If there is one book to read this year it’s Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid by Alan Weider. This is a 2013 political biography of two incredible anti-Apartheid organizers and strategists in South Africa , during the tremendous struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. Ruth First and Joe Slovo were Jews, raised in Johannesburg in the 1930s and ‘40s. First’s parents were members of the fledgling Communist Party of South Africa. Slovo’s parents and Joe Slovo as a boy emigrated from Lithuania. His mother died shortly after, and his father was desperate for safety and security rather than an interest in politics. In the late 1940s, First and Slovo met when they attended the University of the Witwatersrand — she in social sciences, and he in law. Ruth became a leading investigative journalist, a researcher, the editor of the radical South African newspaper The Guardian, and an author. Joe became a well known lawyer who represented Blacks who ran afoul of the racist regime.
Both Ruth and Joe were forced to leave South Africa in the early 1960s, after the iron grip of Apartheid was tightened. The couple and their three young daughters went to live in London, UK. Though a seasoned and well-respected researcher and author, Ruth yearned to return to the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa. Though it was impossible for her to return, she decided she had to live somewhere on the African continent. In the late 1970s, after five years of teaching at Durham University in England, she moved to Maputo, Mozambique. Mozambique had just liberated itself from nearly 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule in 1975. It became the place in which anti-Apartheid organizers and leaders (who were not in South Africa’s jails) lived because the Mozambican government not only welcomed them but also wanted to help the South Africans’ struggle to defeat Apartheid.
Some of us recall where we were that August day in 1982 when we got word that Ruth First was killed instantly by a letter bomb.
That August day, Ruth was joined by other colleagues in her office at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo . The group was ‘shooting the breeze’ while they waited to attend a going-away party for fellow academic John Saul, a Canadian Africanist who was set to return to Canada. As Ruth First sat at her desk and randomly opened pieces of mail, a friend remarked enviously that she always got so much mail. First replied that to get mail, you had to first send mail! The bomb went off, planted by the South African government security forces who had been carrying out a reign of terror against her, Slovo and other anti-Apartheid activists in exile. Interestingly Ruth First died 13 years after Mozambican Liberation Front’s (FRELIMO) leader, Eduardo Mondlane was killed by a letter bomb in the FRELIMO office in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania when the revolutionaries were exiled.
From left: Ruth First’s book cover for Black Gold, the cover for Barrel of a Gun, photo of Joe Slovo and Ruth First in 1956 after the “Treason Trial” (credit: tribune.mag.co.uk); photo of Nelson Mandela and Ruth First in 1952 (Credit: tribune.mag.co.uk).
The book is far more than this. The reader gets a complete picture of Ruth and Joe, their political differences – she moved toward the New Left of the 70s, while he cleaved to the line of USSR, and their family relationship. She wrote monographs, investigative journalism and books , including one migrant workers’ “abundant and cheap” labour in the gold mines of S. Africa, Black Gold, and analysed the ‘power elite’ in Barrel of a Gun. She left Johannesburg in 1963 shortly after her release from prison, as she knew the next time, the South African government would keep her behind bars for years in an attempt to bury her and diminish the struggle. Ruth, barely 30 years old, white, middle class mother of three, was jailed for more than 100 days. In her first book, 117 Days (1965), she wrote compellingly about being locked in solitary confinement with little more than a Bible to read, and denied most visitors. One thing that stuck with me was that as a white prisoner, she never had to clean her cell. Though a prisoner, the prison warden — true to the Apartheid system — ordered a jailed black woman to clean First’s cell, bring her fresh laundry and food.
I read 117 Days while I was a grad student in the UK in the late 1980s. The anti-Apartheid fight was coming to a head and the release of Nelson Mandela was imminent (though we didn’t know it at the time). I became active in the Boycott of South African wines and other anti-Apartheid campaigns in our town of Leamington Spa, in the West Midlands. Our Tory MP, Sir Dudley Smith, was a Thatcherite who had sat on the back bench for more than 26 years. He discovered I was a Canadian who along with a small dedicated group demonstrated in front of his office. He replied to letters I wrote him demanding he oppose Apartheid in South Africa. In his replies he always circled the “sir” before his name I guess to remind me of who he was!! (He was knighted due to his early support of Thatcher’s takeover of the Conservative Party.) Oh and one last bit of information: Larry had barely completed his doctorate, when I got a letter from Sir Dudley saying that my husband’s student visa would end in six weeks and our family would have to leave the UK. He wished us good luck in resettling back home in Canada! It was rather creepy that Sir Dudley knew our visa status; he knew way too much about us.
But, getting back to the book review here, I started to read more of Ruth First. I read her daughter Gillian Slovo’s book about her life with her radical parents Every Secret Thing (1997) – which I also highly recommend. Gillian Slovo is the author of five clever mystery novels, and at least that many books of fiction. My favourite is The Betrayal (1992). All worth reading.
Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid will not disappoint. The author discusses arguments and disagreements in the ANC (African National Congress), the Communist Party of South Africa and the issue of whether and how to back armed struggle. Joe Slovo was the architect of exactly that – it was under his leadership that buildings, power lines and infrastructure were torched or blown up in South Africa. He built a movement of men and women who trained in camps along the borders, in Mozambique, in Tanzania and in Angola to invade and even terrorize – in an effort to destabilize the Pretoria regime.
If you can remember reading and hearing about the struggles against Apartheid South Africa, you need to read this book. The photos are wonderful – and there are jokes! Turns out Joe Slovo the Communist, was also a charming raconteur and joke teller.
Rose Royal, a shocking novella
Rose Royal, is a 2019 novella by French novelist Nicolas Mathieu. It’s billed as a love story however it is anything but. It’s a short novel about patriarchy, anger and myth-making about relationships. Rose is an office worker in Paris; she is nearing age 50, divorced and the mother of two grown sons. She visits the same small, friendly bar after work most days. One evening, a man walks into the bar, carrying his dog which was just hit by a car on the street outside. What happens next you need to read.
The problem with men like you is that you don’t talk and you don’t listen. Little by little she was lured into the swindle known as dependency.from Rose Royal
This is a story about trust, intimacy and also the depth of neediness in a new relationship. I borrowed the book from the Halifax Public Library.
Exiting the Revolving Door in the current issue of Briarpatch is worth reading. Journalist Sophie Jin writes about disabled people being funneled into work at sheltered workshops across this country; basically, they work for far less than minimum wage. Why is that? Jin interviewed Donnie MacLean who used to work for one of the 30 sheltered workshops in Nova Scotia.
“Sheltered workshops for disabled people allow employers to evade labour standards and pay workers below minimum wage, all under the guise of never-ending ‘training programs.’ ”Sophie Jin
Nova Scotia-based disabled rights advocate Gus Reed writes a blog on The James McGregor Stewart Society website. The JMS Society is devoted to progressive public policy and education especially with regard to disability. Reed’s latest topic is about disabled people and sheltered workshops here. Reed also reveals some shocking facts and figures. Specifically he examines the four NS agencies and departments – including the NS Human Rights Commission — that are charged with preserving and promoting inclusion. Yet all of these agencies and departments have totally ignored the rampant poverty caused by unemployment and underemployment among the disabled while the agencies protect the rights of sheltered workshops and agencies which pay slave wages.
Reed notes, “I have written on this subject many times. Sheltered workshops are:
- Mostly government funded mock charities
“They keep intellectually disabled people from entitlements. Like many organizations, they cover up abuse. They are motivated by self-interest.” Read Reed’s article here And you can have a look at this 2015 Toronto Star investigation into pay and conditions at sheltered workshops.
Left: worker in sheltered workshop (credit: Toronto Star); right, illustration for Briarpatch by Gou
Oscar-winning Filmmaker accused of plagiarism
A long New Yorker article, Did the Oscar-Winning Director Asghar Farhadi Steal Ideas? probably dives too deep and it’s a complicated tale. Rachel Aviv’s article focuses on the renowned Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. He made the films A Hero, and The Separation. The latter won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. What we didn’t know is that Farhadi routinely used students’ and friends’ ideas, and even scripts without giving them proper credit. The article reveals the extent to which Farhadi’s reputation has been built on quicksand. Though most of the victims he plagiarized insist he is a great filmmaker, he is presented as supercilious, nasty and very controlling. You can read the case against Farhadi yourself here.
Princess, a short story
What to Watch
I just finished watching two of the three seasons of the series from Finland called Deadwind. Of course it’s cops and robbers, a tiny but few good guys and lots of baddies, but in the second season I got to like the two starring cops. They are people of few words but easy on the eyes. Karppi wears shapeless pastel sweaters under an always-open puffy black coat, black leggings and boots. Her edgy dyed and knotty blonde hair shows its dark roots. Nurmi, her cop partner, resembles a male model– but deeply troubled. The crimes they solve are complex but everything works out in the end – except for the baddies who end up dead. Oh and one more thing: when was the last time you saw any series filmed in the dead of winter in the snow. Deadwind takes place mainly in Helsinki and environs – it’s worth watching. It’s also a bit addictive. Watch it on Netflix.
Independent Jewish Voices Canada on Youtube
IJV Canada has an interesting webinar on Youtube, part of their Together Against Apartheid (Israeli Apartheid that is) campaign. It features three speakers Sheryl Nestel, followed by Rabbi David Mivasair. Nestel and Rowan Gaudet co-authored a new report Unveiling the Chilly Climate: The Suppression of Speech on Palestine in Canada reveals that academics and students in Canadian universities face huge pushback, often endangering their careers, if they criticize Israel and support justice for Palestinians. It happened to me and my husband Larry here in Halifax. Over a decade, at least twice the then-head of the Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC) harassed the vice-president of Saint Mary’s University and urged him to get rid of the “two antisemites” on faculty – Larry and I. Clearly the AJC never heard about tenure, let alone academic freedom. Nestel and Gaudet’s cogent and meticulously researched report is available here.
This webinar also features David Mivasair. Tune in at the 22 minute mark (to 38 minutes) to hear Hamilton-based Rabbi Mivasair expose what the 176 complaints to police of antisemitism in the Hamilton area boiled down to. After looking at the figures and the police facts, Mivasair shows that there only were four substantiated incidents over four years that the police could even classify as possibly antisemitic. These include a van decorated from the local Hindu temple which used the swastika as a religious symbol and predates the Nazis by thousands of years. Another incident was some antisemitic scrawl on a public bench and wall. Mivasair got the latest figures but they were from 2020-21. Likely the 2022 B’nai Brith audit of antisemitism will include the swastika and scrawl and all the unsubstantiated ones.
The third speaker Jillian Rogin, a law professor at the University of Windsor, spoke about the new Canadian law that criminalizes “condoning, denying or downplaying the Holocaust.” This law was buried in the Liberals’ Omnibus bill last spring, and it does not appear that the NDP raised an objection. You can read more about the bill here
Below clockwise: Cover of IJV’s Unveiling the Chilly Climate Report; Ganesha swastika symbol from the internet; protest to boycott Israel, 2016 in New York City (credit: Pacific Press/light Rocket via Getty Images); Israel issues orders to treat 6 prominent Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organiszations” Oct. 2021 (credit: Almad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images); illustration in Canada’s The Breach (credit: breachmedia.ca)
The Imposter (2014) is great. A young man in Spain insists he is the 17-year-old son of a Texas family who went missing three years previous. The family – a grown son, a daughter and a mother are desperate to believe their brother and son is alive and that the boy in Spain is indeed the missing teen. This is a documentary that is fascinating, well done and poignant. Here’s the trailer. It’s on Kanopy.
