South African President Nelson Mandela declared next Sunday a day of national mourning for Housing Minister Joe Slovo, who died Jan. 5 at the age of 68.
He had been suffering from bone marrow cancer for some time.
Born Yossel Mashal Slovo in Obelei, Lithuania, he was a longtime Communist who devoted his life to the fight for full racial equality in South Africa.
He was the first white to be elected to the executive of the African National Congress and was one of two Jews to become part of the Cabinet after Mandela won the country’s first all-race elections last April.
“His death is a tremendous loss to our whole country. He was a man who, until recently, was vilified by a section of the people who saw him virtually as the devil incarnate,” said Ronnie Kasrils, deputy minister of defense and now the only remaining Jew in the South African Cabinet.
“Now he has emerged as virtually as hero for all in his record and contribution in transforming our country. This is what Slovo was about.
“His struggle was to overthrow racism in this country and to create a truly democratic society. The transformation that has occurred in South Africa has won the support of overwhelming numbers of our people – whites as well as blacks. Slovo was one of the chief architects of that change,” said Kasrils.
ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa announced that a state funeral for Slovo would be held Jan. 15 at the Avalon Cemetery in the black township of Soweto.
Although Slovo was a proclaimed atheist and Communist, he never denied his Judaism.
In an interview about a year ago in the South African cultural journal Jewish Affairs, Slovo said, “I’m not defensive at all about being a Jew. I’m quite proud of it. And I regard anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish cultural activities on the same basis as racism in this country.
“I regard myself as from Jewish extraction and coming from a group with a very rich history and culture. And part of that history and culture has impacted on my own choice of a way of life,” he said.
South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, who has been invited to participate at a multifaith memorial meeting for Slovo at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto, said the late civil rights leader had a “very warm Jewish heart.”
While Slovo had no connection with the official Jewish community, Harris said, he had close Jewish ties and used to read the poet Shalom Aleichem in the original Yiddish.
“Joe Slovo was a contradiction – a Marxist-Leninist-Communist who nevertheless always put the well-being of the people first. He was therefore able, on the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe, to foster what he called democratic socialism,” said Harris.
“Although in the formal sense Joe Slovo was not a good Jew, he will go down in history as a great human being.”
Slovo emigrated form Lithuania to South Africa with his family when he was 8 years old.
Attracted to the credo of universal human equality, he joined the communist Party of South Africa at the age of 16.
The Communists were the first official party in South Africa to welcome black members. Slovo was chairman of the party at the time of his death.
During World War II, he served as a radio operator in Egypt and Italy. After the war, he studied for a degree in law at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he met fellow law student Nelson Mandela.
He graduated with distinction and went into practice in Johannesburg.
In 1949 he married Ruth First, daughter of Julius First, a founding member of the Communist Party. Because of their political beliefs, they were later banned by the government from attending meetings or having their statements quoted in the press.
In 1950, after the government passed the Suppression of Communism Act, the party dissolved, but went underground in 1953 as the South Africa Communist Party.
In 1961, Slovo took part in the formation of Umkhonto we Sisze, the armed wing of the African National Congress. He was a member of its national high command.
Slovo, Mandela and more than 150 others were charged with treason in December 1956 for supporting the Freedom Charter, which called for full democracy in the country, regardless of race.
Slovo was both a defendant and a member of the defense team during the trial, which ended with the acquittal of all the defendants.
After the apartheid government banned the ANC in 1960, Slovo, along with Mandela and others, launched a campaign of sabotage against strategic government installations.
After Mandela was arrested in 1963, Slovo fled into exile and served as chief of staff of the ANC’s armed wing.
During the next 14 years, he lived in Tanzania, Angola, Zambia and England.
His first wife, Ruth, was killed by a letter bomb in 1982 in Maputo, Mozambique. He later remarried.
There years later, Slovo became the first white elected to the national executive of the ANC.
Under an amnesty for political exiles in 1990, Slovo returned to South Africa. That same year, Mandela was released from prison, and he and Slovo became involved in negotiations end apartheid.
After the ANC made the pledge to hold peaceful negotiations with the ruling National Party, Slovo proposed a crucial plan – know as the “Sunset Clause” – allowing for power-sharing in South Africa.
The agreement broke a deadlock in the negotiations with the government and led to the country’s first all-race elections in April 1994. Mandela’s victory in that election officially ended apartheid and brought the ANC to power.
Slovo was fourth on the ANC’s list of parliamentary candidates in the elections. As minister of housing, he pursued the goal of providing affordable housing for everyone.
His last public appearance was at the ANC’s national conference in December 1994, where he received from Mandela his party’s highest honor, the Isithwalandwe/Seaparankoe (“He Who Wears the Leopard’s Skin”) award.
“What I did, I did without any regrets,” he said upon receiving the award. “I decided long ago that there is only one target, and that target is to remove the racist regime and obtain power for the people.”