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Ruth First and Joe Slovo were hunted and persecuted for their struggle to bring equality to South Africa. Alan Wieder writes about two leading anti-apartheid activists

Madiba and ComradesNelson Mandela made it clear throughout his political life that his contribution in the struggle against apartheid always involved working with comrades.  Included were his close friends Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu and he expressed his love for Bram Fischer in Long Walk to Freedom.  There were many others, two of whom were comrades Ruth First and Joe Slovo.  First and Slovo married in 1949, but their relationships with Nelson Mandela started earlier, in the mid-1940s, while all three were students at the University of Witwatersrand.  Besides collaborating on various protest actions, they were often together at Ismail Meer’s flat, the hub for young revolutionary South Africans in Johannesburg between 1943 and 1946.  Mandela as well as other comrades described Meer’s flat as “dreary, badly furnished, and depressing,” yet Nelson Mandela recalled, “There we studied, talked, and even danced until the early hours in the morning.  It became a kind of headquarters for ‘young freedom fighters.”

Madiba also became acquainted with Slovo because they were both law students at Wits.  Joe Slovo described Mandela at the time, “A very proud, self-contained black man, who was very conscious of his blackness.”  Slovo’s description is intriguing because when the men met Mandela was wed to African Nationalism.  Also, it was Nelson Mandela, on more than one subsequent occasion that described Joe Slovo as nonracial man.  Ruth, Joe, and other comrades helped to convince Mandela that imperialism, class disparity, and racism were all connected.

In the beginning, Mandela and most of his ANC colleagues viewed resistance as a nationalist struggle with a goal of black emancipation.  Joe Slovo and Ruth First were members of the Communist Party of South Africa and their position stated 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. But Ruth and Joe, and people like Rusty Bernstein and Jack Simons, worked hard to build an alliance, as did ANC members like Walter Sisulu and eventually Nelson Mandela. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes that his friendships with Moses Kotane, Ruth First, and Ismail Meer helped him to reconsider his position.  The understanding between the ANC and CP was that South Africa represented a unique struggle referred to as “colonialism of a special type.” Jack Simons reflected that it was the commonly shared understanding of the organizations that there was a direct relationship between the “national libratory struggle and the struggle for socialism” that brought the SACP and ANC together and nurtured resistance politics and actions throughout the struggle against apartheid. Almost fifty years ago, South African historian and Mandela biographer, Mary Benson, concluded that the alliance of white communists and the ANC led 'to a large extent to the refusal of so many African leaders to turn racialist.'

"Good-looking, very proud, very dignified, very prickly, rather sensitive, perhaps even arrogant.  But of course he was exposed to all the humiliations,” was how Ruth First described Nelson Mandela in the late 1940s.  Mandela also remembered meeting Ruth and Joe.  “I met Joe Slovo and his future wife, Ruth First,” recalled Mandela. “Then as now, Joe had one of the sharpest, most incisive minds I have ever encountered.  He was an ardent Communist, and was known for his high-spirited parties. Ruth had an outgoing personality and was a gifted writer.”  Besides her work as a journalist, academic, and writer, Ruth First edited Madiba’s manuscript that was smuggled out of prison in the 1960s and became the book, No Easy Walk to Freedom.  She also wrote the preface and reminded readers that “some of his speeches are missing or unavailable because in police files."

Ruth and Joe were both involved in the Defiance Campaign in 1952. Led by Nelson

Mandela, whom Joe referred to as the “Volunteer-in-Chief,” black South Africans protested against pass laws and other racist affronts.  The ANC ended the campaign in 1953 when over 8,000 people were arrested, many of whom were flogged during their detainment. Ruth and Joe also represented the alliance in their professional lives: Joe in his legal representation of black South Africans and Ruth in her work as a journalist and managing editor of The Guardian.  There were many ANC actions that led to the government pressing charges against Nelson Mandela, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, and 153 comrades who went to court in 1956 in the now infamous Treason Trial.  Joe spoke of Madiba’s position before and during the trial saying that Mandela  “did not harbor any illusions about the ultimate possibility of converting the ruling class without a tough revolutionary struggle.”

The Treason Trial, officially named Regina v. Adams and 155 Others, began on December 19, 1957, with a preliminary hearing. Besides Madiba, Ruth and Joe, defendants included, Lilian Ngoyi, Moses Kotane, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Gert Sibande, Rusty Bernstein, Z. K. Matthews, Ahmed Kathrada, Paul Joseph, Jack Hodgson, Helen Joseph, Chief Luthuli, and many others – all Madiba’s comrades. Of the 156 people charged, 105 were black, twenty-one Indian, seven coloured, and twenty-three white. Racialism even determined making bail — blacks paid 50 pounds, Indians and coloureds 100 pounds, and whites were charged 250 pounds. All of the people charged were released on bond within two weeks of arrest.  Despite prison conditions that mirrored South African societal racism, Nelson Mandela described the experience as “the largest and longest unbanned meeting of the Congress Alliance in years.”

People from all over the country gathered to honor and support leaders they viewed as people’s heroes. Leaflets were distributed and placards read, “We Stand By Our Leaders.” Singing and chanting went on throughout the trial days, and if anything, the crowds increased during the nine months of the trial’s preliminary stage. The people who gathered were clearly angry, yet there was still a celebratory spirit that was also shared by the defendants. Nelson Mandela, Rusty Bernstein, and Walter Sisulu, as well as Joe Slovo, described laughter and singing as they were driven to and from the Johannesburg Drill Hall in gray prison vans. Joe served as one of the defense lawyers even though he was a defendant, and witnessed the disorganization and incompetence that guided the beginning of the trial. He equated the continuing mishaps as directly corresponding to the farcical nature of the charges and the trial.

In his 1958 book, The Treason Cage, Anthony Sampson wrote about Ruth and Joe in biographical chapters as leaders in the movement against apartheid. Interestingly, Sampson did not do the same for Nelson Mandela. In Sampson’s subsequent book, Mandela: The Authorized Biography, he explained in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner that at the time he believed that Mandela was too detached to be a future leader. He wrote that the names First and Slovo “were often on African lips,” and noted that “Ruth First, though only thirty-two, was already part of South African history.”  Sampson concluded, acknowledging the importance of both Joe and Ruth to black people and the struggle:

"They were attractive, definite people, who epitomized what Africans required from Europeans: they gave large, expansive parties in their low modern house near Sophiatown, where all the races came together in a pocket of racelessness, and they worked with a sense of common purpose which helped to obliterate any resentment of domination or bossiness. Joe Slovo had what Africans most admire—a sharp and fearless legal brain, which could bully police witnesses and open up the cracks in the law, and the dislike of the workings of the state that Africans instinctively feel. Ruth First was the Johannesburg representative of New Age which voiced the scandals so discreetly hushed-up elsewhere. In its foreign policy New Age was as obedient to Moscow as the Daily Worker, but in its home reporting it reflected what all Africans were saying, and what many white Liberals would have said if they dared. Ruth First had the aura of New Age about her."

On April 13, 1958, the charges against the majority of The Treason Trial defendants were dropped for lack of evidence.  Ruth First spontaneously announced that there would be a celebratory party at their home.  Walter and Albertina Sisulu attended as did many of the other defendants and people from the Treason Defense Fund, including Ambrose Reeves, the Bishop of Johannesburg. According to Sampson, one of the attendees was an American named Millard Shirley who was later identified as a CIA operative. Notably missing was Nelson Mandela, who immediately went into hiding after the verdict. If later reports are correct, it was Shirley who provided the tip to the Special Branch that led to Mandela’s arrest in 1962.

