Heritage: Freedom fighter Joe Slovo helped bring democracy to South Africa alongside Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela unveiled the blue plaque at 13 Lime Street, Camden Town, where Joe Slovo and his wife

Nelson Mandela unveiled the blue plaque at 13 Lime Street, Camden Town, where Joe Slovo and his wife Ruth First lived between 1966 and 1978. Picture: PA/Kirsty Wigglesworth - Credit: PA/Kirsty Wigglesworth

When Jewish anti-apartheid activist and friend of Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, fled South Africa in 1963 he found safe passage to Camden Town. He would go on to play a pivotal role in bringing a new order to South Africa, Adam Sonin discovers.

(From left) Julius First, Robyn Slovo, Joe Slovo, and Ruth First in Lyme Street, Camden Town

(From left) Julius First, Robyn Slovo, Joe Slovo, and Ruth First in Lyme Street, Camden Town - Credit: Archant

Joe Slovo was instrumental in bringing a new democratic order to South Africa. A white Jewish immigrant who spoke Yiddish but practiced Marxism, he worked as a freedom fighter and eventually succeeded in smashing the despised regime of apartheid.

A Communist party member from an early age, he met and befriended Nelson Mandela while at university. Later he acted as legal counsel to Mandela, meeting with him in prison.

On one occasion he passed Mandela a note detailing a possible escape plan involving “bribes, copies of keys and a false beard to be sewn into the shoulder pad of a jacket”.

Forced into exile, Slovo found himself working tirelessly for the cause. In London he cemented a friendship with Ralph Miliband, a fellow Marxist and the father of politicians Ed and David.

As an exile, Slovo was depicted by the regime’s propaganda as an “evil genius” and “mastermind behind African National Congress (ANC) terrorism”. As the first high ranking white member of the ANC, he was ‘worshipped’ and regarded as a legend by hundreds of thousands in Soweto.

In February 1990, when Nelson Mandela finally emerged from almost three decades of unjust imprisonment, Mandela paid tribute to his friend and supporter, “I salute General Secretary Joe Slovo, one of our finest patriots”.

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Joe Slovo (1926–1995), lawyer, journalist, underground operative and politician, was born in Obel, Lithuania.

Mandela reflected: “When, in 1934, the village of Obelkei in Lithuania, bequeathed to South Africa an eight-year-old Yossel Mashel Slovo, there was no predetermined course that his life would follow. Forced to leave school at an early age because of poverty; part of the passionate political debates of that period among immigrants in Johannesburg; a poor Jewish family upbringing in the period when Nazism was rearing its ugly head – all these factors helped mould one of the greatest South African and African revolutionaries of our times.”

When Slovo was two, his father Wolfus, an economic migrant, left Lithuania, and the anti-Semitic pogroms, which were sweeping the country. He headed for Argentina. Wolfus’ intention had been to send for his family once settled but he lost his job and decided to leave. He boarded a boat which happened to be bound for South Africa.

Slovo eventually left the Yiddish-speaking shtetl in Lithuania, with memories of an ear-pinching rabbi, and joined his father.

Although the Slovo family were religious, Joe became an atheist, retaining respect for “the positive aspects of Jewish culture”.

Soon after the family had settled Slovo’s mother died in child birth. In junior high school he met a radical Irish teacher, John O’Meara, an anti-imperialist, who took Slovo to socialist meetings.

Forced to drop out of school early and help support the family Slovo became a worker at the age of 14. He started off as a warehouse assistant, joined the National Union of Distributive Workers and later, as a shop steward, was involved in organising a strike. The strike was successful in winning benefits for white workers but not, as he was disturbed to see, for African employees. This early trade union involvement led Slovo to join the South African Communist Party (SACP) at 16.

During World War II Slovo was inspired by the Red Army’s battles against the Nazis on the Eastern Front. At 18 he lied about his age and became a volunteer, joining a South African armoured division, which saw action.

On his return he joined and became active in the Springbok Legion, a multiracial ex-servicemen’s league. Although he had not completed his school education, as a veteran he qualified for a loan which allowed him to attend law school. He was admitted to the University of the Witwatersrand and began an enduring friendship with fellow law student Nelson Mandela. Slovo won his degree with the highest honours and was at the beginning of a career as an outstanding barrister, specialising in political cases. Mandela observed that Slovo was “one of the sharpest and most incisive minds that I have ever encountered”.

His other contemporaries, and later allies, included Oliver Tambo, Harry Schwarz and his future wife, Ruth First (1925–1982).

In 1949 he married First, another prominent Jewish anti-apartheid activist and the daughter of SACP treasurer Julius First, and the couple had three daughters. Both First and Slovo were listed as communists under the Suppression of Communism Act and could not be quoted or attend public gatherings in South Africa.

Meanwhile, the Slovo home was a centre for radicals and inter-racial partying. Mandela noted: “Communists... were prepared to eat with us, talk with us, live with us and work with us.”

The couple’s daughter, Gillian Slovo, described her father as “an incredibly warm person”. She said: “He was an archetypal Jewish joke-cracking, peanut-eating, whisky-swilling-Jew, who had a tremendous amount of warmth.”

Mandela was a regular houseguest, calling it “a crossroad of people of different political persuasions”. Talking of the couple, Mandela declared: “Here were whites who were bred in the democratic tradition, in the proper sense of the word.”

In 1953 Slovo went underground with the Communist Party and kept it secret until 1960. Although banned from gatherings and organisations, in 1954 the couple assisted in writing the Freedom Charter of 1955.

The Freedom Charter of the African National Congress was the movement’s guiding document and begins with the words: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.”

The pair were named under the Suppression of Communism Act and charged with High Treason in 1956. Nelson Mandela and 155 others were also arrested. The charges were later dropped but the Treason Trial, which lasted four years, became notorious. State intolerance to dissent was stepped up after 69 protestors were killed in the infamous Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Having been arrested and detained on a number of occasions, the Sharpeville massacre proved pivotal.

In June 1961 Slovo and Mandela formed the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, meaning Spear of the Nation, or MK for short. MK announced its existence with a campaign of sabotage in December. When the farmhouse headquarters of the guerrilla group were raided in July 1963, Mandela was already in prison and Slovo travelling abroad.The situation was “pretty bleak”, recalled Slovo. He eventually found safe passage to England and to 13 Lyme Street, Camden Town.

At the address, where the plaque was unveiled by Mandela, in 2003, Joe eagerly awaited news from South Africa and of his wife, Ruth. By this time she had been detained in a swoop on members of the underground ANC and was being held in solitary confinement in Johannesburg’s notorious Marshall Square police station.

* See next week’s Ham&High for the second part of this article focusing on the life of Ruth First.