An interview with comrade Joe Slovo


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 State of Emergency has finally been lifted — except in Natal of course.

It is our view that it was not necessary for the government to impose the State of Emergency in the first place. It is sad that the National Party — of which FW de Klerk has long been a member — took five years to realise and accept this.

In these long years — since July 1985 when the emergency regulations were first introduced — thousands of people, including children, were detained without trial; our organisations and hundreds of people were banned and restricted; many were killed and some disappeared without trace.

Also, many newspapers and journalists were harassed and some were even banned. Like other media organisations, we at Learn and Teach Publications were raided, our publications were seized — and were not returned to us! In many cases, we were not able to report events and valuable information to our readers.

In spite of all these problems we continued to publish. And it was thanks to our sellers that our publications were able to reach our readers. Learn and Teach sellers ran great risks when selling the magazine — many had their magazines taken away by the police and some were even arrested. But they never gave up!

We welcome the lifting of the State of Emergency and the release of some prisoners. These are the results of our struggles and pressure on the government. Our determination and courage never failed us — we waged successful campaigns and defied apartheid laws. We also unbanned ourselves and our organisations. The sacrifices we made paid off. Therefore it is a victory for us.

But, it is a victory with a heavy price: Our comrades went on long and painful hunger strikes lasting many days in their efforts to make sure that they were released from detention and that the State of Emergency was lifted. Many of the scars of those hunger strikes and many months in detention have not yet healed. And, therefore, credit for the lifting of the state of the emergency should go — not to de Klerk — but to the people.

We believe, however, that the lifting of the State of Emergency is a step forward. It contributes towards a climate suitable for the holding of negotiations. But the ball remains in the government’s court to take more steps and bolder steps so that the negotiation process can start. The government should stop dragging its feet. As the ANC says, piecemeal and partial solutions are no answer.

Like many other people, we call on the government to lift the remaining emergency regulations in Natal and, above all, to fully meet all the demands in the Harare Declaration.

It is our view that it is not difficult to do so.
Now is the time. FW de Klerk must act, and act decisively!

Phistus Mekgwe: Mr Distributor


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.


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


WHAT a year this has been!

Since president de Klerk’s speech on February 2, we have seen more political change in one year than in the whole of the last 40 years. The eyes of the world were on us this year as the ANC, the PAC and other political organisations were unbanned, as Nelson Mandela was released and as talks about talks began.

But 1990 was also a year of terrible violence — and even as we write, the violence continues. The war in Natal has not ended, nor has the violence on the Reef and in other parts of the country.

We are also saddened by the rising cost of living. Inflation continue to cause more pain and hardship than most people are able to bear. Unemployment is worse than ever.

As we go into the new year and towards a democratic government we are faced with urgent problems. We need to get negotiations on the road so that we can well and truly throw the last spade of sand on apartheid’s grave. We need to educate our children — and adults need also to be given the chance to make up for lost opportunities. We need housing, decent health care. We need to learn and educate each other about the killer disease AIDS, And we need to learn — and practice — tolerance towards our fellow human beings.

The country is changing — and so is Learn and Teach magazine. We have big plans for the new year, plans which we hope will lead to a better, more educational and more exciting magazine.

January to April next year will be a time of planning for the staff at Learn and Teach Publications — so we will only be bringing you your first magazine in April. After April, the magazine will come out monthly. Those readers who have subscriptions should not worry — you will still receive the correct number of magazines.

A few months ago we ran a survey. We would still like to invite all our readers who have ideas about how we can change and improve the magazine to write to us. We would appreciate any suggestions and will give all suggestions serious thought.

So, this is our last issue of the year. Just as we began the year with a cover story about the release of Nelson Mandela, so it is fitting to see this year out with a dedication to Oliver Tambo, president of the African National Congress, who has come home after 30 long years in exile. Welcome home, OR!

Finally, we would like to thank our readers, sellers and funders who have continued to support us for the last nine and a half years and to wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful new year. Roll on 1991!

Preparing ourselves for freedom


Comrade Albie Sachs

Throughout our country, and throughout the whole world, the winds of change are blowing strong. Many of our old ideas are being swept away and new ideas are taking their place.

In this article, Albie Sachs — a member of the ANC’s Legal Department, gives his ideas about culture. Some of us may be surprised by the things he says. They are quite different to many of our old ideas about culture and the struggle. In fact, when Comrade Albie first gave these ideas to an ANC meeting in Lusaka recently, there were many raised eyebrows! He wants to challenge us so that we will question our old ideas openly and unselfishly.

