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Book Review Slumboy from the Golden City by Paul Joseph

An activist's autobiography is an excellent everyman’s account of the anti-apartheid struggle

PAUL JOSEPH’S recollections stand for all those who sacrificed so much and yet, at least according to the mainstream media, are utterly overshadowed into insignificance by the names of a just a few of their leaders.

The latter would have been nothing without the hundreds of thousands of Paul Josephs coalescing into an ultimately impregnable progressive force for change.

Born into a Keralese family, he grew up in the nondescript but rigidly divided town of Ferreirastown and later the larger settlement of Fordsburg and his childhood accounts make for fascinating and heartbreaking reading.

He recalls the pivotal moment when an irate white police officer seemed about to beat up his mother and records the connivance of church authorities in enforcing the various colour bars in place even before the National Party formally institutionalised apartheid from 1948 onwards. Yet the anti-racist actions of individual clerics such as BL Sigamoney are duly appreciated.

The greatest sadness is reserved for those characters that Joseph encounters who have crossed the colour bar, as the relentless hatred of the apartheid regime manages to destroy most of them. As his own awareness of the system grows, he reports with deepening frustration the enforcement of the system by its very victims —  “coloureds” disassociating with Indians, who in turn looked with contempt on Africans.

Yet amid the poverty and prejudice, there is also the joy of fighting back, whether that be with fists in beating up white thugs — there’s a memorable moment of inter-racial solidarity when ex-soldiers in the Springbok Legion duff up white racists — or by subterfuge, with waiters sprinkling jamal koteh, a natural laxative, on the dinners of especially vile Afrikaaners.

The Morning Star’s predecessor The Daily Worker is frequently approvingly referenced — it was smuggled into the country and was a source of truth and analysis for hard-pressed freedom fighters.

The span of the resistance broadens as Joseph gains a reputation of standing up to the growing racial oppression through engagement with the Transvaal Indian Congress, the South African National Congress and eventually the African National Congress.

The role of the communists in leading the resistance, whether that be through brave unnamed cadres, Ruth First as editor of the New Age newspaper or lawyer Joe Slovo turning the racist legal system on its head, is clear and unequivocal. The international support and solidarity given to the anti-apartheid movement by the socialist countries in the 1950s and 1960s is moving to read.

Inevitably, Joseph finds himself at the forefront of the national resistance. He was in danger of incarceration as a key cadre in Umkhonto We Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, and eventually ended up in exile in London.

This is a very political and Marxist account, with the result that personal details are given short shrift. In one chapter Joseph is a free-wheeling activist and in the next he seemingly has married, with no explanation as to the character of his wife or how they even met and similar incidents are described in almost identikit sentences, as if the author has run out of inspiration after the first reference.

Yet, these quibbles aside, this is a fascinating and detailed account of a communist life well lived across all fronts. Joseph is a great hero, one of a multitude in South Africa who should never be forgotten.

Published by Merlin Press, price £15.99.

 

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