Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Joe Slovo. With a number of buildings, streets, and even suburbs named in his honour, most South Africans are familiar with the name, but how many of us really know the story of Joe Slovo, one of our country’s greatest political activists?

Joe Slovo (left) as a signaller in WWII
Joe Slovo (left) as a signaller in WWII

Despite spending his entire adulthood fighting for the rights of South Africans, Slovo, who was born Yossel Mashel Slovo, was actually a Lithuanian whose parents emigrated in 1926. Coming from a working class family, Slovo left school at the age of 15 and took up a job as a dispatch clerk for a chemist, where he soon became a shop steward for the National Union of Distributive Workers. Slovo was drawn to the ideals of communism at an early age, joining the South African Communist Party (SACP) just a year after he left school. Inspired by Russia’s Red Army, Slovo volunteered to fight in World War II, and joined the South African forces in North Africa and Italy as a signaler, working in the communications sector of the military. On his return to South Africa he joined the Springbok Legion, a multiracial, radical ex-servicemen’s organisation.

A young Joe Slovo with Nelson Mandela and Ruth First
A young Joe Slovo with Nelson Mandela and Ruth First

Although he did not finish school, Slovo still managed to complete a law degree at Wits University, where he studied alongside Nelson Mandela, and met Ruth First, who would go on to become his wife. Ruth, who was the daughter of SACP treasurer, Julius First, was also a prominent Jewish anti-apartheid activist, and in 1950 the couple were among the first 600 people banned in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act.

As a founding member of the Congress of Democrats, Slovo was involved in the formulation of the Freedom Charter, but as a result of his banning order was unable to attend the Congress of the People, and instead watched the proceedings through binoculars from a nearby rooftop. Even though he did not actually attend the meeting, Slovo was still arrested for his participation in the Freedom Charter, and together with 155 other defendants, including the majority of the ANC’s executive committee, was charged with treason. In addition to being one of the accused, Slovo also acted as a member of the defence team. Charges against Slovo, as well as a number of the other defendants, were dropped in 1958, with the remainder of the defendants being set free in 1961 when the court decided that the state had failed to prove its case. But it wasn’t long before Slovo found himself behind bars again, being arrested in 1960 during the State of Emergency that was declared after the Sharpeville Massacre.

Gillian Slovo (left) aged four, with her sister Robyn, two, and parents Joe Slovo and Ruth First, pictured in South Africa in 1956, shortly after the couple were charged with treason
Gillian Slovo (left) aged four, with her sister Robyn, two, and parents Joe Slovo and Ruth First, 1956

Joe Slovo was one of the first people to join the armed wing of the ANC,  Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and in June 1963 he left South Africa on an MK mission. He didn’t return for another 27 years. With the remaining key figures in MK being arrested shortly after he left, and with Ruth herself being detained for four months, Slovo realised that the time had come for the couple to go into exile. Following her release from prison Ruth left the country, taking their three daughters with her.

Slovo continued to work for the ANC and the SACP abroad and in 1977 moved to Maputo, Mozambique, where he established an operational centre for the ANC. It was while stationed in Maputo that Ruth was killed by a letter bomb, with her death widely believed to have been the work of the South African security agencies.

Nelson Mandela at the airport to greet Alfred Nzo and Joe Slovo back from exile
Nelson Mandela at the airport to greet Alfred Nzo and Joe Slovo back from exile

Over the course of the next decade Slovo continued his work with MK, the SACP, and the ANC, becoming the first white member of the ANC’s national executive in 1985, and being appointed General Secretary of the SACP in 1985.

With the unbanning of political parties in 1990, Slovo finally returned home, and participated in the early discussions between the government and the ANC. It was Slovo, as leader of the SACP, who in 1992 proposed the breakthrough ‘sunset clause’. The clause, which was legislated, provided for a government of national unity for five years following the first democratic elections, and ensured representation of the National Party (NP) in Cabinet, as well as guaranteeing that a National Party member would be Deputy President until 1999.

The clause was very controversial, with many party members believing that the ANC and SACP had sold out, but there’s no denying that it was an incredible negotiation tactic, showing the ANC’s willingness to share power, and ease the NP, and indeed the country, through one of the most watched – and successful – political transitions the world has ever seen.

Joe Slovo passed away in 1995 at the age of 68 after losing a battle to cancer. Fittingly his funeral was attended by the entire high command of the ANC, along with 50 000 of his countrymen, most of whom were black. His body is buried in Avalon Cemetery in Soweto.

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