Gillian Slovo was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now lives in London. She is a novelist and playwright, and her verbatim plays include the 2017 drama Another World – a look at why Western youth would join Islamic State. Her fourteen published books include Ice Road, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction; Red Dust, which is set around a hearing of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was made into a film starring Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor; and her family memoir, Every Secret Thing, which tells the story of life with her parents, South African activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First.

Gillian Slovo was interviewed about her life, career and hope for the future for 200 WOMEN, a book and exhibition project founded on the principle of gender equality comprising original interviews and accompanying photographic portraits. This landmark project is the realisation of an epic global journey to find two hundred women with diverse backgrounds, and to ask them what really matters to them.

Q. What really matters to you?
My life has, in many ways, been shaped by my childhood. I spent the first twelve years of my life in South Africa. My parents were part of a small band of white South Africans who decided that they couldn’t close their eyes to what was happening around them and who joined with other South Africans to fight apartheid. I had the difficulty of growing up in a family in which almost everything my parents did was illegal. I remember there always being a sense of the real danger that my parents could disappear at any time and not return. The other side of that was, of course, the privilege that my parents’ circle included the greats of South Africa – Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu. They were a generation of political activists who really believed in human beings. They dotted my childhood and some of them later my adulthood; the contacts with people like them are among the most significant events in my life.
What matters to me is both the micro and the macro. The micro is my family and my friends. The macro is wishing for justice and equality for everybody; I live in a world where this is absolutely not the case. I’m not just talking about South Africa – where the differences between rich and poor are so acute that they’re in your face all the time – but also of Britain and the rest of the world. What matters to me is something that seems to be unachievable at this moment: that people should have better conditions in their lives, whether it be that they’re allowed to live without war or whether it be that they’re allowed to live with food on the table. Gender equality is part of that; where you have gender inequality you will never have peace.

Q. What brings you happiness?
I find happiness in relationships. I find it with my family and with my friends. I sometimes find it in my work, and I find it walking in the landscape.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
There are so many things to choose from. What’s happened with the corruption in the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa upsets me. It’s an organisation that, in a way, is my family – so it’s terrible when your family lets you down like that. In fact, they’re not the ANC that made the change in 1994, but a distortion of what it once was. They’re a pale reflection of the people my parents fought with.
The prevailing state of inequality in South Africa gnaws away at me – it’s just so apparent when you go there. This is not what my parents fought for. My father, who was Mandela’s first minister of housing, always said during the time of the negotiations, ‘If you think that it was difficult for us to bring about this change – to have made a revolution – just wait until you see what’s going to happen when we get into government. It’s going to be much more difficult.’ My parents were always realists, and I think my father has been proved right. I don’t know how you approach trying to turn a country like this around, when the education that is given to most people is so unfit for the modern world and where the inequalities are so extreme.
People forget that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up after apartheid was a political compromise as much as anything else. I do believe that it was an appropriate compromise in the interests of peace, but forgiveness is not something you can force on individuals. I don’t forgive the men who confessed to killing my mother, but, although I would like to see them jailed, I know my mother would not have wanted justice for her to be exchanged for peace in South Africa. Reconciliation is about a whole society, not about us forgiving individual murderers and torturers. I still believe that the miracle of South Africa resides in its people.
The way asylum seekers and refugees are continually being treated in this world we live in, and the horror of what’s happening in Syria, also upset me. The world is witnessing the decimation of a people – the use of awful weapons against ordinary people – and nobody stops it.

Q. What would you change if you could?
My answer to that changes every day, but I suppose I would try and change people’s feeling that those who are different from them are taking things away from them. I would like people to understand that just because you’re not born in the same street, in the same city, and don’t have the same colour of skin, does not make you any less human.

Q. Which single word do you most identify with?
Justice. That’s how I was brought up and it runs through my life – a need for justice.


  • Title: Gillian Slovo
  • Creator: Blackwell & Ruth
  • Date Created: 2017
  • Location Created: London, England
  • Original Source: 200 Women
  • Rights: Blackwell and Ruth Limited
  • Photographer: Image copyright (c) Kieran. E. Scott

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