The article is long, so we have divided it into two parts. Here is the first part. You will be able to read the second part in the next issue of Learn and Teach.

We have changed Comrade Albie’s words quite a lot to make them easier for us to read. We hope that we have kept the spirit of his thoughts alive.


We all know where South Africa is, but we do not yet know what it is. Ours is the lucky generation that will make this discovery — if we open our eyes wide enough. The problem for us is to have enough imagination to see what riches there are in the united South Africa that we have done so much to build.

For many years we have had a political programme for the future — the Freedom Charter. More recently, the ANC released the Constitutional Guidelines which gave us a basic guide to a constitution for a free and equal society. But do we have a similar kind of thinking for art and culture in the new South Africa? Do we really understand the new country and the new people that is struggling to give birth to itself? Or are our minds still trapped in the ghettoes of apartheid?

In order to help us give new energy to our thinking about culture, I want to make a few suggestions which some comrades might find shocking.

The first suggestion I make is that our members should be banned from saying that culture is a weapon of struggle. I suggest a period of, say, five years. I make this suggestion even though I am fully aware that the ANC is totally against censorship and for free speech.

I have been arguing for many years that art is a weapon of struggle. But now it seems to me that this statement doesn’t mean anything and in fact it is wrong and may even be harmful.

In the first place, it makes our art poorer. Instead of getting real criticism, we get solidarity criticism. People do not feel free to criticise the work of our artists because it would be wrong to criticise a weapon of struggle. Therefore our artists are not pushed to improve the quality of their work. We accept that they are politically correct and so we do not criticise their work fully and honestly. The more fists and spears and guns, the better! We limit ourselves so much in our work that we no longer consider what is funny, or strange or really tragic in the world. We pretend that life is clear cut — good and bad, black and white, beautiful and ugly. The only conflict that we show is between the old and the new, as if there is only bad in the past and only good in the future.


If one of us wrote a story about Natal, the main person in the story would not be a member of the UDF or COSATU but a member of Inkatha. Yes, Inkatha. He or she would be opposed to change — a reactionary — but at the same time would feel the oppression of apartheid. The person would be thrown this way and that way by the conflict of emotions. When we read the story we would see all the struggles, pain and joy that a person experiences in the struggle for a new South Africa.

But instead, in our poems, in our paintings and in our theatre plays, we line up all the good people on one side and the bad ones on the other side. Sometimes we allow people from the one side to pass to the other. But we never show that there can be bad things in the good people or, even more difficult, good things in the bad people. We can tell who the good people are because they are always handsome and they know how to recite sections of the Freedom Charter or Strategy and Tactics.

A real weapon of struggle is a straightforward thing. A gun is a gun is a gun. There is no question about it. It fires in only one direction. If it fired in lots of different directions it would be useless. But art and culture have a different kind of power. Art and culture can look in many different directions at once to show us things which are hidden, the many different things of life which are not clear cut at all. That is why we cannot say that art is a weapon in the same way that a gun is a weapon.

And what about love? We have published so many poems and stories and articles in magazines but you can count those that talk about love on the fingers of one hand. Can it be that when we join the ANC we do not make love any more? When the comrades go to bed, do they discuss the role of the white working class? Surely even the comrades whose work in the struggle means that they do not have the possibility of enjoying a love life now, must remember their past loves and dream of the loves they will have in the future.

What are we fighting for if we are not fighting for the right to enjoy all the fruits of human life — including love, and fun and tenderness and the beauty of the world? The apartheid rulers would really like us to believe that because apartheid is ugly, the whole world must be ugly as well.

ANC members are full of fun and romanticism and dreams. We enjoy and wonder at the beauties of nature and the marvels of human creation.

But if you look at our art and our writing, you would think we are living in the greyest and darkest of all worlds, completely imprisoned by apartheid. The apartheid rulers seem to haunt all our paintings, stories, poems and songs like ghosts. Everything we paint or draw or write contains the oppressors. Nothing is about us and our new way of thinking and our new way of feeling. We do not express the new culture that we are building.


