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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

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Joe Slovo the Revolutionary

Z Pallo Jordan, Minister of Post and Telecommunications, long-time friend, comrade and intellectual sparring partner of Joe Slovo, pays homage. This is a substantial extract from the tribute Jordan delivered on 13 January 1995 at St George's Cathedral, Cape Town.

The man whose passing has brought us together today was born sixty eight years ago as Yossel Mashel Slovo, in a village called Obelei in Lithuania. On 17 December 1994 he was given the accolade Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe by decision of the national executive committee of the ANC for distinguished service in the liberation movement. People from virtually every walk of life in this province have converged on this Cathedral because of the stature and esteem that comrade Joe Slovo earned.

He earned it, in the first instance, as a militant of the national liberation movement. He earned it as a Communist. He earned it as a founding member and as a leading officer of Umkhonto weSizwe. He earned it also as a Minister in South Africa's first democratic government.

Since that fateful day when comrade Joe Slovo passed from this existence, we have heard, read and seen a lot about Joe Slovo the Minister of Housing. We have also been told and have seen innumerable, and not undeserved, tributes to the role comrade Joe Slovo played in the negotiations process. What has unfortunately been lost is the Joe Slovo known to millions of our people. What seems to be misplaced is the Joe Slovo so dearly loved and admired by the members and supporters of the democratic movement - the Joe Slovo known to his comrades in the national liberation movement.

Today, I want to recall Joe Slovo the revolutionary, because that is the true meaning of his adult life.

Comrade Joe Slovo made South Africa his home after arriving on these shores as a boy of eight. He was among a wave of immigrants from Lithuania, Latvia and other Baltic states, many of whom were to play a very significant role in the labour and national liberation movements, especially its Communist component.

As a militant democrat and as a Communist, Joe Slovo threw himself body and soul into the national liberation movement from an early age, joining the then Communist Party of South Africa at the age of 15. He committed himself fully to the struggles of the people in his chosen home, South Africa, becoming an ardent patriot in the true sense of that word, meaning a love for one's country and all its people, not merely a blind support of the government in power.

As an internationalist his commitment extended also to the other countries of our continent, especially those of the southern African region, where he lived and worked over many years. He was deeply involved with the struggle for liberation in Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia. He counted amongst his personal friends virtually all the leading figures in the liberation movements of these countries.

After the banning of the Communist Party and the illegalisation of advocacy of Marxism in 1950, Joe Slovo was among the group that reconstituted the Communist Party as the underground SACP in 1953. Because of his undoubted talent, he rose quickly into its leading bodies, and retained that status until the end of his life. Despite the terrible disappointments, reverses and broken promises associated with the name of socialism, especially after 1950, Joe never wavered in his commitment to socialism as both an honourable cause and a realisable goal. This was a commitment rooted, in the first instance, in the South African experience, where there was not even the pretence that the elusive promises of capitalism would be delivered to the majority of the people.

In a world in which people, especially those involved in liberation politics, were compelled to choose sides, many found it very difficult to publicly voice their misgivings about the flaws of existing socialism. On both sides of that great divide, at the height of the Cold War, there was little room to accommodate critical supporters.

Comrade Joe preferred to maintain a public silence about his doubts, questions and very far-reaching criticisms of all the socialist countries. He confided these to his friends and colleagues, but I do not recall him once expressing these publicly. Though I have been one of his sternest critics for such lapses, I can, however, appreciate his motives.

One needs to contemplate the sharply contrasting roles played by the socialist countries, flawed as they were, in the liberation of southern Africa, and the leading powers in the West. The successes scored by the movements and parties that today govern Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa owe very little to the governments of London, Washington, Bonn and Paris. No one, even their most fanatical opponents, can deny that it was the socialist countries -the Soviet Union, the former GDR, the Socialist Republic of Cuba, the People's Republic of China, and other countries of the socialist bloc - that aided and assisted us during the darkest hours.

Though he held very firm views on a whole range of issues, Joe was never dogmatic, let alone rigid. He had a great capacity for concrete analysis, employing Marxist learning to dissect and comprehend living reality. He repeatedly emphasised that there was no strategy that could hold good for all time, and that tactics necessarily had to be adapted and readapted to suit changing political and social circumstances.

It was, consequently, both as a strategist and as a practical man of action that comrade Joe Slovo distinguished himself in the ranks of the ANC and SACP leadership, especially during the years of exile. He was instrumental in the slow rebuilding of the movement's underground after the reverses that followed the Rivonia arrests. The document, "ANC Programme, Strategy and Tactics", adopted at Morogoro in 1969, bears the indelible imprint of his ideas. As one of the commanders of the Special Operations Unit of Umkhonto weSizwe, he was responsible for planning some of the more spectacular attacks launched inside South Africa between 1978 and 1982. During the 1980s, he was among the small group of comrades active in drafting the so-called "Green Book", which served as the central strategic document for our movement before the Kabwe Conference of 1985. At Kabwe itself and afterwards he served on the Strategy and Tactics commission of the ANC, which I convened until 1989.

During the 1970s, both inside and outside the SACP, Joe's writings were critical interventions at key moments in the struggle. In 1977 he published an outstanding essay, titled "No Middle Road", which we later learnt was the virtual bible of activists in the mass democratic movement and the underground during the late 70s and 80s. The significance of that piece of writing has unfortunately not been fully appreciated, either by South African Communists or by most of their critics on the left. For decades the South African left has wrestled unsuccessfully with the articulation between capitalist and pre-capitalist modes of production within the borders of one country. This debate oscillated between a sterile formalism, that insisted that South Africa was a capitalism like any other, and a left-leaning populism, that suppressed the class dimension of the struggle. "No Middle Road" for the first time solved this conundrum by laying bare the contradictory unity between capitalist productive relations and racial oppression, thus offering a dialectical exposition of colonialism of a special type. It was "No Middle Road", too, that offered a coherent explanation for the liberation movement's designation of the black working class as the leading force in our revolution.

With the coming of glasnost, it was once again Slovo's incisive intellect that initiated the SACP's re-appraisal, limited and incomplete though it was, of its past and of the socialism it has upheld. His pamphlet, "Has Socialism Failed?", remains unique among. South African Marxist writings for the wide ranging debate it provoked. Though there were sharp exchanges, acrimonious and sometimes heated arguments about the pamphlet, Joe never allowed these to degenerate into personal animosities. He always showed himself willing to engage his critics, both at home and abroad.

Because of his immense talent, Joe Slovo was chosen by the NEC of the ANC to assist our late comrade President OR Tambo in supervising and directing Operation Vulincllela, whose purpose was to begin the transfer of the external leadership of the movement inside the country.

It was these qualities that made Joe such a formidable opponent of the apartheid regime.

To those whose memories have faded, it seems incomprehensible that the lovable man, who became our first Minister of Housing, was not too long ago the prime target of virtually every dirty tricks specialist and assassination squad leader in the employ of the apartheid government. Those who worked under comrade Slovo's command have not been quite that forgetful.

Joe earned the ire of the apartheid government, its propagandists and its supporters for precisely the same reasons as he was loved and admired by the oppressed and exploited. Second to Oliver Tambo, he was probably the best loved leader of the ANC, both inside and outside South Africa. In the camps of Umkhonto weSizwe he was a living legend, whose name was invoked in marching songs and the chants that accompanied the toyi-toyi. The enemy made him the target of every conceivable form of character assassination, including the absurd smear that he was a colonel in the KGB! Plot after nefarious plot was hatched to murder him, and when these failed the enemy struck down his wife, comrade Ruth First.

Many a foreign friend has marvelled at the generosity of spirit of the oppressed majority, who, despite decades of degradation have not yielded to the temptation of becoming anti-white. That generosity of spirit owes much to the sterling example of people like Joe Slovo, and many other white comrades, most of them communists, who gave every fibre of their being to the struggle for freedom.

As a government minister Joe brought to bear the virtues of hard work, discipline and level-headedness that had served him so well in the national liberation movement.

He did not shirk at taking tough decisions when he had to, but he was always very sensitive to the real needs of the most deprived. One journalist recently remarked that, in the past seven months, Slovo did more for housing than had been done in the four decades since the end of the Second World War. That is a measure of Joe Slovo and his achievements, but it is also a damning indictment of all those who have preceded him.

I have no doubt that the life and work of this remarkable man, who came to this country as a poor immigrant, will continue to inspire revolutionaries on our sub-continent and in our country for decades to come. When, one day, a definitive history of the Communist movement in SA is written, there will be a number of outstanding men and women whose names will be recorded as having played a decisive role in shaping that movement. I am certain that Joe's name will feature very prominently in that list. He will feature on that list because he embraced and lived by Marx's eleventh thesis on Feuerbach : "Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in different ways; the point however is to change it."

Comrade Joe Slovo lived, worked, and fought for change. I consider it an honour to have known and worked with him and to have been counted among his friends.

Hamba kahle Comrade Joe Slovo. Lala ngoxolo qhawe lamaqhawe.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.