A story is told of how two ladies, one day, spotted Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo. One wondered who the white man was with Madiba, the other responded: “That’s not a white man, that’s Joe Slovo.”
May 23 this year marks the 93rd birth of Yossel Mashel Slovo better known to us as Joe Slovo or JS. As his name suggests, he was born in Obeliai, Lithuania, to a Jewish family and came with his family, aged eight, to South Africa in 1934. While his father was a truck driver and fruit vendor in Johannesburg, Slovo left school at the age of 15 to start working as a dispatch clerk later becoming a shop steward for the National Union of Distributive Workers.
A year after leaving school, he would join the Communist Party of South Africa, which would later become the SACP, and volunteered to fight against the Nazis during the World War ll. Eventually, as we all know, JS would become the General Secretary of the SACP while having been the first white person to be elected to the National Executive Committee of the ANC at Kabwe in 1985. He would be a sworn enemy of the apartheid regime.
Up to the talks about talks at Groote Schuur, Joe Slovo was an item on the agenda for the Nationalist Party. FW de Klerk and his colleagues hated Slovo so much that they demanded that he not be included in the ANC’s delegation. Madiba would hear none of it. Yet one wonders why they hated him so much.
Was it because he was a Communist or Chief of Staff of umKhonto weSizwe? Was it because he was a white man and therefore seen as a betrayer of white people in South Africa? Or was it because he was a Jew? Even though JS was an atheist, he would remain faithful to Jewish culture. He would later marry another prominent Jewish anti-apartheid activist, Ruth First.
Yet the story of JS and Madiba sums up the view that the ANC has had not only of white people but also Jews. On the one hand, the story illustrates that non-racialism which has been the foundation of the ANC, more specifically from the days of the Freedom Charter. On the other hand, it tells of an ANC that is simply not anti-Semitic.
In fact, the expulsion of the Gang of Eight, after the Morogoro Conference in 1969, a conference JS played an instrumental role in, exemplifies the intolerance that the ANC, whose membership was opened to all races by this time, had of those Africanist members within its number that criticised the organisation for being “hijacked by minorities”. Like those who left the ANC in the late Fifties to form the Pan Africanist Congress, the Gang of Eight were dissatisfied with the role and prominence played by people such as Joe Slovo in the ANC’s leadership.
Fundamental to the understanding of the ANC, based on the universal principles of the Freedom Charter, was that despite the fact that oppression under apartheid was being led by and favoured white people, it could by no means condemn or in fact judge all White people. Similar to the notion of “an injury to one is an injury to all”, the ANC believed that, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu would put it, freedom would free not only the oppressed but the oppressor as well. White people themselves needed liberation from the chains of apartheid.
The condemnation of the human rights atrocities perpetrated by the apartheid Israeli regime is therefore not a condemnation of all Jewish people. Far from it. In fact, the ANC believes that just as white people needed liberation from the chains of apartheid, so too Israelis need liberation from the atrocities perpetrated by the apartheid state of Israel. The ANC will never hold all Jews responsible nor even condemn them for the atrocities of Israel just as it never held white people, as a group, responsible for the atrocities of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The ANC has a long history of the involvement of Jews in its membership and its fight for freedom. It would be anathema for it and its members, and especially its leaders, to be anti-Semitic and in fact one could be disciplined for “sowing racism, sexism, tribal chauvinism, religious and political intolerance, regionalism or any other form of discrimination”. (Rule 25.17.6 of the Constitution of the ANC.)
It is therefore disingenuous and somewhat dangerous for the national vice-president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies firstly to single out a leader of the ANC, as if Lindiwe Sisulu was not simply implementing and promoting ANC policy and, secondly to thereby suggest that the ANC is anti-Semitic because it condemns the atrocious abuses of human rights in the Occupied Territories and the crimes perpetrated against Palestinians globally.
Even more so, it is questionable for the SJBD to speak on behalf of South Africa’s Jewry, as if there are not Jews who do not currently support the State of Israel and even worst to suggest that they are lesser Jews because they do not support Israel.
If Israel wishes to recall its ambassador to Pretoria, as a sovereign state it has all the right to do so. The ANC and, in particular South Africa as a sovereign state, should beg no country to keep its ambassador in place where it does not wish to be represented. In fact, the remarks made by the vice-president of the SAJBD are sectarian and radical in themselves because it serves to cause anxiety and apprehension about the ANC administration under President Cyril Ramaphosa by suggesting that South Africa’s Jewry has an enemy.
As in the last 25 years of democracy, South Africa’s Jewry have nothing to fear and have no enemies. What is well within the government of South Africa, they would find, are enemies of discrimination, enemies of human rights atrocities and enemies of violence.
The words of Nelson Mandela, who was seen with Comrade Joe Slovo by those two ladies in that story, continue to reverberate across our country and the ANC continues to listen to them. “As long as the Palestinian people are not free, South Africa will not be free.” As long as Palestinian people are not free even South Africa’s Jewry will not be free. DM
Jessie Duarte is Deputy Secretary General of ANC