Address by President Nelson Mandela at the funeral of Joe Slovo

15 January 1995

Comrade Chairperson:
Dear Helena, Shawn, Gillian and Robyn;
Mrs Rene Ephron, Comrade Joe's sister and other relatives;
Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, Ministers, leaders of the Tri-partite Alliance;
Dear comrades;
Fellow South Africans;

We are assembled to mourn the passing of a leader, a patriot, a father, a fighter, a negotiator, an internationalist, a theoretician and an organiser. Indeed, it is the combination of all these qualities so splendidly in one individual, which made Comrade Joe Slovo the great African revolutionary that he was.

Men and women of rare qualities are few and hard to come by. And when they depart, the sense of loss is made the more profound and the more difficult to manage.

Yet we do draw comfort, Comrade Joe: - from the knowledge that the greater part of the journey that was the passion of your life has been traversed: - from the knowledge that you left a legacy which we shall all strive to emulate; - from the knowledge, Comrade Joe, that you continue to live in each one of us through your force of example, vitality of spirit and passion for justice.

Today, as the nation bids you final farewell, we are at the same time celebrating a life lived to the full; the richness of which touched the hearts of millions and made an indelible mark on the history of our country;

When future generations look back on the 1994 breakthrough, they will be justified in saying: Uncle Joe was central in making it happen.

When the working people start enjoying, as a right, a roof over their heads, affordable medical care, quality education and a rising standard of living, they will be right to say, Comrade Joe was a chief architect who helped lay the foundation for a better life.

When those yet to be born marvel at how South Africans of our times managed a delicate transition, they will be within their right to sing, as we did during the years of armed struggle: u'Slovo ikomando, a commando of reconstruction and development, a warrior of peace and reconciliation, a builder par excellence.

Comrade Joe Slovo was one of those who taught us that individuals do not make history. Yet, in each generation there are a few individuals who are endowed with the acumen and personal bearing which enable them to direct the course of events.

Comrade Joe Slovo, Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe, belonged in that category. In that sense he was a rare species, an institution. To reflect on Joe's contribution is, therefore, to retrace the evolution of South African politics in the past half-century.

Such is the life we celebrate today: a life not so much of white generosity to the black people of our country; for JS did not see himself as a white South African but as a South African. He was a full part of the democratic majority, acting together with them for a just and democratic order.

Comrade JS lived the life not merely of a theoretician, confined to the boardroom and library. He was at all stages of struggle there at the forefront, generating ideas, and there too, in their implementation.

Comrade Chairperson;

When, in 1934, the village of Obelkei in Lithuania, bequeathed to South Africa an eight-year-old Yossel Mashel Slovo, there was no preditermined course that his life would follow.

Forced to leave school at an early age because of poverty; part of the passionate political debates of that period among immigrants in Johannesburg; a poor Jewish family upbringing in the period when Nazism was rearing its ugly head - all these factors helped mould one of the greatest South African and African revolutionaries of our times.

Joe Slovo was among the few white workers who understood their class interest and sought common cause with their class brother and sisters irrespective of race.

In this sense, Comrade JS leaves the South African working class - black and white - a challenge, particularly now that the walls of racial division are finally collapsing: the time for unity has come!

The young Joe could have late chosen a lucrative life, after returning from service in the Second World War, and acquiring the opportunities accorded white veterans. He could have elected, as many in his position did, to part ways with his black colleagues as they rode into oblivion on the bicycles given them as the thankless reward for their service in the war.

But Joe Slovo was a full human being at heart. And he possessed the passion and natural intellect to see reality for what it was. He had, at the age of 16 joined the Communist Party of South Africa. To use his own words, he had decided that in his life there was only one target, and that target was to remove the racist regime and obtain power for the people.

Those of us who had the honour to be closely associated with Comrade Joe, know that he live true top the dedication he knew fully well that he would walk again and again through the valley of the shadow of death to reach the mountain-tops of his desires.

I was fortunate to meet him in our younger days at Wits University. With his future wife, Ruth First, Ismail Meer, Harold Wolpe, Jules Browde, JN Singh and others, we would debate many issues well into the wee hours of the morning. His sharp intellect and incisive mind were apparent then.

But Joe was a well-rounded human being. Up to his last days, he lived life to the full. He never claimed to be a saint. He was a good organiser of enjoyable parties. He liked to eat and dress well. He had humour in abundance.

It is this passion for happiness in his life and the lives of others that we saw in his contribution to the campaigns of the working people; in court as a devastating human rights lawyer; in the underground; and in the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961. When we were on Robben Island, we managed on a few occasions to exchange correspondence. But if there is any form of intimate contact that one could point at, it was the glowing praise from the young cadres who joined us and who had developed both politically and militarily under his guidance.

Comrade Chairperson.

It is precisely because of his seminal contribution to the liberation struggle that Comrade JS was loved by those struggling for freedom.

