Shedding light on apartheid's dark history

Issue 

Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country
By Gillian Slovo
Little, Brown & Company, 1997
282 pp., $35 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Gillian Slovo, born the daughter of Communist parents Ruth First and Joe Slovo in 1952 in South Africa, always felt cut off from the secret world of her parents' underground politics and, as she relates in her memoir, the secrets of their private lives.

Gillian Slovo went on to become a novelist in England, the author of political thrillers and detective novels. In Every Secret Thing she turns her literary detective arts to her parents: Ruth, who was assassinated by a letter bomb in Mozambique in 1982 by the apartheid state and Joe, who headed the South African Communist Party and the ANC's armed propaganda wing MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe) before becoming the first minister for housing in post-apartheid South Africa for a short period before dying of bone-marrow cancer.

Slovo's memoir shows us a different Ruth to the "cardboard heroine" and "idealised martyr" of public coin. Ruth was a "feisty, competitive, brilliant, difficult woman", a heretical party member who "hated dogma and empty displays of revolutionary fervour", and a woman who could combine red revolution with her love of "soft smells and expensive attire". Ruth's hairdresser and dressmaker were her haunts as much as the political theory of Marx and Lenin.

To his daughter, Joe was the exuberant bon vivant as much as the orthodox communist. He was a revolutionary with the divided soul of "the lawyer and adventurer", the "pragmatic politician and dreamer".

Ruth and Joe's 32-year marriage was full of "passion and conflict". They argued about money, about why Joe's "only contribution to the household's domestic labour was to make the salad dressing" and why Ruth was left to tend their three daughters whilst Joe was often called away to Moscow. They argued above all about politics, Ruth's heterodox views clashing, sometimes savagely, with Joe's classic mix of Stalinist orthodoxy and realpolitik.

Also a source of conflict, which Slovo hunts for with the single-minded fervour of a hog rooting for truffles, were Joe and Ruth's extramarital affairs — Ruth's four-year affair with an architect and Joe's affair, which produced a son. Gillian also turns up an old secret affair of her communist grandmother with a "Trotskyist".

These affairs of the heart and loins are indeed news, but as one of her parents' old comrades says, "The question of who slept with who or why — these are not the really important things of life". Slovo's focus on these affairs becomes a bit obsessive, a bit of afternoon soap — as does her somewhat gushing, melodramatic treatment of her relationship with her parents, her desire to be noticed for herself and not for what her prominent parents were, to resolve the "unfinished business" between her and Ruth, and her demand that Joe value his daughter as much as he valued South Africa.

Key signposts of the anti-apartheid struggle — the massacres of Sharpeville and Soweto, the role of armed struggle, the negotiations and compromises on the transition to parliamentary democracy in South Africa, the role of the Communist Party — are all tantalisingly sketched but are often little more than side dishes.

On the interaction of the political and the personal, however, Gillian Slovo is at her best. Contradictions abounded in the white, middle-class Slovo family with its three girls, "privileged white South African children, serviced by servants, attending whites-only schools while our parents were plotting to overthrow the state".

Ruth's 117 days solitary imprisonment without trial under the infamous 90-day detention law reveals the courage and dilemmas faced by activists caught in the net of state repression.

Slovo's tracking down of a Security Branch spy in the ANC who was involved in Ruth's murder has real depth — she finds in the state assassin only "displaced responsibility and empty justifications", with no trace of "regret, repentance, conscience".

For almost 50 years, the apartheid state bred secrecy — the shadowy "security" agencies and the underground opposition. The unrepentant killer of Slovo's mother had yet to confront his past. Gillian Slovo's memoir sheds some light on some of the dark recesses of South African history and opens up some of the surprising personal secrets of its human agents.