Finding my father

Roy Isacowitz reflects on his just released biography of Jock Isacowitz

Finding my Father, the Lesser God

I was nine years old when my father, Jock Isacowitz, died in January 1962. I was aware at the time that he was notable in certain circles as an opponent of apartheid, but knew few of the details. His loss, for me, was entirely personal; I was oblivious to any wider connotations.

My initial semi-ignorance persisted for the better part of my life, an expanding hollowness as my memories of my father faded. The image I had of him was similar to that of a minor deity; a dead hero – emblematic of strength, power and good behavior – whose actual deeds were lost in the mists of time. Like the ancients, I revered him out of a combination of duty and superstition.

When I finally began researching my father’s life, I discovered a person and a milieu – specifically South African, Jewish and mid-20th Century – which seem quaint and anachronistic in the current world. Perhaps because they had lived through fascism, Jock and those few like him believed in the inevitability of progress towards a better, more humane society. They believed that politics could lead to positive outcomes.

Having grown up during the years of hard-core apartheid and lived most of my adult life in an Israel bent on repeating, if not improving on, the apartheid experience, such naiveté shocked me. I had grown cynical; developed a carapace of skepticism that was impregnable to idealism and high-mindedness. I had to reshuffle my internal pack to come to grips with a period in which Zionism could be regarded as redemptive and the ANC was not out to ransack the coffers.

There were still good guys and bad guys in those days, it seems.

Jock Isacowitz, according to security police Captain E. Buys – I obtained his 1954 memorandum to then- Justice Minister C.R. (“Blackie”) Swart through the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2 of 2000 – “is a very strong Liberalist and a staunch supporter of the Liberal ideology. He is a self-confessed Communist. The Liberal Party is sponsoring the Congress of the People, which is known to consist of Communists and fellow travelers. Isacowitz admits his close association with the Springbok Legion and must therefore be aware that the Legion was the Military Branch of the Communist Party of South Africa.”

It was all nonsense, of course. Jock had left the Communist Party in 1946, “increasingly unhappy [with its] totalitarian character … which offended my conscience because it was contrary to my democratic convictions,” as he wrote in a letter to Swart. The Liberal Party did not sponsor the Congress of the People and if the Springbok Legion was the military branch of anything it was the Union Defence Force.

But, ignorance and mendacity aside, Buys’ memorandum is a refreshing encapsulation of a time in which politics were serious, the white opposition to apartheid was vibrant, though small, and people of all races were willing to suffer extreme hardship in pursuit of humanitarian goals.

It was certainly not Buys’ intention, but the captain’s muddled description of my father’s political activities made me proud. Unlike most of the other Jews in the ranks of the opposition, he was not a doctrinaire Stalinist; nor was he a factory settings Zionist, like the bulk of the Jewish community, or a shrinking violet progressive.

Jock Isacowitz fought hard for the classic liberal values of equality, civil and human rights and freedom – values that were deprecated under the apartheid regime and remain elusive in many countries today, including some of those that call themselves democratic. For me, researching his life and times was an eye-opening and reaffirming experience.

In a time of coronavirus-inspired narrowing, Trumpian narcissism and creeping authoritarianism around the world, it is good to remember that there were once solid values and people prepared to fight for them.

“Telling People What They Don’t Want to Hear,” Roy Isacowitz’s biography-memoir of his father Jock Isacowitz, is available from Amazon.com in ebook format. The paperback version will be available from mid-June.