Though the defenders of apartheid sought to obliterate his memory, the struggling people knew that he was an effective and skilful MK Chief of Operations; they knew that he was a loved and respected MK Chief of Staff; they knew that he planned and inspired many special operations of the people's army that shook the foundations of the apartheid establishment. They knew too that he was at the core of collectives that drafted many Strategy and Tactics documents of the movement.

The most central factor in his approach to struggle on any front was the understanding of the political situation, the balance of forces and thus the approaches necessary to advance that struggle. Thus he was able to appreciate changes in the objective conditions and initiate discussions on changes to the tactics to be applied.

He knew when to compromise. Yet he never compromised his principles. He was a militant. Yet a militant who knew how to plan, assess concrete situations and emerge with rational solutions to problems.

We shall forever remember Slovo as one of the embodiments of the alliance between the ANC and the SACP. Joe knew that the interests of the working class in our country were intimately bound up with those of the rest of the oppressed majority in pursuit of democracy and a better life. He knew too that, for the working class to realise these interests, it had to play an active role in the liberation struggle and the liberation movement.

Joe appreciated that the Alliance between the ANC, the SACP and the progressive trade union movement was premised on concrete democratic and social tasks. He appreciated the need to strengthen this Alliance especially now when we are reconstructing and developing South Africa.

More than in theory, his own practical life demonstrated his profound understanding of the nature of the relationship between the ANC and the SACP: the leading role of the ANC; the principles of consultation, consensus and criticism within disciplined structures of the allies.

The advocates of racial superiority could not understand how Slovo could be part of the liberation struggle and operate under the leadership of the hapless inferiors they despised. But Joe took part in struggle as an equal, as part of the people.

The defenders of national oppression could not understand why Slovo would seek to end the dominance of his racial 'kith and kin'. But Joe's kin was all humanity, especially the very poor.

The champions of privilege and concentration of wealth could not fathom why Slovo identified with the wretched of the earth. But Joe knew that these were the creators of wealth and they deserved their fare share.

It is the tragedy of South Africa that his humanity, pragmatism and industriousness were realised by many, particularly among the white community, only after close on to 40 years of an artificial silence imposed on him by constant banning. And it is a tragedy still, that these qualities are extolled by some, as if they were new.

Let it be said loud and clear today, that the qualities Slovo demonstrated in abundance in the past few years were the same attributes that spurred him to struggle, the qualities that drove him to join the liberation movement and the qualities that he helped engender in these organisations.

We in the Government of National Unity know intimately what vacuum Minister Joe Slovo's departure has left in our midst. We shall miss not only his incisiveness, experience and verve. We are conscious that it is given to a few to so ably combine theory and practice, as Joe demonstrated in his portfolio.

But we know too that he has left us a legacy which will continue to guide our approach. And that is to mobilise all the role-players in any area of work for joint efforts to build a better life for all. The depth of it all is captured in the profound messages that we have received from the civics movement, mortgage-lending institutions, the construction industry, property owners' associations, the banks and many others.

Contained in all of them is the appreciation of Joe's central theme that all of us have a responsibility to ensure that the RDP succeeds. Those with resources have a crucial role to play. The government should discharge its responsibility. But, above all, ordinary people themselves should guide policy formulation and implementation. Among the last issues he was working on with a passion only typical of him was the launch of a campaign to ensure delivery of houses and services; and at the same time, to mobilise communities to pay their bonds, rents and service charges.

I wish on behalf of Government to reiterate that the course Joe Slovo had charted will continue to guide us in fulfilling the housing programme. His firmness in dealing with obstacles to this programme will remain one of the central features of our work.

Comrade Chairperson;

If we have taken liberty to claim Comrade Joe as ours today, this merely underlines that there are those to whom he was more than just a revolutionary and a friend.

There are times when our demands on him - indeed the demands of struggle - made it difficult for him to play fully the role of father and brother. There are times when his commitment and that of Ruth First - who was murdered in cold-blood in 1982 - created a world apart, where full family life, as with most other revolutionaries, became an ephemeral dream.

We know, dear Helena, Shawn, Gillian, Robin and Rene that you feel this pain more deeply. We cannot fully grasp the magnitude of your grief, particularly the bond that was cemented in the normal life that he could live only in the last few years, no longer a fugitive. Please be comforted by the fact that the nation shares your grief; and we shall always be at your side.

Like you, our sorrow is made the more intense because we have lost not just one of our leaders; we have lost a veteran whose qualities are in many respects unequalled. He is irreplaceable.

The irony that Joe so succinctly captured, that life is after all a terminal illness, is the tragedy of the natural order that we can do nothing to change. But like him, we can so live that, when we depart, we shall have made life that much more bearable for others.

Comrade Joe,

In our grief, we do remember that you enjoined us not to mourn but to celebrate the achievements you humbly helped realise. If you see tears welling in our eyes, it is because we cannot bear saying:

Farewell dear comrade, dear brother, dear friend!

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation