Fighters against apartheid

Issue: 141

Leo Zeilig

Alan Wieder, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Jacana Media, 2013), £20

Joe Slovo and Ruth First were South Africans who spent their lives (and in Ruth’s case gave her life) in the struggle against apartheid. They were also members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) for most of their adult lives. They married in the late 1940s and despite a stormy relationship remained together until Ruth First was murdered in Mozambique’s capital Maputo in 1982. Their lives are worthy of celebration (and study) and Alan Wieder has written the first thorough account of their lives. The book details the struggle in South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and their life in exile in Britain, and across sub-Saharan Africa. Wieder presents the politics of this revolutionary couple with the sympathetic though critical attention they deserve.

Both Joe and Ruth were exceptional activists. Ruth grew up in a privileged household in Johannesburg with left wing parents. Radicalised by the famous miners’ strikes in 1946, she wrote afterwards:

When the African miners’ strike…broke out…a great squad of volunteers of all colours helped them set up strike HQ in the most unlikely places, and from lodging rooms like the one I shared with a girlfriend, the handles of duplicating machines were turned through the night, while in the early hours before dawn white volunteers drove cars to the vicinity of the mine compounds and African organisers, hiding in their city suits their bundles of strike leaflets under colourful tribal blankets, wormed their way into the compounds.

When the strike was over she gave up her civil service job and became a journalist.

If First was only remembered for her journalism she would still be a remarkable figure. She wrote for papers such as Fighting Talk and The Guardian, writing as both a polemicist for the leading national liberation organisation, the African National Congress (ANC), and the SACP but also as a pioneering investigative journalist exposing the crimes of apartheid. Ruth’s journalism exposed slave labour in the 1950s which involved black South Africans, obliged to carry passbooks, arrested for “pass” offences and then forced to work out their sentences on white-owned farms. For more than 15 years she wrote about the poverty and desperation of black South Africans, but also their campaigns and protests.

Joe and Ruth lived for the struggle, frequently risking their lives. When the ANC called a general strike to protest at the killing of 18 people by the police in 1950, Ruth covered the event in Alexandra township (a huge shantytown in the north of Johannesburg). When the police charged the protesters Joe remembered: “Ruth rushed to the centre with her camera, faced the police and stood squarely taking photos of them charging towards her” (p78).

At the same time Joe became a lawyer, spending most of his time defending black South Africans charged with political crimes. He also became a leading member of the SACP, serving on its Central Committee (with Ruth), and later becoming both chairman and general secretary of the party. There can be little question that the SACP played an important role, with the ANC, in galvanising and leading resistance to apartheid in the 1950s, counting many of the country’s most committed and brave fighters as members.
But the party slavishly followed the Soviet Union, bending and twisting its tactics and policies to the wishes of Moscow (where Joe held meetings of the SACP in the 1970s and 1980s). Though the couple differed on the USSR, with Ruth arguing against the party line throughout her life, they were both loyal to the organisation. Towards the end of his life Joe regretted his unquestioning loyalty: “I was a blind defender. I’m deeply ashamed of it now. I feel very angry that I was taken in by what I now consider to be anti-socialist conduct in the name of socialism. You can’t have a cult without worshippers and I was a worshipper” (p57). Both Joe and Ruth were deeply shaped by Stalinised Marxism. Wieder’s exceptionally powerful and moving book describes how the couple were divided by events in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, but also shows how they remained party stalwarts.

When Ruth followed her husband into exile in the UK in 1964 after a spell in prison, she wrote a number of extraordinary books including Libya: The Elusive Revolution, denouncing Gaddafi’s so-called Green Revolution when much of the left saw the new regime in Tripoli as an advance for socialism. Many of her books were an attempt to unpick the “failures” of African independence and the regimes that had come to power in the late 1950s and 1960s. Decolonisation, she wrote in 1970, was exposed to be a “bargaining process with cooperative African elites… The former colonial government guarded its options and…the careerist heirs to independence preoccupied themselves with the ‘Africanisation’ of the administration.”

With Joe she hoped that independence in southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s would buck the trend. These were anti-colonial struggles led by “critical” national liberation movements committed to far-reaching socialist change. It was to Mozambique, shortly after independence, that Ruth moved to work at the Centre of African Studies advising and assisting Frelimo, the ruling party.

Yet her writing and life were continuously strained by an ambiguity on the question of whether the revolutionary movement was led from below by the working class and poor (who had inspired her early activism) or “progressive” parties and national liberation movements promising to transform society from above. Sometimes she seemed to point to one of these approaches, then another, and occasionally both at the same time.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed so too did the ideological moorings for a generation. There is a strong sense in Wieder’s book of Joe searching for political alternatives in the early 1990s as the ANC/SACP negotiated with the apartheid state. After a visit to China he returned enamoured of “progressive changes in the Chinese economy” (p329). Joe became one of the most important architects of the new South Africa that emerged in 1994—today that is a decidedly mixed legacy and one clearly marked by his political trajectory in the SACP. Joe did not seriously challenge globalisation; indeed he saw in China the possibility of “adapting” to the market. As Wieder writes, “Joe took much too long to admit the toxic nature of Stalinism as well as the bureaucratic, oppressive reality of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes” (p356).

There is little doubt in Wieder’s book that had Ruth First not been killed by a letter bomb sent by the South African secret service in 1982 she would have become a trenchant critic of the new South Africa. She would have been disgusted at the legacy of apartheid in the poverty, shantytowns, and mass unemployment that have continued effortlessly (and devastatingly) into the new century.

Wieder’s book is a triumph, describing his subjects with compassion and criticism. The book will help, as he concludes, to “remind generations across the board, old and young, of the possibilities when courageous and brave individuals join together to fight oppression” (p356).