By Norm Dixon
Joe Slovo, national chairperson of the South African Communist Party and the country's most popular leader after President Nelson Mandela, was given a hero's send-off in Soweto on January 15. Slovo, born on May 25, 1926, succumbed to cancer on January 6.
Nelson Mandela led 120,000 mourners in paying tribute to Slovo's great contribution to the struggle to end apartheid and win democracy: "We are assembled to mourn the passing of a leader, a patriot, a father, a fighter, a negotiator, an internationalist, a theoretician and an organiser. Indeed, it is the combination of all these qualities so splendidly in one individual, which made Comrade Joe Slovo the great African revolutionary that he was ...
"When future generations look back on the 1994 breakthrough, they will be justified in saying: Uncle Joe was central in making it happen. When the working people start enjoying, as a right, a roof over their heads, affordable medical care, quality education and a rising standard of living, they will be right to say, Comrade Joe was a chief architect who helped lay the foundation for a better life ...
"Comrade Joe Slovo lived the life not merely of a theoretician, confined to the boardroom and library. He was at all stages of struggle there at the forefront, generating ideas, and there too, in their implementation."
When he was eight years old, Yossel Mashel Slovo arrived in South Africa from Lithuania, fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms. He grew up at a time of swirling debates in the Jewish community. The overcrowded Doornfontein boarding house where his impoverished family lived was the scene of many lively debates over the growth of Nazism, anti-Semitism and how to combat it, Marxism, Zionism and what stand should to take towards the institutionalised racism against the black majority.
He was forced to leave school early in 1941. He went to work, joining the National Union of Distributive Workers. As a shop steward, he was involved in organising a strike. He joined the SACP in 1942, aged 16. Slovo said later that he made this decision after concluding that Marxism and Zionism were incompatible and, anyway, the struggle for justice in South Africa was his priority.
"Joe Slovo was among the few white workers who understood their class interest and sought common cause with their class brothers and sisters irrespective of race", Mandela said in his funeral oration. "The young Joe could have chosen a lucrative life, after returning from service in the Second World War, and acquiring the opportunities accorded white veterans."
Between 1946 and 1950, Slovo studied law at Wits University and was active in politics. There he met the young Africanists of the ANC Youth League, led by Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. These leaders were deeply anticommunist but had been inspired by the massive 1946 black miners' strike led by Communist Party leader J.B. Marks. "We would debate many issues well into the wee hours of the morning. His sharp intellect and incisive mind were apparent then", Mandela told the mourners, describing Slovo's role in winning the Youth Leaguers over to cooperation with the SACP and convincing them of the key role of the working class in the struggle.
After graduating, Slovo set up practice as a defence lawyer in political trials and became legal adviser to the ANC. Slovo and Ruth First, married in 1949, were listed as communists under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1954 and could not be quoted or attend public gatherings. Slovo was a founder member of the Congress of Democrats and represented it on the national consultative committee of the Congress Alliance, which drew up the 1955 Freedom Charter. In 1956 he was charged in the marathon treason trial, although the charges were later dropped.
Slovo was instrumental in the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the army built jointly by the ANC and SACP. For 30 years, operating from exile in London, Zambia, Mozambique and Angola, Slovo was one of MK's leading strategists. He rose to MK chief of staff, the position from which he resigned in 1987 to concentrate on building the SACP. In 1986, he was elected SACP general secretary and in 1991, aware that he had contracted cancer and making way for new general secretary Chris Hani, he became national chairperson.
Recognition by the racist regime of Slovo's dedication to socialism and the anti-apartheid cause came in the most tragic and brutal form. Slovo himself survived many assassination plots. In 1982 agents of the apartheid regime killed Ruth First with a parcel bomb in Maputo.
Slovo was a leading theoretician in both the party and the ANC, a former editor of the African Communist. In 1976, he wrote the essay "No Middle Road", which remains the best outline of the link between the struggle against racial oppression and the struggle for socialism.
Still portrayed as a Stalinist by the world's press, Slovo penned the highly influential Has Socialism Failed? pamphlet in 1989. This was arguably the best critique of Stalinism to come out of any of the Communist parties of the Moscow tradition.
In 1992 the ANC adopted the main thrust of a document in which Slovo put the case for constitutional "sunset clauses" to break the logjam that had developed in negotiations with the government. This compromise led directly to the formation of the Government of National Unity after the elections, guaranteeing that members of the old regime would be present in the cabinet until the next elections in 1999.
After the April 1994 election, Slovo became housing minister. The ANC's Reconstruction and Development Program pledged the GNU to build 1 million homes over the next five years. Prior to his death, reservations were beginning to be expressed at the conservative nature of the ANC's housing policy, which relied on convincing big financial institutions to lend money to the impoverished rather than on government-directed house building funded by taxes on the wealthy.
Slovo's left critics warned that support by the SACP for such ineffective policies would result in the party being rapidly discredited in the eyes of South Africa's most deprived.
Slovo was well aware of such dangers. Piecemeal measures were not enough. Addressing the 1991 SACP congress, he acknowledged that the end of political apartheid was a historic step, but "the wretched of the earth make up over 90% of humanity. They live in either capitalist or capitalist-orientated societies. For them, if socialism is not the answer, there is no answer at all."