Humour, an alert mind, sociability and a shrewd sense of timing. These were some of Joe Slovo’s unique personal qualities, writes Jeremy Cronin
JOE SLOVO, a young and impoverished immigrant from Lithuania, joined the Communist Party of South Africa at the age of 16. For the next 52 years he was to remain a dedicated militant in the party and the ANC.
In these five decades he was an active participant in many of the key moments of our struggle: the mineworkers’ strike of 1946, the wave of mass mobilisation through the 1950s, the turn to armed struggle in 1961, the testing and increasingly dangerous years of exile, the dramatic global changes of 1989 to 1991, the opening up of negotiations in South Africa in 1990, and the ANC election victory and entry into government.
Through all of these events Slovo played a leading, and often a central role. He brought to his activism a number of unique personal qualities which are, perhaps, epitomised by one of his social talents. It is a talent that a broader South African public has only been able to appreciate in the past few years. But it was a talent that went back in time. Ronnie Kasrils recalls Slovo going toe to toe with a London docker in a joke-telling contest in the early 1970s. The docker opened up with one about an Irishman. Slovo replied in kind. And so they went, matching each other, joke for joke, genre for genre, for three hours in a dock- side pub.
Joke-telling calls for an alert mind, sociability and a shrewd sense of timing. Slovo had all three.
“How is it going?” I asked after his first few weeks in his new ministry.
“No fine. I convened all my staff and I said to them: ‘Here I am, the lousy commie bastard you’ve all heard about.’ That broke the ice.”
Over the past two and a half years in ANC national executive committee meetings the phrase “belling the cat” started to be overworn with use. There was a time when every fourth NEC member was declaring: “Comrades, we must bell the cat.”
It was Slovo who began the fashion when, invoking the somewhat arcane phrase, he developed the “sunset clause” and government of national unity proposal. It became, as we know, the basis for the present settlement. “We cannot conduct ourselves at the negotiations as if we had defeated our opponents outside these negotiations,” he argued in 1992.
He endured much invective from within the alliance, not least from many of his own South African Communist Party members for this stand. “From No Middle Road to the middle road,”, wrote a close friend and leading left London academic, referring polemically to an earlier book by Slovo, published by Penguin in the 1970s.
But Slovo stood his ground on the GNU proposal. He belled that cat by locating a necessary tactical and theoretical shift within a broader strategic perspective.
Principled pragmatism — that was always his strength, welding together intellectual rigour, moral purpose, timing and context.
In 1989 he produced a ringing critique of state bureaucratic “socialism” in his pamphlet Has socialism failed?. He did this months before the Berlin Wall went down, and a year and a half before the Soviet Union fell apart.
Those who specialise in retrospective far-sightedness will shrug their shoulders. But in the middle of 1989, if there were signs of crisis in the East, no experts, left or right, predicted such an imminent and dramatic collapse. Slovo’s pamphlet was not a sudden opportunism. He wrote it as a “personal input” but, as everyone knew, he happened at the time to be the general secretary of the SACP.
He had joined the Communist Party 47 years earlier, and now he assumed responsibility for the growing crisis as a communist. He refused the Boris Yeltsin option (“Communism? Never heard of it.”); and, while welcoming Mikhael Gorbachev’s original calls for glasnost, he grew increasingly critical of what he saw as an untheorised, unprincipled and boundless retreat.
The pamphlet was translated into Spanish and studied in Salvadorean guerrilla camps. It also found its way into academic seminars on at least one Canadian campus. In Zimbabwe, its critique of one-party systems had an important reverberation at the time. In content it was not necessarily an entirely unprecedented contribution to the topic, but it was absolutely timely and, above all, it carried the authority of its author.
Once again, the timing was there; so was Slovo’s abiding concern to provide leadership by thinking through strategic and theoretical implications in a shifting political context.
He had done this earlier for the armed struggle. Then, too, timing was a central concern: “In 1961 history left us with no option but to engage in armed action as a necessary part of the political struggle,” he was to write some time afterwards. “It was a moment in which … untimely inaction would have been worse than untimely action.”
He played a critical strategic role for the post-1976 situation, helping a largely exiled organisation to position itself effectively in terms of the internal waves of semi-insurrectionary struggles.
He also played a seminal strategic role in the 1980s, winning the new trade union movement over to the broad ANC. “A failure to understand the class content of the national struggle and the national content of the class struggle in existing conditions can hold back the advance of both the democratic and socialist transformations which we seek,” he wrote, taking, in a typically dialectical fashion, a swipe at “workerists” and “populists” alike.
For those close to him, family and colleagues, he was warm and caring. But he could also be maddeningly absorbed in his current obsession, whatever it happened to be — MK special ops, or the party underground, or negotiations, or housing.
In its lack of dogmatism, in its intellectual curiosity and culture, Slovo’s socialism belonged to traditions that go back beyond those of the 20th century, to Marx himself, and to earlier traditions of humanism and enlightenment. But he also owed a lot intellectually, morally and in terms of political savvy, as he constantly repeated, to several generations of outstanding African leaders: JB Marks, Kotane, Duma Nokwe, Tambo, Walter Sisulu and, especially in the last years, Nelson Mandela himself.
In the past days I have been serving on a Slovo funeral media subcommittee. One of our tasks has been to come up with apt and pithy slogans for the occasion. It is not easy to catch a life as full as Slovo’s in a single line. Our best effort we had to reject because of its inability to work cross-culturally in our South African context. It read simply:
JOE SLOVO, 1926-1995. MENSCH.
Jeremy Cronin is a central committee member of the SACP