JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — 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.