‘We are entering their paths’


Ruth First by Ben Slow in Soweto, Johannesburg. Photograph by Derek Smith

From Guernica:

Joe Slovo and Ruth First. We are entering their paths.

Both grew up unbelievers in Jewish or any religious faith. They met when Ruth was at the University of the Witwatersrand, Joe just returned from the South African Army in the war against Nazi Germany. His motivation for volunteering, eighteen years old, unemployed, lying about being underage for military call-up—his early alliance with communism, and so to the Soviet Union under attack—was decisive in the act. But there remained the devastating racial dilemma in South Africa. He wrote: “How do you tell a black man to make his peace with General Smuts—butcher of Bulhoek and the Bondelswarts? ‘Save civilization and democracy—must have sounded a cruel parody. And fight with what? No black man was allowed to bear arms…if you want to serve democracy, wield a knobkerrie [wooden club] as a uniformed servant of a white soldier.”

Joe Slovo’s appetite for the pleasures of life is brought face-to-face with his political humanitarian drive when at the end of the war he took a holiday. From Turin to Cairo he went, and with other decommissioned soldiers somehow got to Palestine although travel was restricted because of Zionist resistance to British occupation; on to a kibbutz where “looked at in isolation, the kibbutz seemed to be the very epitome of socialist lifestyle… it was populated in the main by young people with the passion and belief that by the mere exercise of will and humanism you could build socialism as one factory or one kibbutz and the power of example will sweep the imagination of all… worker or capitalist.”

During Joe’s absence from South Africa, membership in the Communist Party (CP) had grown fourfold in the period 1941–43 with correspondingly the greatest call for action of the African National Congress (ANC). Joe and Ruth were both prominent in protests of the CP and ANC against racist laws; two events among others—squatters’ rights in townships outside Johannesburg and Defense of the Basotho Peasants Organization in Basutoland. Joe wrote that they became lovers in Basutoland. But he dated his “life with Ruth” as having “started off with political tension.” It’s not clear whether he is recollecting Students’ Representative Council meetings, the other student organization, Federation of Progressive Students (FOPS), or the Ismail Meer flat where his initial response to Ruth and her friends was “sort of a little feeling of insecurity…these Smart Alecks could formulate speech and so on…were just too big for their boots…so my life with Ruth started off with quite a degree of political tension based on this nonsense.” We echo in our own minds their friend describing the differing qualities of Joe and Ruth—“She didn’t have a rapport with ordinary working class blokes…needed the better educated or bigger-thinkers…couldn’t bring herself to be one of them. And yet she would have given her life to protect them and their rights.”

And did.

“The Barrel of the Apartheid Gun“, Nadine Gordimer, Guernica