Slovo's vision

Anthony Lewis

October 17, 1990|By Anthony Lewis

New York -- I BELIEVE the rights to property should be retained," Joe Slovo said. "It would be absurd for us to move into a post-apartheid society trying to eliminate the private sector, foreign investment and so on. We know that they aren't charities and they need security, they need the feeling that what they've got they're going to keep."

Joe Slovo is general secretary of the South African Party and a member of the executive committee of the African National Congress. He is on a visit to New York and spoke with me about the current talks with the government and about South Africa's future.

"Private property is not an issue," he said. "The question is whether we'll have the capacity in a new constitution to redress the inherited economic imbalances due to racism. There must be a certain degree of state intervention, which doesn't necessarily mean state ownership.

"For example, in the last 20 years four million people have been dispossessed -- removed from their homes and land. There's no way we can move into the new period ignoring that racial injustice."

How can you meet the white community's desire for security, I asked, if the state takes land or other property without compensation?

"I don't believe it should take anything without compensation," Slovo said, "I really don't. The form of compensation will have to be worked out very carefully, so that there isn't an enormous flight of capital -- the compensation remains within the country and is in a form which encourages reinvestment. But those things can be worked out."

Slovo said he believed in the market system and in economic incentives. But he said the black workers have to feel they have a stake in increasing productivity, "which isn't the case today. They have a feeling of complete alienation."

When it came to land, he said, there would have to be some redistribution to the black majority -- who have been barred by law from owning land in 87 percent of South Africa. But that has to be done while maintaining agricultural production, and some efficient large farms would remain undivided.

In a pamphlet published last winter, "Has Socialism Failed?" Slovo said the one-party state was not a Marxist idea but a Soviet idea that failed. Was he against a one-party system in South Africa? I asked. "Absolutely," he said. "It's a recipe for tyranny."

He said there should be no issue between the ANC and the government over "political pluralism, language, culture, religion. We've said over and over again that we're quite prepared to have those freedoms irreversibly entrenched in a constitution subject to a justiciable Bill of Rights."

For years in exile Slovo was chief of staff of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto We Sizwe. For that reason, and perhaps also because he is white, he was a particular hate figure for the government and its supporters. (Liberals also criticized him severely as an unyielding communist.) Now he is playing a leading role in the talks. I asked how he got along with the men on the government side.

Government ministers, he said, occasionally try to depict him as a leader of a faction that disagrees with Nelson Mandela and does not really want peace. Just last Monday, he said, at a meeting with President de Klerk, "we reminded him" that the ANC's decision to suspend the armed struggle "came as the result of a proposal I made."

There is a "rather soured atmosphere" between the government and the ANC right now, he said, "a strain on the peace process. But I would not like to think, and I don't think, that it's reached a point of no return. Both sides know what's at stake if these talks break down."

De Klerk feels that "there's no way back" to apartheid, Slovo said, but his belief alone does not make the process irreversible. The number of whites opposed to change is growing, "and they've got presence at every level that counts in the state apparatus: the army, the police force, the civil service. And they could still help to reverse the process."

Slovo returned to South Africa last May after 27 years in exile. What differences did he find?

"You walk down the streets in Johannesburg," he said, "the place I wouldn't say is owned by the blacks, but they walk around as if they're about to own it. Which wasn't the case when I left in 1963. There was a hangdog, submissive, slightly fearful visage in those days -- but no more."

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