Miriam Makeba – “music of hope”

Listen, in contrast, to the music of Hugh Masekela, of Abdullah Ibrahim, of Jonas Gwangwa, of Miriam Makeba. Their music is full of life and human warmth and beauty. Their music tells of a cop-free world. The new and growing spirit of our people sings clearly through them. And yet if you look at our poems or books or paintings or woodcuts, all you can see is darkness.

No one ever told Hugh or Abdullah to write their music in this way or that. No one told them that they must be progressive or committed. No one told them that they must be funny or gay. No one told them to use a strong beat so that their music could be full of hope.

Their music has all these things not because they are following the rules of progressive culture but because their music comes from inside themselves, from their own person­alities and their own experiences. It comes from the people’s traditions and from the sounds of everyday life around them. Their music moves us because it tells us something lovely and lively about ourselves. Not because the words are about how to win a strike or how to blow up a petrol dump. It pushes apartheid away, it climbs above apartheid to a place much higher, a place free of apartheid.

Our writers and painters could do the same kind of thing. They could also break away from the pain and seriousness of apartheid. They could stop trying to follow the rules of anti-apartheid culture that people (including myself, Albie Sachs) have been forcing them to follow for so many years.

Dumile, perhaps the greatest of our painters, was once asked why he did not draw scenes like the one that was taking place in front of him. This was a scene of a long line of men being marched under arrest for not having their passes in order. At that moment, a hearse drove by and the men stood still and raised their hats. “That’s what I want to draw,” he said.


Hugh Masekela – “his music pushes Apartheid away”

The narrow view of culture that we have had for so long has been damaging not only to culture but also to the struggle itself. Culture is not something separate from the struggle. It is not just something we can use from time to time to mobilise and unite the people, or to prove to the world that we are civilised. Culture is us, it is who we are, how we see ourselves and the vision we have of the world. When we make the culture of liberation, we make ourselves, and re-make ourselves.

The culture of liberation is not just a question of the discipline of our organisation and the relationships between the members of the organisation. All organisations have these things. But our movement has developed a style of its own, a way of doing things and of expressing itself, a particular ANC personality.

And this ANC personality is very rich. It includes African tradition, church tradition, revolutionary socialist tradition, liberal tradition, all the languages and ways and styles of all the many communities in our country. We have black consciousness, some red consciousness (some people would call it pink consciousness these days), even green consciousness (long before the Greens existed, we had green in our flag, representing the land).

Now, because our members have been spread all over the world, we also include the cultures of all humanity. Our comrades speak Swahili and Arabic and Spanish and Portuguese arid Russian and Swedish and French and German and Chinese. Not because of Bantu Education, but through ANC Education. We are even learning Japanese.

Our culture, the ANC culture, is not simply a collection of a lot of separate ethnic cultures lined up side by side, or mixed together in certain quantities, like the ingredients of a cake. It has a real and living character of its own. When we sing our anthem, a religious song, with our fists raised up, we are expressing the relationship that we have built together. We sing when we struggle and we struggle when we sing. This is perhaps the greatest cultural achievement that the ANC has made. We have made all South Africans, from very different backgrounds, feel comfortable in our ranks.

This does not mean that all differences and tensions disappear when you join the organisation. We bring with us our own particular way of seeing the world, our jealousies and our fixed ideas. But the goals and the comradeship of the struggle we have created allow us to deal with these differences. We have had debates about such things as whether to allow non-Africans onto the National Executive Committee, whether there should be corporal punishment at the Solomon Mahlangu College, and whether married women should do high kicks on stage. Today the question of women’s liberation is finally forcing itself into our thoughts and our actions, a very serious and important cultural change.

Culture is at the very centre of our movement. It is not something which we just bring out and put on the stage on ceremonial occasions and fund-raising events, or something which we use to entertain us at our meetings. If it was so, we would have no personality at other times. No, happily this is not the case. Culture is us, we are people, not things waiting to be put into motion from time to time.

You can read the second part of Albie Sach’s paper in the next issue of Learn and Teach. If you would like to share your own thoughts on culture with other Learn and Teach readers, please write to us and we will try to print some of your letters.

NEW WORDS culture — art, music, poetry
censorship — control over what people say or write
conflict — struggle
reactionary — conservative, against change, clinging to the old ways
tenderness — gentleness, loving warmth
romanticism — ideas of love
consciousness — thinking and feeling
tensions — disagreements
National Executive Committee (NEC) — the highest decision making body in the ANC
Solomon Mahlangu College — the
ANC school in Tanzania
women’s liberation — the struggle of women for freedom from oppression and for equality with men

“Comrade! Have you heard the news?!”

