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Two leading activists of the fight against Apartheid, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, for the first time have received a comprehensive biography

Alan Wieder, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid (Monthly Review Press 2013), 390pp.

As tributes to Nelson Mandela continue to fill the pages of newspapers it is right that we remember his legacy and his leadership of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. But it is also right that we take a sober view of South Africa’s complex history without forgetting the many other figures that stood beside Mandela in the war against apartheid.

Alan Wieder’s Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid is a remarkable political biography of two activists who devoted their lives to the struggle for equality in South Africa. For their part in the fight against apartheid Joe Slovo and Ruth First were hunted and persecuted by the regime. Both were arrested, banned from speaking, exiled and targeted by the apartheid regime’s killers. Slovo, although more centrally involved in the armed fight against apartheid, survived to serve in Mandela’s government in 1994, but First was assassinated by the regime in 1982.

Ruth First and Joe Slovo are arguably among the most important of the anti-apartheid activists. They remained at the heart of the struggle throughout their lives, although their contributions to it were very different. First was a journalist, an academic, a teacher, and a public intellectual who contributed to the worldwide understanding of apartheid. Slovo was one of the principal leaders of the armed fight against the regime as a founding member, organiser and chief tactician of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He oversaw the training of MK fighters in Angola, and masterminded many of its successful operations, such as its attack on the SASOL oil refinery in 1980.

The book is also a reminder of how central the South Africa Communist Party (SACP) was to the struggle against apartheid. It provided the ANC with a broader theoretical perspective, linked apartheid to worldwide problems, and gave a political direction to the ANC’s direct action. The SACP believed that ‘a nationalist movement could not end oppression because it did not address the essential issues of world imperialism and a class-divided South African society’ (p.67).

First and Slovo were among the SACP members who understood the importance of setting the ANC’s local, nationalist tactics within a wider struggle against capitalism and imperialism. When the SACP and the ANC formed an alliance in 1950, First and Slovo were instrumental in laying the groundwork for co-operation. It was First who persuaded Mandela to work with the SACP. Slovo later helped Mandela to found MK, the SACP-ANC joint military force. Both men became important military leaders, with Slovo taking the reins of MK after Mandela’s arrest.

The couple met at the University of the Witwatersrand during anti-racist activities of the Communist student association. Joe Slovo had returned from fighting in the South African army during the Second World War, where he was witness to the cruel irony that even during the war no black South African was allowed to bear arms. He wrote that if a black man ‘wanted to serve democracy he could do so wielding only a knobkierie (fighting stick, club), as a uniformed manservant of a white soldier’ (p.45). Slovo studied law alongside Mandela, and became a practicing lawyer who defended blacks who were detained under the apartheid regime. Ruth First became a journalist and later editor at the Johannesburg Guardian – the paper was forced to change its name many times due to government censorship – and documented the brutality of the regime against the black population.

Weider does not shy away from the contradictory position that Slovo and First occupied as white, middle-class activists in a largely black struggle. Their experience of the anti-apartheid struggle was very different to that of the black activists. Although both suffered severe persecution at the hands of the apartheid regime, and both were imprisoned ­– Ruth First particularly brutally, spending 117 days in solitary confinement without being charged with an offence – as Weider makes clear, even in prison they had a ‘white’ experience that cannot be compared to the treatment of the black activists. Slovo himself, remarking on the fact that all the prison diaries were written by white comrades, reflects that, ‘as bad as [prison] was for whites, it was bearable. But for blacks it was hell and they didn’t want to speak about it’ (p.283).

