An interview with comrade Joe Slovo

Untitled0-3

Smiles and hugs from long-time comrades, ANC leader Nelson Mandela and SACP leader Joe SLovo meet in Cape Town

For most South Africans, Joe Slovo needs no introduction. Some see him as “public enemy number one”. But many more know him as a tireless fighter of apartheid and a champion of socialism.

Comrade Slovo joined the Communist Party in the early 1940s and has been an active member ever since. At present, he is Secretary-General of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

He is also a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and was one of the earliest members of Its army, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He is a former Chief of Staff of MK and was the first white person to be elected onto the ANC’s National Executive Committee.

Learn and Teach spoke to Joe Slovo at the ANC’s Head Office in Johannesburg.

LEARN AND TEACH: Firstly, welcome home! What’s it like to be back?
SLOVO: Well, I think it’s the most warming feeling to be back. I feel for the first time in twenty-seven years that I am home!

Learn and Teach: Can you please tell us something about yourself? For example, where were you born?
Slovo: I was born in 1926 in a village in Lithuania in the Soviet Union. Of course at that time, Lithuania was not part of the Soviet Union. The people in the village were very poor and so the heads of families used to go and look for work in other places, just like in the rural areas in South Africa. My father left when I was two years old and went to Argentina. He worked there for some time and then the great depression came in 1929. He lost his job and was unable to make a living so he took a boat to South Africa, and eventually he saved up enough money to send tickets for the rest of the family to join him. This was in 1936. My mother came with us but she died a few years later. She died in childbirth.

Learn and Teach: What did your father do?
Slovo: Well, when we lived in Lithuania he was a fisherman, catching and selling fish. But when he came to South Africa, he was a fruit hawker. He used to sell fruit in the streets. He then became a lorry driver for a bakery in Doornfontein. But he kept losing his job, and in those days if you didn’t pay your debts, you could be sent to prison. So he was in and out of prison.

Learn and Teach: What school did you go to?
Slovo: The school was called Observatory Junior Secondary — it went up to standard eight but I left in standard six. I think I was about fourteen then …

Learn and Teach: Why did you leave? Was it because of money?
Slovo: Yes, my father couldn’t support me. At that stage we were living in a boarding house and he was unable to pay the rent, so I went to work. At first, I worked for a company called S.A. Druggists. I was a dispatch clerk. I used to check orders.

Learn and Teach: How did you get involved in politics? Was your family political in any way?
Slovo: My family was not really political. But at school I had an Irish teacher who influenced me. He was very anti-imperialist, anti-British, and he helped me to understand what was going on in the world. He took some of us to what was known then as a junior left book club. During the Second World War leftists used to hold book clubs where we discussed politics. That was really my first involvement in any kind of structured politics. Then, when I went to work at SA Druggists, I became involved in trade union work. I joined the National Union of Distributive Workers, which was then an all-white union. Blacks were not allowed to be in unions.

Learn and Teach: When did you join the Communist Party?
Slovo: I joined the Party while I worked at SA Druggists. I was about sixteen, I think.

Learn and Teach: Could you join the party at such a young age?
Slovo: Well, I tried to join a little bit earlier. The party used to hold meetings at the Johannesburg City Hall every Sunday night, and when I started working I used to go to these meetings, but I was still young. I applied to join, and so they looked at me and said ‘Well, we think you’d better wait until you wear long trousers’!

Learn and Teach: How long did you work at SA Druggists?
Slovo: Not very long — I was fired because of my union and Party activities! We started a factory group of the Party at the company. We had a Party newspaper in the black toilets, and it survived for about two years because we knew that no white would ever walk into a black toilet. After a year or two, we had a strike which we won. Then I was sacked, and I got a job at Elephant Trading Company in Market Street. I was sacked again for my involvement in union activities.

Learn and Teach: What did it mean to be a member of the party?
Slovo: Well, it meant that I was committed to being involved in its activities, and to spending all my spare time advancing its policies.

Untitled0-4

Joe Slovo and ANC leader Ahmed Kathrada singing Nkosi Sikelel i’Africa at a meeting in Lusaka

Learn and Teach: What does it mean to be a communist?
Slovo: A communist is a person who believes that the only decent way in which people can live is if there are no individuals who live off the labour of others. In simple terms, we are talking about the kind of society where there are no bosses, and where people work together for the good of the community as a whole.

Learn and Teach: You said earlier you were sacked from Elephant Trading. What did you do after that?
Slovo: I joined the army. At the time, the Party decided that all its white members should join the army to fight against the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini. Not blacks — because they were not allowed to carry arms. I fought in Egypt and Italy, and came back after when the war was over, at the end of 1945.

Learn and Teach: How did you come to study law?
Slovo: Because I was an ex-serviceman, I was able to get a grant to go to university and an exemption for matric — which I never had. I then studied for a BA LLB at Wits, qualified as a barrister (advocate) and from 1950 to 1963 I practised law at the bar in Johannesburg.

Learn and Teach: In the eyes of some white people you are “public enemy number one”. How do you feel about this label?
Slovo: Well, I suppose to be called “public enemy number one” by racists is quite an honour!

Learn and Teach: Perhaps we can talk about events in the country that are taking place now. You were a member of the ANC delegation at the meeting with the government at Groote Schuur in May. Could you please talk about why the ANC decided to come and speak to the government?
Slovo: Well, I don’t think anyone in the ANC ever thought that negotiations is something which stands in a different corner to the struggle. We very early on accepted that negotiations or talks or dialogue is just part of the site of struggle. The goal of talks and the goal of struggle is the same. There’s no difference between the two. Our goal is, and has always been, people’s power. There’s no principle that says ‘violence is the only way to struggle’ or ‘dialogue is the only way to struggle.’ Of course, if you look at our history, we were forced into armed struggle because all the other avenues had closed. But we have always believed that if we could achieve what the people wanted through peaceful means, that was the preferable course. It’s the preferable course for all serious revolutionaries.

