Joe Slovo


By 1600 all of what is now South Africa has been occupied by indigenous Africans. European encroachment begins in 1652 when the Dutch establish a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope on the southwestern tip of Africa. The British seize the settlement in 1795, leading to conflict with the established European farmers (the Boer). The conflict eventually boils over into the Boer War of 1899-1902. The British win but ultimately opt to give South Africa independence.

The Union of South Africa is formed on 31 May 1910. Black South Africans have limited voting rights and are subjected to growing discrimination. In 1948 the National Party wins the all-white general election on a campaign promise to introduce a system of "apartheid" to totally separate the races. Opposition to the apartheid system by the black majority is ruthlessly suppressed. The National Party will remain in power until 1994. More background.

Mini biography

Born Yossel Mashel Slovo on 23 May 1926 in Obelai, Lithuania. Slovo's family is Jewish. He has one younger sister.

1935 - Slovo's family emigrates to South Africa to escape the rise of antisemitism in Europe.

1941 - Poverty forces Slovo to leave school prematurely. He joins the Communist Party of South Africa the following year. During the Second World War he volunteers to fight for the Allies against the Axis forces. Later he becomes active in the Springbok Legion, an organisation formed to fight for the rights of soldiers.

1946 - He studies law at the University of South Africa. Slovo is politically active as a student and becomes friends with Nelson Mandela. He graduates in 1950.

1948 - The National Party is voted into power by the white electorate. The party has campaigned on the promise to introduce a system of "apartheid" to totally separate the races. Discrimination against blacks, "coloureds" and Asians will be codified and extended.

All South Africans are legally assigned to one racial group - white, African, coloured or Asian. All races have separate living areas and separate amenities (such as toilets, parks and beaches). Signs enforcing the separation are erected throughout the country. Only white South Africans are allowed full political rights.

Black Africans have no parliamentary representation outside of the supposedly independent homelands created by the state. Mixed marriages are prohibited. Black trade unions are banned. Education is provided only up to a level to which it is deemed "a native is fitted". Separate universities and colleges are established for Africans, coloureds and Indians. Jobs can be categorised as being for whites only. Travel without a pass is not permitted.

Police powers are expanded. Those charged with dissent are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The Suppression of Communism Act (1950) allows the police to "list" almost any opponent of apartheid as a supporter of the outlawed Communist Party of South Africa.

Opponents can be "banned", an order subjecting them to lengthy periods of house arrest and preventing them from holding public office, attending public meetings and visiting specified areas. The Native Administration Act (1956) allows the government to "banish" Africans to remote rural areas.

During the 1950s there are approximately 500,000 pass law arrests annually, more than 600 individuals are listed as communists, nearly 350 are banned, and more than 150 are banished.

1949 - Slovo marries Ruth First, daughter of Communist Party treasurer Julius First. The couple have three daughters.

1952 - In February the African National Congress (ANC) calls on the government to repeal all unjust laws or face a Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws. Mass rallies and strikes staged on 6 April and 26 June attract thousands of supporters.

The government reacts by introducing harsher penalties for protests against apartheid. Campaign leaders and opposition newspapers are banned and about 8,500 people are arrested.

The defiance campaign has helped build ANC membership from about 7,000 at the beginning of the year to more than 100,000 by the year's end.

1953 - The Communist Party of South Africa is reactivated as the South African Communist Party (SACP).

1954 - Slovo is listed as a communist under the Suppression of Communism Act and banned from political activity. He cannot be quoted or attend public gatherings in South Africa. He continues to provide legal counsel for black dissidents and in 1955 helps draft the antiapartheid movement's Freedom Charter. The charter states that South Africa belongs to all people living within it regardless of race, that all South Africans should be treated equally before the law, and that the country's wealth should be distributed equitably.

1956 - Slovo, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and 152 others are arrested for high treason and charges under the Suppression of Communism Act. Slovo is detained for two months. While the charges against him are dropped in 1958, the so-called Treason Trial of the other defendants lasts until 1961 when they are acquitted on all counts. The court finds that the ANC does not have a policy of violence.

1959 - A radical faction of the ANC splits from the parent body and forms the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). The PAC advocates direct action against the apartheid regime.

1960 - During the 1960s, the regime introduces a program of forced relocation. Africans, coloureds and Asians are moved from areas designated for whites only to the "homelands" and other declared areas. By the 1980s about 3.5 million have been relocated.