Both during and after the trial, Ruth First continued her radical journalism.  Nelson Mandela as well as revolutionary leaders throughout the continent aided her in this work.  More specifically, as the editor of the paper, Fighting Talk, from 1955 to 1960, when the newspaper was discontinued because of the apartheid regime declaring a state of emergency, Ruth was able to attract an incredibly eclectic group of writers. The list of South African struggle stalwarts is impressive in itself - Tambo, Kotane, Luthuli, Matthews, Mbeki, Dadoo, and of course Nelson Mandela.  But she also attracted from afar - Kenyatta, Ben Bella, Nkrumah, Touré, and Nyerere. Never before had there been a list of revolutionary African leaders who wrote for the same publication. Fighting Talk also published Father Trevor Huddleston’s farewell to South Africa in 1955 and letters from South African writer Eskia’ Mphahlele, who at the time was in exile in Ghana.

Although underground, Nelson Mandela was politically involved meeting with comrades and planning struggle.  The meetings included Joe Slovo and Ruth First.  After the infamous Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, an ANC and SACP joint committee that included Sisulu, Mandela, Nokwe, and Joe convened at the Slovo home in Roosevelt Park to plan a nationwide general strike memorializing the murders at Sharpeville and Langa. They decided to forcefully proceed on an anti-pass campaign. Chief Luthuli publicly burned his passbook in Pretoria. There were demonstrations throughout the country and for a moment some government ministers appeared to realize that a relaxation of apartheid oppression might be necessary to avoid revolution.  In addition to the mass demonstrations, the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, British Parliament, and the Dutch condemned the South African government. Members of Parliament publicly blamed the victims. A week later both the ANC and PAC, like the SACP, were banned as the government declared a State of Emergency. Police followed with pre-dawn raids arresting 19,000 members of the SACP, ANC, PAC, Congress Movement, Non-European Unity Movement, Liberal Party, and others who challenged, or who the government believed challenged, the apartheid state.

In 1961, Joe Slovo was directly involved in the forming of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the underground military operation, that though formed by ANC and SACP leaders, initially claimed itself an independent organization, a distinction that Joe referred to as a “necessary fiction.” He called MK “the people’s war.” Nonviolence as a tactic was criticized in a paper by Michael Harmel, a member of the SACP Central Committee, as being unrealistic at a time when the government treated passive resistance as treason. Using this paper as a foundation, leaders in both the ANC and SACP agreed that it was time for armed struggle. Thus, with some funding from African states and Communist governments, Umkhonto we Sizwe was secretly launched, with Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo as the High Command. Their deputies were Govan Mbeki and Jack Hodgson. Contacts made previously by the SACP enabled cadres to be sent to China for six months to train as soldiers. The extended plan was to station the cadres in other African states for further training and planning for armed struggle against the apartheid regime. Tactically, Mandela and Slovo chose to initiate the mission with a sabotage campaign within the country. Regional commands were formed throughout South Africa to engineer local acts of subversion. The plan was to bomb government buildings and infrastructure—with no attacks on places inhabited by people. Even within this campaign a small bit of hope remained that the oppression might end without all-out armed struggle. The apartheid regime did not agree.

Ruth and Joe helped organize the purchase of Lilliesleaf, the property that the government raided in 1963.  This lead to the infamous Rivonia Trial in 1964, when top ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, and Walter Sisulu, were convicted of sabotage. At the conclusion of the trial, except for Bram Fischer, the leaders of both the ANC and SACP were either incarcerated or in exile. Despite valiant attempts, the struggle inside South Africa was moribund. As Gregory Houston writes, “It was one of the most severe blows that MK, the ANC and SACP underground would suffer.”

While Nelson Mandela was underground in 1961, Ruth arranged for a television interview with the future president and British reporter Brian Widlake. It was in this interview, much to the dismay of some of his ANC brethren, that Mandela publicly broached the possibility of moving past nonviolent resistance. “If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent demonstrations we will have  to seriously reconsider our tactics. In my mind, we are closing a chapter on this question of non-violent policy.”

