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Joe Slovo Street

Formerly Field Street

Yossel Mashel Slovo was born in Lithuiania in 1926 to a Jewish family who emigrated to South Africa when he was eight. His father worked as a truck driver in Johannesburg. Slovo left school in 1941 and found work as a dispatch clerk. He joined the National Union of Distributive Workers and, as a shop steward, was involved in organising a strike.

In 1942 he joined the South African Communist Party (SACP). Inspired by the Red Army’s battles against the Nazis on the Eastern Front in World War II, Slovo volunteered to fight in the war. On his return he joined the Springbok Legion, a multiracial radical ex-servicemen’s organisation. He studied at Wits University from 1946 to 1950, graduating with a law degree. A student activist, he was in the same class as Nelson Mandela and Harry Schwarz.

In 1949 Slovo married Ruth First, another prominent Jewish anti-apartheid activist and the daughter of SACP treasurer Julius First. They had three daughters, Shawn, Gillian and Robyn. First and Slovo were listed as communists under the Suppression of Communism Act and could not be quoted or attend public gatherings. But this did not stop Slovo from becoming active in the Congress of Democrat (an ally of the ANC as part of the Congress Alliance). He was also a delegate at the Congress of the People in June 1955, in Kliptown near Johannesburg, where the Freedom Charter was drafted.

Slovo was arrested and detained for two months during the Treason Trial of 1956 but charges against him were dropped in 1958. He was later held for six months during the State of Emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. In 1961, Slovo and Abongz Mbede emerged as leaders of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. In 1963 Slovo went into exile and lived in Britain, Angola, Mozambique and Zambia. He was elected general secretary of the SACP in 1984. He returned to South Africa in 1990 to participate in the early “talks about talks” between the government and the ANC. Ailing health forced him to stand down as general secretary in 1991 and he was succeeded by Chris Hani.

In 1989 he wrote an influential document, “Has Socialism Failed?”, which acknowledged the weaknesses of the socialist movement and the excesses of Stalinism, while at the same time rejecting attempts by the left to distance themselves from socialism. In 1992 Slovo proposed the breakthrough in the negotiations to end apartheid with the “sunset clause” for a coalition government for the five years following a democratic election, including guarantees and concessions to all sides. After the elections in 1994 he became Minister of Housing in Mandela’s cabinet, until his death in 1995 from cancer.