Untitled0-5On 10 February 1990, President F W de Klerk told the world that Nelson Mandela was going to be released the next day. All over South Africa, the news was greeted with jubilation and rejoicing. One of Learn and Teach’s writers describes the scenes of joy in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.

Late on Saturday afternoon, one of my colleagues rushed into my Hillbrow flat with her two daughters. All three of them were smiling from ear to ear.

“Comrade,” she greeted me. “Have you heard that our leader, Nelson Mandela, will be released tomorrow afternoon? My daughter, Mpho, has just heard the announcement on the radio.”

We grabbed the radio and tuned into the news on Channel 702 to hear if the story was true. “The State President, F W De Klerk, has

announced in a press conference in Cape Town,” went the news programme on the radio, “that the longest serving political prisoner and leader of the ANC, Mr Nelson Mandela, will be released tomorrow at three o’ clock…”

We didn’t wait until the news announcer had finished reading the sentence. We were all jumping up and down with happiness, running around the flat, hugging each other and shouting with joy.

There was a lot of noise inside the flat, but outside on the streets the noise was deafening. Thousands of people were running around the streets, singing freedom songs, toyi-toying, chanting slogans and ululating. “Long Live ANC! Long Live Comrade Mandela!” was on the lips of every person. The black, green and gold banner of the ANC was flying sky high. Cars were hooting and fists were raised in a victory salute.


A Hillbrow youth celebrates the news that Comrades Nelson Mandela is to be released the following day

People from all different walks of life were celebrating. The poor, the homeless, the twilight children, young professionals and students were all there — united as one community. It was the first time I had seen the Hillbrow community joined as one.

Within minutes, there were thousands of people sitting on the pavement and steps of High Point Building in Kotze street. One comrade got up to make a speech. “We are meeting here to celebrate the release of our comrade leader, Nelson Mandela,” he said. “We want to make it very clear that he was released by the struggles of the masses of our people, not by the apartheid regime.” “Viva!” we all answered.

As we chanted slogans and listened to speeches, a police casspir drove by. Comrade Benedict Selepe, a JOYCO member stood up to speak. “Comrades, let’s show these police that we are following the ANC’s proud history of peaceful resistance. I am calling on all of us here to celebrate our leader’s release as disciplined political cadres of the MDM.”

Comrade Benedict then sugggested that we march down the streets of Hillbrow. “Let’s educate those who are not part of us about the release of our leader!” he said to shouts of “Amandla!”

Even though comrade Benedict stressed that we must be disciplined, a tew comrades did not seem to listen. As we were marching along Kotze street, I saw one comrade take a banana from a fruit shop without paying. I was impressed to see other comrades grab him and take him back to the owner of the fruit shop.

They told him to give the banana back and to apologise to the shop owner. The undisciplined comrade did exactly that.


June 1964: the front page  of the Pretoria News reports the sentencing of the Rivonia Trialists

The marches in Hillbrow continued non-stop for the whole weekend. Even on Monday and Tuesday, after Comrade Mandela was released, the people of Hillbrow were still celebrating. At every march, the comrades talked about the need to be disciplined. Yes, discipline is a weapon of struggle.

Perhaps this is the most important lesson I have learnt. As our leader later said in his speech in Cape Town: “Only disciplined mass action will assure us of the victory we seek!”

Late on Tuesday night, I crawled into bed. My feet were sore from more than 72 hours of toyi-toying and my head was buzzing. Even though I was dead tired, I could not fall asleep. I kept thinking about the many people who had come together in Hillbrow to celebrate the release of Comrade Mandela.

It was wonderful to see people of all shapes and sizes and colours joining together as one. When I finally fell asleep, there was one thought in my mind: “Welcome Home Comrade Leader Mandela!”

A mother and a father

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005

One evening back in 1963, policemen carrying guns went to the house of Elias and Caroline Motsoaledi in old Mzimhlophe. They took Elias away with them. He has been in prison ever since.

Elias Motsoaledi was charged in the Rivonia Trial – with Mandela, Sisulu and the other leaders of the freedom struggle. He was sentenced to life in prison.

And since the evening all those years ago, Caroline Motsoaledi has been both a mother and a father to their seven children. She has fed them, clothed them and sent them all to school. She has worked in the day and sat up with sick children at night. She has done all this alone.