Evident to most people in the struggle by 1962, Nelson Mandela was the leader of the resistance. The future president’s underground freedom ended on August 5, 1962, after he had gone to speak at a meeting in Durban. As noted, Mandela’s whereabouts were probably revealed to the Special Branch by Millard Shirley, the CIA operative who attended Ruth and Joe’s Treason Trial party. Knowing that Shirley was at the party and that he was the person who exposed Nelson Mandela is one of many events that justify Joe Slovo often using the term, “Keystone Cops,” as a descriptor of some resistance actions—before, during, and after the early 1960s.

Nelson MandelaFollowing Mandela’s arrest, Joe Slovo was not only one of Madiba’s lawyers, he was also fully involved in a strategy to assist in his escape from prison. A working committee that included Joe Modise, Harold Wolpe, and Joe met at Rivonia where they reviewed various schemes. Most of them were unrealistic. For example, one proposal was for Arthur Goldreich, nominal owner of Rivonia, and in the not too distant future a prison escapee with Harold Wolpe, Abdulhay Jassat, and Mosie Moola, to devise a mask so that Mandela could impersonate a fellow prisoner. After much discussion, Wolpe, Modise, and Joe agreed on an intricate plan to facilitate the escape during Mandela’s trial.  The plan became moot. On the eve of the trial the South African government transferred Nelson Mandela to Pretoria to face his charges. Not only was the escape strategy defunct, Joe was no longer able to serve as Mandela’s attorney due to his latest banning order restricting him to Johannesburg. He appealed to the court in hope of being permitted to travel to Pretoria for the trial. Joe’s request was denied. This virtually ended his vocation as an attorney; he no longer could represent the people he had served throughout the country.

Ruth First and Joe Slovo had departed the country by the time Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964.  Joe had left in 1963, before the Rivonia Raid, and was on a mission with J. B. Marks to introduce Umkhonto we Sizwe to newly independent African countries.  Ruth was imprisoned in 1963 and her prison documentary, 117 Days, explains her certainty that she would be charged with Madiba and other comrades.  That did not occur, and Ruth went into exile early in 1964.  Both Joe Slovo and Ruth First longed to be back in South Africa and they both also felt that somehow they had failed their comrades who remained in the country.  Ruth spoke with a British reporter about both being in the United Kingdom and the apartheid reality in South Africa.

"When I first came over to London and traveled on the tube I’d panic because I kept thinking black people would get into trouble for travelling with white. It was an automatic reaction. In South Africa you can’t even talk openly to an African without creating a scene—you’re supposed to walk past people you know and like because they’re black. I remember once talking to Nelson Mandela outside the post office in Johannesburg—I’ve known him since I was a student—and as we talked everyone began to stare. Well, the more fuss there was, the more that proud handsome man kept on talking. But the fact, just the fact, that we were talking as equals was creating a sensation."

Shortly after arriving in London, Ruth completed Govan Mbeki’s book, The Peasants’ Revolt , as well as a collection of Nelson Mandela’s writings and speeches, No Easy Walk to Freedom. The latter, similar to 117 Days, was released in 1965. At the time of printing, Mandela was beginning decades of imprisonment on Robben Island. The preface to No Easy Walk to Freedom was brief. Ruth explained the book’s process and as noted reminded the reader that some of Mandela’s speeches were unavailable because their only home at the time was in the South African police archives. The book includes Mandela’s voice between 1953 and 1963.

Ruth First would never see Nelson Mandela again.  After agents of the South African government assassinated her in 1982, and various times thereafter, Madiba honored Ruth First’s inestimable contributions to the war against apartheid.  One example is his address to the Ruth First Tenth Anniversary Commemoration Trust in Cape Town.  Many comrades attended as did Joe, Shawn, Gillian, and Robyn Slovo.

