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In the War Against Apartheid
Posted on Jul 11, 2013
By Alan Wieder
Joe’s political education grew at Mrs. Sher’s home. He was still attending school, but his formal education was short-lived because he was forced to get a job and support himself. Fortuitously, one of his teachers was John O’Meara, who was a member of the CPSA and also the uncle of one of Joe’s future ANC friends in Tanzania and Mozambique, the political scientist Dan O’Meara. In his book, Joe describes many of the other inhabitants at the boarding house and lists their activities: rummy, poker, klabberjas (a card game), horse and dog racing banter, and, of course, political discussions (some continuations of Jewish Workers’ Club debates).
Joe was recruited by the Zionist-Marxist organization Hashomer Hatzair when he lived at Mrs. Sher’s. He recalls a Troskyist who cared more about Jewish workers in Palestine than he did about blacks in South Africa. Joe’s thoughts were directed toward class disparity and racism:
The combined inheritance of Zionism and boarding house armchair socialism (in terms of which a “kaffir remains a kaffir”) and the absence of any relationship with blacks other than in master-servant form, made my transition to real radical politics a difficult one. I well remember the discomfort I felt when I found myself seated between black youths at that first meeting of the Junior Left Book Club to which my teacher O’Meara had taken me.24
Joe Slovo’s reflections are not unique and are as much if not more analytical than personal. There was both theoretical and practical racial tension among South African socialists throughout the twentieth century. Allison Drew documents the historical reality in Discordant Comrades. Although many in the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress were highly critical of what they labeled “armchair socialist” Trotskyists, other tensions and schisms existed throughout the twentieth-century history of both groups.
Joe took a job as a dispatch clerk at a pharmaceutical company called Sive Brothers and Karnovsky. Simultaneously influenced by the political discussions at the boarding house and even more by John O’Meara, he threw himself into left-wing politics. Mike Feldman befriended Joe during their teen years and he recalls him as fun-loving, social, and political. He accompanied Joe to a meeting at the Johannesburg City Hall and they both applied for membership in the Communist Party. Union leader Issy Wolfson informed them that they were too young and needed to work in the Young Communist League. Joe admired Wolfson, who was born in South Africa in 1906 and joined the CPSA in 1934. Wolfson quickly rose in Party ranks, becoming one of two spokesmen for white workers as well as a member of the Politburo. Joe was accepted into the Party on probationary status in 1942. He passionately committed to Party work and believed that the revolution was imminent, a belief he carried throughout his life working for a socialist revolution in South Africa. One of his other teachers in the Party was Solomon Buirski, who earlier as a leader in the International Socialist League had helped forge alliances with organizations like the non-racial Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union to recruit and politicize black workers. Joe was diligent as he sold Party publications including The Guardian and Inkululeko (Freedom) in Johannesburg’s black townships. He and his comrades would often sit with the paper’s readers talking and debating articles and politics. His initial political action, however, was organizing workers, mostly blacks, at Sive Brothers and Karnovsky where he worked:
We put up a literature stall in the black lavatory structure where we regularly sold Party publications, more especially the vernacular bi-monthly newspaper Inkululeko. We also operated an illicit wall newspaper in the same structure. Since we knew that no conventional white man would ever have the stomach to enter a black lavatory, it became quite a useful base for aspects of our work.25
In affiliation with the Black Chemical Workers, Joe helped facilitate the unionization of workers at Sive Brothers and Karnovsky. At the same time, he was a member of the National Union of Distributive Workers, a whites-only union that struck successfully for better wages in October 1942. As a result, the salaries of Joe and other white workers were raised, yet the strike had no effect on black workers, the same people Joe had organized. He goes to great lengths in his book to describe and analyze union and political racism within the South African left. As often as not, white workers fought to repress black workers because they were viewed as an economic threat. Thus racism, whether it was in workers or capitalists, connected to economics.
Joe Slovo continued to contest the racism that existed within the left; the owners of Sive Brothers and Karnovsky struggled with him as an employee. He was elected shop steward shortly after the strike, but more important, he continued his political work with his black coworkers. In March 1944, he was called in by one of the company’s owners, Sammy Sive, and informed that he should curtail his political activities and be grateful that he had a job at “such a nice Jewish firm.”26 Sive explained, “At heart we are all communists.”27 He told Joe that the firm donated money to Medical Aid for Russia. Joe, by his own account, recalled that his response to Sive was somewhat “cheeky. … My torrent left him speechless. He just pointed a shaking finger toward the door and, as I moved towards it, I heard a deep sigh accompanied by that most expressive all-purpose Jewish lament, ‘Oy vey.’”28
1. Author’s interview with Gavin Williams, 2011.
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