Although the book purports to be about Ruth First and Joe Slovo as a married couple, the extent to which it is necessary for Weider to treat his two subjects separately is notable. There are clearly several reasons for this. First, despite both being public figures in their own right, they kept their relationship a relatively private affair. Secondly, and more importantly, although their dedication to the anti-apartheid cause and socialism was shared, First and Slovo adopted divergent theoretical and practical methods; so much so that tempestuous disagreements frequently broke out between them. Slovo remained committed to the South Africa Communist Party and its ties to the Soviet Union throughout his life, and despite his warmth and humanity was often unfairly depicted as a ‘rabid Stalinist’ (p.210). Ruth First’s relationship with the USSR and party orthodoxy was much weaker, and the couple fell out publicly over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, for example. Any attempt to sketch a single narrative for the couple would therefore be futile.

When the couple entered political exile in London in 1964, Slovo threw himself into party work, and maintained his leadership of MK’s armed activity. He organised the MK’s military incursions into South Africa and sabotage operations from the ANC’s offices in Goodge Street, around which buzzed a lively expatiate community of South African political exiles, including Yusuf Dadoo and Ronnie Kasrils.

Ruth First used the exile period to write and study, becoming involved with the New Left, whose theoretical perspective was frowned on by the SACP. She got to know figures such as Tariq Ali and Ralph Miliband, whom she studied under at LSE and befriended. Miliband later described her as ‘the least “utopian” of revolutionaries; but she was not in the least “disillusioned”… she deplored the shortcomings, stupidities and crimes of her own side. But this never dimmed her sense that there was a struggle to be fought’ (p.157).

First remained grounded in Marxist revolutionary theory, but the New Left perspective enabled her to tread an intellectual path away from the Communist Party orthodoxy to which Joe Slovo remained committed. In London, as she started to become known as a public intellectual, she expounded a unique perspective on the South African political situation. She gave public speeches at Trafalgar Square, and her wide-ranging intellectual activity during this period included work on Frantz Fanon, and a study with Jonathan Steele of the London Guardian into the mutually supportive relationship between large-scale capitalism and the apartheid regime.

When the couple returned to Africa to be more closely involved in the struggle in 1977 – Ruth First, in particular, was uncomfortable being so distant from the activists who remained in Africa – the difference between their methods became even clearer. Slovo principally spent his time overseeing the military camps in Angola, where the MK’s fighters were being trained. By the late 1970s, he had become ‘the principal teacher in the military at the time, the theoretical, strategy side of things’ (p.213). He learned from a number of revolutionary sources, applying their methods to the South African struggle. In 1978 he was part of a group of MK leaders who travelled to Vietnam to learn from the successful guerrilla war there.

Ruth First settled in Mozambique and, until her assassination in 1982, taught at the Centre for African Studies in Maputo, where she developed a radical socialist pedagogical method that combined teaching with ‘direct revolutionary force’ (p.225). This was both a world away from Slovo’s military approach to the struggle, and a means of combining the diffuse aspects of her life’s work; in Maputo the ‘political struggle was directly integrated into her everyday work of teaching, research and writing’ (p.226). She continued to teach central Communist texts, and she argued that Lenin should be taught not as a model for all to follow, but because ‘his analysis of forms of rural social formation … and his theses on co-operation are highly relevant here and now’ (p.226). She aimed to find ways of teaching poor workers to apply socialist theory in practice. She regarded this as being the most productive period in her life.

Although Ruth First and Joe Slovo have both written short autobiographical works, Weider’s is the first complete biography of the couple. Given its wealth of detail, the wide range of interviews that Weider has conducted, and the letters to which he has been granted access, it deserves to remain the definitive biography of First and Slovo for a long time. In a study of this sort there is a delicate balance to maintain between the personal and the political lives of the subjects, but Weider renders both with clarity. The interviews flesh out the political and historical context from the perspective of those who were involved in it, such as former members of MK, while allowing the complexities of First’s and Slovo’s personalities to emerge. Their passion and commitment to the struggle becomes more comprehensible through the eyes of those who knew them closely. This timely book should be read by all who seek to understand the remarkable couple and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in depth.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi teaches at SOAS, University of London, and has been active in UCU and the student movement of 2010. She is a contributor to The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, and a member of the Counterfire editorial board.

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