Back when the South African government and police tarnished as Communist anyone who favored racial equality, they gave communism a better name than it deserved. As a result, South Africa had the only truly indigenous Communist movement in Africa (the others were colonially introduced). Joe Slovo was a real Communist, starting in his teens.
The Lithuania-born Slovo was also a civil rights lawyer in the 1950s when circumstances joined his lot with Nelson Mandela. They were among the 156 charged with treason in 1956 for framing the Freedom Charter, which called for nonracial democracy. The African National Congress of Mr. Mandela and the Communist Party of Mr. Slovo were both banned in 1960. They jointly launched a sabotage campaign the next year. In 1963, Mr. Mandela was arrested and Mr. Slovo fled into exile that would last 27 years.
Many Americans who sympathized with the ANC worried at its interlocking directorate with the Communist Party. The principal interlock was Mr. Slovo. He was a staunch Stalinist. For public consumption, he was commander of ANC's guerrilla wing as well as Communist Party chairman. This probably meant he was the member of the ANC executive best able to wangle aid from Moscow. It was not a game. His wife, also a prominent Communist, was assassinated in Mozambique in 1982 by a parcel bomb presumably sent by South Africa's secret police.
When Mr. Mandela was let out of prison in 1990 to lead the country to one-person-one-vote democracy, he was a Rip Van Winkle out of touch with the '90s, still loyal to Communists, still spouting outdated Marxism, still leaning on Mr. Slovo.
As it turned out, Mr. Slovo was the ANC negotiator who best understood South Africa's ruling white minority. He may even have been the one who best knew that socialism was dead. He helped craft the notable compromises with the regime that brought peaceful transformation to South Africa and Mr. Mandela to the presidency.
At his death at 68 last week, Mr. Slovo was housing minister in the coalition government of which Mr. Mandela is president and their longtime foe, F. W. de Klerk, deputy president. His passing is a loss for the president who, at 76, is watching longtime colleagues die off. And when people speculate about whether a terrorist can become a democrat, in any country, it's not just Nelson Mandela who must be cited. Joe Slovo, too.