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Nelson Mandela Was a Revolutionary—and These Jews Made Common Cause With Him

With a new biopic commemorating his long struggle against apartheid, remembering the children of European refugees who helped

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Mandela meets with Jewish communal leadership in 1990
The historic first-ever meeting between Mandela and the Jewish communal leadership in June 1990. Back row, left to right: Solly Sacks (Chairman SA Zionist Federation), the Hon. Abe Abrahamson (President SA Zionist Federation), Michael Katz (President SA Jewish Board of Deputies), Thabo Mbeki, Yusuf Surtees. Front, left to right: Helen Suzman, Mandela, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, Advocate Isie Maisels. (South African Jewish Board of Deputies)
Joe Slovo

Joe Slovo speaks at the 2nd ANC National Consultative Conference, 1985. (ANC Archives)

Yossel Mashel Slovo, known as Joe, joined the Communist Party in 1942 and then lied about his age to join the South African army, with which he fought in Italy. After the war, Slovo became active in the radical Springbok Legion veterans’ association and studied law at Wits, where he met Mandela. Just before graduating, he married Ruth First, the daughter of a Communist Party leader. “We took off half an hour from our respective offices to get married,” he later wrote in an unfinished autobiography, according to the recent book Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid. Their home served as a center for radical organizing, discussion, and parties. When the police conducted one of their regular searches of the house in the 1950s, they confiscated a copy of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black solely because of the title. Indeed, Joe was the primary link between the Communist Party and ANC in the late 1950s and was Mandela’s partner in organizing the Umkhonto we Sizwe militia. Both Slovo and First were arrested and prosecuted in the Treason Trial of 1956, which was partially conducted in a converted Pretoria synagogue—the only record of either First or Slovo having ever entered one. Abroad at the time of the Liliesleaf raid in 1963, Slovo was eventually joined in London by First and their children. Though in his early years he was an ardent Stalinist—much more so than First—by the late 1980s Slovo had become more critical of “socialism without democracy.” Returning to the country in 1990 after Mandela was released and the prohibition on the Communist Party was lifted, Slovo crafted the power-sharing agreement credited with making the transition to majority rule after the end of apartheid in 1994 relatively smooth. Mandela, Slovo’s last visitor the night before he died in 1995, delivered an emotional eulogy at the memorial service. At the gathering, Khoisan X, a black activist a generation younger than Mandela, recalled hearing his son’s friend once ask, after seeing a photo of him and Slovo together, “Why is your father shaking hands with a white man?” The son answered: “That’s no white man. That’s Joe Slovo.”


Ruth First was born in 1925 to Latvian immigrants who had helped found South Africa’s Communist Party. The first in her family to attend college, First—described by her best friend as “sharp-tongued and shy”—founded the Progressive Students’ League at Wits, where she also befriended Mandela, whom she later described as “good-looking, very proud, very dignified, very prickly, rather sensitive, perhaps even arrogant.” Often compared to Rosa Luxembourg for her devotion to the struggle, First edited and wrote for various radical newspapers throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and was active in revolutionary politics. In 1963, First was arrested at the Wits library and endured a four-month detention, which she wrote about in a memoir, 117 Days. First’s Xhosa comrades called her yimazi ephah neenkati—a mare that keeps up with the stallions. While exiled in London, First became a United Nations observer to Africa and edited Mandela’s writings and speeches into a book, No Easy Walk to Freedom. In 1977, she moved with Slovo to Maputo, Mozambique, where she lectured and remained active in the anti-apartheid movement. First was in her office at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo on August 17, 1982, when she opened a package addressed to her—sent, it turned out, by the South African security agents. It exploded in her face. She was 57.


James Kantor
James Kantor. (Wikipedia)

James Kantor was one of Johannesburg’s most famous lawyers in the 1950s. He wore English suits, drove American cars, and lived in a big house with a pool and a Portuguese chef. Described by First as a “socialite yachtsman,” Kantor dated models—until he married one, Barbara. But his sister was married to Harold Wolpe. Though Kantor claimed in his memoir not to know Wolpe was engaged in illegal activities—specifically, laundering money to help Goldreich purchase the Lilesleaf farm—he hired Wolpe at James Kantor & Partners, enough to make him accessory to the conspiracy, as far as the state was concerned. After the Rivonia raid, with Wolpe in jail, Kantor served as Mandela’s lawyer until he, too, was arrested—just after Goldreich and Wolpe’s escape. It was assumed by many in the movement that Kantor, who up until that point had not been a member of the resistance movement, was being held hostage until the escapees returned. In jail, he shared a cell with Mandela, who agreed to be godfather to Kantor’s child. On the morning the judge in the trial, Quartus De Wet, was to issue a ruling on the motion for Kantor’s release, Mandela found Kantor pacing up and down their shared cell. Mandela suggested they exchange ties for good luck. When De Wet dropped the charges against him, Kantor raised his borrowed tie toward Mandela “as a kind of salute and farewell,” Mandela wrote in Long Walk to Freedom. After his release, Kantor renounced the legal profession and moved to London, where he died of a heart attack in 1974, just 47 years old.


Helen Suzman
Helen Suzman. (University of Michigan)

Helen Suzman, née Gavronsky, was for many years the only member of the South African Parliament opposed to apartheid. She was frequently the target of sexist and anti-Semitic attacks— “Go back to Israel!” she was told, though she was born in the South African mining town of Germiston—as well as subject to eavesdropping by the security forces, which she foiled by loudly blowing a whistle into the mouthpiece of her phone. Once, when a parliamentary colleague said her line of questioning was embarrassing the country, Suzman shot back, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.” Exercising her parliamentary privileges, she paid eight visits to Mandela in prison, bringing international attention and legitimacy to his cause. Suzman was distant from the Jewish establishment and critical of its silence on apartheid, according to the historian Gideon Shimoni, and when the Board of Deputies presented Suzman with its annual humanitarian award in 2007, she said flatly, “It’s about time.” Though twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, she was heavily criticized for her opposition to sanctions and divestment—“I don’t see how wrecking the economy of the country will insure a more stable and just society,” she said—and pursued by accusations of prolonging apartheid by participating in a blatantly unjust political system, which made her enemies inside and outside South Africa. Suzman died on New Year’s Day 2009.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the University of the Witwatersrand is commonly referred to as “Wits,” rather than as “the Wits.”


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Nelson Mandela Was a Revolutionary—and These Jews Made Common Cause With Him

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