In conversation: Studs Terkel interviews Joe Slovo

By Alan Wieder January 16, 2017 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – The twelfth anniversary of Joe Slovo’s death is upon us this month. When I traveled in South Africa between 2013 and 2016, I was often asked what Joe Slovo would say about the state of the country. Then, this past fall, people wanted to know what the world’s greatest interviewer, Studs Terkel, would opine about American politics today. I can’t help but think that it would have been Studs who might have best nurtured Joe talking about South Africa today. After all, they both were the men in the RED socks. Thus, the ‘fictional’ 2017 Terkel-Slovo conversation. ST: Joe, I’d like you to talk about South Africa today. Whatever you want to say about the state of politics, economics, the country. After all, when young people criticize today’s politicians, they often say that you represent what leaders should be. JS: I always said that it’s a process—that it was going to take a long time to overcome what apartheid did to South Africa. Economically and politically, but also culturally because so much of what the NATs did was engrained. Although I was very positive throughout the struggle, both negotiations and then the first year in government taught me how hard democracy was going to be. Remember Studs, during the negotiations with the apartheid regime I also was on record saying that we, the African National Congress, were going to ‘snatch defeat out of victory.’ I was also worried because Oliver (Tambo) died, Walter (Sissulu) was ill, and Chris (Hani) was assassinated. They were powerful voices and important actors and without them we began to see huge mistakes and corruption from the very beginning. Why did we veer from a socialist path to immediate internal politicking and again, corruption? My friend in Mozambique, Polly Gaster, was fond of saying ‘at least we (Frelimo) waited a few years before becoming corrupt.’ ST: During negotiations you said that South African people would be patient if the politics were honest and you suggested a socialist future. So let’s talk first about not taking the socialist path—an issue where some have criticized you. JS: I think that the criticism is valid. Politics is compromise and that was clear even when we were underground fighting apartheid. Although I was part of the leadership of the South African Communist Party, I think that some of the leaders who never left the country, and are still party leaders, were more about self-aggrandizement than “to each according to his need.” Young people today understand that and they must be listened to—but they also need teachers. Madiba, though, had made a decision to cooperate with the West, and myself and other struggle leaders didn’t think we could challenge. In retrospect, Thabo (Mbeki) and Cyril (Rampaphosa) probably had too much influence. Of course, we can never know what would have happened if we would have declared South Africa as a socialist state—I think people like Patrick Bond and others who are critical of me for not standing stronger have a valid point. ST: Maybe, but young activists still evoke your name as they rage against Blade (Nzimande) & Zuma & others. I can’t help but think they understand that it was Joe Slovo who trusted younger comrades and both listened and defended youth during the struggle years. So what about today? JS: I suspect you are talking about my defense of Chris (Hani) or Pallo (Jordan) when we were underground. Or maybe the young people who worked with me in Mozambique. But today, eich – so hard to talk about. The DA is still vapid and will only serve the rich. EEF makes good points as do some of the citizens’ and cultural groups. I also like seeing young members of the SACP challenging both the party and the ANC. I think the same of Rhodes Must Fall, but I don’t see focus or struggle. Zuma and his people are a disaster and they will fall. The question, though, is how can we get on track toward a caring, socialist society. ST: Ya, ya, I see but you obviously have ideas on the present. Your assistant when you were Housing Minister, Billy Cobbett, told one of your biographers that you fought privilege—that you cringed at the trappings, big offices, fancy cars, etc… and railed against leadership profiting from their new government positions. JS: Yes! Of course we have to end Zuma’s presidency and rid the country of those benefiting at the expense of the people. Some of us knew Jacob well while we were underground. We knew, know, he must go. Look, there was corruption and power plays when we were fighting—this is not a surprise. I think that we need a voice like Ruth’s (First) right now. Someone who is respected, even feared (intellectually), who gets to the bare issues and has no problem honestly portraying colonialism (as it exists internally today from our own organizations), corruption, and more. I honor the people that are standing up to power. But it’s more. We don’t need Joe Slovo or Madiba or even Chris Hani. What we need are people on the ground, not populists, but rather those that are willing to meet, debate, and institute plans for a democratic South Africa. Not just protests, but people stepping up to challenge and initiate government programs with the South African people. It’s been twenty-three years, Zuma must be pushed out and individuals like Jeremy (Cronin) and Cyril (Ramaphosa) and the rest of them need to step aside and make room for the people who stand with those who are still not represented, the oppressed that were no longer supposed to be, to make South Africa the democratic state that we believed we were working toward. Alan Wieder is the author of Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation and Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid.