Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography
By Joe Slovo. Foreword by Nelson Mandela
Melbourne: Ocean Press, 1997. 296 pp., $29.95
Review by Norm Dixon
The subtitle of this book is an understatement. As autobiography, it is little more than a collection of memoirs that ends abruptly in 1960. For Joe Slovo's next 35 years of tumultuous struggle, experience and insight, we will have to wait for other biographers.
The reader wanting to find out what really happened inside the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress, the nitty-gritty of the inner-party struggles and debates and the views on the contentious issues of the world Communist movement by one of its more important and well-known leaders, may find Slovo disappointing and frustrating.
Yet Slovo's views are not hard to track down if that's what you want. He wrote many of the SACP's major documents over the years and many of the articles in the SACP journal, the African Communist. The SACP played an important role in the eventual overturning of apartheid, and Slovo made an enormous contribution.
It is frustrating that Slovo — a trade union activist, a leading defence lawyer, a commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe and a general secretary of the SACP — did not sit down and write detailed memoirs of his long life of struggle, and when he did, he did not begin until after he was diagnosed with bone cancer, leaving him little time to complete the task.
The fragments of Slovo's remarkable life that do make it into print, however, provide an inspiring and entertaining insight into the life of a dedicated and courageous fighter for justice, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people like him who fought for change in South Africa.
Slovo and Ruth First, his companion who was murdered by the apartheid regime, fought the good fight because it had to be done and somebody had to do it. Slovo disproves the caricatures that reds are ascetic wowsers, mad fanatics or stern authoritarians.
Slovo and his companions, whom he describes warts and all, were "ordinary Joes" who became extraordinary through commitment and dedication. They literally helped change the world.
Slovo's memories are laced with humour. They are told with the tone and wry smile of the experienced after-dinner speaker. The ragged band of ANC and SACP fighters are just ordinary human beings with foibles, insecurities, fears and problems thrown together in the heat of struggle. They transcend them through commitment, dedication, solidarity and the courage of their convictions.
Slovo has given us a book that, while it may disappoint the scholars and the critics, confounds and stymies the armchair radicals, the faint-hearted and the self-indulgent, navel-gazing Cassandras who moan about the "sacrifices" and the "price to be paid" of long-term involvement in radical politics. He does not for a moment regret the path that he chose when he joined the SACP in 1942. Far from being a sacrifice, politics gave purpose and richness to his life.
While we can't all be Joe Slovos or Ruth Firsts, we can all play our small part in a movement, shake the world and have fun while doing it. That is Slovo's message. A must for your bookshelf.