Joe Slovo Memorial Lecture delivered in Nyandeni sub-region by ANC-EC Provincial Secretary Cde Oscar Mabuyane
It is both an honour and a privilege for me to deliver today the Joe Slovo Memorial Lecture, which this year marks 22 years since the passing of one of our most outstanding leaders of our movement. Cde Joe Slovo was a patriot, a leader, a militant, a fighter, an internationalist, a theoretician, an organiser, and a negotiator. Indeed, it is the combination of all these qualities so splendidly in one individual, which made Comrade Joe Slovo the great African revolutionary that he was.
Comrade Joe Slovo, Isithwalandwe, belonged in that category. In that sense, he was a rare species, an institution. Indeed it must be said that to reflect on the life and the contribution of Cde Joe Slovo, it is unavoidable to retrace of our struggle for liberation and freedom in our country in particular between the 1940s and 1990s.
As we are all aware globally the 1930s to the 1940s marks a political period when Nazism and Fascism were rearing its ugly head with figures such as Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy as some of their prominent leaders. Simply put the political agenda of Nazism was the promotion sheer racism, white supremacy and anti-communism, and particularly the promotion of the Aryan race (largely Europeans) as a master race. Thus according to the racist ideas of Nazism, the Germanic peoples were the ‘master race’, while the Jews, Roma people, Slavs, and blacks – were classified as ‘inferior’ races and thus sub-humans.
Cde Joe, real name Yossel Mashel Slovo was born on the 23rd May 1926 to a working class Jew family in a village of Obelkei in Lithuania, a small nation in Northern Europe. As a Jew in those times, it meant he together with his family and community made them official targets for the mass murders and atrocities that were to be later carried out by the Nazi regime. In 1934, the Slovo family arrived at the shores of our country as part of 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.
Comrade Joe Slovo himself arrived as a boy of 8 years old and little did he know how his life would follow. The narrative of his father was that the family had intended to emigrate from Lithuania to Argentina, but at the last moment, his father boarded a boat for South Africa and his family followed soon after. It thus it fair to postulate that in our struggle for liberation we would have been weaker in the absence of Cde Joe Slovo.
Cde Joe Slovo’s upbringing was not an easy one, he was part of those who were forced to leave school at an early age because of poverty, a common feature of immigrants in Johannesburg. His father barely made a living for his family as a fruit vendor. After dropping out of school due to circumstances, he became a warehouse assistant and, at age 16, he was elected a shop steward. This is perhaps the time in his life when for first time Cde Slovo is inducted in the role of leadership and responsibility. In the same year, Cde Joe Slovo joined the Communist Party.
As a shop steward, he helped lead a strike which won benefits for workers, which mainly favoured white workers, but not African workers. Comrade Joe Slovo was deeply disturbed to witness the condition of African workers and thus as President Mandela puts it that “Cde Joe Slovo among the few white workers who understood their class interest and sought common cause with their class brother and sisters irrespective of race.”
In his own words, Cde Slovo perfectly articulates this perspective by declaring that: “It is not difficult in South Africa for the ordinary person to see the link between capitalism and racist exploitation, and when one sees the link one immediately thinks in terms of a socialist alternative.”
Also crucial to point out is that Cde Joe’s devotion to the struggle was not so much of white generosity to the black people of our country; Cde Slovo did not see himself as a white South African but as a South African. He was a full part of the democratic majority, acting together with them for a just and democratic order.
At 18, Cde Slovo lied about his age in order to enter the army and served abroad. Back in South Africa, he became active in the Springbok Legion, a radical ex-servicemen’s league. During the five years following the end of the war in 1945, Slovo’s professional, personal and political life took definitive shape.
The young Joe could have late chosen a lucrative life, after returning from service in the Second World War, and acquire the opportunities accorded white veterans. He could have elected, as many in his position did, to part ways with his black colleagues as they rode into oblivion on the bicycles given them as the thankless reward for their service in the war.
Although he had never attended high school, he was admitted to the University of the Witwatersrand and won a law degree with highest honours. Just like President O.R. Tambo, Nelson Mandela and others, the young Cde Joe Slovo practised as an outstanding lawyer specialising in political cases and could have had a comfortable livelihood.
In 1949 he married Ruth First, the brilliant daughter of the Communist Party leader, Cde Julius First. They became a couple of legendary appeal. Although Cde Slovo continued his legal career for over a dozen years, his primary commitment was political. To use his own words, he had decided that in his life there was only one target, and that target was to remove the racist regime and obtain power for the people.
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.
