Daughter of the struggle

Gillian Slovo, author of "Every Secret Thing," has spent a lifetime coming to terms with having a heroic mother and father.


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Gillian Slovo
June 30, 1997 11:49PM (UTC)

Gillian Slovo, 11 years old, stands in her parents' bedroom in Johannesburg,
watching her mother pack expensive silk underwear into a suitcase. It appears to be a normal, suburban family moment. Yet, like the rest of her life, it isn't. Her mother is not packing for a vacation in this intimate moment. She is being hauled off to jail, where she will spend nearly four months in the terror of solitary confinement, even attempting suicide in a fit of disorientation and anguished self-doubt.

Now 45, Slovo still remembers the awkward farewell under the eyes of a surly
security policeman, as, once again, she watched a parent leave home -- return date unknown.

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"My mother looked at me, almost as if she didn't know who I was," she writes
in her new book, "Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country" (Little, Brown). "Finally, her eyes seemed to focus on me and leaning closer, she tossed a few loving reassuring words my way, topping them up with one last injunction. 'Look after Robyn,' she said." And so Ruth First went off to jail for 117 days, and Gillian looked after her little sister Robyn. No wonder that, as Slovo writes, "Sometimes, it was difficult to know which of the two of us was the mother and which the child."

Gillian and Robyn, and their oldest sister Shawn, were born to two legendary figures in South Africa's political struggle. Ruth First and Joe Slovo were South Africa's premier white activist couple, middle-class Jews who broke the South African color bar and risked their lives fighting the apartheid regime while partying until dawn. First was a charismatic and glamorous beauty who ran a rabble-rousing communist newspaper during the 1950s and '60s. After being tried for treason and jailed, she fled to London with her children. She was blown to pieces in Mozambique by a letter bomb mailed by pro-apartheid assassins in 1982. Joe Slovo, an intellectual lawyer, founded the African National Congress' guerrilla army with his friend Nelson Mandela when Gillian was not yet 10. Soon after, he fled their comfortable home and went into exile, where he commandeered fighters, planned bombing sorties and ran the South African Communist Party. By the time the government allowed the exiles home in 1990, Slovo was such a target of assassination that he rarely slept in the same place two nights in a row. He led the ANC's negotiations for power, and then was appointed its minister of housing. When he died of cancer three years ago, nearly a million people poured into Soweto, the black township where he was accorded the supreme honor of being buried.

Several years ago, when I was covering Africa for Newsday, a colleague and I were driving gingerly down a dirt path in a thunderstorm in Lusaka, Zambia -- then the ANC exile headquarters -- when Joe Slovo suddenly stepped out. We nearly hit him. "Hey!" he laughed. "Better trained people than you have tried to kill me and failed!"

It was classic Slovo. The ANC's guerrilla chief had a crackling wit, even about being the prime target of South Africa's assassins. In the end, even his direst enemies fell for his breezy charm, and white newspapers dubbed him "Uncle Joe," amazed that the man who spent decades commanding bomb attacks could be so darn likable.

To be born of such parents was an extraordinary stroke of fate. But it left the Slovo sisters feeling that their lives, and certainly their parents, were never fully their own -- a sensation perhaps familiar to the children of many famous politicians and celebrities. Hours after Joe Slovo died, Nelson Mandela came to comfort Gillian and her sisters and share a personal pain. Gillian writes, "He told us how one day when he had gone to hug his grown-up daughter, she had flinched away from him and burst out, 'You are the father to all our people, but you have never had the time to be a father to me.' He let that last sentence hover before speaking again. This, he said, was his greatest, perhaps his only regret: The fact that his children, and the children of his comrades, had been the ones to pay the price of their parents' commitment."

Coming to terms with her parents has been Gillian Slovo's lifelong quest. Some years ago, Shawn Slovo asked the same questions in her screenplay for "A World Apart," in which Barbara Hershey played Ruth First. Now Gillian's book goes over the same painful ground.

It was a strange, tense, difficult life. With the security net tightening around the family during the early '60s, Slovo writes, "secrecy drifted over every section of our lives. It reached such a pitch that my mother no longer made even the most innocent arrangements by telephone."

Even in exile, both parents drifted in and out of the house on clandestine missions. Still, their daughters asked no questions. "I think there was a side of me that didn't want to know, or didn't want to ask," Slovo said. "It was part of the way we lived our lives that we didn't ask. The secrecy was necessary, because to reveal those secrets was to risk people's lives."

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The three girls were
abandoned for long periods to their grandparents, servants, friends -- anyone who happened not to be in jail or on the run. Many times, Slovo writes, they felt they were being tossed on a stormy sea with no life raft and little idea of what to expect next.

Recalling a moment when she watched her parents walking on the beach, their heads close together "not out of affection ... but so that no one, not even their daughter, could hear about my father's secret work," Slovo writes, "Is this what happens, I thought then, that the webs of secrecy enmesh all of life, shrouding not only the details of the military operations that my father had organized, but also the way we feel towards each other? I never found a way of asking her."

Yet the children were always aware that with a revolution erupting around them, to demand their parents'
attention seemed petty and spoiled. When Robyn was 11, she launched a campaign "to try and get Ruth to be like other mothers, to be there at breakfast and at supper too." Needless to say, it failed miserably.
"Even as children we carried internal scales of justice which we used to
weigh up ... the needs of the impoverished masses against ours," Slovo writes. "How could we win? We knew enough about what our parents were doing to realize that we couldn't ask them to make another choice. But could we also find a way to hush those inner voices which cried out for safety, security, normality -- all those things our white school friends had?"

Slovo, in fact, found more than she bargained for. She discovered that Joe had an illegitimate son, now 25, and that Ruth had had a long love affair while in hiding, when Joe was in exile and her small girls were mostly parentless at home. Not surprisingly, some veteran activists in South Africa, where commitment to "the struggle" was an unquestioned dictum, have felt uneasy about Slovo's questioning, wondering why she didn't simply write a eulogy to their national heroes.

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"I really believe quite strongly that if the history of the 20th century teaches us anything, it's the re-examination of our heroes," Slovo says, reached by phone at her London home. "I would never deny that my parents played an absolutely heroic role in the anti-apartheid struggle. But they were also human beings. And if we cannot allow our heroes to be human beings, we're in serious trouble."

Unlike Mandela's children, or the children of many other heroes, the
Slovo girls' isolation was in extreme, mind-bending discordance with their environment. After all, writes Slovo, "We were privileged white South African children, serviced by servants, attending whites-only schools ... and our parents were plotting to overthrow the state."

For years, the sisters struggled to fit in with their normal school friends. But given the twittering of teachers and friends' parents, their sidelong gapes and whispers, it was often a losing battle. While Ruth was in jail, young Gillian performed a gypsy dance in her school play, and remembers: "All my will power went into articulating each successive step. I stamped the ground, tossed my head, grinned wildly, my body calling on the audience to notice me. A refrain kept echoing in my head: Notice me, notice me, don't notice me. I didn't know which I wanted."

Slovo, who has written eight novels, says that writing the book was
an agonizing process. "This book has been quite a journey for me. But I don't believe you can ever remake yourself, and leave the past behind. For example, any of my friends will tell you that I like people to be punctual. If they aren't, I always have that vague feeling inside: 'Where are they? What's happened to them?' I don't think I'll ever rid myself of that. It's been very emotional for me to bring it all to consciousness."

When she initially broached the idea for the book with Joe, he exploded in anger: "It's my life ... my life, not yours." Only as he drew closer to dying did he begin divulging details of his 35-year marriage to Ruth, confessions Slovo includes in her book.

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"My father had achieved something that he'd fought for all his life, and was working to build," Slovo says. "He absolutely loved it, and on top of that he was also dying. He didn't want to think about the past. He just wanted to use all his remaining energy to do exactly what he was doing."

Asked what it was like to attend funerals for one's parents that were carefully choreographed mass events, Slovo says, "It was very difficult. I feel very, very differently about my two parents' deaths. My mother's death was so sudden and violent, and we were then launched into a very public event. We had no control, and we weren't consulted about the funeral at the time. With my father's death, we really had three years' warning. We sat with him in the weeks before he died. And the ANC consulted with us more than in Ruth's death. But obviously, it was very difficult to go to a funeral where our grief was not predominant, but a public celebration of his life."

In 1985, Slovo's own daughter, Cassie, was born into a stunningly different
environment. A carefree schoolgirl in London, she does not have to keep secrets to stay alive (although she did inherit from Joe his forged passport and a travel bag with secret compartments). And yet, the past hasn't entirely been abandoned.

"Of course the circumstances have given me a very different family life,"
Slovo says. "I didn't have to make the choice which my parents made. In my life, I had a childhood of such secrecy. So that now what I do is, I talk to my child a lot, I tell her about what is going on, what's just happened, what will happen. I don't allow any secrets."

Freed from her parents' choices, Gillian has adopted her exile country determinedly, refusing to trod the path followed by her parents. In her book, she remembers a woman approaching her at her mother's huge funeral in Mozambique. "'Your mother has been forced to drop the spear ... Now you must pick it up.' How could I? ... I was myself, not Ruth. Her shadow was too large, her spear too heavy."


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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