In March the PAC begins a national campaign against the pass laws. Africans are asked to assemble outside police stations without their passes and challenge the police to arrest them. The confrontation turns violent on 21 March when police open fire on a peaceful protest at Sharpeville, a black township near Johannesburg. Sixty-nine black Africans are killed and 186 wounded. Most have been shot in the back.

When demonstrations continue, the government declares a state of emergency and arrests about 18,000 protesters, including the leaders of the ANC and the PAC. Both organisations are banned. Slovo is arrested and detained for six months.

1961 - On 31 May South Africa leaves the British Commonwealth and becomes a republic. The ANC organises a national strike in protest. When the government responds by introducing new and harsher laws, and by mobilising its armed forces to break up the strike, ANC leaders conclude that the time has come for the Congress to move beyond nonviolent protest.

Slovo assists with the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the ANC's military wing, and becomes one of its leaders. On 16 December Umkhonto commences a campaign of sabotage against power supplies, pass offices, government buildings and other infrastructure targets. Over the next two years about 200 acts of sabotage are carried out by Umkhonto.

1963 - Slovo is out of the country in July when police raid an ANC safe house in Rivonia, a suburb on the northern outskirts Johannesburg, and discover arms and equipment.

In the aftermath, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other leaders of the ANC and Umkhonto are placed on trial for sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government by violence. The so-called Rivonia Trial receives considerable international attention.

The defendants face the death penalty. They plead not guilty, arguing that the government is responsible because it forced them into their actions.

Meanwhile, the government acts to crush any further resistance to apartheid, introducing the General Law Amendment Act. The act allows police to detain suspects for 90 days without charge or access to legal advice. Suspects can then be rearrested and detained for a further 90 days.

1964 - On 11 June eight of the Rivonia accused, including Mandela and Sisulu, are convicted. All eight are sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony 7 km off the coast from Cape Town. The eight, and Nelson Mandela in particular, become a symbol for the struggle of black South Africans and a focus of world attention.

However, despite growing international criticism of the apartheid regime, foreign investment continues to pour into the country and immigration rises.

Slovo is instructed by the South African Communist Party and the ANC to stay in exile. For the next 27 years he campaigns to raise international awareness of the situation in South Africa, working from bases in London, Angola, Zambia, and Mozambique.

1966 - He completes a masters degree in law at the London School of Economics.

1973 - The United Nations (UN) declares apartheid "a crime against humanity".

1975 - The withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial administration from Angola and Mozambique sees the installation in those countries of new independent governments hostile to South Africa's apartheid regime. Umkhonto training and camp facilities are quickly set up in Angola. The ANC military wing now has a base close to South Africa.

On 23 October, and with the blessing of United States President Gerald Ford and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, South Africa invades Angola. The South African forces come within 100 km of the Angolan capital but are forced to pull back when Cuba sends 10,000 to 12,000 troops to assist the Angolan resistance.

1976 - An uprising in Soweto uprising begins on 16 June when high school students protest against the enforced use of Afrikaans in schools. After the police respond with tear gas and gunfire, demonstrators attack and burn down government buildings.

The uprising leads to weeks of demonstrations, marches and boycotts throughout South Africa. Violent clashes with police leave more than 500 dead. Several thousand are arrested. Thousands more seek refuge outside the country, many with the exiled forces of the ANC.

1977 - The UN adopts a mandatory embargo on arms sales to South Africa.

1979 - With capital leaving the country because of political instability, and with the economy beginning to slow, the government attempts to reduce industrial unrest by allowing black workers to form unions. The first chink in the apartheid system has appeared.

1980 - Opposition to South Africa on the African continent is further entrenched when Robert Mugabe's antiapartheid government takes power in Zimbabwe.

1982 - Slovo's wife Ruth is killed by a parcel bomb believed to have been sent by the apartheid regime to her office in Maputo, Mozambique.

1983 - The United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition of nearly 600 organisations, is formed to persuade the government to abolish apartheid. Bishop Desmond Tutu emerges as one of the front's principal spokesmen. By 1984 the front has a membership of more than three million.

1984 - Though still in exile, Slovo is elected general secretary of the SACP.

