First, Ruth (1925–1982)

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First, Ruth (1925–1982)

White South African journalist, sociologist, and revolutionary activist whose outspoken opposition to the policy of apartheid drew her into political collaboration with Nelson Mandela and eventually led to her murder by letter bomb. Born Heloise Ruth First on May 4, 1925, in the Kensington section of Johannesburg, South Africa; died by letter bomb on August 17, 1982, in her office as director of research at the Center for African Studies, Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique; daughter of Julius First (a furniture manufacturer) and Matilda First (both radical socialists and Jewish immigrants from the Baltic); attended Jeppe Girls' High School; graduated University of Witwatersrand, B.A., 1946; married Joe Slovo (a Communist defense lawyer and labor organizer), in August 1949; children: Shawn Slovo (b. 1950); Gillian Slovo (b. 1952); Robyn Slovo (b. 1954).

At the University of Witwatersrand, founded a multiracial student group, joined the Communist Party, was secretary of the Young Communist League and secretary of the Progressive Youth Council (early 1940s); was one of only a handful of whites actively involved in the widespread black miners' strike (1946); exposed slavery-like labor conditions on a potato farm in Bethal, Transvaal, northern part of South Africa, prompting a successful countrywide potato boycott led by the African National Congress (1947); along with husband Joe Slovo, was "named by the government" and placed on a list of dangerous persons which made it illegal for them to be quoted in print (1950); visited China and Soviet Union as a member of the International Union of Students and the World Federation of Democratic Youth (1954); banned from attending political gatherings (1954); became editor of Fighting Talk, a radical political and literary journal (1955); along with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu (leaders of the African National Congress) and her husband, was among 156 activists arrested and accused of treason in the mammoth Treason Trial (1956); detained in Marshall Prison (1956); acquitted of treason due to insufficient evidence (1958); banned from all journalistic activities (1960); arrested and held for 117 days in solitary confinement, the first white woman to be detained under the notorious 90-Day Detention Act (1963); with family, including father, went into exile never to return to South Africa (1963); started new career in London, teaching, lecturing, publishing and editing books on politics in southern Africa (1964); named Simon Research Fellow at the University of Manchester (1972–73); was lecturer in sociology of underdevelopment at the University of Durham, Durham, England (1973–79); began collaborative work with the Center

of African Studies, Eduardo Mondlane University, Maputo, Mozambique, directing the Youth Brigades on a research project studying the lives of migrant Mozambican miners who worked in gold and diamond mines in South Africa (1977); named director of research and co-director of Center of African Studies (1979–82); killed by letter bomb in her office at the Center for African Studies (1982).

Selected publications:

South West Africa (Penguin, 1963); 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation under the South African Ninety-Day Detention Law (NY: Stein and Day, 1965); The Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa and the Coup d'Etat (Allen Lane, 1970); The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid (Maurice Temple Smith, 1972); Libya: The Elusive Revolution (Africana Publishing, 1974); (co-written with Ann Scott) Olive Schreiner (Schocken, 1980); Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant (St. Martin's Press, 1983, published posthumously). Edited publications: No Easy Walk to Freedom: Articles, Speeches and Trial Addresses of Nelson Mandela (Basic Books, 1965); South West Africa: Travesty of Trust (Deutsch Publishing, 1967). Editor and contributor to journals and newspapers published in South Africa: The Guardian, The Clarion, New Age, Spark, Fighting Talk; contributor to journals published outside South Africa: Ramparts, New Statesman, International Affairs, and others.

Ruth First spent 117 days in solitary confinement in 1963, the first white woman arrested and detained under the Republic of South Africa's notorious 90-Day Detention Act. "For the first 56 days of my detention in solitary," she wrote, "I changed from a mainly vertical to a mainly horizontal creature. A black iron bedstead became my world.… Without the naked electric bulb burning, a single yellow eye, in the center of the ceiling, the cell would have been totally black.… It was too cold to sit, so I lay ex tended on the bed, trying to measure the hours, the days and the weeks, yet pretending to myself that I was not." The sweep of First's life is intimately entwined with the major political movement of 20th-century South Africa—the struggle between the African National Congress (ANC) fighting for the self-determination of black South Africans and the apartheid legislation put in place by the Afrikaner National Party to disenfranchise blacks and protect white supremacy.

Born in 1925 in Johannesburg, South Africa, the daughter of radical-socialist Jewish immigrants from the Baltic, Ruth First died in 1982, the victim of a letter bomb sent to her office at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, by the South African Bureau of State Security. Eulogized at her funeral by the general secretary of the South African Communist Party, Moses Mabhida, she was remembered as "one of the first citizens of a liberated South Africa." Mzala, another activist, wrote in 1982: "If our people ask what kind of relations the blacks and whites in a future South Africa will have, let them read the story of Ruth First and how she related to us and we to her." Sadly, First did not live to witness her passionate goal, a South Africa liberated from apartheid and governed by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. Nevertheless, her life is testimony to the enduring spirit of a Zulu woman's protest song: "Wathinta abafazi, wathint'imbokodo, uzakufa" (You have tampered with the women, you have struck a rock, you will be crushed).

Ruth First was introduced to politics at an early age. Her parents were members of the International Socialist League, a Marxist group that broke with the white South African Labour Party over support for World War I; they were also founding members of the South African Communist Party in 1921. Ruth attended neighborhood schools, belonged to the Junior Left Book Club, and graduated from Jeppe Girls' High School in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, she studied social science (B.A. 1946), was a key figure in the newly created Young Communist League, editor of its newspaper, Youth for a New South Africa, and founder of the Federation of Progressive Students whose multiracial character was highly unusual. Writes First in her book, 117 Days:

What had influenced me? No one in particular. I had been able to read for myself. I didn't have any one teacher of politics; we students learnt from one another and from what was happening around us. There were Africans going to war carrying assegais (spears) and stretchers; there was bitterness that war-time costs of living were obliterating the buying-power of wages, that African trade unions were not recognized, that African strikes were illegal and the strikers prosecuted in mass trials.

Her university years, she noted, were "cluttered with student societies, debates, mock trials, general meetings, and the hundred and one issues of war-time and post-war Johannesburg that returning ex-service students made so alive. On a South African campus, the student issues that matter are national issues."

The African miners' strike of 1946 would be one of those issues. After graduation, First decided against the usual path of employment for a white woman with a university degree. "I turned my back firmly on the social worker's round of poor white families in Fordsburg," she wrote, "questioning them about what they did with their money to justify an application for State-aided butter or margarine." Instead, she landed a position working as a researcher for the social welfare department of the Johannesburg City Council only to discover that the research amounted to compiling mundane statistics on the number of supervisors for white children in white parks. Eventually, she became "bored and disgusted." When the miners' strike broke out in 1946, First immediately quit her job and joined the poverty-stricken migrant workers' effort to win a living minimum wage of ten shillings per day. When the top leadership of the Communist Party and the Mineworkers Union were arrested in conjunction with the strike, First stepped in and ran the party office for one year. She characterized the period of the mine strike as one of tumult:

The strikers were enclosed in compounds under rule by the army, the mine and state police. A great squad of volunteers of all colors helped them set up strike headquarters in the most unlikely places, and from lodging rooms like the one I shared with a girlfriend, the handles of duplicating machines were turned through the night, while in the early hours before dawn white volunteers drove cars to the vicinity of the mine compounds and African organizers, hiding their city suits and their bundles of strike leaflets under colorful tribal blankets, wormed their way into the compounds.

The strike signaled a turning point in First's life as well as a new period for African political organizations. "The days of petitions and pleading were well and truly over," notes First, "and when the mine strike was over I became a journalist." She covered "the issues that rotted the lives of African people: unceasing police raids and arrests, continuous removal schemes to try and sort white from black according to the precepts of segregation, forced labor on the farms, a daily multitude of persecutions and indignities." She discovered her passion and her mission was "to write the news that no one else had the courage or will to print."

First quickly established herself as a fearless investigative journalist and published one of her most important pieces in 1947 in the radical weekly South African newspaper, The Guardian (later named The Clarion, then Advance, New Age, and Spark, due to successive bannings). Notes historian Tom Lodge: First "initiated a style of campaigning reportage which at that time was unprecedented in South African journalism and which pushed Guardian sales into six figures." In collaboration with writer Wolfie Kodesh and photographer-writer Joe Gqabi, First broke the story of slave-labor conditions on potato farms in Bethal, Transvaal, north of Johannesburg. Risking her life, as well as those of her collaborators and informants, she wrote of starvation and death from exhaustion, of whippings, and of long days in the fields—sunup to sundown—bent over picking potatoes. Most important, First documented the sale of black farm labor by city police to rural white landowners. As a result of her text and Gqabi's searing photographs, the African National Congress organized a successful countrywide potato boycott. Historian Shula Marks claims that "the germ of Ruth's later concerns is to be seen in this earlier work: her clear understanding of the exploitative axis of the apartheid state, … her identification with the struggles of workers and peasants, her internationalism and the wider knowledge she gained of the problems of development and the transition to socialism." An obituary in Sechaba notes that "the Bethal farm labor scandal was more than a news scoop. It was in fact part of the whole two-way exchange between the Guardian and the liberation movement" and "was perhaps the most powerful illustration of the symbiosis between her own work and the mass people's movement which characterized all Ruth's best and most memorable activities."

