In recent months there have been events in both South Africa and the United Kingdom commemorating 30 years since the South African apartheid regime assassinated Ruth First. During the long fight against apartheid in South Africa there were several remarkable couples who devoted their lives to the struggle -- Winnie and Nelson Mandela, Albertina and Walter Sissulu, Hilda and Rusty Bernstein, and of course the intrepid Ruth First and Joe Slovo. Ruth and Joe began their activism the decade before the apartheid regime came into power. They became members of the Communist Party in the 1940s as they fought racism, class disparity, and oppression in South Africa. Beginning in 1947 and ending just before she was imprisoned in 1963, Ruth was the editor of the Johannesburg office of The Guardian, a radical, opposition newspaper that exposed the atrocities of the South African state, and featured the voices of black opposition leaders. Forced into exile in 1964, she continued to speak back to power in South Africa through her activism, writing, and teaching. In 1982, she paid the ultimate price for her commitment to a democratic South Africa when she was assassinated by the apartheid regime. A year earlier, South African commandos were elated because they believed that they had killed Joe Slovo whom they referred to as “Enemy Number One.” The commandos had mistakenly shot the wrong person, a Portuguese engineer. There were later attempts on Joe’s life. At the government’s infamous interrogation and torture prison, Daisy Farm, there was a basement cell referred to as the "Slovo Suite."
The South African government demonized both Ruth First and Joe Slovo throughout the struggle years. With Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki imprisoned for almost three decades beginning in 1963, Joe Slovo was, along with Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani, one of the most important leaders in the struggle against apartheid. He was the main strategist of the armed struggle, and later a key player in the negotiations with the apartheid regime that led to the country’s first democratic government in 1994.
Ruth and Joe were complex individuals: their partnership, early years and beyond, was tested by their individuality, irreverence, ideology, infidelity, and intensity. Ruth First could be thoughtful, contentious, generous, academic, intellectual, revolutionary, and more. Joe Slovo was tough, humorous, soft, harsh, congenial, thoughtful, political, musical, and OF COURSE revolutionary. Ruth was sometimes compared to Rosa Luxemburg. Her commitment to the struggle against apartheid was given as testimony after her assassination – it still is today. Retired Constitutional Court justice, Albie Sachs, said, “I once described her as a product of Lenin and the London School of Economics.” Headlines from a newspaper interview with Ruth during her London years read, “I am a Revolutionary.” Finally, her American friend, Danny Schechter, the Media Dissector, said, “She was not playing the revolution, she was making the revolution, or trying to.”
Ruth First and Joe Slovo were both leaders amongst leaders. They had different styles. They had different roles in the struggle. Most importantly, their complex and vital places in the fight for a democratic South Africa need to be portrayed for the people that knew them and more importantly for those that have come after them – both in South Africa and throughout the world.
Their legacies are especially important in South Africa today because both politicians and other leaders, some who were their struggle comrades, are enmeshed in repression and corruption. Unfortunately, comrade Pallo Jordan’s eulogy of Joe where he said he had no doubt that Joe’s life and work would continue to inspire radicals, and publisher Ronald Segal’s promise after Ruth died that the revolutionary movement would find new purpose because of her death, remain unfulfilled.
But in 2012 huge contradictions remain corresponding to Ruth and Joe’s revolutionary legacies and the current reality in South Africa. They taught us that capitalism and imperialism have inflicted immense misery on humanity and that we have to voice and act upon our passion for economic justice, our hatred of inequality and our impatience with reformism. Ruth and Joe’s values and actions need to be kept alive in South Africa and throughout the world. The spirit of each of their positions in the struggle against apartheid is sorely necessary in the current struggles for social justice. Recently, University of Montreal political scientist Dan O’Meara commented on Ruth and Joe’s lifelong fight against the rich and powerful. He spoke to the essence of why their life stories are so important to portray at the present time.
Ruth and Joe died trying to change the world; they died not in the arid despair of the mind, but in hope at the possibility of change, knowing that only 'we' could wring such change from the grasping bloody hands of 'them'.
Ruth First and Joe Slovo’s actions always confronted the vile ruthlessness of power that initiated, fostered, sanctioned, and protected class disparity and racism. Ruth’s work as a political activist, journalist, writer, academic, and Director of Research at the Center of African Studies in Mozambique, challenged commonplaces and injustices, class disparity and racism, in South Africa and throughout the Continent. Joe, first as a radical lawyer, then as the Chief of Staff of the struggle underground, and finally as the leader of the South African Communist Party, combined strategy with action to fight unwaveringly against the apartheid regime.
Both people spent their entire lives daringly fighting for a non-racial, democratic South Africa with the goal of socialism and equality for all people. Their values and actions help remind generations across the board, old and young, of the possibilities when courageous and brave individuals join together to fight oppression, or to paraphrase the preamble to the South African Constitution:
Believe that the World belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity!