Joe Slovo Discusses Future of Negotiations

Report on interview with general-secretary of the SACP Joe Slovo by Gaye Davis

Joe Slovo, secretary-general of the South African Communist Party (SACP), uses the following analogy to rebuff accusations that the African National Congress (ANC) is showing less than due gratitude for State President FW de Klerk's recent moves:

"When a man has been consistently battering his wife, he shouldn't expect a bouquet of roses from her the morning after he promises to stop...

"What have they really done? They've stopped battering us in the extreme way the did before, but beyond that, where are we?"

In Slovo's view, not very far. For one thing, he considers the ANC and the SACP, in real terms, to be not even half-way to where they were when the state's battering sent them underground 40 years ago.

Since then, he says, "we've been in the wildernessand we don't see the promised land yet".

The long years of exileduring which his wife, Ruth First, was killed by a parcel bomb in Maputo in 1982at times "seemed interminable".

"What kept us going was the reality that most of those with whom we worked at top levels during the 1960s were incarcerated, and that our task outside was to try and get things going again."

What sustained him was commitmenton the personal as well as the political level: in London during the "early days" he kept on his wall a photograph of Nelson Mandela with Walter Sisulu.

"Everytime a feeling of tiredness overcame me, I would look at that picture and it would all disappear."

As Slovo, once seen as the arch-enemy of the South African government, spoke in Lusaka this week, an SABC television crew was filming interviews with ANC of officials at the movement's headquartersan event once deemed inconceivable by both sides, now a measure of a new commitment. But words, even if they open up acres of once forbidden political space, do not necessarily remove fences.

Thus while both the ANC and the SACP intend resuming above-ground activity, strengthening their decades-old alliance and becoming "what we've always wanted to becomea legal political force with the right to contest for a following in the normal democratic way," the way ahead is marked with "proceed with caution" signs.

And De Klerk"less of a street-fighter than his predecessors, and more realistic about the urgency of finding a solution"is just one factor in a complex equation according to Slovo.

"He's embarked on a policy of finding new ways to retain as much as he feels able of white privilege. But having been forced to adopt new means of achieving this, he has createdwithout necessarily designing itnew space, new chemistry.

"In a sense South Africa after February 2 will never be the same again: not because De Klerk has transformed it but because, objectively, it has been transformed."

Progress, according to Slovo, will depend not so much on what De Klerk does but "by the pressure which is maintained on the ground by the people inside and by the international community."

But neither the ANC nor the SACP could be expected to emerge as a finished product at a legal level in 40 hours. A certain degree of wariness is required: it is not written in the stars that things will continue smoothly.

"De Klerk's speech is only I O days old and already we've seen a rightwing backlash and the police showing their readiness to massacre people.

"Our re-emergence must accommodate many factors. We should not become too euphoric and act as if the political atmosphere has been normalised.

"We're far from the stage where a legal party can operate in confidence that the democratic process and the rules of the game will be adhered to either by the government or certain sections of the security forces," Slovo said.

Our timetable is not that of (Minister of Constitutional Development, Gerrit Viljoen's, who sees 10 years passing before a National Party government disappears. Our timescale is tomorrow, but one's got to be realistic whether one can achieve that.

"We don't see the negotiation process as a business exchangewhat emerges from it will depend on the clout of the people. So the struggle won't be called off just because of the prospect of negotiations looming ahead.

"You can't go to a negotiating table pointing a gun, but you've got to keep it over your shoulder."

Until the government accepted the terms of the Harare Declarationthe ANC's blueprint for creating conditions for talks, endorsed by the organisation of African Unity and the United Nations"We're not going to be at a negotiating table".

"We've set out our conditions clearly and they've got to be complied with for the atmosphere to be created for genuine negotiations to begin."

And unless what was put on the table amounted to "an exchange on the process of moving, at speed, towards a united democratic South Africa then I don't think the table will lead to any results at the end of the day."

For Slovo, the crunch issue is the economic one. He reads the government's insistence on "group rights" as little more than a euphemism for virtually all the wealth of the country remaining in white hands.

"I have the feeling that if they were assured we wouldn't touch any of the white economic privileges we'd be there next month, in a majority rule situation.

"From our point of view there can be no liberation without economic liberation, and I'm not talking about socialismyet. If they're going to dig in on the issue of entrenching the status quo in relation to the economy, and hold on to what they have, then I'm afraid aluta continua."

While the SACP went further than the ANC in believing the only rational way for South African society to be run was along social democratic lines, the question of a socialist future could "be settled in debate rather than in the streetsif we achieve a genuine democratic society".

The party still sees itself as the vanguard of the strugglebut not in the old, entrenched way: "we don't believe we have a natural right to lead workers. We must be the vanguard not by law but through social mobilisation and acceptance. If we can't achieve that, we've no right to represent them in any kind of power structure."

Support for the party within South Africa was "virtually impossible to quantify".

But Slovo attributes the groundswell of support for socialism in recent yearsmeasured by SACP banners flying at virtually every political demonstration since the 1984-1987 uprisingsmore to a negative reaction to "the depredations of racial capitalism".

"It's not difficult in South Africa for the ordinary person to see the link between capitalism and racist exploitation, and when one sees the link one immediately thinks in terms of a socialist alternative."

It didn't necessarily follow, however, that socialism was "a finished image in the minds of all those who shout the slogans."

"It's our task as a party to educate and explain, to transform the vague slogan into a fully understood conceptwhich we try constantly to do."

Likewise, the context in which the ANC and SACP understood negotiations had to be clarified and explained to people who saw a contradiction in terms between "negotiations" and "the struggle".

For Slovo, the crisis faced by socialism in Eastern Europe arose because of a yawning chasm which developed between socialism and democracy, "understandably so".

In his view, these "negative distortions" are not inherent in socialist doctrine but are the result of "the perversion of what I understood to be socialism.

We had partly moved away from these distortions long before the explosions which took place in Eastern Europebut we still have a great deal to learn from such failures."

Socialism's failure in Eastern bloc countries is also likely to affect the supportboth material and moralthe ANC has so far enjoyed, as they turn their attention on their own problems rather than those of far-distant liberation movements.

Hungary's invitation to South African foreign minister Pik Botha indicates, for Slovo, that "the transformations which are taking place could lead to a different posture".

But in the case of the Soviet Union, there was "no evidence whatsoever" that support would end.

Interview with The Weekly Mail, February 1990


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