Caroline Motsoaledi, or Ma Motsoaledi as everyone calls her, is now 57 years old. She works in a clothing factory in the day. And then she goes home to feed the children – and anyone else who may be there. And one thing’s for sure. There are always plenty of visitors there. It was like that even when Elias was still there.

And so the Motsoaledi family and all their visitors, young and old, eat together. And then they talk. They talk about this and that and everything else. But in the end they talk about somebody who they all miss and care for very much. They talk about Elias Motsoaledi.

And when they talk about Elias Ma Motsoaledi keeps quiet for a while. She thinks her own thoughts. Sometimes she will feel a great sadness biting at her heart. But at other times she will laugh quietly to herself ­ when she remembers the good times. Like when she first met Elias.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005

The young Caroline Motsoaledi


“I grew up in Doornkop near Middleburg in the Northern Transvaal,” says Caroline. “I grew up working in the fields. We planted mealies, cabbages and lots of other things. I came from a poor family. We worked hard for our food everyday.

Then one day some young men came to Doornkop. Elias was among them. They were in Doornkop to see their relatives. I did not think about these young men. I did not notice Elias.

But when the time came for the men to go home, one of them stayed behind in Doornkop. His name was Elias, of course. And his heart was in Doornkop. He was in love with me.

By the time Elias left Doornkop, I was in love with him. We made promises to each other for the future. We promised to be with each other soon.

We wrote letters to each other all the time. I did not know when I would see Elias again. But I waited for his letters. And when they came, they were worth waiting for.

And then suddenly Elias stopped writing. I still don’t know why he stopped. And so I waited for a letter from Elias. That was a very unhappy time for me. I read the last letter I got from him again and again. I felt very lonely and sad.

Maybe Elias was getting me ready for our life together. If he was, I must say he did a very good job. I learned to live away from the one I love.

Then one day I left Doornkop to visit my mother in Brakpan. I got off the train at Jeppe and waited for the next train to Brakpan. The train came but it didn’t stop. It went straight past.

I sat there for a long time and worried. I did not know when the next train would come. And then, just a few steps away from me, I saw a young man sitting on a bench. He was just sitting and thinking.

I went to the man and asked him when the next train was coming. When he looked up, I got a surprise. I was looking at Elias.

I asked him if he remembered me. He said he did not know who I was. If he was joking or not, I cannot say. But I still believe he was joking. He was that kind of person. He always liked a good joke.

I told him who I was. But I did not tell him where I came from. Then he took out his wallet and pulled out a photo – a photo of me. I gave him the photo when we first met.

Elias looked at the photo and smiled. He looked very happy – even happier than he looked in Doornkop. We did not leave each other again. We got married in 1950.

We did not have a big wedding party. Elias said that there was no time for that. The Nationalists had come into power just a few years before. And Elias was very busy. He had much work to do.”

“I did not see Elias very often. He was always going to political meetings. I did not really understand what was happening. I asked Elias and he explained to me. He was very patient. And then I stopped wondering what was happening. And I joined the people who were making it happen.

I began to go to a lot of ANC meetings. I was not a member but in those days you did not have to carry a membership card to be member.

People came in large numbers to the meetings because the meetings were in big, empty spaces. And we used to say: “As long as you want freedom, you are a member of the ANC”

I then joined the Federation of South African Women. And then the government made a new law. Women now had to carry passes. The women were angry. Very angry. We planned a march. And that was my first real taste of politics.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005

I marched with 20 thousand other women to Pretoria. I remember the day very well. It was the 9th August 1956. We marched behind our leaders to the prime minister’s office in Pretoria. We wanted to tell Mr Strydom just what we thought about his law.

We sat quietly on the grounds of the Union Buildings. We were wearing our green uniforms of the Federation and African National Congress. Our uniforms were as green as the green lawn of the Union Buildings. We looked beautiful that day.

And then we spoke. “Strydom wa thinta abafazi wa thint’ imbokodwe uzakufa.”, we said. “Strydom, you touched the women, you have struck a rock.”

And then Lilian Ngoyi and our other leaders went up to the balcony to see the prime minister. But he did not come out to meet them. And then our leaders said: ‘They must know that we we are not going to carry these funny books. The struggle against these passes will always carryon in the townships and in the country side.’ We then sang’ Nkosi sikeleli’ Africa and went back to our homes.

And for Elias and I the struggle did carry on. Our marriage was busy but very happy. And then we were parted. And we have been parted ever since.”

“The morning after Elias was arrested, I went to the Orlando Police Station to find out what was happening. But the police did not tell me anything. They did not tell me where he was. I walked up and down and I always came home very tired. I was pregnant with my last born at that time.

“After three weeks, the lawyers came to my house and told me that Elias was in the Central Prison in Pretoria. They said that I could take clothes to him. But I could not see him.

I saw my husband a year later. I saw him when the trial started. I went to the trial with all the other wives, children and friends. There were always plenty of people in the court room. This made Elias and the other men happy. It gave them hope.

And then soon after the trial started, I was arrested. They kept me for 90 days and asked me a lot of questions about my husband. They said that I carried bombs and other weapons for Elias. I said that it was not true.

When 90 days had passed, they did not let me go. They gave me another 90 days. While I was locked up in prison, the police went to fetch my mother in Doornkop. They brought her to Soweto to look after my children. Nobody asked them to do that.

Then just before they let me free, this young policeman came into my cell. He looked very happy with himself. He told me that Elias and the other leaders were sentenced to life in prison. I got the news from that young, happy policeman.

When I came out of jail, I knew that our friends and comrades would not let us starve. But I did not want to fold my arms and wait for someone to help us. My biggest problem was my children who were all still young at the time. I wanted them to go to school like other children.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005

MaMotsoaledi with six of her children

I decided not to go back to work as a domestic worker the work I was doing before I was arrested. I needed to earn more money. But I first had to go back to my old job to get some of my belongings.

When I got there, I found somebody else working there. I did not ask for my job back. I just took all my belongings and quickly left. I did not want anyone to ask where I was for those six months.

But they knew. And when I went looking for a job, the people always phoned that man for a reference. And he always told them that I spent time in jail. And when they put the phone down, they always said: “I don’t employ ANC people. Please try somewhere else.”

I struggled to find a job. After a while, I looked for a job as p domestic worker again. But I had no luck. While I was looking some organisations helped me. Church organisations helped me a lot. Some of the children got bursaries to stay at school.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005

At work at the clothing factory

In the end I got this job at the clothing factory. They gave me a job without asking all those silly questions. I have now worked here for nearly 22 years. The owner of the factory is a fine, old man. He knows that Elias is in jail. But he does not say anything about it.

And when the police come to fetch me from work to ask me questions, he does not shout and say that he will fire me. But he will ask me what they wanted with me. The old man cares about me.”

“I always worry when I look at my fatherless children. I always wanted to be near and close to them I wanted to do all I cou Id to make them happy.

But I am not the only one who worries. The children care about me too. Whenever I am sad, they sit down next to me and find out what is wrong. They don’t like to see me looking sad.

The children suffered a lot. They often went to school without food in their lunch tins. And their school uniforms were always old and worn out. But they never complained.

But worst of all, they missed their father – maybe even more than myself. I remember how much my last born, Ngwato, missed his father. But he did not say anything until he shocked everybody in the house. He wrote to his father and asked him why he did not care for us. “Why do you stay in jail and leave us to suffer?” he asked his father.

Elias read that letter and felt very sorry for his son. He sent me Ngwato’s letter and asked me to read it. He blamed me for not telling the children what they must know and hear.

So one winter night I called the whole family together. And I told them their father’s story. The older ones already knew something from books and newspapers. But the young ones knew nothing. Ngwato listened to every word I said. He asked many questions and I had to answer them all.

When some of them were old enough, I wrote to Pretoria to get permits for them to visit Elias. I wrote first to get a permit for my third son. Before I got a reply, they called my son to security headquarters in Soweto. They asked him all sorts of questions. They asked him why he wanted to visit his father. He told them that he wanted to visit Elias because Elias was his father.

And then they asked him to work for them. My son refused and said: “That will be the time my father tells me not to call myself his son.”

They did not let him visit his father on Robben Island. My son was hurt and angry. He left the country soon after that. Another two of my sons followed him They know the story of their father and they want to follow in his footsteps. They want to walk the same path.

I have not seen my three sons since they left. And I do not think I will see them for a long time to come. I miss them so much – just like I miss my husband. But I must carry on and be strong. There is no other way.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005