Monday, December 22, 2008

Every Secret Thing - Book Review

Every Secret Thing - My family, my country.
By Gillian Slovo
Little Brown and Company 1997

A long time ago in a country far far away - a rugby tour was planned. The year was 1981. And the people hated the tour plan. Why? Because the rugby country being invited to play was the Springboks of South Africa. At that time South Africa was governed by the apartheid system.

Up until 1981 I had not really taken much notice of the apartheid system of government in South Africa. So during the 1980's I started reading. I read of Donald Woods and Steve Biko. Probably about the same time I saw the 1987 movie Cry Freedom. Around this time, I also read a book called Inside BOSS.

Inside Boss-South Africa's Secret Police
by Gordon Winter
Penguin Books
Published: 1981

BOSS was the South African intelligence unit in the 1960s and 1970s. The name was later changed to the National Intelligence Unit. My copy of BOSS had a bright red cover. Inside the BOSS book I vaguely remember reading about Donald Wood and Steve Biko. I probably also read about Joe and Ruth Slovo as well, but I dont remember those names.

So last week when I picked up this book from the shelf, I had vaguely heard of Gillian Slovo. I knew she wrote books, but I have never read any of them. I had no idea that she had famous parents. This book is her autobiography.

Gillian's parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, were both Latvian Jews. Joe was born and raised in Latvia and emigrated to South Africa in 1935 when he was 9 years old. Ruth's parents had emigrated from Latvia to South Africa on 1906. Ruth was born in Johannesburg in 1925. Joe and Ruth were married in 1949.

Ruth First and Joe Slovo had three daughters: Shawn (bn 1950), Gillian (bn 1952) and Robyn (bn 1955). Shawn's written account of her childhood, A World Apart, has been produced as a film called Catch a Fire. Robyn is a producer and Gillian is an author.

During the 1950s and 1960s Gillian's parents were being arrested and imprisoned at various times. They were both members of the Communist party and later Joe was the one of leaders of the ANC - the African National Congress. Nelson Mandela was another.

In 1963 Nelson Mandela was sentenced to prison on Robben Island. Joe Slovo took over the leadership after Nelson was imprisoned. The government were cracking down on the ANC. Joe had already fled the country. He did not return until after apartheid was eliminated. Ruth was arrested and spent 3 months in solitary confinement and she was interrogated regularly.

After her release, Ruth lived quietly with her daughters and her mother. In 1965 Ruth took her daughters and fled South Africa to Rhodesia first and then to UK where the daughers were raised and educated. In the 1970's Ruth went back to Mozambique to help the ANC from outside the country. Joe too stayed in exile, but he lived in Angola helping the ANC by arming them with weapons and teaching them tactics and strategies.

In 1982. Ruth was assassinated (killed) by a letter bomb sent to her in Maputo - the capital of Mozambique.

This book is mostly about Gillians search for her real mother and her mothers killer. It also covers her search for her real Dad. Along the way she discovers a half brother. Which meant her father was not loyal to her mother. Considering how long Joe and Ruth were separated, its probably not surprising.

For the inside history and knowledge of South Africa during the 1950s and 1960's written by someone who was there, this is an excellent book. And also try and read BOSS - Inside the Secret Police - if you can find it.

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