Learn and Teach: Why do you think the government was finally prepared to come to the table with the ANC?
Slovo: Well, I think the main reason was the many years of increasing pressure from people inside and outside the country.

Learn and Teach: How do the ANC and SACP see the unbanning of these organisations?
Slovo: The ANC and SACP weren’t unbanned as a present from de Klerk — it was a victory for us. This victory opened up new space for us to take the struggle forward. When an organisation is made legal this opens up enormous possibilities for it to grow strong, to get better organised, to mobilise the people more effectively. As you have seen since the unbannings, we are trying to use that space fully.

Untitled0-5

A close alliance – ANC leaders ALfred Nzo and Nelson Mandela with SACP leader Joe Slovo at an ANC meeting in Lusaka

Learn and Teach: Could you please tell us how the ANC sees the process of negotiations?
Slovo: Well, I think it’s clear from the Harare Declaration that there are three stages in this process. The Harare Declaration was a document which was drawn up by the ANC, and was then adopted by the whole world. The first stage is the removal of all obstacles in the way of negotiations. The Harare Declaration says there is no possibility of negotiations starting until the state of emergency is lifted; organisations are unbanned; political prisoners are released and the exiles are allowed to return safely; troops are removed from the townships and repressive laws are removed. So far the government has only met some of these conditions. So, that is the first stage, and that is the stage at which we are. In our meeting with the regime at Groote Schuur we told them to meet all these conditions before we can get to the next stage — which is the suspension of hostilities on both sides leading to a cease-fire. We are not talking about abandoning the armed struggle but suspending it. But we made it clear that we are not prepared to suspend the armed struggle unless the government stops violence on its side. If that second stage is achieved, then the way is open for the third stage: the parties can now sit around the table and begin negotiations proper. But until that happens, of course, the struggle goes on in the same way as before.

Learn and Teach: At the end of these talks, both the ANC and the government signed an agreement which came to be known as the Groote Schuur Minute. In the Minute, both sides said that they were committed to the process of peaceful change and working groups have been set up to see that these changes happen. How important is this document and what does it mean to the struggle?
Slovo: Well, it is part of this process that I have just described. It’s at the moment just a piece of paper, and the real question is whether it will work.

Untitled0-6

Flashback to Lusaka, January 1987: Joe Slovo with MK leaders Chris Hani and Joe Modise

Learn and Teach: There are some people who are critical of the ANC for talking to the government at this time. What is your response to this criticism?
Slovo: As I said in my speech at the rally in Soweto, it is precisely because we engaged the regime in struggle — including armed struggle, not just in theory but in practice — that they have been forced to open this dialogue. And perhaps I should say that some people are very confused about ‘what is a revolutionary policy’. Some people think that a revolutionary policy is a policy that sounds revolutionary. That is not the correct test. In some cases to engage in violence is revolutionary, and in some cases, it is counter-revolutionary. In some cases, to talk of peaceful dialogue, is revolutionary, in other cases, it is counter-revolutionary. The only test is: ‘Will what you are doing take you back, or enable you to go forward?’ We believe that by talking, we are going forward.

Learn and Teach: At this point, what should people and organisations on the ground be doing to end apartheid?
Slovo: I think we should continue struggling against apartheid. We should be mounting campaigns, around all the issues — not just local grievances, but around the issues of people’s power, such as the demand for a constituent assembly, for a redistribution of wealth, and a redivision of the land.

Learn and Teach: The ANC and SACP have fought side by side for many years. Can you please tell us something about the history of the alliance?
Slovo: The alliance has had a long history which started from the beginning of the 1920s, when the Party was formed. The two organisations have always worked together on campaigns like the anti-pass laws. This led eventually to the creation of a formal relationship in 1961.

Learn and Teach: Why was this alliance formed and how is that the two movements are able to work so closely together?
Slovo: The majority of our people suffer two kinds of oppression — economic exploitation and national oppression. You cannot really completely separate the two. They see themselves as being exploited, not just as workers, but as black workers. And so, it’s quite understandable that two organisations — one which is trying to achieve the national aspirations of people, and the other which is trying to achieve the class aspirations — should move closer and closer together. At the present time, the Party accepts that national liberation is the emphasis of this stage of the struggle.

Learn and Teach: The South African government sees the ANC as being dominated by the SACP. Can you please comment on this?
Slovo: It’s not true. And in fact, let me say this: One of the reasons why this alliance exists so strongly, and why non-communists, starting from Luthuli to Tambo to Mandela, treasure this alliance is for the exact opposite reason that the government gives. It is because they have learnt that communists don’t go into an organisation to dominate it, that the ANC values the contribution that communists have made throughout history to the growth and strengthening of the ANC as the ANC. When communists participate in the ANC as members — and I am one of them — they accept that they fall under the discipline of the ANC. If you have ever been to an ANC conference, you would have seen how communists sometimes argue in completely different directions on ANC policy.

Learn and Teach: What are the Party’s plans in the short term?
Slovo: The party is going to emerge as a legal organisation, and this is going to happen sooner than you think. We’re going to announce our interim leadership soon. But of course, we’ve been illegal, for forty years, and you can’t change everything in forty days. It’s a little bit of a process!

Learn and Teach: Will anybody be able to join the Party or will there be a strict selection procedure?
Slovo: The party will invite people who support its policy/its programme and its strategic approaches to join it. Just like any other normal political organisation. We want to grow into a mass party of the new type, but we accept that our numbers will be fewer than the ANC. Much more is demanded of a communist than of a person who belongs to any other political organisation. We believe that communists must show by their contribution by personal character, by dedication and by their readiness to sacrifice. We believe that each communist is an example of a revolutionary.

Untitled0-7

African Heads of States and ANC NEC members met in Lusaka in February this year. Joe Slovo can be seen in the background.

