SAR, Vol 12 No 4, September 1997
A REVIEW BY DAVID GALBRAITH
David Galbraith teaches in the English Department at the University of Toronto.
Gillian Slovo. Every Secret Thing. My Family, My Country. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1997. vi+282pp. ISBN 0 316 63998 2.
When Joe Slovo died of cancer in 1995, a member of Nelson Mandela's cabinet, one of the most extraordinary family histories in South African politics came to an end. Slovo's death was preceded, thirteen years earlier, by the murder of his first wife, Ruth First, victim of a government-dispatched bomb to her office at Edouardo Mondlane University in Maputo. Both had been at the centre of the liberation struggle for their entire adult lives.
The public forms of mourning and commemoration mark the enormous distance travelled between these two events. When Ruth First was killed, her death was mourned by an exile movement and, in South Africa, in illegal meetings broken up by security police. Slovo's death was marked by massive public gatherings presided over by the leadership of the ANC and the SACP, now installed in government.
This story-of the transformation of an embattled liberation movement into a majority-based government-is itself one of the most dramatic and important political events of the century. The lives and deaths of Ruth First and Joe Slovo are woven through it. Their daughter Gillian's new book, Every Secret Thing, is the latest of several accounts of the family. Ruth First's own memoir of her imprisonment under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1963, published in 1965 as 117 Days is a compelling and self-probing description of the experience of a political prisoner. Its final sentence is also horribly prophetic, recognizing a threat suspended for nearly twenty years: "I was convinced that it was not the end, that they would come again." Joe Slovo never finished his memoirs; Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography was published in 1996. Gillian's elder sister, Shawn, wrote the screenplay for Chris Menges's 1988 film, A World Apart, which focuses on the young girl's reactions to her mother's imprisonment and the encroaching political pressures on their life as a family.
Readers looking for a political narrative, or for significant insights into the history of the liberation struggle in Every Secret Thing are likely to be disappointed. The book's subtitle is either misleading or overly subtle. The comma separating "my family" and "my country" doesn't align the two paratactically. If anything, their relationship is appositional. Slovo's family is her country. And it's primarily family secrets that she tells: of Ruth and Joe's marriage and of her own often difficult relationship to her exceptional parents. This is a story of exile, and ultimately of return-most obviously in her parents' flight and struggle but also in her own estrangement and provisional reconciliation.
In many respects this is a deeply rewarding book. Slovo is better known as a novelist, whose work includes several detective novels and works of historical fiction. Her sense of narrative shape and her grasp of emotional nuance put her in good stead. Her descriptions of the events surrounding both her parents' deaths are often deeply moving. Her evocation of the culture and the style of her parents and their comrades is also very finely observed.
The personal, we're told, is the political. Here, though, Slovo often tries to keep them at some distance, refracting political events through an intense focus on the dynamics of the family. She is more concerned with the costs extracted by politics on family members. Slovo recounts a story Nelson Mandela told her, just after her father's death, of "how one day when he had gone to hug his grown-up daughter she had flinched away from him and burst out, `You are the father to all our people, but you have never had the time to be a father to me.' " This is psychic territory her sister had already triangulated in A World Apart. In her account, with its more expansive time frame, Slovo is able to paint guilt and estrangement, as well as much more benign emotional affects, on a much larger canvas. If her parents were often removed from their children, the children too were moving into worlds very distant from their parents' commitments and responsibilities. She recognizes "in hindsight . . . how different were the worlds that we have inhabited: while I was busy trying to pretend that South Africa had nothing to do with me, my father was learning to live with danger and with death."
Some readers may be a little uneasy at book's circumscribed focus on her family and its internal dynamics. Slovo, I suspect, tries to preempt this response in one of her few allusions to her sister's screenplay. She recalls a conversation with Mac Maharaj, who tells her that "he had enjoyed the film but then he added something different: some of his African comrades, he said, had decided that what the young girl in the film needed was `a good slap'." Maharaj goes on to acknowledge the injustice of this, particularly in the face of the childrens' isolation within their own community. Most readers would too. However something remains-at very least an uneasy sense of disproportion. But this response is probably too hasty. It may well be that the stories of white activists are best told with such a personal and restricted focus, in a manner which registers obliquely, the more peripheral place of whites in the struggle. Here, the precedent of Gordimer's Burger's Daughter is compelling, albeit paradoxical. This because in both Gordimer's evocation of Bram Fisher and Slovo's account of her parents, the technique also runs the risk of eliding their own crucial contribution to the struggle. It's a difficulty which isn't easily overcome.
There is also a real falling off towards the end of Slovo's narrative. In part, this is deliberate. Slovo wants to avoid the comfortable symmetry of concluding, as she had begun, with a description of a parent's funeral. Instead, she tries to confront unfinished business: a half-brother whose status had been unknown to her, a compelling and deeply resonant episode from her grandmother's past, and most crucially, her mother's murder. But the force of this investigation is blunted by the lack of resolution in her interview with Craig Williamson, whose admission to having been "in the loop, that killed your mother" fails to resolve many of the larger questions. In part, this failure is attributable to the utter perfidy and moral bankruptcy of Williamson.** Whining and self-pity simply don't carry enough dramatic weight. Then, too, one might reread the book's downturn as a refusal to impose a banal closure on what so many South Africans have come to see on the ongoing traumatic effects of apartheid. This past may not, in fact, be "another country;" many South Africans continue, perforce, to live at least partially within its borders.
Throughout their adult lives First and Slovo were communists - at first members of the Communist Party of South Africa and, after its banning in 1950, when (as Jeremy Cronin put it in a poetic account of the period):
"Membership becomes a punishable crime.
But laws only
postpone matters - somewhat,"
leading figures in the reconstituted South African Communist Party. Like many communists of their generation, they were almost born into the party: First, whose father had been elected Chairman of the party in 1923 and whose mother was a long-time activist and Slovo, the child of Lithuanian Jews who emigrated to South Africa when he was nine.
Their affiliation was obviously central to their relationship. It was also a source of tension, one to which their daughter returns on several occasions. She points to their arguments after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. It's also well known that First's Marxism was deeply touched by her encounters with feminism and with the new Marxist theory of the sixties. Joe Slovo's position was more equivocal. Although the SACP was widely reputed to be a bastion of Stalinist orthodoxy and conformity, Slovo's own flexibility bespoke a more critical perspective, one which was able to come to fruition in the transition period, when the party was no longer dependent on Soviet material support. In this respect he resembles Palmiro Togliatti, the Italian communist leader of the previous generation, for whom the transformation of the party itself was the object of a subtle Gramscian war of position.
Slovo's daughter emphasizes the naivete of the communists in the pre-Rivonia period, in the build-up to the repression which would be unleashed after Sharpeville. Certainly, in hindsight, they do seem incredibly optimistic about the pace and the means of defeating apartheid. But I think she misses some of the other sources of this optimism. I suspect that white South African radicals must have had a sense of their own uniqueness and, paradoxically, of their good fortune in the world communist movement of the 1950s. Elsewhere, their comrades were increasingly disconnected from real politics, retreating or pushed back into cold war ghettos. In South Africa, on the other hand, in the face of state repression, the party had become a major actor in a dynamic movement whose moral force was unquestionable.
In comparison to their comrades in other English-speaking countries, many of whom they resemble strikingly in social origins and lifestyle, these South Africans had much further to travel-into jail in many cases, into exile and ultimately into a world in which their own most important political points of reference had collapsed before the final victory over apartheid. Ruth First was killed before she reached this point, though in another political sense she had already moved much further than her husband. Reading their daughter' memoirs, I found myself often wondering how her relationship to Joe Slovo and her movement might have unfolded in those intervening years. Certainly, and this is very high praise, I found myself closer to them than ever before.
** Lest we forget: Craig Williamson was one of the main collaborators with Peter Worthington in the pro-apartheid video, "The ANC Method - Violence", distributed by the racist Citizens for Foreign Aid Reform throughout Canada in 1988. Amnesty may be necessary in South Africa in the interests of national reconciliation; in Canada, however, we have an obligation to remember apartheid's collaborators and apologists.
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