struggle for socialism against capitalism. The attraction of socialism for African nationalism: as we are seeing now, as then, the call for nationalization of our principal underground resources is motivated against what can be called investment imperialism—ownership by individuals and companies who are not South African. Prompted to ask oneself, an endless debt to pay for the discovery of these precious metals and the knowledge of how to mine them to the surface of development of the country?
The tenure of the First-Slovo marriage was punctured by periods when either was imprisoned in detention without trial. At the 1955 People’s Congress Joe is one of the creators of the basic document of the SACP-ANC working in unison, the Freedom Charter. This unity was met by the apartheid government with the ultimate in legislation classifying all opposition, ﬁnally, as treason. The Treason Trial. Familiar with The Fort, then Johannesburg’s main jail, as legal counsel with access to interview his prisoner clients in a room for that purpose, as an accused Joe is escorted to a cell as prisoner among some of the anti-apartheid activists he had represented in court. This incarceration was short. Charges withdrawn, as they were eventually, after four years for others, when the court upheld the defense argument that the indictment was defective. It is exhilarating to read, partying along with what Joe writes as “Ruth’s snap decision that a celebration was called for. At the Slovo house, midnight, what an Afrikaans paper headlined as ‘Many Colours at Party’ was invaded by police ‘grabbing any black person holding a glass.’”
Ruth and Joe were at underground meetings after the Suppression of Communism Act, 1950, fell upon the SACP. Meetings also held abroad in the conviction and need that the Struggle had support due from the outside world, in the universal struggle for humanity. Ruth traveled to the Soviet Union and China, broad spectrum of political ideas and practice—signiﬁcant of the critical mind she kept while enacting the basic revolutionary precepts at home against apartheid oppression. Through the 1950s she and Joe leading public lives as journalist and advocate were fully active underground, although as individually banned persons could not attend political meetings, gatherings—sometimes even from meeting anyone other than family. Although we have become aware of their astonishing powers of resistance it is a shock, measured against understandable reaction, that “they still did not appear overly fearful.” Was this possible because as a member of it says, “The underground Party was like a family—ties of mutual belief and affection… were strong.” “The Party was their home.”
We follow Joe and Ruth in the Deﬁance Campaign led by Nelson Mandela. They also represented the SACP-ANC alliance in their professional lives, Joe defending black South Africans in the courts, Ruth as a journalist taking up the challenge for The Guardian to report on African voices, issues. “In her ﬁrst four weeks of the paper the twenty-two-year-old reporter had reported on a tin-workers’ strike… visited a Sophiatown squatter camp,” interviewed liberation leaders. She crept illegally into municipal workers’ compounds, took photographs at night while holding a ﬂashlight in her free hand. Gavin Williams, one of Ruth’s closest colleagues, says she “conﬁrms her professionalism along with what reads like political adventurism. She was concerned ﬁrst of all to get the facts and to get them right.” Bold and fearless, but in her code of honesty. She was eventually brought in to manage the Johannesburg ofﬁce of The Guardian. The scope of the exposures she wrote, personally experienced, not secondhand from other sources, seems unique. There was nowhere she was afraid to go!
It is not every day that the Johannesburg reporter for The Guardian meets an African farm worker who… silently takes off his shirt to shows weals and scars on back, shoulders, arms.
Without any religious community of purpose, she was an atheist, she goes with the activist Anglican pastor Michael Scott to investigate and expose slave-like conditions on farms in Bethal where police supplied forced labor to farmers. Ruth and Scott saw the dirt and degradation where workers lived, paid twelve pounds (South Africa still with English currency then) for six months’ labor. Ruth wrote: “It is not every day that the Johannesburg reporter for The Guardian meets an African farm worker who… silently takes off his shirt to shows weals and scars on back, shoulders, arms.” Scott and First continued their investigations despite the government counter-investigation ordered by prime minister Smuts—a whitewash in all senses of the term predicted by her. Joe, undercover, joined in the investigations.
Two plainclothes detectives arrived at her ofﬁce. Ruth was out; they waited for her. When she returned she saw them—called to a clerk, “Has Miss First come in yet?,” he said, “No,” and before turning and walking out the door Ruth replied, “That’s all right, I’ll catch up to her later.” Fast thinking. Only the buzz—which wasn’t in the vocabulary of the 1950s, seems adequate: cool!
In 1963 Ruth was arrested under the 90-Day Detention Law and imprisoned, due to its extension without time limit, for 117 days. These are the subject of her book, I am prepared to say, the unsurpassed testimony of total subjection of a human being, solitary conﬁnement. The only contact to evidence one’s existence the police interrogators who have the authority to set you free. Simply on the answers to their questions. The betrayal of others and the organizations to which you belong wholly, raison d’être so long as fellow human beings suffer oppression. The time span of reading this book—what relation has this to the timeless mental and spiritual suffering? But there is our need to know in order to be fully fellow-human.
We don’t learn of Joe’s reactions, feelings about those 117 days cut apart from their life. He had spent ﬁve months in detention three years earlier, apparently not in solitary conﬁnement. The personal had to be disciplined at whatever cost to reach the stoic standards of the blacks in suffering without a calendar limit. A commitment he knew he and she shared. Ruth’s mother, Tilly, was permitted to see her once or twice in the presence of police and guards, and to bring her the sight of their children. What this subjected the three girls to must have been dangerous for the mother in the cell, to be fought against as an urge to trade an end of the 117 days for release by giving relentless interrogators the answers to their repetition of questions that would betray comrades at the price of prison cells clanging on them, as on her.
Joe continued the nature of work they did together and singly. Ruth was a revolutionary with a brilliant pen; he also wrote excellently, this book turns one to his unsparing essay, “No Middle Road.” It was not modesty, a meaningless virtue of the personal, but plain reality when looking back critically he writes he had been ill-prepared for the courtroom when he ﬁnished his law degree. A colleague says: “He was a good lawyer. How tough he was in court.” Another: “Joe was ﬁrst of all a ﬁne human being… people from all walks of life and all shapes and sizes—all colors made no difference to him.” He even struck up a friendship with Gert Coetzee. An Afrikaner nationalist who became a judge—it comes also as an opportunity to know the mind, conviction why and how of the enemy? Joe takes his position as a lawyer as having assisted him in terms of his political mission. “Practically: If one was an advocate, as I was, whose practice became more and more dominated by cases with a political aspect, access to prisoners, and the broad freedom which still remained to hit hard at authority… was a great opportunity.” He also irresistibly describes a judge having a courtroom “like Chaplin’s Modern Times’ production line, where he continually lessened charges against blacks who had killed other blacks.” Irresistible not to take up in Joe’s spirit: “Let them bump off one another, save us the trouble.”
Slovo and First left for London, Joe in 1963; behind him, his contribution as one of the conceivers of the Freedom Charter, precursor of the Constitution in which our freedom is democratically entrenched, with today’s campaigns to make changes to it, some alarmingly retrogressive, claimed to be relevant to present social norms of what justice is. Both left South Africa not to escape the doors of prison cells awaiting them but in the need of the anti-apartheid struggle for international support, not alone public demonstrations but Material. To begin with, money to defend anti-apartheid activists on trial, feed the stalwart protesters destitute in the townships.
Their paths intertwined, as with Ruth’s exceptional gifts as a writer her books were translated and read in and far beyond the leftist press. An exception: her article on Bram Fischer rejected by the New York Times. Meanwhile, she was studying at the London School of Economics, evidently never satisﬁed that she had learnt ﬁrsthand what there was in the forces of the control of human society. She helps Govan Mbeki complete his book The Peasants’ Revolt and writes the preface to Nelson Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom reminding its readers that some of his speeches are missing or unavailable because in police ﬁles.
