Gillian Slovo was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 15, 1952, to two leading members of the antiapartheid movement: Joe Slovo, leader of the banned South African Communist Party and chief of the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), and Ruth First, a radical journalist and university lecturer. The family went into exile in London in 1964, and Slovo attended the University of Manchester, graduating in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in the history and philosophy of science. She later worked as a journalist and television producer in England.
In 1982 Slovo’s mother, then working in Mozambique, was murdered by agents of the South African government. Slovo later wrote that her novel Ties of Blood (1989), her first work set in South Africa, was inspired by thoughts she had while standing at her mother’s graveside. Nevertheless, Slovo’s first three novels, all in the Kate Baeier series, are set in London, though the initial entry, Morbid Symptoms (1984), does focus on characters involved in South African politics. Slovo’s attention began to shift more toward Africa in the 1990’s. She published The Betrayal, a thriller about an ANC member, in 1991, and in 1993 she wrote Façade, a novel about a London woman trying to discover the truth about her mother’s death, which also mentions Africa. Of the two Kate Baeier series novels published in the 1990’s, Close Call (1995) contains references to Africa.
In 1997, Slovo published Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, her best-selling memoir about her parents, their involvement in the antiapartheid movement, and her relationship with them, including the difficulty of having parents whose devotion to a cause reduced the amount of time they could spend with their children. In 2000, Slovo returned to fiction, producing Red Dust, a highly acclaimed courtroom drama set in postapartheid South Africa. It won the Radio France International Prize for Literature in 2001 and was made into a film starring Hilary Swank in 2004.
Saying that she might have written her last book about South Africa, Slovo in 2004 published a highly regarded historical epic, Ice Road, set in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Ice Road was short-listed for England’s prestigious Orange Prize in 2004. Also in 2005 Slovo collaborated with Victoria Brittain on Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom, a play documenting human rights abuses at the American detention camp in Guantanamo Bay.