Learn and Teach: What is your relationship with COSATU?
Slovo: We recently had a very fruitful workshop with COSATU in Zimbabwe. COSATU had 32 delegates, and we had 28 of our members. We spent three days discussing the role of the working class both now and in a post-apartheid South Africa, and we exchanged views on many questions. We believe that in future there will be many occasions for us to work together in an alliance with the ANC, because both COSATU and the Party represent the working-class.

Learn and Teach: How does the party see the role of trade unions in the future South Africa?
Slovo: I think the trade unions have a completely independent role. They must not be controlled by any political force whether its the ANC or the Communist Party. Their job both now and in a future society is to represent their membership — the organised working class — and to protect their interests. I think one of the main reasons that things went wrong in Eastern Europe, is that the trade unions were controlled by political organisations and they were suffocated.

Learn and Teach: How does the Party see the role of women both in the Party and in society at large?
Slovo: Well, our position is very strong on this question. Our practice is not so strong! But, we are really very conscious of the need to be serious. If you read our Umsebenzi, I don’t think there is ever an issue which doesn’t contain some kind of reflection on this problem. The women’s issue is really about men. Some men still have male chauvinist attitudes and this is what we have to address.

Untitled0-8

Joe Slovo: I am absolutely convinced that socialism will work

Learn and Teach: You mentioned Eastern Europe earlier. Could you briefly talk about recent events in Eastern Europe and what it means for socialism?
Slovo: Well, I think it’s done a lot of damage to socialism, obviously. And I think the one lesson which we must learn, which I think our party learnt even before Gorbachev, is that, if you want to destroy socialism, you separate it from democracy.

Learn and Teach: After what happened in Eastern Europe, can you say that you still believe confidently that socialism is a better system than capitalism?
Slovo: Oh, I have absolutely no doubt that it’s the only civilised way in which humanity should exist. Socialism has achieved much — even in those countries where it failed because of corruption. It achieved the absence of unemployment, social security for every person and free education. For example, take a poor country like Cuba. It is really a Third World country, mainly because of the attempts by the United States to destroy it. But in Havana, fewer babies die at birth than in Washington D.C. That is a United Nations statistic. Even capitalism has been influenced by socialism, for example, the social welfare measures in some countries. It is true that a lot of crimes have been committed in the name of socialism. But remember that even more crimes have been committed in the name of religion. That doesn’t make people move away from their faith in their religious beliefs and so I don’t think we should lose faith in socialism. I think socialism can work, and I am absolutely positively convinced that it will work, despite the setbacks we’ve had in recent periods. I am also convinced that socialism will eventually work in South Africa. It’s also very odd that people talk about the failure of socialism, but what has failed in South Africa is capitalism, not socialism.

Learn and Teach: You have said there must be democracy at all levels of society in South Africa. Can you explain this?
Slovo: That’s right. Democracy is not only voting in general elections every five years or so. For a society to be truly democratic, democracy must be practised from day to day. It is necessary, for example, for workers to participate in the direction of the factories where they work. Organisations such as trade unions, women’s organisations, youth organisations should be given real recognition and participate in the whole process of running society, including civic and local structures and so on and so forth.

Untitled0-9

Comrade Joe Slovo shares a joke and a laugh with UDF leader “Terror” Lekota

Learn and Teach: Does the SACP support the spirit of glasnost that is blowing through the Soviet Union? How does the Party understand this word?
Slovo: The Party supports the spirit of glasnost. To us, glasnost means a spirit of openness, a spirit of debate, a spirit of tolerating different opinions, as long as they’re not destructive. In other words, a spirit of democratic discussion in the real sense of the word. A spirit of accountability, where the leadership is not a power unto itself, that it can be questioned by the rank and file, and it can be criticised, and it must answer those criticisms. So glasnost really means openness, accountability, democracy.

Learn and Teach: In a recent interview, you spoke about the need for a leadership code. Could you please explain what you mean?
Slovo: Well, it’s going to take time before there is economic change in an ANC-led future society. Overnight we will not be able to provide everyone with a job and a house. And people will have to make sacrifices. But if the leadership earns big salaries and live in nice houses in smart suburbs, there’s no way we will get the people to accept the need for such sacrifice. There is going to be a long period where people are going to be asking themselves: ‘What has happened to this liberation?” And we will have to explain that it’s a process we have to work for, it doesn’t just happen when the ANC flag flies over Pretoria. And the only way those people will remain with us is if they see that the leadership is sharing some of these sacrifices. This is one of the lessons that we can learn from Eastern Europe — that if there is one lifestyle for the leadership and another for the people, the people obviously won’t accept the need for hardship. So I think it is very important that the broad liberation movement starts developing a leadership code of conduct.

Learn and Teach: Are you hopeful for a speedy end to apartheid?
Slovo: Well, I’m hoping for a speedy end but I can’t say for sure — it’s not written in the stars! It doesn’t depend on what I and other people hope, it depends upon struggle. But I do believe that the power of the people today is great enough to make the other side realise that they can’t continue holding on for too long.

The power of an empty hand

untitled0-29

Sensei Solly Said (standing second from the right) with the great Kaicho Nakamura (sitting on the left)

Solly Said has walked the hard road of karate for 21 years. He has found the real power of karate not in his punch, but in his spirit.

Solly is a teacher of karate. He is called ‘Sensei’ by his students. The word ‘Sensei’ is a Japanese word. It is a respectful way of saying ‘teacher’. You are called ‘Sensei’ when you get your fourth black belt.

Karate began in Japan many hundreds of years ago. The sport was started by the poor people who worked the land. They were not allowed to have weapons in those days. Only their masters, the Samurai warriors, were allowed to carry weapons.

But the people had their hands for weapons. Their hands were enough. The word ‘karate’ means ’empty hands’.

“NO FIRST ATTACK”
True karate students believe that karate should only be used for self defence. Sensei Solly could be more dangerous than a leopard in a fight. But he does not want to fight anyone.
“There are rules in karate,” says Solly. “One of the rules is ‘no first attack’.”

This rule means that karate students must try not to get into fights. The true karate student only fights when he or she is training. Solly explains: “Karate should be used only for self defence. And to uphold truth and justice, and to help people who need it.”

“People think karate is about violence. But it is really about non-violence. The most important thing about karate is that it builds strength of spirit. It helps you to grow and become a better person.”

A PEACEFUL SPIRIT
It is the peaceful spirit of karate that makes it so different from other sports. Solly tells a story to show how a karate student should build his spirit.

“Long ago in Japan, a great karate master was riding home on a riksha (a light cart). It was at night, and a group of thugs tried to attack him. But he jumped off the riksha and ran home.

“The next day he was teaching at his dojo. (A dojo is the place where karate students train). Some people came to see him. They were the thugs who attacked him the night before. They had come to say they were sorry — and to thank him for not fighting them.

“They only found out who he was after they attacked him. And they knew that he could have hurt them very badly . But he chose not to fight. He was true to the spirit of Karate.”

UNDER ATTACK
But sometimes you do have to fight. Solly was once attacked by two tsotsis as he was walking with his wife. One of the thugs stabbed him with a long Okapi knife.

Solly could not use his left arm because of the knife wound. But he dropped the first thug with a kick. Then he turned, fast as a whip. Another hard kick from Solly knocked the other tsotsi down. They ran off, leaving Solly to bandage his wounds.

Solly is glad that he was able to chase his attackers off with his karate skills. “But the best fight,” he says, “is the one which is not fought at all.”

untitled0-30

Solly fights mostly with empty hands – but he can handle weapons too!

FINDING THE WAY
Solly has made karate his life. It started for him in 1967. Then he was a young boy who loved sport. He played soccer, and he played the game with all his heart. But he lived in a rough area in Johannesburg. This area was called ‘Chinatown’. The people who lived here were poor — and they were tough.

Young Solly Said played a good game of soccer. But he was small and thin. He bounced around almost as much as the soccer ball when the game got rough. And he ended up in fights too.

“I needed to do something to protect myself,” Solly remembers. “I started looking around — there were only two or three karate schools in Johannesburg then. But they were for whites only. Karate was banned for blacks at that time.”

Maybe the whites in those days thought blacks who knew karate would not only break bricks, as karate people can — they might knock down houses too!

But the young Solly Said did not give up easily. He joined a youth group. One of the sports the youth group did was karate.

LIKE A ROCKET!
“Once I started, it just took off like a rocket!” says Solly. “I couldn’t think about anything but karate. My schoolwork suffered because of it!”

When Solly’s father saw his school marks go down, he was angry. “He gave me three days to decide if I was going to do karate or play soccer,” laughs Solly. “I took karate — and I’ve never looked back.”

Solly had a dream. And that dream was karate. He trained hard with the youth club’s karate team. They had to practise in secret because of the ban on blacks doing karate.

They trained on the mine-dumps. And they trained in schools after everyone else had gone home. They had to be careful that the night- watchmen did not catch them there!

But Solly was young. He wanted more than just mine-dumps and back-yards. He wanted adventure.

THE ROAD TO JAPAN
“When I finished matric, I planned to hitch-hike to Cape Town. I was going to get work on a ship, to go to Japan.”

It is the dream of every karate student to go to Japan. It was Solly’s greatest wish to go there. But things happened differently for him.

The Japanese government would not give him a permit to enter the country. So he saved all his money and he caught an aeroplane to the other side of the world — New York, USA!

Solly heard that a great karate teacher was in New York. His name was Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura. The word ‘Kaicho’ means ‘grand master’. Solly had heard strange things about this man, Nakamura. That he could fight 100 men at once. That he could catch arrows out of the air. Solly went to New York to see for himself.

A MAN OF FEW WORDS
Kaicho Nakamura is a man of few words. He says little — but Solly learned much in the time he spent as Kaicho’s student. Solly trained hard during the day. And he trained hard again at night.

Solly has painful memories of New York. “The training there is very, very tough,” he says. “Each class lasted about two hours. The last 30 minutes were left for fighting (called ‘kumite’). You had to stand up and fight anyone in the class.”

“Many times I remember walking to the dojo, and just praying I would live to the end of the class!”

But the biggest test was still to come. At last it was time for Solly to go for his black belt. It was a time that Solly will never forget.

untitled0-31

Black belts can fly too – but they can’t get past Solly!

THE TEST
To get a black belt, you must prove you are good enough. So you have to fight against students who are black belts themselves.

As Solly walked past the other black belts for his test, he heard one of them say, “We’re dealing death — is this punk going for black belt?” Solly was scared. But he knew he had “the best teacher in the world” — Kaicho Nakamura.

After the test, Solly was black and blue with bruises. His friends had to help him to walk out of the dojo. Solly did not know how long he had been fighting that day. The kumite had started at 3 o’clock. And it ended at 6 o’clock. Solly felt like a worn-out punching bag. But he had passed the test.

A DOJO AT HOME
Since that time, Solly has gone back many times to New York. And he has trained in Japan too. He has opened his own dojo in Johannesburg. His karate club is called Seido karate.
The head of Seido is Kaicho Nakamura.

Now Solly trains his own students in the Seido style of karate — just as Kaicho Nakamura trained him. Solly’s dojo is non-racial. His students are of all races.

This non-racialism caused some problems when the dojo opened in 1976. The police visited the dojo a number of times. At that time, South Africa was thrown out of world sport because of apartheid. So the government could not close the Seido dojo. This would have made South Africa stink even more.

untitled0-32

Kiaaaaai! Seido students shout the power of their punch

LIKE A FAMILY
“We are like a family here at Seido,” says Solly proudly. “We have 19 black belts now. The black belts teach the other students. They must listen to their problems and show them the way.”

