Display of luxury seems jarring as the life of anti-apartheid campaigner, Joe Slovo, is commemorated.
A sign of the changed face and times in South Africa
JOHANNESBURG // Those who rank high among the heroes of the struggle against apartheid retain the capacity to cause a stir in South Africa even 15 years after their deaths, and this month a commemoration of the life of Joe Slovo demonstrated this. Slovo, who died in 1995, was a former commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, now the ruling party, and general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP). As a Lithuanian-born Jew as well, he was a despised figure for apartheid South Africa's white Afrikaner elite.
His first wife, Ruth First, was assassinated in 1982 by South African intelligence agents who sent a letter bomb to her office in Mozambique, where they lived in exile. Slovo, however, lived long enough to see the advent of democracy and become housing minister in the country's first freely elected government. But these days both the Communist Party and its ally, the ANC, face controversies and are governed by attitudes Slovo - who was known for his dedication to the country's poor - might have struggled with.
This came into sharp relief at his commemoration when Blade Nzimande, the Communist Party's current general secretary and the recently appointed minister for higher education, arrived in a new, 1.1-million-rand (Dh530,000) BMW 750i, paid for by tax-payers' money. Under South Africa's ministerial code, the purchase was legitimate, but it struck a jarring note for a left-wing leader to do so when millions of South Africans remain desperately poor.
At the ceremony, held at Slovo's graveside in Soweto, his widow, Helena Dolny, seized on the fact. "Before Joe started working in parliament, we used to own a Volvo," she said. "He did not change his car when he became minister, but he used his predecessor's car. "He would have been distraught if he read the papers today." Chastened, Mr Nzimande - who has admitted that buying the car was a mistake - said: "We take your criticism frankly and honestly and with humility and with the attention that it is deserved.
"It is appropriate for you to say that and we accept that, because it is very important when we remember someone like comrade Joe Slovo, that we don't abandon the values that have come to characterise our revolution." With individuals in the ruling party regularly facing accusations of cronyism, particularly at local and provincial levels, Mr Nzimande condemned what he called the "tenderpreneurs", state officials who give each other contracts, and called for the SACP to intensify its campaign against corruption.
Later, Ms Dolny - who also went into exile as a result of her Communist Party activities - said in an interview that her late husband "really did like the good life", but he was adamant that it was not and should never be paid for by public funds. "He was a whisky drinker, he was a cigar smoker, liked good food. An old fellow communist criticised him for his cigar smoking and said it was symptomatic of a disposition towards a bourgeois lifestyle. Joe laughed and said we want the good life for all, we don't want equality of poverty. Having sackcloth and ashes is not what communism is about.
"But he made a very clear distinction between what you spent your own personal money on and how you use state resources. "I think materialism is very seductive and people in the Communist Party have got to rise above that and not be seen to be spending money on unnecessary luxuries." Her stance - and the remarks of Mr Nzimande - were welcomed by commentators, with the Times newspaper in Johannesburg describing the reaction as "refreshing".
"There is no greater threat to South Africa than the diversion of resources intended for development to the enrichment of the elite," it said in an editorial. But whether the SACP can persuade the ANC to implement its calls for openness and a sustained anti-corruption campaign remains open to question. The president, Jacob Zuma, who had corruption charges against him dropped before he took office, will not want to alienate sections of his own organisation, and there are tensions within the Tripartite Alliance, as the grouping of the two parties with the trade union federation Cosatu is called, with early signs of a growing black nationalism in the ANC.
Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the ANC Youth League, who has an influence beyond his years, derided the Communist Party deputy leader, Jeremy Cronin, as a "white messiah" during a row over the nationalisation of mines, which the Communist Party says it supports in principle but not at the current time. He was booed at an SACP meeting, much to his fury. Given Slovo's own pale skin, at the ceremony Mr Nzimande condemned "narrow anti-white African chauvinism".
"Our struggle was never about replacing a white with a black elite." Afterwards Ms Dolny said: "Joe felt immensely privileged to be part of a non-racial liberation movement. You've got to have the possibility of high-profile whites, coloureds, Indians being seen, because that gives the message to ordinary people that there's a place for you." email@example.com