The barrel of the apartheid gun

—Nadine Gordimer

The nobel laureate on Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid, a new biography of South Africa’s revolutionary couple, published by Monthly Review Press.

[Below is an excerpt of the foreword, originally featured in the online literary magazine Guernica.]

Joe Slovo and Ruth First. They met at the University of the Witwatersrand on his return from the South African Army. When exactly their intimate relationship began is an element integral to the totality of their development as answerable to and for the dehumanizing of others. They worked together on two events among many others—squatters’ rights in townships outside Johannesburg and defense of the Basotho Peasants Organization. It was in Basutoland, Joe wrote, that they became lovers.

Taking on the regime of South African apartheid is shown not to be an easy ride on whatever path. Most of Ruth’s time was spent on party politics as a precursor for the battle for freedom. Ruth and Joe, who discussed everyone, everything, reflected on their personal perceptions of Nelson Mandela. We overhear Ruth remembering him as “good-looking, very proud, very prickly, rather sensitive, perhaps even arrogant. But of course he was exposed to all the humiliation.” Joe: “A very proud, self-contained black man who was very conscious of his blackness.”

Ruth worked with Meer on a socioeconomic survey of Fordsburg, an impoverished area of central Johannesburg. Very practical, they helped women develop cooperatives, while initiating actions against merchants they believed were “gouging” local residents. [Ismail] Meer was duly arrested and acquitted in court by the defense of Bram Fischer. It is intriguing to see the beginnings of the Afrikaner aristocrat becoming the famous lawyer in the Rivonia Trial of Mandela. In Fordsburg he carried food in his hands to the local people. Freedom fighter 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.

Back from war, Joe Slovo had joined the Springbok Legion, a non-racial body for South African Army veterans. A predominantly white group (remember, blacks were not given arms!), its manifesto pledged to oppose any entity that sought to undermine democracy and support any individual party or movement working for a society based on the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Ironically again: the appearance of Springbok Legion numbers transferred leadership roles in FOPS from founders like Ruth to men such as Joe. Ruth and Joe were fellow revolutionaries together in the Defiance Campaign of 1952. Their activism becomes breathless, compulsive to follow. Ruth’s gifts as a writer were harnessed to their beliefs as she began work as a journalist at The Guardian in 1946, the year of Joe’s return, and soon she was reporting firsthand on squatter camp conditions in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. These as a warning of the violence that was to emerge with even more ferocity when the Nationalist Party won the 1948 elections: the entrenched apartheid regime. The Communist Party dispatched Joe, Ruth, and another comrade in an attempt to convince black township people that their massacre was probable if they followed their plan of resistance against their ghetto existence—a decision for human survival against political action? Police arrived at a township protest and people were beaten. As Joe, Ruth, and Rusty Bernstein were leaving, the police stopped them. Joe: “One asked us what were we doing so late at night in the veld?—Suddenly it seemed to dawn on him… he leered at Ruth… gave Rusty and me a winking look and giggled ‘Jesus, and with those natives too, next time you’s better find a safer spot. Weg is julle!’” (Get out!) The reaction reminds us about the era: “Government employees, police could not believe their eyes, whites in a black township, hardly suspect that these individuals were fighting against oppression of fellow South Africans wretchedly living there.”

The “relationship,” love affair of Joe and Ruth, emerges as their own business. Not a show for public curiosity to relish, or for us in our serious intention to understand them fully as we read. In his quoted autobiography, unfinished by his death, Joe says they started living together in 1949 and eight months later “we took off half-an-hour from our respective offices to get married.” It comes as a commitment met among many others that are shared personal fundament. They are prominent in the Anti-Pass Campaign against the “passbook” every black man had to carry on his person and produce to any policeman anywhere; a white boss/madam could supply a letter of authorization for him to be in the streets after 6:00 p.m.

Was there ever a more thorough, complete control by a self-elected ruling class over a color-designated outcast class?

Read the entire foreword by Nadine Gordimer in Guernica.