Nesan Naidoo is one of the Seido black belts. He is still young — but his body is tough and hard from the long years of karate training. He started karate when he was five years old.
“Karate is more than a sport,” he says. “It is something you do because you have a love of it.”

Another black belt, Kalil Koor, agrees with Nesan. “I find karate is good for the mind, the body and the spirit. It is for people of any age. It is not like other sports which have an age limit.”

A SPORT FOR LIFE
Jerry Mothlabane is 44 years old. He has been doing karate with Solly for 14 years. Jerry tells how he started karate. “I was working with Sensei Solly,” Jerry remembers. “He said I should train too — so I thought I would give it a try.

“I found it was not just self-defence. It has changed my life completely. Now I understand more about people, and about life too. I learned that you have to understand yourself before you can understand others.”

How long will Jerry carry on doing karate?

“As long as I live!” he replies.

Solly, Nesan and the others all nod their heads in agreement. They have found a sport for life. They have discovered the power in an empty hand!

NEW WORDS
self defence — to protect yourself
thug — tsotsi
non-racialism — when people are not judged by the colour of their skin
age limit — when only people of a certain age can do something

Phistus Mekgwe: Mr Distributor

Exif_JPEG_420

Phistus Mekge

“I was born in Soweto, Orldando East on 15 September 1957 but grew up in Rustenburg. It was a village of Luka, Phiring, part of the MoPhiriing clan. Phiri means “hyena”.

“However, for many Bra Fees was Mr Distributor, who was responsible for distributing Learn and Teach to unions, communities, churches. He made many trips to the post office too, posting subscriptions to the readers far and wide.

“When I left school in 1980, I went to work at SASOL, then only SASOL 2 and SASOL 3 was still under construction. SASOL 3 was also part of their plans. Then in 1981, I was transferred. There was no union.

“We organised ourselves into CWIU, which had their offices in Germiston. We were working with Tshidiso Modupi, who later became an organizer.

“Meshack Ravuku also worked with us, more or less underground, to form the union. Sasol at that time was under heavy security and did not like discussions or pamphlets on progressive things. They also lectured us about terrorism and unions.

“You see I had arrived at SASOL the first time, after the ANC bombing of which Solomon Mahlungu was implicated.

Exif_JPEG_420

Bra Fees with community activist Thusi Rapoo

“So the bosses were very strict with us, in terms of security. And I was an organising then members in the plant, in a very hostile environment.¨

“We organized for the simple reason: because our wages / salaries were very low, and Apartheid inside the company was very strong and the whites had a lot of power. The place was fully segregated: the canteens, the toilets, etc. One could not even use a mug that was reserved for whites…

“All these factors coincided in them responding to the call of COSAS for a national stay away. This all came 5 and 6 September 1984 when the mass strikes resulted in 6 500 workers were dismissed.

“One demand we made that was very important to us, was that of UNION Recognition… SASOL could not believe that the workers could join a union, after they tried to brainwash us, the workers.

“I was a shopsteward and a recruiter for members to join our union.

FIREDLearn and Teach’s Marc Suttner came to do a story on the strike. More or less at the same time, Mekgwe began to sell the magazines to striking workers, earning a small stipend whilst being on strike.

“Many of the workers were fired and some reinstated. In some cases, they were asked to re-apply. We re-applied but the cases of the leaders were rejected. The company had taken our photos and accused us of being the instigators of the strike… with the news that we will not be taken back. But many got back… Not me. I was one of those not reinstated.

“I was then approached by Learn and Teach. I had been a seller and was looking for work. So I began selling it at union meetings at COSATU and other union meetings.”

That is how Phistus became a contributor to knowledge creation and for him, sharing knowledge was very important.

Based on interviews Hassen Lorgat did with Bra Fees, on 17 January 2012

“Kippie Moeketsi is not dead yet”

img13

In the old days everybody knew Kippie Moeketsi. He was the best saxophone player around. He played with big bands like the Jazz Maniacs and the Harlem Swingsters. He played with Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand. He played in big shows like King Kong.

Now Kippie’s life is different. He cannot find work. He lost his house in Soweto last year. He had no money for rent.

Kippie now lives in Mabopane. This is a township near Pretoria. He lives with Dolly Rathebe and her family. Dolly was a famous singer in the Sophiatown days.

Learn and Teach went to visit Kippie Moeketsi in Mabopane. He told us about his life.

Kippie Moeketsi was born in the slums of Johannesburg in 1925. When he was a baby, his family moved to George Goch location. Kippie’s father was a clerk in the municipality.

Kippie’s father loved music. He played the organ for the church choir. He wanted his six children to play music. All the children became good musicians. Jacob, the oldest son, played the piano for the Jazz Maniacs.

Kippie was the youngest boy in the family. All his brothers went to school and studied hard. Jacob passed matric. Kippie’s brother Andrew became a teacher. But Kippie was not the same. He did not like school.

Kippie had three good friends. They played together all the time. They were very naughty. Sometimes they missed school and went to the golf course. They got jobs as caddies.

“We only got paid one shilling and sixpence a day,” says Kippie. “So we stole golf balls. Then we sold the balls back to the guys we stole them from. We sold the balls for two shillings and six pence.”

They had another trick. They put sticky tar on the end of long sticks. They went to the shop in George Goch location. When the shopkeeper was not looking, they reached over the counter with the sticks. The tickeys behind the counter stuck to the tar. They went back to the shop the next day. They bought sweets with the same tickeys.

Kippie left school after standard five. He was 18 years old. He got a job sweeping floors in a men’s hostel. But the wages were low and the work was boring. He left the job. He got a job at a chemist. He delivered medicine on a bicycle.

Then Kippie got a present. His brother Lapis gave him a clarinet. At this time, Kippie decided he wanted to be a good musician. He worked in the day. At night he played the clarinet.

img15

Kippie Moeketsi and Dolly Rathebe are back at work again!

