my family, my country

Gillian Slovo reflects on her relationship with her mother, Ruth First, one of South Africa's most prominent white anti-apartheid leaders.

Published June 30, 1997 6:19PM (EDT)

she was a difficult act to follow, was Ruth. She was the kind of role model our generation was searching out, a beautiful, well-dressed woman who had made an impact on the world and who was fighting for a cause that was indisputably just, but she was also our mother. She was both the best of mothers and the worst. When she turned the full light of her attention our way, she could dazzle. And yet, so often, her mind was elsewhere. When my younger sister Robyn was eleven, she launched an offensive to try and get Ruth to be like other mothers, to be there at breakfast and at supper too. Robyn soon gave up. What Ruth did was so obviously important -- how could our petty needs compete?

A difficult act to follow. She was ahead of her time, a path breaker who though beset by guilt towards her children, carried on. We were different from her. If life had not demanded from us the same sacrifices then neither had it provided the same highs. We faced an unrelated set of hurdles. While she had fulfilled all her mother's thwarted ambitions, we had a mother who, in contrast to Tilly's passivity, was not only prepared to give everything for a cause worth fighting for but who'd also made a genuine impact on the world. Some competition that, especially for children who'd been brought up amongst such fiercely competitive parents.

Towards the end of her life, she grew confident enough to acknowledge the way she operated. She wrote in 1979 about a friend who'd complained that her husband could not tolerate weakness, even in his wife. "I reckon," Ruth wrote, "I'm another of those male chauvinists: I cannot stand weakness either."

She couldn't stand weakness: not in other people, not in herself. The one time in her life she had made a bad mistake it had driven her to the brink of death. We, her daughters, tied her to what had gone before. In the letters that passed between she and I can be traced the thin thread of a conversation that we had started many years before and that we never got to finish. She wrote to me asking why, when she had always taught her daughters that we could achieve anything we wanted, we still felt inadequate.

I wondered how she could even have asked, she who was the most competent and the least secure of people. And how could I explain to her that although, unusually for a woman of her generation, she had encouraged us to fulfill our potential, her choices had at the same time removed us from South Africa -- the source of her heroic life's work.

We see-sawed, she and I, caught in mutual misunderstanding. Part of her wanted to see me as an equal, but another part wasn't quite convinced that I was yet a grown up. Did my demands make her impatient? Was I too weak for her as well?

When she got back from London, only weeks before she died, she told a friend that she had finally worked out that what I wanted from her was to be left alone. I didn't want that, not really. I wanted what most daughters ask of their mothers: that she should see me for who I was.

By Gillian Slovo

Gillian Slovo was born in South Africa in 1952 and raised in England from the age of 12. She is the author of eight books, one of which, "Ties of Blood," was published in the United States in 1989. She lives in London.

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