The Barrel of the Apartheid Gun

Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid [1] (Monthly Review Press; July 1, 2013)

Joe Slovo and Ruth First. We are entering their paths.

Both grew up unbelievers in Jewish or any religious faith. They met when Ruth was at the University of the Witwatersrand, Joe just returned from the South African Army in the war against Nazi Germany. His motivation for volunteering, eighteen years old, unemployed, lying about being underage for military call-up—his early alliance with communism, and so to the Soviet Union under attack—was decisive in the act. But there remained the devastating racial dilemma in South Africa. He wrote: “How do you tell a black man to make his peace with General Smuts—butcher of Bulhoek and the Bondelswarts? ‘Save civilization and democracy—must have sounded a cruel parody. And ?ght with what? No black man was allowed to bear arms…if you want to serve democracy, wield a knobkerrie [wooden club] as a uniformed servant of a white soldier.”

One is reading not of self-perceived martyrs but individuals greedy for life even while giving up so much personal ful?llment for a way of intense certain risk. A level of involvement, the process in making a life, living, hardly to be imagined.

Joe Slovo’s appetite for the pleasures of life is brought face-to-face with his political humanitarian drive when at the end of the war he took a holiday. From Turin to Cairo he went, and with other decommissioned soldiers somehow got to Palestine although travel was restricted because of Zionist resistance to British occupation; on to a kibbutz where “looked at in isolation, the kibbutz seemed to be the very epitome of socialist lifestyle… it was populated in the main by young people with the passion and belief that by the mere exercise of will and humanism you could build socialism as one factory or one kibbutz and the power of example will sweep the imagination of all… worker or capitalist.”

During Joe’s absence from South Africa, membership in the Communist Party (CP) had grown fourfold in the period 1941–43 with correspondingly the greatest call for action of the African National Congress (ANC). Joe and Ruth were both prominent in protests of the CP and ANC against racist laws; two events among others—squatters’ rights in townships outside Johannesburg and Defense of the Basotho Peasants Organization in Basutoland. Joe wrote that they became lovers in Basutoland. But he dated his “life with Ruth” as having “started off with political tension.” It’s not clear whether he is recollecting Students’ Representative Council meetings, the other student organization, Federation of Progressive Students (FOPS), or the Ismail Meer ?at where his initial response to Ruth and her friends was “sort of a little feeling of insecurity…these Smart Alecks could formulate speech and so on…were just too big for their boots…so my life with Ruth started off with quite a degree of political tension based on this nonsense.” We echo in our own minds their friend describing the differing qualities of Joe and Ruth—“She didn’t have a rapport with ordinary working class blokes…needed the better educated or bigger-thinkers…couldn’t bring herself to be one of them. And yet she would have given her life to protect them and their rights.”

And did.

Ruth and Joe had fierce arguments throughout their lives together, political and ethical, unlike the accepted domestic con?icts; the book speculates that culture, “upbringing,” hangover from “nature of respective childhoods contributed to their disagreements.” Ruth came from a middle-class Johannesburg family, went to a private school and on to university. Joe came to South Africa aged ten an immigrant from Lithuania, speaking only Yiddish. But for themselves disagreement was always an essential in the process of learning, discussions jolting one another out of too righteous a certainty that he or she understood, analyzed most clearly an issue of human lives. Here is self-honesty against revolutionary complacency.

In the many incredible contradictions in South African history, the Witwatersrand University and the University of Cape Town were the only “open” universities—half-open as students who were not white were permitted to do their course work there but excluded from “social, cultural, political, athletic activities.” Among such students at the Witwatersrand University was a young Indian rebel intellectual from Durban, Ismail Meer. A love affair bringing together race, difference, and the sharing of searching intellect and politics, First and Meer found each other. A parliamentarian (all-white parliament) announced he had been told of a love affair between a European girl and a non-European: “This state of affairs can no longer continue.” (Double entendre no doubt unintended.) A student af?liation of the Afrikaner Ossewa-Brandwag held protests against “black students and their fellow travellers, communists, and Jews.” Ruth and Ismail Meer joined a leftist student organization, Federation of Progressive Students (FOPS), many of whose leaders were members of the Young Communist League. (The early convolutions of the maze to be solved toward freedom.) The Communist Party accepted FOPS as means of inroad to the University; although FOPS had claimed that safer stance, progression as Trotskyites, others shunned it as a Communist front. Between denials, af?rmations, accusations, and manipulation of ANC elections, FOPS was unable to claim the ANC Youth League as an ally. But its ?rst chosen executive is seen as indeed Ruth First, the perfect conduit to the University. A newspaper calling itself Mambaran included a sideline that represented Ruth as “Truth Last.”

Meer’s ?at was the meeting place for young leftists at the Witwatersrand University, revealed bluntly for readers by an habitué as “dreamy, bloody depressing…but warm with activity…always a hive.” Nelson Mandela, a law student along with Meer and eventually Slovo, described it as “here we studied, talked, even danced in cold early mornings.” He remembered “sleeping over” in the ?at. One is reading not of self-perceived martyrs but individuals greedy for life even while giving up so much personal ful?llment for a way of intense certain risk. A level of involvement, the process in making a life, living, hardly to be imagined. In this sense, among much else to come, this book is a revelation to be reckoned with.

Freedom ?ghter himself, close comrade of Ruth and Joe, he was to share with Ruth paying for his political activism with his life, dying in the span of a life sentence, but alive forever in the story of the struggle for freedom.

The attachment between Ruth First and Ismail Meer ended, it appears, in circumstances that ring an odd note in lives emancipated from the edicts of religious taboo that then sounded from synagogue and mosque. Her family, leftist, yet objected conventionally to the idea of marriage with a Muslim. His family had the matching taboo on marriage of a Muslim to a Jewish girl. During this smoke rising from the bon?re being stacked against South Africa’s European-empowered and ?nanced, evidently invincible apartheid. A smoldering opposition repeatedly defeated in the mission for UBUNTU. “I am because you are.” The question as the pages are turned: What should have made humans in South Africa believe they were going to live and die, to attain this in their country?

Go for it.