South African’s National Liberation Movement

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National Conference​

Report of the Secretary General

11: Obituaries

17 December 1997

Joe Slovo


Joe Slovo was born in Lithuania on 23 May 1926. At the age of eight, he came with his family to South Africa. He left school at 14 after only four years of formal education. After serving in the Second World War, a demobilisation scholarship enable him to attend Wits University.

He joined the Communist Party at 15. As a young worker, he became involved in the trade union movement in the early 1940s and led a strike at the pharmaceutical distribution company where he worked.

In the 1950s he was a defence lawyer in many political trials, and in December 1956 he was one of the 156 charged in the notorious Treason Trial. He played a central role in the launch of the ANC’s armed struggle in 1961. He was out of the country on a mission when his colleagues were arrested in 1963 at Rivonia.

During his 27 years in exile, he rose to the rank of Chief of Staff in Umkhonto we Sizwe. His role in Special Operations earned him distinction in the armed struggle. In 1985 he was the first white person to be elected to the ANC’s National Executive Committee.

He served as General Secretary of the South African Communist Party from 1987 to 1991, and as its Chairperson from 1991 until his death.

After his return from exile in 1990, he played a central role in the negotiations process, and was appointed Minister of Housing after the 1994 elections. Weeks before he died, he was awarded the ANC highest honour, the Isithwalandwe Seaparankoe.

Joe Slovo died at his home in Johannesburg on 5 January 1995

Harry Gwala


Harry Gwala was born in July 1920 and grew up in the Pietermaritzburg area. After completing his teachers diploma at Adams College, he taught at Slangspruit.

He joined the Communist Party of South Africa in 1942 and the ANC two year later. It was during this time that he began organising workers in the chemical and building industry and formed the Rubber and Cable Workers Union in Howick. In 1950 he was one of the organisers of the national stay-away and was listed as a communist and then banned.

After the banning of the ANC in 1960, he became active in the underground until his arrest in 1964 for sabotage and recruiting members for Umkhonto we Sizwe, and was sent to Robben Island. He was released in 1972 and restricted to Pietermaritzburg.

Following the workers strike in August 1976, he was arrested with a number of other of ANC stalwarts, charged under the Terrorism Act and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

He was released in 1988 due to the motor neuron disease which robbed him of the use of his arms. He was elected the first ANC Chairperson in the Natal Midlands after the movement’s unbanning in 1990. In 1991 he was elected to the National Executive Committee. He subsequently served on the SACP Central Committee. At the time of his death, he was still a member of the SACP, but not serving in any official capacity.

After the 1994 elections, he served as a member of the KwaZulu/Natal Provincial Legislature and was ANC Chief Whip.

Harry Gwala died in the Midlands Medical Centre on 20 June 1995.