About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

He was shaped by history, people, and his family

Helena Dolny, Joe Slovo's widow, speaking on behalf of the family, delivered these simple, profound and incredibly moving words at the graveside

As a family, we have listened to many people, in this past week singing Joe's praises, what a great man he was. Clearly Joe has contributed to the history of this country, but there also needs to be recognition of how much this country and his wider international exposure contributed to the making of Joe.

He was shaped by history, by people, and by his family.

At the historical level he was born at a most opportune time. He listened to immigrants debate the Russian revolution, he experienced the anti-fascist war, the whole notion of apartheid was anathema to him from his earliest working experience. The obituary you have in front of you not only describes what part he has played, but also illustrates the opportunities open to him that he learnt from. People have mentioned his astute ability in negotiations as a tactician, while not compromising onprinciples - I think this is one lesson he took most sharply from Mozambique's Nkomati Accord, which he saw as not only detrimental to the ANC but to the Mozambican nation as a whole.

At a personal level, his politics were shaped, not only by Marx, Lenin and the Vietnamese military strategists, but also by South Africa's greats - Yusuf Dadoo, Oliver Tambo, Madiba and Walter. His tendencies towards being a hack were kept in check by Ruth, his first wife, his intellectual challenge, and reinforced especially by Harold Wolpe and Patio Jordan. His personal circle offered him a wide range of international debate.

As a family, of women, we would also like to think that Joe became one of the more sensitive of our leadership on gender issues. This should have been the result of his continuously being given a hard time at home, where there was unrelenting tension that being a socialist did not just mean representing a certain line in debates, but demanded a certain code of practice at the personal level.

People have spoken of the sacrifices that Joe made. There is no doubt that there were rough periods. But a sense of sacrifice did not dominate Joe's life. He acknowledged that he got so much from the struggle. He enjoyed an enormous sense of achievement, of fulfilment, and savoured his good fortune at having had such a life, especially since his return from exile. Whilst he contributed to history, history also shaped him and offered him amazing opportunities which he never took for granted.

Joe at a personal family level

A few words about Joe and family. At a family level, Joe also had a sense of good fortune. We, his family, loved him and he felt this deeply. He also showed his love, sometimes gently, sometimes joyfully, sometimes passionately. He occasionally referred to other comrades lives that were fraught with personal difficulty. He counted his lucky stars that his was otherwise, even though he found the demands we made on him occasionally created tensions.

As a family, while we may be able to list what my husband, what my father, stepfather failed to do because he was too busy - we can also identify important invaluable gifts that he gave us.

He taught us a sense of perspective and priority, as he struggled for what he could change and accepted what could not be changed.

He taught us the importance of incorruptibility as part of the essence of self-respect. While appreciating opportunities to enjoy the good life - he refused to use his position to get himself, or us, anything that wasn't his due.

There is one extra special gift which he passed on to all of us - and that is selfconfidence, a sense of strength and identity. His strength and persona did not overwhelm us in our lives, but rather enriched the persons that we have become.

Joe as part of a wider family

I would also like to speak of Joe as part of a wider family. He enjoyed longstanding, loyal friendships with a wide range of people within and beyond his political circle.

I have tried to think why he was so endearing to so many people - a quality often referred to, and I have chosen three points.

Firstly, he never got too big for his boots, but would respectfully engage in discussion with whomever he met on a journey, on a visit, in the camps, in ANC houses, or with whomever he might find a home.

Secondly, he was endearingly messy and relaxed. People related easily to things he enjoyed in life, at an everyday level, the peanuts, whisky, cigars, red socks, wine, women and song.

Thirdly, while people have mentioned his humour over and over again - what was so very special was his ability to tell stories against himself, and laugh at himself.

Us as part of a wider family - thank you

Finally, we would like to talk of ourselves as part of a wider family. This week we have also listened to people thanking us for putting up with the deprivation we must have experienced because of Joe's role in politics. But again, what we have also realised is that Joe's involvement meant that we are also part of a very large and generous family - both at the political and personal level. People have been wonderful for us, not only this week, but for a long time. We have felt tremendously supported, and we are left with the deepest warmest feeling in our hearts.

We, as family, stand here together, to say to all of you, people of South Africa, thank you.

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.