Home truths

There is a still moment near the end of Gillian Slovo’s 1997 family memoir when, in the cold of 5am, just after her father has died, Nelson Mandela says exactly the right thing.

Slovo’s parents had been part of the fight against apartheid since the early 1950s. Joe Slovo was chief of staff of Umkhonto weSizwe until 1994, when he became housing minister.
Her mother, Ruth First, a tireless campaigner, was killed in 1982 by a letter-bomb. But Mandela, to whom Joe Slovo spoke his last words, did not talk grandly of the struggle; instead, he told Gillian Slovo and her two sisters about a day when he went to hug his own grown daughter, and she flinched, saying, “You are the father to all our people, but you have never had the time to be a father to me.’‘

This, writes Slovo, “was his greatest, perhaps his only regret: the fact that his children, and the children of his comrades, had been the ones to pay the price of their parents’ commitment’‘. You can sense her relief that someone other than herself has acknowledged what her parents did not. “And yet, and yet, what else could they have done?’‘

Every Secret Thing, her one volume of non-fiction, was an attempt to make sense of it all; her fiction — there are now 10 novels, with the just-published Ice Road (Little, Brown) by far the most ambitious — has increasingly pursued similar questions: What is the cost of trying to change the world, and who exactly pays it?

Slovo has lived in London since her family was exiled there in 1964. She lives with her partner Andy Metcalf and their 18-year-old daughter Cassie in a spacious flat in West Hampstead.

Slovo answers everything fully, calmly, with impressive emotional articulacy. And yet I have the same nagging feeling as I did when I closed Every Secret Thing — much has been revealed, difficult questions have been tackled, but there is still a central opacity. She cannot hide her wary detachment.

Her childhood was never entirely normal. In 1963 her father left South Africa to train recruits and was stranded. Then her mother was jailed, in solitary, for 117 days, after which she moved between safe houses. The girls — Shawn, the eldest, Gillian, “the responsible one’‘, and Robyn — were left with their grandmother.

Everything happened without warning, even the most basic arrangements, and she feels her parents drastically underestimated what children understand by osmosis; that their parents’ friends were being raided by the police, for example, and that the Slovos might be next, and “in some ways it’s much more scary to know and not know than to be told. What you imagine can be worse than what’s coming.’’ (What she did not imagine was what she discovered when researching Every Secret Thing — that her mother had also been absent because she had been having an affair, and that, later, her father had affairs, in retaliation, even that she had a brother she had not known about.)

England was as sudden a shock as everything else. She was astonished, on the way from the airport, to see a white woman kneeling to polish her front steps. At school, incomprehension was reciprocal; she had to explain that the first lion she ever saw was at London zoo, not in her back garden. She rushed to obliterate her South African accent and to belong, eventually going to Manchester University.

Slovo’s relationship with her mother was always tricky: she resented being left responsible so early, while First resented being made to feel guilty. But it is also clear how much she admires First, who was stylish and vivid, a journalist and an academic as well as an activist. “We grew up with the sound of the typewriter. And it told us that this was an ambition you could have, that your words could go out into the world. And that this was a perfectly good profession for a woman.’’

Shawn became a scriptwriter — an account of the family’s last year in South Africa, A World Apart, being one project — and Robyn a producer of films such as Morvern Callar.

The first books Slovo wrote were the kind she enjoyed — hard-boiled detective novels, with a 1970s feminist twist. She is uneasy about such assumptions, but it is a fact that the genre takes violence and controls it, makes sense of it, necessarily solves it.

Recently, she says — and, significantly, after her father’s death and the publication of Every Secret Thing — “I have become less focused on the tick of a plot and more interested in exploring character.’’

Red Dust, published in 2000, is essentially a thriller, but it is also an examination of the demands of political and personal loyalty and particularly of the intimacies of oppression. It is about the amnesty hearing of an apartheid torturer and his now-powerful black victim.

Slovo says that she set it in the Karoo, far from her native Johannesburg, so that people would not draw too many parallels with her own life. But it is hard not to. In 1998 she and her sisters attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hear the application for amnesty of Craig Williamson and Roger (aka Jerry) Raven, who killed her mother.

In a piece for The Guardian, she detailed the surreal proximities that the truth and reconciliation process demands: how fat and sleek Williamson was; how close he had to pass by her in the canteen; the smugness of his vintage silver Jaguar; the smooth amnesty-seeker’s act — “that is correct’‘, intoned at proper intervals.

Bitterly, she concludes, as she does in Red Dust, that while “the last thing spoken at the truth commission is the truth’‘, she can see it anyway, and that it is simple: “They are white supremacists whose motive for killing Ruth was hatred.’‘

Ice Road, a historical page-turner, is set in very different terrain, Leningrad in the early 1930s as the revolution is curdling.

“One of the questions that I started the book with,’’ says Slovo, “is: What do you do when you want to change the world for the better, and you seem to have achieved power, and then everything that you dreamed and hoped for becomes changed and tarnished and destroyed, but in the name of those ideals? How do people survive that? And what are the costs of that survival?’’

It’s a question that her parents never really got to wrestle with. Although her father tasted triumph and was hailed in the streets for his dedication, he died just nine months after the African National Congress took power.

“It’s quite interesting going back [to South Africa] every year,’’ she says. “In 1994 it was just wonderful — everybody was in such a good mood — they’d ‘won’. But a couple of years later I began to detect more depression — in the sense of a generalised realisation of how difficult it is to turn around a country that has such inequality endemic in it — and now I’m beginning to feel the optimism coming back again — it just takes a long time.’‘

She knows many of the current elite — “There is a real feeling of family about that era and about the ANC’’ — and although she tries not to presume on him too much, last summer Mandela came to London at her request to unveil a plaque on the Slovo house in Camden.

She may write one more South African novel — or not. “South Africa is changing too fast for someone who doesn’t live there to be able to write convincingly about it.’‘

And however upbeat she may seem to be now, there is still the conclusion she came to, facing her mother’s killers at the truth commission: “I don’t think I’ll ever feel quite the same about South Africa. I have looked too deeply into its malevolent heart. I have seen that its evil had a human face.’’ — Â

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