Both Ruth and Joe were involved in demonstrations speaking in revelation of the Rivonia Trial. They were based with the ANC and SACP; Ruth nevertheless triggered disdain from some Party members “for not toeing the Soviet line.” It is strangely disturbing to read her looking back critically at her works South West Africa and 117 Days. She says, “in the future I shall stick to facts like land ownership and mission schools.” First and Slovo were assigned to different SACP groups; it seems cognizant of signiﬁcances within them. Ruth not Stalinist. Joe was? Whatever, argumentative tolerance of thought, conviction in each—this is the ethos to be read of this marriage.
Both traveled wherever, whenever there was the chance to further in the world the cause of the ANC and SACP in the Struggle. Based with the Left in London they went individually to the Soviet Union, GDR (German Democratic Republic); she appeared on Swedish television and corresponded worldwide on African not only South African issues, later traveled in Africa and wrote notably among others an exposé book on Libya. Signiﬁcant recognition of her qualities outside the Left, she worked with the United Nations on the continent Africa, calling attention to the treatment of prisoners on Robben Island.
Joe, in exile, comes more and more to a realization that apartheid’s defeat will not be brought about unless South African exiles are sent back with the will to take up armed resistance to the apartheid regime. Clandestine, somehow to be effected in a police state. With fellow exiled ANC-SACP cadres arms are obtained and Joe takes on the recruitment of compatriots in exile, in African countries and Europe and, soon, South Africans who will leave home to respond to the opportunity of military training in the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, and other countries. Not the parade ground summon most have been called up for as adolescents in South Africa. Guerrilla warfare. Umkhonto we Sizwe—the Spear of the Nation—the alarm, fear its announcement and emergence brought to the whites of the home country, and the ﬂexing muscles of hope brought to the vast majority of the South African population held down under—to adapt the title of one of Ruth’s books—the barrel of the apartheid gun. Joe at the SACP Central Committee meeting held in the Soviet Union (such meetings outlawed in South Africa) instigated specialized training there and in the GDR for ANC-SACP members. His visits to Africa, Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, to consult with ANC leaders scattered in exile; the history of what ended our day-nightmare of apartheid.
Life in London is a juggling act of time and place and circumstances with revolutionary tactics colliding with the claims of family. Daughters were in London for periods, pursuing their education, living or not living with parents. Gillian, later, with her biography of the family, father and mother dominated by concern for the masses; Shawn with her documentary A World Apart—the Slovo-Firsts lived. Their children had been desired and planned for and it is clear were loved and missed; hardly to be seen together in anything like the conventional idea of personal relations. Political responsibility overwhelmingly backpacked, for all people to be recognized as free. It is a political education, take what sides you may, to be privy to the debates between Ruth First and Joe Slovo. Every aspect of the Struggle is there, including the Africans’ fear of black nationalism being usurped in it—echoing black nationalism in the South African vision of democracy today, while the colonial theft of land is recognized, must be dealt with, the respect of African culture once dismissed as “tribalism” is accepted as part of the justice of our Constitution created by white and black. But the demand for independent Traditional Courts will bring as justice certain inhuman subjections which are outlawed by that hard-won Constitution for all South Africans no matter color or sex. Darts of division ﬂy. Ruth with her New Left “tendencies”: Joe stated that a comrade exile had wanted to “remove” her from the Struggle because these “tendencies” were magniﬁed with Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; her harmonious relationship with Tambo and other ANC leaders was in part because she was uncritical of the Soviet Party line.
Tambo comes to London to meet members of the SACP. He appoints Joe to draft a plan that would strengthen the ANC-SACP alliance. Even create a war council for armed struggle in South Africa.
Ruth asks, directing the question to leaders, Joe and others, and unsparing of herself as one of the recruiters of Special Operations cadres, why are we not back in Africa with them? The reader sees herself and Joe in acute consciousness of the difference between those who expedite revolutionary actions and those who go out to pursue them where imprisonment or death are the price tag. Leaders should be in Africa, although too well-known, infamous to the regime, to get away with clandestine presence in South Africa itself. The possibilities of Umkhonto we Sizwe in Mozambique newly liberated from Portuguese rule, comes on the territorial map of liberation.
Maputo, Mozambique—the last we readers travel with the separate paths that ran parallel, then forked apart over discord, yet in the knot of a faith impervious, impossible to breach. Ruth, who has gained academic distinction at Durham University in England, is at Eduardo Mondlane University, Center for African Studies, political educator, Struggle recruiter for special operations along with other comrades landed up in Mozambique as a launching pad in the progress of the revolution. Mozambique no safe haven. The South African government forces assassinated ANC activists there. Joe—somehow ﬁnishing his essay with its determinative title “No Middle Road”—is totally occupied at the peak of special operations planning to send more exiles as armed cadres of Umkhonto we Sizwe from Mozambique to inﬁltrate South Africa. All manner of bizarre practical routes thought up with local ANC-SACP exile groups and supporters, in African unity of purpose, including FRELIMO victors in the end of Portuguese rule of their country—a connection to remind of the shared nature of struggle for freedom from colonial “ownership” of the African continent. One venture was a truck with MK men lying hidden in a load of industrial or supermarket supplies. The route equally ingenious—from Mozambique through Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and off the roads into the backveld of South Africa. There are three successful attacks carried out pointedly on apartheid South Africa’s Republic Day, exploding oil reﬁneries, Sasol and Mobil in the early hours with the intention, at least, of avoiding loss of life of workers there.
Ruth First, survivor of so many dangerous situations, meets death in Mozambique. We know the unspeakable ending from the blare of media reports. Then it would seem unlikely that it could have new meaning, new impact. One of the uncountable meetings Ruth attended, called, in her mission for the freedom, the very lives of those with whom she lived in common humanity. She delays the meeting a few minutes, she wants to collect her mail. The African Center’s director of the meeting half-chafﬁng complains: from the volumes of her letters people might think that she was director, not him. Her quick friendly jibe with a prick in it—“Well, you know if you want to get mail from people you have to write to them.” She’s back with the privilege of her copious mail, she’s opening a letter, it explodes a bomb in her face.
One of the paths leads back to South Africa. Joe died a “natural” death from bone marrow cancer, end of a lifetime. He had returned in the 1990s to a country struggled free of apartheid, with so much new to create. He worked in negotiations for our Constitution on inalienable rights. April 27, 1994: the African National Congress came to power with Nelson Mandela as ﬁrst president. Joe dances at the ANC celebration at the Carlton Hotel. Two weeks later, the day following inauguration, President Mandela appoints his cabinet. We understand Joe Slovo’s anticipation of an appointment in the Justice Ministry. When he is announced Minister of Housing: public surprise and (in the complex rivalries of political loyalties) there is some political analysis of Joe’s appointment as a “devaluation of the Left by Mandela.”
Joe’s reception of the ministry comes off as acceptation of reality he and Ruth were so devastatingly capable of. Speaking at a Financial Week meeting he says it for us once and for all: “Housing is not a privilege, it is a fundamental right. To live in an environment in degeneration is to produce a degraded people. We have striven endlessly for freedom and liberation. Now it is time to deliver.” Reading this last sentence, it comes to us now just as it does when he argued “the government’s role was not to build houses for people (presage of RDP) but rather to facilitate the building of affordable houses.” A statement at down-to-plot level. “The cornerstone of my approach will be to seek an end to the undeclared war between communities and the private sector.”
Dying, he worked until a few days before his last in 1995.
The end of Ruth First and Joe Slovo is not the end of what there is to discover. There have been many amazing combinations of courage in bonding with the deﬁning ﬁnal necessity of focus—free South Africa. As an inquiry and with many answers to the how and why in human evolution since our primeval ancestor used ﬁns as propellants to stand up on earth, we have sought, tried out religious faiths, philosophies, political orders, organizations of human life by which no one of us will escape, deny the equal needs of the other; to give our common humanity actuality. Yet with Ruth First and Joe Slovo, this couple, man-and-woman, is one single coupling, in fundament of the absolute, the need, drive in striving for that freedom of the human state.
From the foreword to Alan Wieder’s Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Monthly Review Press; July 1, 2013)
Nadine Gordimer is a South African writer and activist. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991.