For weeks now, Joe Slovo has traveled white South Africa wrapped in his rumpled sports coat and fading ideology. He's been both heckled and cheered, sometimes in the same room. And, always, he's been pummeled with tough questions.
"Does my mother need to worry about her Georgian furniture being nationalized?" a caller to a local radio talk show asked him the other day.
"Not at all," Slovo replied, chuckling. "I don't particularly like Georgian furniture, by the way."
Those assurances notwithstanding, whites in South Africa these days are plainly worried about Communist Party General Secretary Joe Slovo. They yearn to know whether he plans to take away their big houses, their luxury cars, their swimming pools and their bank accounts--as well as their antique furniture.
Implicit in their questions is the knowledge that this grandfatherly white lawyer might one day be able to do it.
Across the world, communism and socialism are losing adherents. But in South Africa, where the red flag has been an integral part of the black liberation struggle, the Communist Party has recently emerged from 40 years in hiding as a powerful political force.
The party is personified by Slovo, a stocky, bespectacled 64-year-old who, during most of his 27 years in exile, led the African National Congress' revolutionary war against white minority rule. Lionized in the black townships, he was regarded as the most treacherous of Pretoria's enemies.
His return to South Africa, where his words and photograph were banned for years, has generated deep anxiety among many of the country's 5 million whites. The highest-ranking white in the ANC, he's already occupying one of the organization's seats in peace talks with the government. And he stands to become one of the more influential players in the future of this country.
These days, Slovo is putting himself and his doctrine on display in an extraordinary grass-roots campaign to undo the hatred and fear built up among whites here by four decades of red baiting, censorship, and personal attacks by the government.
What the citizens are seeing is not the evil revolutionary genius they had been told to expect but a white-haired, jowly salesman who is patient, intellectual, witty, self-effacing and even a little bit shy. Sure, his products are a bit wacky, many of them say, but his ideas aren't life threatening. And some are beginning to think that, on a personal level at least, Joe is not such a bad guy.
His party appears to have significant support among blacks, especially the powerful trade unions, and Communist leaders wield considerable influence in the ANC, where they make up a third of the national executive committee.
But with the fall of Communist governments in Eastern Europe, the dismal failure of Marxist economies in Africa and the vilification of Stalin in the Soviet Union, Slovo starts out at a disadvantage when talking economics with the staunchly pro-capitalist white business leaders who control South Africa's economy.
The editor of Business Day newspaper, Ken Owen, welcomed the Communist Party home by saying that Slovo had launched "The World's Last Communist Party on the path of the dinosaur."
Others were less kind. The ruling National Party's spokesman, Renier Schoeman, says Slovo's party is "nothing more than an unmourned relic of the past, which has no place, role or influence in the new South Africa of the future."
As Slovo conceded recently: "To be a Communist in this country takes more than a sense of humor. It takes a sense of survival."
But humor helps.
Slovo and communism were grilled in typical fashion for two hours one day last week by patrons at O'Hagan's wine bar, a restaurant in a white Johannesburg suburb. Halfway through the question-and-answer session, one diner asked Slovo how he could ever hope to turn white opinion to his cause.
"You turn it around by shattering the myth that is being spread that we favor a post-apartheid economy which is going to result in the nationalization of O'Hagan's wine bar," Slovo said, generating laughs in the room.
"Now, after eating the kingclip (fish) here, I can assure you I'll leave it to O'Hagan," he added.
In fact, Slovo's own political philosophy has undergone significant changes recently. Once a strong advocate of the ANC's guerrilla war and the author of a book entitled "No Middle Road," he has embraced Nelson Mandela's moves toward a negotiated solution to South Africa's troubles.
Once regarded as a hard-line Stalinist, he has begun to rethink his party's dogma. He still believes communism is the ultimate answer for South Africa, but he now says "there is a place for private domestic and foreign capital" in his vision of a socialist state, and he speaks of multi-party democracy.
Slovo now concedes that capitalism is superior to socialism as a means of generating wealth, but he says it fails when it comes to distributing that wealth. Any new government in South Africa, a country where the overwhelming majority of productive land and businesses is controlled by whites, will have to find a way to redistribute wealth equitably, he says.
The problem in Eastern Europe, he said, was that the governments had practiced a distorted form of socialism, which they imposed by force. Like Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Slovo now believes socialism can only work if it is twinned with democracy and free trade unions.
"I can't point to any country as a fine ideal of the kind of socialist society that should be built," Slovo says. "But I still believe it can work. If a tool is used badly, it is the fault of the workman, and not the tool."
Slovo first embraced communism early in life. His family emigrated from Lithuania in 1936 when Slovo was 9, joining the thousands moving to Johannesburg in search of work in the gold mines.
He grew up in a religious Jewish household and although now an atheist, he remembers learning the ethics of Jewish culture as a young boy. To this day, he says, "I think I represent the positive aspects of Jewish culture."
He joined the youth league of the Communist Party in 1942 at the age of 16, and two years later, at the height of World War II, served with the South African army in Italy.
The Communist Party in South Africa had been launched in 1921, and its earliest crusades were on behalf of white workers whose jobs were threatened by cheap black labor. But before Slovo joined it, the party had already begun to violate the unwritten rules of white politics by accepting black members, thus beginning a long association with the black liberation struggle that now gives the party its strongest base of support.
Slovo earned a law degree at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University and began to make a name for himself by defending anti-apartheid activists in some of the same South African courtrooms where another lawyer, Nelson Mandela, was working.
He married Ruth First, the daughter of the party's treasurer and the author of some of the first journalistic exposes of apartheid. The couple were among the first 600 people named in 1950 under the Suppression of Communism Act, which outlawed the party and curtailed the political activities of suspected Communists.
Slovo helped plan the 1955 Congress of the People, which wrote the ANC's manifesto known as the Freedom Charter, but, because of official restrictions, had to watch the proceedings through binoculars from a nearby rooftop. At one point he was charged with treason, though the accusation was later dropped.
In 1961, he joined Mandela and other key ANC leaders in secretly forming Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the ANC's military wing, and launching a campaign of sabotage against Pretoria that would escalate over the years into a bloody guerrilla war, with bombs exploding everywhere from government offices to shopping malls.
Slovo left the country in 1963 to get arms and financial help from foreign governments. While he was away, his colleagues in the military high command were arrested, convicted and sentenced to life prison terms.
Slovo remained abroad to re-establish the ANC's army, becoming its chief of staff, and he became the first white member of the organization's executive committee. Those were especially dangerous times. During the 1980s, with the guerrilla war gaining support among blacks inside South Africa, Slovo moved from country to country, house to house, rarely spending two nights under the same roof for fear of being tracked down by South African agents.
In 1981, South African commandos attacked Slovo's operational headquarters on the outskirts of Maputo, the capital of South Africa's neighbor, Mozambique. He escaped, but 13 of his colleagues were killed.
A year later, Slovo's wife, Ruth, was killed by a parcel bomb sent to her office in Maputo. South African agents were suspected.
The government blamed Slovo for directing an ANC troop buildup and escalating the military campaign in 1984, triggering widespread unrest and police confrontations that claimed more than 2,000 lives.
A government publication at the time called Slovo "an evil genius (and) dedicated Communist . . . without morality of any kind, for whom only victory counts, whatever the human cost."
But in South Africa's black townships, Slovo's name had become a rallying cry along with the name of Mandela, and the Communist Party-ANC partnership was hailed with shouts of "Long Live the Alliance!"
Those embattled days seemed far away last week when Mandela, Slovo and three of their colleagues met with the South African government and then announced they were suspending the armed liberation struggle.
But Slovo still defends his role in that armed effort and vows that the military struggle will be resumed if negotiations fail.
A right-wing heckler at O'Hagan's last week demanded to know "how it feels to kill innocent women and children." As other patrons booed the questioner and the worried emcee tried to move to another question, Slovo insisted on answering.
"I don't feel any joy out of death or suffering or pain," he said.
"But I say, my friend, if you were living in a country where you with your white skin were denied a vote, if your wives and children were being shot down merely because they went in for political protest, you would not have my respect if you were not prepared to pick up a gun to rectify that situation."
Name: Joe Slovo
Title: General Secretary of the South African Communist Party and member of the African National Congress Executive Committee
Personal: Born in Lithuania, moved to South Africa when he was 9. Trained as a lawyer. His wife, Ruth First, killed by parcel bomb in Maputo, Mozambique, in 1982. Daughter Shaw wrote the screenplay for the autobiographical film, "A World Apart"
Quote: 'What failed in Eastern Europe was not socialism, but the way socialism was practiced. What has failed in this country is capitalism, as far as most people are concerned.'