“I played that thing until 2 0’clock in the morning,” says Kippie. “On weekends I played for 12 hours a day. The neighbours complained about the noise. But I did not stop playing. I loved music too much.”

Kippie learnt how to read music. After two years he played the clarinet very well. Then he learnt how to play the saxophone. Soon he was also a good saxophone player.

Other young musicians also lived in George Goch location. They played jazz together. They started a band. They called themselves the “Band in Blue”. Kippie played the saxophone for the band.

The Band in Blue played in an old house near George Goch. The band played marabi music – the music of the people. The people from the slums came to listen. They bought food and booze. They danced until 4 0’clock in the morning. Kippie’s problems started now. He started boozing a lot. He never stopped.

Kippie enjoyed playing for the Band in Blue. But he wanted to play in the townships. The small bands did not play in the townships. The gangs did not let them.

Gangs like the “Russians” and the “Spoilers” ruled the townships. The gangs only let big bands like the Jazz Maniacs and the Harlem Swingsters play in the townships.

Then Kippie got lucky. In 1948 the Harlem Swingsters offered him a job. The Harlem Swingsters started three years before in a backyard in Western Native Township. But now they were famous. The great Todd Matshikiza played for the group.

The Harlem Swingsters mixed American music with marabi. And they mixed it well. Music fans followed them all over the country.

The Harlem Swingsters had six good years. Then people stopped liking them. Kippie left the group. He started a small jazz band called the Shantytown Sextet.

The Shantytown Sextet played with a group of singers. The singers were called the Manhattan Brothers. The Manhattan Brothers were the best singing group in Africa. They were famous allover the world. They sold thousands of records.

The Shantytown Sextet and the Manhattan Brothers played all over the country. “Those were the days’; says Kippie. “Our shows were always full. I always had money in my pocket. We ate well in those days.”

In 1954 the Manhattan Brothers and the Shantytown Sextet went to Cape Town. They needed a piano player. Kippie saw a young man playing the piano in a bioscope. Kippie asked him to play for the Shantytown Sextet. The man’s name was Dollar Brand.

img17

Kippie playing with Dollar Brand in the old days

“Dollar knew nothing about music at that time’; says Kippie. “He was just a skollie. He followed me around everywhere. I taught him a lot. Now he is a big man in music.”

Dollar went back to Johannesburg with Kippie. He lived with Kippie at George Goch. They played together at a place called Dorkay House.

At Dorkay House they met other young musicians. They met Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Johnny Getz and Nathaya Njoko. Dollar and Kippie started a new band with these men. They called themselves the Jazz Epistles.

“The Jazz Epistles was the best group I have played with” says Kippie. “We played at four or five nightclubs in a week. Sometimes we played at two nightclubs on the same night. Then the white musicians complained. They stopped us playing at white nightclubs.”

The Jazz Epistles broke up after four years. Kippie got a job with a show called King Kong. He went to London with the show. But Kippie was boozing a lot. He got very sick in London. He went to hospital for two months.

img19Kippie came back to South Africa. But most of his friends had left. Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand were in America. Kippie had no work.

Then Dollar Brand came back to South Africa. Kippie played with him again. But again the booze was a problem. Dollar fought with Kippie about the booze.

“That was the end,” says Kippie. “I have not played with a band since then. In 1977 I made a record with Pat Matshikiza. But that is all.”

Kippie never got married. He lived with a woman for 13 years. Her name is Becky. He met her in Sophiatown in 1951. They have two children. Becky left Kippie in 1964. She lives with her two children in Soweto. Kippie often visits them.

“I’m not bitter,” says Kippie. “But I’m angry about one thing. The record companies didn’t give me a fair deal. They made a lot of money from me. The record companies are now very rich. And I have nothing.”

img20

“I am poor now, but I am not crying,” says Kippie. “I’m fighting the booze. I’m going to win. Dolly and me are making a come-back. We are working hard together. Kippie Moeketsi is not dead yet!”

The man who made DRUM famous

img38Many great journalists have worked for Drum magazine. But Henry Nxumalo was the greatest. He made Drum famous.

People all over Africa and the world read his stories. His stories were about black people’s lives in South Africa. In these stories, Henry spoke up for the workers. Thousands of people said he was a friend who shared their troubles. They called him Mr. Drum.

Henry Nxumalo was born in Port Shepstone in 1917. Henry’s parents had 7 children. Henry was the eldest.

When Henry was at school, his father died. The family was short of money. But Henry wanted an education. He worked in the school kitchen to pay his school fees.

When Henry left school, he did domestic work in Durban. But Henry hated domestic work. He ran away to Johannesburg and found work in a boilermaker’s shop. In his spare time he wrote for the newspaper Bantu World.

The newspaper offered him a job as a messenger. But Henry also did not like messenger work. He told the newspaper that he wanted to write. After a while they let him write. Henry wrote about sport.

The Second World War started in 1939. Henry joined the army. He went to Egypt and England.

Henry saw a new world in England – a world without apartheid. Henry forgot about “Europeans only”. He made friends with British people and other Black people in England.

Then the army sent Henry back to South Africa. In Johannesburg Henry worked for newspapers again. He married a pretty young nurse. Her name was Florence.

Henry joined Drum in 1959. At this time Drum had stories about tribes, chiefs, religion and farming. Very few people bought the magazine.

Henry and his friends told the editor to change Drum. They said Drum must be a magazine for city people.

One man said: “Hey man, why does Drum write that stuff, man! Tribal music! Tribal history! Chiefs! Give us jazz and film stars, man! We want Duke Ellington, Satchmo and pretty women! And tell us what is happening here man, on the Reef!”

Soon Drum had stories on jazz, soccer, boxing and women. More people started to buy Drum. But a magazine called Zonk sold more than Drum. The boss of Drum wanted Drum to be the best. How could they get more people to buy Drum?