Meanwhile, the National Party introduces a new constitution in an attempt to stem dissent. However, the constitution, which establishes three racially segregated houses of parliament, for whites, Asians, and coloureds, but excludes blacks from full citizenship, has the opposite effect and is denounced as a continuation of apartheid.

1985 - Slovo becomes the first white member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC.

Conflict and violence escalate in South Africa. In 1984 there are 174 fatalities linked to political unrest. In 1985 the number rises to 879. Capital begins to flee the country. Forty US companies pull out of South Africa in 1984. Another 50 leave in 1985. Inflation rises and standards of living drop.

The government declares states of emergency in various parts of the country; the first time the emergency laws have been used since the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. The laws allow police to arrest without warrant and to detain people indefinitely without charge and without notification to lawyers or next of kin. Censorship of the media is also extended.

1986 - In October the US Congress passes legislation implementing mandatory sanctions against South Africa. All new investments and bank loans are banned, air links between the US and South Africa are terminated and the importation of many South African products is stopped.

1987 - While the union movement becomes increasingly militant, with the number of days lost to strikes reaching 5.8 million in 1987, armed members of the ANC and PAC stage raids on South Africa from their bases in Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

The regime responds by renewing a series of states of emergency, unleashing its police, and sending its military forces on counter-strike raids.

Media restrictions are tightened and the UDF and other activist organisations are effectively banned.

Condemnation of the regime grows around the world. More foreign investors withdraw, banks call in loans, the currency collapses, economic production declines and inflation becomes chronic.

Slovo is again elected general secretary of the SACP.

1988 - In May South African President P.W. Botha, a National Party hardliner, directs the head of his intelligence service, Niel Barnard, to meet secretly with Mandela to discuss the possibility of a peace settlement. More than 60 similar meetings follow.

1989 - The "secret" talks culminate with a face-to-face meeting between Mandela and Botha at Botha's presidential office on 5 July. Botha subsequently resigns following a stroke and is replaced by F.W. de Klerk, a moderate within the National Party.

Mandela meets with de Klerk in December. Negotiations on the terms and conditions for Mandela's release begin.

1990 - On 2 February de Klerk announces that Mandela will be released. He also rescinds the orders banning the ANC, the PAC, the SACP and other previously illegal organisations. Restrictions on the UDF and the media are lifted. Mandela is finally released from prison on Sunday 11 February. Slovo returns from exile to Johannesburg following Mandela's release.

In June Mandela and de Klerk met officially for the first time. In August Mandela announces the suspension of the ANC's armed struggle. In October the government repeals the law requiring the races to use separate amenities.

1991 - On 5 June the government repeals the law making it illegal for Africans to own land in urban areas and the law segregating people by race. A new law allows all races equal rights to own property anywhere in the country. The law assigning every resident of South Africa to a specific racial group is repealed on 17 June. The international community responds by lifting most of the sanctions on South Africa.

On 7 July, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa since the organisation was banned in 1960, Mandela is elected president of the ANC. Sisulu is elected deputy president. Tambo is elected the organisation's national chairperson.

Ill health prevents Slovo from standing again for election as SACP general secretary. At the SACP conference in December he is elected party chairperson.

1992 - White South African's overwhelmingly vote "yes" in a referendum asking if the reform of apartheid should be continued.

1994 - The ANC wins the country's first all-race elections. It becomes the majority partner in a Government of National Unity with the National Party. Nelson Mandela is inaugurated as president on 10 May.

The ministry of the new government includes blacks, whites, Afrikaners, Indians, coloureds, Muslims, Christians, communists, liberals and conservatives. Slovo is appointed minister for housing.

1995 - Slovo dies in Johannesburg on 6 January after a long battle with bone marrow cancer.


1996 - A new South African constitution that bars discrimination against the country's minorities, including whites, is signed into law by Mandela on 10 December. The new constitution contains a bill of rights and ends the Government of National Unity. The ANC takes government in its own right. The National Party becomes the opposition.

1999 - The ANC wins the general election held on 2 June, increasing its majority.


You might not agree with his politics, but you can't question his energy and commitment. As a communist and supporter of social equality, Slovo was hated by the apartheid regime, which couldn't understand why a white man would work with black South Africans to end their oppression. But Slovo saw the blindingly obvious - that South Africa could not survive without social justice. When the Government of National Unity was formed he became one of the country's most popular politicians and one of its most successful ministers.

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