The boarding houses had an important function in how Jewish immigrants were integrated into the city, and clearly represent a unique space in which Jewish ethnic networks and institutions intersected with political consciousness and engagement.
Photograph of Joe Slovo. (from the book, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid)
The life of Joe Slovo is a striking example of how radicalism blossomed out of a childhood rooted in a socialist society.
Joe was born in Lithuania in 1926 to Wolfus, a fisherman and woodcutter and Chaya, who was a homemaker. In 1936, Chaya emigrated to South Africa with her children, where they rejoined Wolfus, who had left Lithuania several years earlier. Joe was enrolled in the Jewish government school, but his mother died shortly after, and the family business went bankrupt…which forced the family to move into a boarding house in Doornfontein, and later forced Joe to leave school to help make ends meet.
It was in the boarding house that Joe first met a member of the Communist Party — Dr Max Joffe, who, along with his brother Louis, were prominent members of the CPSA. One of Joe’s teachers arranged for him to attend meetings of the Junior Left Book Club at Dr Joffe’s office, which became an important influence in his political formation.
“He planted the first seed of political interest in me”
Joe Slovo, speaking about Dr Max Joffe
From that first boarding house, Mrs. Leiserowitz’s, Joe moved to Mrs. Sher’s, where he remembers political discussions happening between banter, and games of rummy and poker. The boarding houses were an important institution among immigrant communities in the 1900s, because they provided a base of cultural and linguistic familiarity, and for the creation and maintenance of social bonds among a vulnerable immigrant population. Most of the inhabitants were new to the city, or on their own — and so the boarding houses facilitated a space wherein they could share meals and conversations with others in similar situations.
“My leaning towards left socialist politics was also formed partly by the bizarre and paradoxical embrace of socialism shared by most of the immigrants who filled the boarding houses in which we lived.”
One of Joe’s daughters, Shawn, traced the thread of this ethnic influence through her father’s life, acknowledging that “Jewishness” went beyond religion, in the way it permeated their lives.
“For both Ruth and Joe, the food they ate, friends they had, cultural interests, intellectual curiosity were all part of their Jewishness. We were brought up as complete atheists, but it’s a cultural inheritance. And that’s how Joe became a communist, through his involvement with Jewish organisations.”
During his lifetime, Joe went from an active member, to a leader in both the SACP and the ANC. He contributed to the drafting of the Freedom Charter, and acted as a member of the defence team (as well as being one of the accused) in the 1956 Treason Trial.
He was part of the leadership of Umkhonto weSizwe, and in 1985, became the first white member of the ANC’s national executive.