Indeed the demands of the struggle on him – made it difficult for him to play fully the role of father and brother. There are times when his commitment and that of Cde Ruth First – who was murdered in cold-blood in 1982 – created a world apart, where full family life, as with most other revolutionaries, became was a distant dream.
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.
He was not only the leader of the South African Communist Party and its principal theoretician but still Comrade JS lived the life not merely of a theoretician, confined to the boardroom and library. He was at all stages of struggle there at the forefront, generating ideas, and there too, in their implementation. Indeed he appreciated and internalised Marx’s perspective that: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in different ways; the point, however, is to change it.”
Perhaps, this quality is best demonstrated by his contribution in the formation of MK, where he was, in essence, its chief military strategist. Indeed Cde Joe Slovo was a full human being at heart. And he possessed the passion and natural intellect to see reality for what it was and all these factors helped mould one of the greatest South African and African revolutionaries of our times.
Perhaps another political principle that we should forever remember Slovo for is that he became an embodiment of the alliance between the ANC and the SACP. Cde Joe knew that the interests of the working class in our country were intimately bound up with those of the rest of the oppressed majority in pursuit of democracy and a better life.
Cde Joe appreciated that the Alliance between the ANC, the SACP and the progressive trade union movement was premised on concrete democratic and social tasks. He appreciated the need to strengthen this Alliance especially now when we are reconstructing and developing South Africa.
More than in theory, his own practical life demonstrated his profound understanding of the nature of the relationship between the ANC and the SACP: the leading role of the ANC; the principles of consultation, consensus and criticism within disciplined structures of the allies.
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. The most central factor in his approach to struggle on any front was the understanding of the political situation, the balance of forces and thus the approaches necessary to advance that struggle. Thus he was able to appreciate changes in the objective conditions and initiate discussions on changes to the tactics to be applied.
He knew when to compromise. Yet he never compromised his principles. He was a militant. Yet a militant who knew how to plan, assess concrete situations and emerge with rational solutions to problems. 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 most 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.
Cde Slovo would later play a critical role in the negotiations process, as a Minister of Housing, but most importantly Cde Joe Slovo was dearly loved and admired by the members and supporters of the democratic movement. The question that therefore confronts us today is how best we can honour his living legacy. How best can we redefine the narrative that the name of Joe Slovo in the post-1994 era has become synonymous to the naming of shacks and indecent dwellings?
Our narrative in this regard must decisively seek to bring hope in that we have an urgent responsibility to work even harder transform shacks into decent homes for our people. This is how we will best honour the legacy of Cde Joe Slovo.
In our recent January 8th statement, which was presented by the President in Soweto, Gauteng, we reported that one of our government’s most successful programmes has ensured that more than 22 million people have been provided with housing over the last two decades. In principle, the building of houses by the ANC-led government is not just a nice to do task, but it is aimed at restoring dignity to the lives of our people. Indeed we are proud of the fact that more than half of these beneficiaries have been women. In real numbers, this translates to more than 4.3 million houses and subsidies. However, we also believe that the real political value of this programme also depends on the behaviours and attitudes of recipients who we are strongly urging to retain ownership and not sell or lease these assets.
The National Executive Committee (NEC) statement on the occasion of the 105th Anniversary of the ANC reflected that the 105 years of the ANC is the result of the dedication, sacrifice and hard work of millions of people, in South Africa and across the world, who acted in unity to ensure that we can live in a free South Africa. As such this celebration is your celebration, your victory! Moreover, we acknowledged that Comrade Oliver Reginald Tambo would have celebrated 100 years of age had he lived until 2017.
As such we dedicate this year – his centenary – to him. The dedication of 2017 to President Tambo also acknowledges that the President did not lead alone in ensuring the entrenchment of unity and growth of the movement in exile, however, a leadership collective that included the likes of Cde Joe Slovo was necessary maintaining momentum and strength in the struggle for liberation and freedom.
We continue to regard President Tambo as the glue that held the many facets of the ANC together during the difficult years in exile. This declaration also carries with it a political responsibility to for all of us to DEEPEN UNITY! In this regard, the Strategy & Tactics (S&T) document precisely and correctly points out that: “The challenge of the unity and cohesion of the ANC and the Alliance, impact not only on the ability to mobilise and organise the motive forces in transformation but also on the pace of transformation.”
We must, therefore, say it without any fear or hesitation that the most obvious means to honour and emulate Comrade Joe Slovo it is to fast-track the pace of transformation in this country.
Let all of us be inspired by his examples and deeds!
Let us re-double our efforts to make 20I7 a better year.
I thank you!