By Jeff Jackson
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Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid

This article is over 10 years, 6 months old
Alan Wieder, Monthly Review Press, £14.79
Issue 385

The fight against the inhuman brutality of the apartheid South African regime became one of the defining struggles of the second half of the 20th century. When Nelson Mandela walked free in February 1990, after 27 years in prison, it marked the end game for a government that was by then reviled as a pariah state by almost everyone save the most rabid right wing conservative racists.

That this was the case was due largely to the heroic bravery and continued resistance of black African workers and peasants who stood up to and continually defied the deeply oppressive regime of apartheid segregation that South African capitalism had imposed on the country after the election of the National Party in 1948 until it was forced out in 1994.

Ruth First and Joe Slovo were two central figures. They were from the minority of white South Africans who from the outset fought alongside black Africans in opposing apartheid. Their bravery and commitment would come at a high price. Both would be imprisoned and forced into exile. Ruth First would pay with her life when the South African regime assassinated her in Mozambique in 1982. After fleeing in 1963 Joe Slovo would not set foot in his country until the regime was on its last legs, when he would be central to the negotiations that lead to the first post-apartheid election.

First and Slovo met each other in 1946 at Witwatersrand University. Both members of the Communist Party of South Africa, they were married in 1949. Alan Wieder’s well written and enjoyable biography, largely garnered from a number of interviews he conducted between 2010 and 2012 with people who worked with or knew them, is a fitting tribute. He paints a vivid picture of their life, weaving together a portrait that captures the “flesh and blood of human beings facing monumentally difficult decisions”.

This is in no way an uncritical account of First and Slovo’s pivotal role in the development of the struggle by the African National Congress and the Anti-Apartheid Movement – for example, Wieder stresses the problems of the CP’s often slavish following of Soviet foreign policy and the tensions this caused.

But there is not enough detailed engagement with the important political disagreements that developed in the long struggle against apartheid, the split with the Pan African Congress, the move to armed guerrilla warfare to highlight just two. However, it would be trite to end a short review on a sour note. This is a book that should be recommended reading to anyone who is interested in how, in the face of overwhelming state repression, ordinary people can show extraordinary bravery in fighting for a democratic and non-racist society.

In the preface to Goven Mobeki’s book The Peasants Revolt, which Ruth First helped to complete, it states, “This book has had a painful birth.” Achieving a post-apartheid society would have a painful labour and eventual birth and this volume evokes that struggle and can help us understand it better through the vortex of the lives of two of its key revolutionaries.

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