Henry had the answer. He knew that people wanted articles on politics. Henry said people wanted to read things that happened in their lives. So Henry started to write about the lives of black people in South Africa. These stories made him famous.

Henry’s first big story was about the lives of farm workers in Bethal. In 1952 he went to his editor and said: “By the way, have you heard about a place called Bethal? Bethal is a farming district in the Eastern Transvaal. They grow potatoes there. Of course, there is a lot of flogging there.”

img39“Flogging?” asked the editor.

“Yes, Bethal is famous because the farmers beat up their workers”. “How do you know about Bethal?” asked the editor.

“I went there about 3 years ago with a priest. We looked around the farms. I’m sure things haven’t changed. Bethal means the House of God,” laughed Henry.

Henry dressed up like a farm worker and went to Bethal. In Bethal he spoke to 50 workers. They were all unhappy. They told him the farmers were cruel. They told him about farmers like “Mabulala” (The killer) and “Fakefutheni” (Slave-driver). And 32 workers said the farmers had tricked them to sign a contract.

Henry visited the workers’ compounds. He said: “The compounds look like jails. They have high walls. They are dirty. They are often next to a cattle kraal. The workers breathe the same air as the cattle.”

After a few days Henry phoned Drum and asked for a photographer. The photographer took pictures of the farms, the compounds, and the farmers with their whips.

But Henry and the photographer had a hard time. Often farmers chased Henry and the photographer. Sometimes the photographer told the farmers he was interested in farming. And Henry said he was his servant. Henry went back to Johannesburg and wrote the story. The story was called “Bethal Today”. The article was by “Mr Drum”.

All the copies of Drum sold out. The government did not like the story. The Prime Minister said: “Drum wrote the story to make trouble”. The farmers in Bethal bought hundreds of magazines. They burnt them. They did not want people to read how they treated their workers.

After the story about Bethal the farmers treated their workers a little better. People also learnt about the danger of contracts.

Mr Drum became famous. Many people wrote letters to him. People asked: “Who is this wonderful Mr Drum?”

Mr Drum wrote more stories about farm workers. He visited the wine farms in the Cape and the sugar farms in Natal. He wrote stories about the workers on these farms. Mr Drum told the world about the suffering of people in South Africa.

Henry also wrote stories about life in the towns. One of his stories was about gangs and tsotsis. There were many famous gangs like “The Russians” and “The Americans”. Henry and other Drum journalists wrote about the gangs. The work was dangerous. The gangsters often wanted to kill the Drum journalists.

But the work on gangs was sometimes funny. Drum wrote a story called “Clean up the Reef”. The story said the police must clean up the gangsters and tsotsis. The police decided to listen to the story. They arrested hundreds of tsotsis and gangsters.

One night the police arrested Henry in a pass raid. He spent the night in jail. The jail was full of tsotsis. Henry asked the warder what was happening.

“Ag, haven’t you read Drum, man? We’re cleaning up the Reef”, the warder said.

img40Henry’s next famous story was about jails. Many readers asked “Mr Drum, why don’t you write about jails?” People wanted Henry to write about the hard life in prison. They wanted him to tell the world about the bad food, the dirty cells, the beatings and the “tansa dance”. The prisoners danced naked to show the police they didn’t have any tobacco. Drum decided to do an article on the Fort. The Fort is a jail in Johannesburg.

First Drum needed a photograph of prisoners in the Fort. Drum journalists thought about this problem. Then they saw a big building opposite the Fort. The Drum photographers went to the top of the building. They told the owners that they wanted pictures of Johannesburg. But instead they took pictures of the prisoners in the Fort. They got a photograph of a prisoner doing the tansa dance.

Drum had the photograph. But now they needed the story. One journalist said: “I’ll go to jail.”

“No” said Henry, “I’ll go. I’m Mr Drum.”

“So you think you can get in to the jail?” the editor asked.

“That will be easy,” said Henry. “My problem is always how to stay out of jail.” So Henry tried to get arrested. But he had problems.

First he went to Boksburg without a permit to visit a friend. His friend phoned the police and told them Henry was coming. The police waited for Henry. They took him to the police station. But at the police station the sergeant said:

“Ag! Don’t be silly, man. Go away and don’t do it again.”

The next day he caught a train without a ticket. The ticket collector came to check the tickets. Henry refused to pay. The ticket collector called a policeman. The policeman said “Go to someone and ask him to lend you the money.”

“No!” said Henry. He was arrested. The next day he went to court. But the magistrate told Henry to go home.

Henry tried again. He put a big bottle of brandy in his pocket. In those days black people were not allowed to drink. Henry walked up and down outside Marshall Square police station. The police did nothing. He started to sing and shout. The police still did nothing. Henry got drunk and started a fight. The police arrested him. The next morning Henry went to court.

The magistrate gave Henry 5 days in jail or 10 shillings fine. The court interpreter was Henry’s friend. He wanted to help Henry. He paid Henry’s fine.

The next night Henry tried to get arrested again. He walked around Johannesburg without a pass. A policeman saw him and asked for his pass.

“I haven’t got one,” Henry said.

He was arrested and the magistrate gave him 5 days in jail. At last Henry was inside the Fort. When he came out he wrote a story about the Fort. The story was called “Mr Drum goes to jail”.

After the story, life in the jails got a bit better. The police did not make prisoners do the “tansa dance” anymore.

The Orlando tsotsis gave Henry a party. They said: “Mr Drum, we liked your story. You did a good job.”

Henry’s next famous story was about farm workers. This time the story was about farm workers in Rustenburg. Farm workers suffered in Rustenburg. One farmer killed a worker. People called the farmer “Umabulala umuntu” (He who killed a man).

A reader wrote to Drum: “Why doesn’t Mr Drum have a look around here? Rustenburg is like Bethal.”

Henry dressed up as a farm worker and went to Rustenburg. He got a job on the farm of “Umabulala umuntu.”

Henry worked at the farm from 5 in the morning till 7 at night. He slept in a dirty compound. The workers told him many stories about the cruelty of “Umabulala umuntu.” Workers said the ghost of a dead worker came back to the compound at night.

One day Henry sat under a tree when it rained. The farmer called him and beat him. Henry decided to escape. He went back to Johannesburg and wrote his story. People wrote letters to thank Mr Drum for his story. They praised him for his bravery. This story about the Rustenburg farm workers was one of his last stories.

img41One night in December 1956 Henry went to visit his cousin Percy Hlubi. Percy lived in Western Township. Late that night Henry told Percy that he had to do a job in Newclare.

Percy said: “Henry don’t go now. It’s late and dangerous. Can’t you go tomorrow?” “Never put off for tomorrow what you can do today,” answered Henry.

The next morning Percy’s wife got up and went to work. On the way she saw a body lying on the grass. The body was covered in blood. She went to have a look. She saw that it was Henry. Somebody had killed Henry in the night. He was only 37 years old.

Henry Nxumalo, tried to make the world a better place. He died doing his job. He was the greatest journalist of them all.

A job in the sky

img26Johannes Chiyi is a window cleaner. He cleans windows outside the big IBM building in Johannesburg. The IBM building is 21 stories high. He told Learn and Teach his story:

I am now 29 years old. I am married and I have one child. My wife and child live at my home in Grey town, Natal.

Before I came to Johannesburg, I worked in a hotel in Durban. I worked in the hotel for a few years. In 1957, I decided to come to Johannesburg. People told me I can make money in Johannesburg. That is why I came to find work in Egoli.

The first job I found was this job. At the job, I found other people who had worked here for a long time. They knew all about the job. They showed me what to do. They did not teach me for a long time. I learned the job quickly.

When we clean the windows, we stand in a steel box outside the building. We call this steel box a cradle. I was very scared when I went up in the cradle for the first time. I said to myself: “It I die, my wife and parents will be sad. And nobody will send them money anymore.”

Now I am not scared anymore. I go up in the cradle everyday. Sometimes I forget that I am cleaning windows on the 20th floor. I just clean the windows and think about my home and other things.

We work in groups of four people. Two people work outside in the cradle and two people work inside the building. We all clean the same window at the same time. Then we clean the next window. We take six weeks to clean all the windows in the building. After we finish cleaning all the windows, we start again.

We use pink soap to clean the windows. The soap is like a dish-washing soap. We also use sponges and a rubber thing. The rubber thing is called a squeegie. The squeegie takes the water and soap off the windows. Then the glass dries quickly.

Sometimes we drop water or something from the cradle. Then we see people in the street waving or pointing at us. Maybe they swear at us. Or maybe they laugh at us. We do not know.

I say that I am not scared anymore. But I know that my job is dangerous. I can do everything right. But things can still go wrong.

img27

This is a picture of the street from 21 floors up

One day last year we were working on the tenth floor. The cradle made funny noises and did not go up or down.

I tried doing everything I knew. But nothing happened. Then the cradle started moving from side to side. I did not know what to do. I thought I was going to die.

Then the cradle started moving again. Some­body fixed the machine on top of the building. I nearly cried with happiness. I hope such a thing never happens again.

The fastest man in Africa

img23On the 1st May this year Vincent Rakabaele won a 42 kilometre race in Port Elizabeth. He won the race in 2 hours 11 minutes and 44 seconds. So now he is the fastest runner in Africa in this race.

Learn and Teach went to speak to Vincent Rakabaele at Bracken mine in the Eastern Trans­vaal. “I ran well on that day” Vincent told Learn and Teach. “I passed Bernard Rose after 34 kilometres. Then I knew I was going to be the fastest man in Africa. I also run better at the sea. The air is much better at the sea.”

Vincent Rakabaele was born far away from the sea. He was born in the mountains of the Sefekaneng District in Lesotho 33 years ago. He was the oldest child in a family of four boys and three girls.

In 1960 the Rakabaele family suffered a terrible hardship. Vincent’s father was killed. “My father was working in Germiston” says Vincent. “One day some tsotsis attacked him. Then they tied him on a railway line.”

After Vincent’s father died, the family was short of money. Vincent’s mother sold most of the family cattle to look after her children. In 1969 Vincent left school to help his mother. He only spent six years at school.

img24Vincent went to work in the mines in South Africa. He got a job at the Marievale mine near Nigel. He worked underground for a while. But underground work frightened him. He asked for another job. He got another job in the mine hospital.

One day in 1972 Vincent watched some men running at the Marievale mine. He enjoyed watching the runners. He decided he also wanted to run.

“I trained with the other runners” says Vincent. “My first race was over 100 yards. I came last.”

Some other runners told Vincent to try a longer race. He ran in a race over a mile. He finished fourth. But Vincent was not happy.

Vincent then ran in a three mile race. In this race he finished second. Vincent was still not happy.

Vincent decided to try a longer race. He ran in a marathon. A marathon is a 42 kilometre race. Vincent won the race.

Since that time Vincent has won many more races. He has run for Lesotho in New Zealand, Algeria and Canada. And in 1980 he ran in the Olympic Games in Moscow.

“The Olympic Games were very exciting,” says Vincent. “We stayed in a big village with sportsmen from all over the world. Everybody spoke different languages. We spoke to each other with our hands.

“I did not run well in Moscow. I came 23rd in the marathon. I was sick before the race. I had stomach trouble. And I did not like the weather. One day was hot and the next day was cold. But I will run better in the next Olympic Games in America in 1984.”

Vincent has one big wish. “I want to run the fastest marathon in the world” says Vincent. “But I must still train very hard. And I must run against more runners from other countries.

“I must say one last thing. I like winning races. But winning isn’t everything. I love running. When I run I feel like I’m flying. I feel so free.”

img25

Vincent Rakabaele with his mother, his daughter Lerato and his son Koni