‘Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country’ by Gillian Slovo

1997,282 p.

Gillian Slovo, the daughter of white anti-Apartheid activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First, was standing with her siblings at just one of the many public events surrounding her father’s funeral. Nelson Mandela came in.

[Mandela] told us how one day when he had gone to hug his grown-up daughter she had flinched away from him, and burst out “You are the father to all our people, but you have never had the time to be a father to me.”

He let that last sentence hover before speaking again. This, he said, was his greatest, perhaps his only regret: that his children, and the children of his comrades, had been the ones to pay the price of their parents’ commitment…

They knew it somewhere, all their generation: as the state poured out its wrath, they had watched their children suffer. And yet, and yet- what else could they have done?


What else could they have done? This is the question that lies at the heart of Gillian Slovo’s memoir Every Secret Thing. The answer she would give, I think, is “more”. More time, more contact, more honesty, more love. As the child of two committed, White anti-Apartheid activists, Slovo and her sisters shared their parents with a broader political project, as suggested by the title. Their family and their country were indivisible, even though they spent many years living elsewhere. They had grown up with secrets, with whispered conversations between heads almost touching, with a succession of fleeting and shadowy contacts and the knowledge that, as far as their parents were concerned, they always took second place to the larger struggle. Their father Joe Slovo and mother Ruth First were the glamour couple of the anti-Apartheid movement, born themselves to Communist parents, and active members of the South African Communist Party. They resisted apartheid right from the late 1940s, with Joe an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, acting as a defence lawyer in political trials. Both were under surveillance, and both spent years in exile in UK, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia. Ruth was detained under consecutive 90-day detention periods while the government played cat-and-mouse with activists, while Joe spent decades out of South Africa. She was assassinated in 1982 in Zambia through a letter-bomb. Her father lived until 1995, by which time the ANC had been elected through democratic elections and he had become the Minister for Housing in Nelson Mandela’s government- an almost unimaginable change of events from the perspective of the 1950s and 1960s.

Throughout all this, their daughters were observers: told little, kept safe but also kept at arms-length emotionally. In the weeks before his death from cancer, Gillian asked her father about his life, but he furiously exploded “You can write what you want to, but I won’t tell you.” After he died, Gillian returned to South Africa, to try to uncover the secrets that her parents had held from her and the last third of the book revolves around this search. She wants to know the circumstances and the perpetrators of her mother’s murder, and this brings her face-to-face with more secrets – the power apparatus that lent force to the apartheid regime but which has also managed to shapeshift and insinuate itself into the present security structures. She uncovers secrets about her parents as well, secrets which make her question her parents’ marriage and their fidelity and which serve further to underscore the children’s marginality to their parents’ lives.

Her parents were public figures, excoriated by the apartheid regime, but embraced as part of the struggle by the ANC – indeed, Joe Slovo is buried in a formerly-black only Avalon cemetery in Soweto. Their daughters did not know where they fitted in. They were white, had black servants, spent much of their life in England, and yet they stood, almost as ornaments, at the huge funeral celebrations held when their father died. But Gillian also knew that she and her family were not part of that white silence that pervaded the fifty years of apartheid – as she wryly remarked, it has been impossible now to find anyone who owns up to supporting it- and she bridled at the comment of a White driver that he “didn’t hold grudges”, as if he were the victim. Yet, Gillian feels that she has been a victim in that the larger struggle made her inconsequential to the people to whom she most wanted to matter.

As it turns out, I have read two memoirs written by daughters about their parents, one after the other. This memoir, and Swimming Home are similar in that daughters are holding their parents (especially their mothers) to account, and both share a broadly chronological narrative with multiple digressions and time shifts. What I really admire in this memoir is Slovo’s honesty in her motives and her expressions of disappointment in both parents and her frankness in stating that her parents’ commitment came at her expense. But how to measure the contribution of people passionate about huge events and conditions that affect millions, against the demands of three daughters? I don’t know, and at the end, I don’t think that Slovo does either. She will never find out ‘every secret thing’ – an impossible goal- but she concludes that

I, a child of secrets, had done something that I had needed to do. I had laid to rest some of the ghosts that had stalked my life, and in doing so, I’d found a kind of peace.

p. 281

Perhaps, a “kind of peace” is the best that any of us can hope for.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

3 responses to “‘Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country’ by Gillian Slovo

  1. I read this when it first came out, and it’s true to say that it has shaped my ideas about the obligations of notable people to their children.

    Despite my sympathy for Slovo, I think we do have an answer: there will be collateral damage when people fight for a great cause, but that cause must be fought. Every person who enlisted to fight in WW2 put the cause above family and IMO rightly so, despite the pain it caused loved ones when the ultimate price was paid.

    My reading is too long ago for me to remember if Slovo addresses this, but she was born before birth control made it possible for a woman and/or her partner to decide not to have children. But even if those children were a choice, it’s likely that their parents had no idea just how repressive the regime was going to be and would never have suspected that their own security forces would murder Ruth First

  2. Yes, I agree with you and Nelson Mandela (exalted company!) that important causes must be fought. There is collateral damage, and families did not ask to be part of that damage, but the alternative of isolated, protective and protected families each fixed solely on their own safety is bleak.

  3. Pingback: I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 August 2022 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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