Ruth spent her life in the service of the people of Southern Africa. She went to prison for her beliefs. She was murdered because of her acute political acumen combined with her resolute refusal to abandon her principles. Her life, and her death, remains a beacon to all who love liberty. Many of you here today also knew Ruth personally, and will pay fitting tribute to her. But for us the assassination of Ruth First was not only a personal tragedy of immense proportions. It was part of a pattern of the systematic elimination of leading opponents of apartheid. Ten years later this commemoration is most appropriate, because it is only now that information is beginning to come out about the death squads and the crimes committed in defense of apartheid.

Two years before Mandela’s speech, after he had been released from almost 28 years of incarceration, and after Joe Slovo returned from 27 years in exile, the two men were reunited in person for the first time.  Although there is not clear documentation, it appears that in the late-1980s Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Joe Slovo did speak by phone while Madiba was still in jail and Tambo and Slovo were exiled in Zambia.  The subject was negotiations about negotiations or more succinctly, Mandela’s talks with representatives of the apartheid regime.  Between 1990 and 1994, however, Nelson Mandela came to rely on Joe Slovo in various ways.  From the time Madiba gave his first speech in Cape Town after being released from Victor Verster prison February 11, 1990, it was clear to almost everyone in the world that he was the leader of the South African people.  But negotiations were imminent with the apartheid government, and it is here where Mandela and Slovo’s lives intersected.  Thus, on July 19, Joe Slovo made the announcement ending the armed struggle.  Just ten days later, Nelson Mandela was addressing the re-launch of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

The termination of the armed struggle was clearly a necessity for formal negotiations to commence.  And Joe Slovo was the perfect messenger.  The ANC’s National Executive Committee met on July 19. Joe proposed the unilateral cessation of the armed struggle. Mandela supported the proposal and the NEC approved Joe’s proposition.  The plan would be presented at the next meeting with the government, scheduled for early August. Joe Slovo presenting the idea was a powerful tactic because as a leader of both the Communist Party and the MK underground army, he more than anyone else had the credentials to negotiate the plan.

Concurrent to Slovo’s proposal and its acceptance, using false evidence, President de Klerk announced that Joe Slovo was still in fact involved in armed struggle.  Besides threatening arrest, he wanted Mandela to remove Slovo as a negotiator.  Headlines in South African newspapers were ablaze. The Natal Witness led with “Red Plot Allegations Denied by SACP’s Slovo” and The Sunday Times read “ANC Secret Cell Shock.” De Klerk demanded the removal of Joe Slovo from the planned August negotiations. De Klerk’s evidence was a handwritten document written at the secret SACP Tongaat meeting championing the continuance of armed struggle. The paper was signed “Joe.” However, Joe Slovo was out of the country at the time of the SACP assembly and the writing was actually that of Gebuza, whose alias was Joe. On the day of the SACP launch, the headline of The Sunday Times read, “ANC Stands by Red Joe.” Mandela had announced to de Klerk that Joe Slovo would be an integral part of the negotiation team. The president did not dispute the president-to-be.

50,000 people packed the stadium for the SACP launch.  People from all four of the apartheid-era ethnic designated groups were present, but the huge majority were black workers. Joe was on the stage with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu while other Party leaders sat in the front rows.  There were recognitions of fallen freedom fighters, speeches addressing the past, present, and future. Nelson Mandela spoke on the ANC-SACP alliance, and he warned the government about their attempts to sabotage the coming negotiations process—a clear reference to both the “Red Plot” and security forces’ incitement of violence.

The general secretary of the Communist Party, comrade Joe Slovo, is an old friend. There is an old established friendship between his family and mine. We went to university together. We were co-accused in the Treason Trial of 1956 to 1961. Over the years, we have shared the same views on fundamental issues to do with ending the criminal system of apartheid and the democratic transformation of our country. Today we share the same views about the vital importance and urgency of arriving at a political settlement through negotiations, in conditions of peace for all our people. This personal and political relationship has been able to endure over the decades precisely because Joe Slovo and his colleagues in the Communist Party have understood and respected the fact that the ANC is an independent body. They have never sought to transform the ANC into a tool and a puppet of the Communist Party. They have fought to uphold the character of the ANC as the Parliament of the oppressed, containing within it people with different ideological views, who are united by the common perspective of national emancipation represented by the Freedom Charter. Even when we got together with comrade Joe Slovo and others in 1961 to form the People's army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, we understood the specific role that Umkhonto had to play. We understood that despite the fact that state repression had compelled us to take up arms, this did not make the ANC a slave to violence.

When Joe neared the dais, dressed in a gray suit and wearing his already famous red socks, he was met with cheers and chants—Viva! to the SACP, Viva! to socialism, and Viva! to Joe Slovo. After presenting a short history of the SACP, he referenced de Klerk’s charges of an SACP plot, outlining three lies as he waved his passport showing that he was in Zambia during the time of his supposed writing of the insurgent document. He concluded saying, “Government allegations of a Communist conspiracy are attempts to rubbish the Party. It is they who forced us to work in the cellars and shadows. Even now they are trying to force us back into the underground cellars.”  At the conclusion of Joe’s speech, the last of the day, amid the cheers and vivas, the dark clouds burst and rain fell on Jabulani Stadium.

Nelson Mandela was both a complex revolutionary and politician. Besides sanctioning Joe Slovo to publicly announce the end of the armed struggle, he appointed Joe, Mac Maharaj, and Cyril Ramaphosa as the primary negotiators with the apartheid regime.  A cursory analysis would be somewhat confusing because

of the apartheid government’s conservatism, the progressivism of the people elected was seemingly incongruous in the context of imminent negotiations.  And though it would be incorrect to deny the tensions between the African National Congress and the Nationalist Party during negotiations, might it be that Madiba actually knew that it was more important that ANC negotiators sell the struggle to their most radical struggle comrades.

In an article titled, “Negotiations: What Room for Compromise?” Joe Slovo proposed a “sunset clause” that called for compulsory power sharing in government and job security for agency bureaucrats for five years. Although the idea of a sunset clause within the context of the negotiations was first voiced publicly in Joe’s article, there is some disagreement about who initiated it. Kader Asmal gave credit to Thabo Mbeki, while George Bizos claimed that it was Mandela’s idea. Most believed, however, that it was the brainchild of Joe Slovo, the man Allister Sparks once referred to as “a sheep in wolf ’s clothing.”  Whether originator or not, Joe was the perfect person to promote the idea, and there was great irony in the fact that the head of the South African Communist Party, the KGB agent, the “Red Devil,” was the person proposing the compromise.  It must be noted, however, that it was imperative that Nelson Mandela give his consent.

In Danny Schechter’s new book, Madiba A to Z, he recalls Joe Slovo speaking with him in 1992 about Mandela and compromise.  Joe talked about counter-revolutionaries and the bloodbath in Chile and then said, 'They have all the arms, the police, and military structures in place; the ANC does not.'

Negotiations ebbed and flowed but eventually the efforts led to South Africa’s first democratic election on April 27, 1994.  It was in his cabinet appointments, at least in terms of Joe Slovo, that Nelson Mandela again showed his brilliance as a politician.  As the election approached, Joe was again suffering from his cancer, yet, he expected an appointment in Mandela’s cabinet.  Since the first government was one of national unity, there were to be cabinet ministers representative of the various political parties—not only those from the struggle. Joe had anticipated an appointment in the Justice Ministry, and many people were surprised when he was chosen Minister of Housing. His selection was foreshadowed in one of his 1992 interviews with Padraig O’Malley:

I don’t think within five years we’ll be able to solve the housing problem of South Africa, but I think people are very patient and very understanding in general and this is something I’ve been convinced about since coming back to the country. I think it’s a question of honesty and honest politics, and really getting down to trying to do something using the resources that are available in the best possible way. I think people will understand that, and they will accept that we’re not going to have a Utopia in 1995.

Although there has been political analysis of Joe’s appointment by Mandela as Minister of Housing as a devaluation of the left, what is evident is that Joe, unlike some of his fellow ministers, immediately engaged in his work. His first act was hiring a new Director General to be the housing expert in the Ministry. The man he hired, William Cobbett, had a different perception of the debates surrounding Joe’s appointment:

"It was either the smartest thing Mandela ever did or some less than generous thing of sidelining. The popular read was that it was a stroke of genius to put the most popular guy after Mandela more-or-less into what was agreed was a difficult challenge. The message I took was that they were taking housing seriously after all."

Although his cancer was progressing at a disturbing pace, Joe Slovo immersed himself into his work as Mandela’s Minister of Housing.  Relying on the expertise of Cobbett and others at the Ministry, he worked feverishly to introduce a bill in Parliament.  In truth, he understood that his days were numbered.  He was sick and frail when he attended the December meeting of the African National Congress.  By this time everyone, including Nelson Mandela, realized that Joe Slovo was close to death.  The key event at the Congress was the presentation to Joe of the ANC’s highest honor, the Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe Award. Acting on the decision of the National Executive Committee, Nelson Mandela presented the award, enumerating Joe Slovo’s multiple contributions to the struggle—mediating work in the ANC-SACP alliance, Umkhonto we Sizwe, strategy and tactics, and his work as Minister.  Madiba also elaborated on Joe as a model of non-racialism.  “I am not sure, Comrade Joe, if you ever thought of yourself as a white South African. In a country in which there is a racially oppressed majority, non-racism is not an outlook that can be simply taken for granted.”

Joe’s response to the presentation was brief: “As far as I’m concerned, what I did, I did without any regrets. I decided long ago in my life that there is only one target, and that target is to remove the racist regime and obtain power for the people.”

Nelson Mandela visited Joe just before his comrade died.  Two days later he told Helena, “When I visited Joe and he stood and embraced you, I think he was saying good-bye.”  Madiba also rushed to the Slovo home in the early morning hours after he was informed that Joe had died.  Schechter relays a story of the bond between the two men through an interview with Amina Cachalia.

He liked Joe a great deal.  I remember when Joe died.  He told me that morning when he phoned, saying, “You must go.  Joe has died.  Go now.  Take Yusuf and go to Joe’s house before the crowds of people come.  Go and spend some time with the family.  Will you go right now?” I remember saying to Yusuf then, “I don’t think Madiba realizes how much he is going to miss Joe.”

Of course, Nelson Mandela spoke at Joe Slovo’s funeral saying:

"Comrade Joe Slovo was one of those who taught us that individuals do not make history. Yet, in each generation there are a few individuals who are endowed with the acumen and personal bearing, which enable them to direct the course of events…. JS did not see himself as a white South African but as a South African. He was a full part of the democratic majority, acting together with them for a just and democratic order. Joe Slovo was among the few white workers who understood their class interest and sought common cause with their class brother and sisters irrespective of race…. We shall forever remember Slovo as one of the embodiments of the alliance between the ANC and the SACP. Joe knew that the interests of the working class in our country were intimately bound up with those of the rest of the oppressed majority in pursuit of democracy and a better life. He knew too that, for the working class to realize these interests, it had to play an active role in the liberation struggle and the liberation movement."

There is a photograph of Nelson Mandela speaking at the funeral in front of a larger than life banner of Joe Slovo.  The lives of Ruth First and Joe Slovo are important for the same reason that the world celebrates Madiba.  All three were humans, with strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly comrades, who gave their lives for the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and social justice throughout the world.  People do not fight imperialism alone – they work as cadres.  Nelson Mandela, Ruth First and Joe Slovo are representative of that struggle.

Alan Wieder is an oral historian who lives in Portland, Oregon.  Monthly Review Press in the United States and Jacana Media in South Africa published his latest book, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid, in July 2013.

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