By Margot Dougherty and Andrew Harvey
Updated August 15, 1988 12:00 PM

Shawn Slovo is running her fingers through her thick brown hair and lighting yet another cigarette. “This is very upsetting,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears. “It is a very painful experience to recount.” Slovo, a Londoner who grew up in South Africa, is talking about the 1982 assassination of her mother, antiapartheidist Ruth First. “Mother was quite a public figure,” she says. “Other people have talked about her much more articulately than I can.”

Until now. In the highly acclaimed A World Apart, screenwriter Slovo gives a heart-wrenching account of life as the daughter of a devoted political activist. The movie, starring Barbara Hershey as First, British actress Jodhi May, 13, as the young Slovo, and Linda Mvusi as the family’s black maid, won a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, and its three leading ladies shared a Best Actress Award. For Slovo, 38, the movie was part tribute and part therapy. “My mother’s work fighting apartheid as a campaigning journalist left her very little time to spend with the family,” she says. “I missed out on a lot. I couldn’t grow up at the right pace, and that is something I have been extremely angry about.”

Slovo’s early years were filled with dancing lessons and seaside vacations. Her parents’ parties often brought antiapartheid leaders Nelson and Winnie Mandela to their middle-class home outside Johannesburg. Slovo was 6 when her mother and father, Joseph Slovo, now 63, a Lithuanian-born lawyer who often represented black activists, were first arrested. “It was quite exciting,” she recalls. “The police came in the middle of the night.” She was 10 when her father was arrested again and jailed for six months. Shawn, her mother and her two sisters, Gillian, now 36, and Robyn, 34, fled to Swaziland while he served his term. “It was a nice break from routine,” says Slovo. “I went riding a lot.”

Then in 1963, while Joe Slovo was in London on business for the anti-apartheid African National Congress, First was arrested. Shawn came home from school to find South African police ripping up the floorboards looking for secret documents. “Suddenly the situation became very frightening,” she says. “Security men followed my mother everywhere as she packed—even to the toilet.”

Under the 90-Day Detention Act, which permitted imprisonment of anti-apartheidists without charges, First was put in solitary confinement. Shawn and her sisters, cared for by their grandmother and the household’s black maid, made three visits. “The first time was a terrible shock,” says Shawn. “Mother had always been rather a vain woman. Now she was so disheveled she was almost unrecognizable.” The simplest hitch in routine incited panic. When their grandmother was late coming home one day, the girls were sure she’d been killed. “Our father had gone away, our mother was in prison, and our grandmother was the last adult left,” says Gillian, now a novelist in London. Schoolmates provided little solace. “Some kept away and others felt sorry for me,” says Shawn. “I hated it.”

In October of 1963, First had served her 90 days. She was released—only to be immediately re-arrested, again without charges. Slovo was devastated. “You can bear anything as long as there’s a time limit,” she says. “At that point we had no idea what would happen.” After a total term of 117 days, First was finally freed following a suicide attempt, and the family joined Joe Slovo in exile in London.

“It was a struggle to start a new life in a new place with this terrible South African accent,” says Shawn, then 13. She insisted on attending boarding school and once there showed a family knack for irritating the authorities. Caught smoking and in boys’ rooms, she was threatened with suspension. Her peers, more admiring, elected her to student office. Upon graduation from the University of London, she worked as a story editor on Equus and A Little Night Music, and in 1978 she took a job in the U.S. as Robert De Niro’s assistant. Four years later, in New York, she got word that her mother had been killed in Mozambique by a parcel bomb thought to have been placed by the South African government. Slovo enrolled in a film school and began writing her family’s story.

Slovo is now completing a nonpolitical screenplay. Last year her name appeared on a hit list of ANC sympathizers, and Scotland Yard has given her security advice. She keeps in touch with her Zambia-based father, the only white executive member of the ANC, and with her sisters—who applaud the movie. Slovo’s bitterness about her childhood has given way to pride in what her parents stood for. “Despite the attendant problems,” she says, “there was an incredible integrity about the way my parents lived their lives.”

—By Margot Dougherty, with Andrew Harvey in London