Miss Sloane is a 2016 film on Kanopy. It’s dazzling. A rather soulless — but beautiful –woman lobbyist in Washington DC decides to quit her job representing rather loathsome clients of a major law firm. What we see as her sudden about face, her moral outrage at the shenanigans of the gun lobby pushes her to join a small progressive lobbyist firm. There’s a court case, which shows that “Taking the fifth” could never be more real or more necessary. Worth seeing. Here’s the extended (5 minute) trailer.
Clockwise: Promotion for 1994; promotion for Miss Sloane, Promotion for The Imposter; The Imposter’s Nicholas Barclay who disappeared at age 13 and the imposter; a scene from The Separation by Asghar Farhadi
1994 on Netflix is a Mexican documentary series which is amazing. In six episodes, we see the corruption and gangsterism of the PRI, the party which ruled Mexico for 71 years (from 1929) and the election that changed it all in 1994. Original footage and interviews with politicians and journalists reveal secrets and security issues which are spine chilling. 1994 spans the activism of the Zapatistas, Mexico’s turn against NAFTA and the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. Here’s the trailer.
Podcasts to Listen to…
The three-part series about heiress Patty Hearst told me many things I didn’t know. This Parcast “Hostage” series, which I got free on Spotify, focuses on those long-ago days in 1974 when Patty, aged 19, was abducted from the apartment she shared with her professor fiancé, locked in a closet for 60 days and spent a year with her captors committing bank robberies and other mayhem. Something I didn’t know: her father Randolph Hearst son of the zillionaire newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, said he didn’t have the money her captors demanded. He could only put up a couple of million dollars. The rest had to be wrested from the Hearst Foundation, which was not technically his to raid. The problems that befell the rich and powerful! Not bad at all, and you can listen here:
Ratfucker is an excellent new three-part series from Canadaland. It focuses on Canadian David Wallace, a shady character who was into election fixing for the wealthy Right. Wallace worked for a Christian religious sect, the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, which used its considerable financial and strong-arm tactics to “persuade” liberal-minded Naheed Nenshi, former mayor of Calgary, to take their bribe. He refused. Worse was to come, some in the Brethren and even toyed with the idea of “doing away” with the prime minister. Listen to Ratfucker here. And please subscribe to Canadaland — it’s the only serious media watchdog in our country.
Promotion for Canadaland’s Ratfucker
Hidden Brain is an NPR podcast hosted and written by Shankar Vedantam, originally from India and now living in the US. The series Relationships 2.0 is well worth hearing. He looks at the origins of marriage, what is a “love” marriage, antidotes to loneliness and a better way to worry. He has thoughtful guests and he himself is a former academic turned investigative podcaster. Right now I’m listening to “When Did Marriage Become So Hard?” You can listen to the series here.
Hedley’s frontman: a rapist
We know now that Vancouver-born Jacob Hoggard, 37, frontman for the once popular band Hedley was convicted of sexual assault causing bodily harm and jailed for five years. Three women, one who just turned 16, one who was 24 and one nearly 50 came forward to testify about his modus operandi – he invited each one to his hotel room, and then along with rough sex he raped them. They all testified they said no and begged him to stop. The story, the media feeding frenzy and the court case is well presented by Kristi Lee on the Canadian True Crime podcast. She also delves into the culture of some teenage girls, their idols, and their desire to ‘hang’ with the rich and famous. The court case against Hoggar revealed the parents’ shock at how easily their daughters are groomed and take tentative steps into the sex trade. Listen here for free. By the way, I subscribe to Canadian True Crime on Patreon.
Featured Image: Mural of Ruth First, by Ben Slow (UK, 2012: credit, Six Oranges) This large mural is in Nomzano Park in Soweto, South Africa. Slow painted it to commemorate 30 years since Ruth’s death in 1982. Gillian Slovo, novelist and playwright and Ruth First’s daughter, when asked for her comment about the painting replied: “How wonderful that this painting of Ruth, based on a photo which was her mother’s favourite, should be there amongst a community she cared so deeply about.” You can read more about the mural here.