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In the War Against Apartheid

Posted on Jul 11, 2013

By Alan Wieder

The following is the first chapter of “Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid” by Alan Wieder. Available from Monthly Review Press. ©July 2013.

1—From the Shtetl to South Africa

RUTH FIRST IS BURIED in Llanguene Cemetery in a dusty Mozambican suburb. Her grave lies next to those of other members of the African National Congress who were killed by the apartheid government in a 1981 raid, referred to as the Matola Massacre, where South African soldiers in blackface committed cold-blooded murder. Ruth’s killing was no less brutal: the South African regime sent a letter bomb that detonated in her hands and sent shrapnel into the bodies of her colleagues at Eduardo Mondlane University. Joe Slovo is one of two white South Africans that lie in rest at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, one of Johannesburg’s massive black townships. His funeral, a national event, took place before a crowd of over 40,000 people packed into Orlando Stadium, home of Soweto’s premier soccer club, where he was eulogized by among others, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris. Though the stadium was quiet during Joe’s funeral, on the streets of the township on the way to the cemetery Joe Slovo was remembered by the South African people as they danced, laughed, and sang “Hamba Kahle Umkhonto” (Go Well, Spear of the Nation) in a celebration of Joe’s life. At Avalon Cemetery, Joe was lowered into his grave not by the South African military, but rather by Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres, Joe Slovo’s comrades in the fight against the apartheid regime.

Both Ruth and Joe’s funerals and resting places offer stark contrast to their Eastern European Jewish roots in Latvia and Lithuania. Joe Slovo was born May 23, 1926, in Obelei, a small village close to Vilna, the city that Napoleon referred to as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.”

He left when he was ten years old and his memories were of a small Yiddish-speaking world and an ear-pinching rabbi. Ruth First was a native South African, born May 4, 1925; her father, Julius First, had immigrated with his mother and older brother to South Africa from Latvia in 1907 when he was ten years old. Ruth’s mother, Tilly, whose birth name was Matilda Leveton, emigrated from Lithuania three years earlier.

Eastern European Jews began to come to South Africa in the late nineteenth century, an exodus that parallels even greater numbers moving to North America. Forty thousand had arrived in South Africa by 1914. Although there had always been anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, it escalated greatly in 1881 with the assassination of the modestly liberal Russian tsar, Alexander II, who had freed over 40 million serfs and had also eased military conscription, opened up universities, and liberalized business practices for Russian Jews. Upon his death, in places like Latvia and Lithuania, Jews were removed from certain areas and excluded from many occupations and employment opportunities, an ironic foreshadowing of what was to happen to blacks in South Africa. In effect, Jews were ghettoized and were unable to support themselves and their families. In World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe refers to them as the “poor and the hopelessly poor.” In addition, violent oppression, the worst form taking shape in the pogroms, made life unlivable—dangerous and life-threatening.

Though life had never been easy for the ancestors of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the Diaspora, the families were part of a rich history. Vilna was one of the centers of Jewish piety, scholarship, and intellect and was later a city that celebrated the Yiddish writing and humor of Shalom Aleichem. Irving Howe’s description of Yiddish might unwittingly be a portrayal of Joe Slovo: “Yiddish was a language intimately reflecting the travail of wandering, exile, dispersion; it came, in the long history of the Jews, like a late and beloved, if not fully honored, son.”7 In addition to Yiddish culture, a semblance of socialism began to grow in the last decade of the nineteenth century, as more and more Jews were displaced.

There is no detailed record of Ruth’s family’s journey. The reasonable assumption is that they made the same migration into Western Europe that was made by the masses of Jews. It might be that it was the success stories of two Lithuanian Jews, Sammy Marks and Isaac Lewis, who had both prospered economically when they immigrated to South Africa in the nineteenth century, that led the Levetons and Firsts to choose South Africa. Ruth’s family was part of the wave of immigration that began in 1882, after Alexander II’s assassination, and ended with the beginning of the First World War in 1914. The Levetons and Firsts might have traveled overland, but more likely they sailed from the Baltic port of Libau, which, though more expensive, was safer than land travel. Most of the people who journeyed to South Africa initially departed from the European mainland to London, where they were aided and supported by an organization called the Jewish Shelter.

We can assume that the Levetons and Firsts made the long train trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg once they landed on the shores of South Africa. It should be remembered that Johannesburg was then in its infancy. The city began as a mining camp when gold was discovered in 1886. Rapid growth followed as the camp grew from 300 to 3,000 people by the end of the year. In 1892, a railroad line was built between Johannesburg and Cape Town, a city that dates back to the seventeenth century. By 1895, Johannesburg was the largest African city south of the equator. By the time Tilly and Julius arrived in Johannesburg approximately 200,000 people lived in the city including over 25,000 Jews. Tilly and Julius both attended the Jewish Government School in Doornfontein, the same school that Ruth and Joe would briefly attend as children.


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