Her work as a journalist and as a revolutionary activist drew the attention of the South African Bureau of State Security. In 1950, along with her husband, the Communist labor organizer Joe Slovo, Ruth First was "named" by the government and placed on a list of dangerous persons. It was now illegal to quote her in print. In 1954, she was "banned," thereafter forbidden to attend any political gathering. Despite this government pressure, First continued to be actively involved in the Communist Party leadership and took on the editorship of Fighting Talk, a radical literary political review that sponsored

a new generation of young black writers and brought together the black intelligentsia and the membership of the African National Congress. She recalled:

I had been active on our newspapers and in the Congress of Democrats, founded when the African National Congress needed an organization of whites who would support its policies and break the front of solid white reaction ranged against it. I had been abroad to the founding conferences of the World Federation of Democratic Youth and the International Union of Students; I had visited the Soviet Union and China (and Britain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Germany and France) and had written and edited booklets about them.

By 1956, however, 156 anti-apartheid activists, including First, her husband Slovo, and both Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, were charged with treason as a result of their activities with banned political organizations, such as the Communist Party and the African National Congress. Although only 30 people were eventually brought to trial, all were acquitted. Wrote First:

Up to six months before my detention I had still been in our newspaper office. Over the years I had been served with banning orders that prohibited me from leaving Johannesburg, so that I could take part in no further exposés of forced labor like my work on Bethal; from entering African townships, so that I could no longer personally establish the contacts of African men and women who alerted our office first of all when some new vicious scheme of the police and the administration came to light; from attending meetings, so that others had to take the notes and the photographs; from writing anything for publication, so that I had to sit at my desk with a legal option that sub-editing someone else's copy might just slip past the ban. Working in the midst of these ministerial bans and under the continuous raids and scrutiny of the Security Branch was like going to work each day in a mine field, but we survived, and our editions continued to come out each week. Then finally the bans stopped every … printer, and the last one we could find in the country to publish our notoriously outspoken copy, gave us notice that he could no longer take the risk.

Their last publisher, Babla Saloojee, also detained under the 90-Day Detention Act, died after jumping out of a window while being interrogated by the South African Security Police.

Despite the obvious danger for herself and her family, as well as the seeming contradictions of a white, middle-class woman organizing for the emancipation of black male and female workers, First had no choice but to continue her political activism. "My steady involvement in politics seemed to be normal behavior, the only thing to do in South Africa," she explained. As the writer Albie Sachs noted, "South African society was manifestly, even grotesquely, oppressive and everyone had to do everything possible to replace it with something better.… She was a person fighting for her own right to live in a just society." First placed "at the disposal of the movement," continued Sachs, "all the accomplishments that her privileged upbringing had given her." Years later, while in prison, she told her interrogators:

We Whites who embarked on protest politics side by side with Africans, Indians and Coloureds, led a vigorously provocative life. Our consciences were healthy in a society riddled with guilts. Yet as the years went by our small band led a more and more schizophrenic existence. There was the good living that white privilege brought, but simultaneously, complete absorption in revolutionary politics and defiance of all the values of our own racial group. As the struggle grew sharper the privileges of membership in the white group were overwhelmed by the penalties of political participation.

Her daughter, Shawn Slovo, confirmed the effect of this schizophrenic existence in an interview with the Village Voice. "We spent long summers by the sea, had private education, horseriding, and Spanish dancing lessons, and all the other privileges middle-class white South African children have, although one of the things my mother said in later years was that, had she and Joe known how the situation would develop, they would have thought twice about having a family." Because Joe Slovo's responsibilities as a lawyer for the Communist Party took him away from their home in Johannesburg for many months at a time, raising the couple's three girls was often left to First alone. Yet despite these difficulties, Slovo wrote in his memoirs, "One thing is clear, the world would be a poorer place if it was not peopled by children whose parents risked nothing in the cause of social justice, for fear of personal loss."

The ultimate challenge to First's professional career as a journalist and political activist and her role as mother to three daughters came in 1963 when she was arrested and held for 117 days in solitary confinement. The first white woman to be detained under South Africa's notorious 90-Day Detention Act, she was suspected of participating in an African National Congress meeting in Rivonia, Johannesburg, to plot a campaign to overthrow the government. Although the state was not able to convict First in the Rivonia trial, in truth she was the only woman in the inner circle of the secret sabotage group, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress which later attacked centers of state power such as police stations and army barracks. First never discussed her confinement with her family, though she wrote about it with eloquence and wit in her book. "She didn't talk about it, I think, because she wanted to protect us, and because she wanted us to live as normally as possible," remarked her daughter Shawn. "I think what she went through in the 117 days in prison was such a shock to her—a woman who had never had a spare minute during the day or been without books or writing paper—that she could never properly articulate it." Immediately upon release from her detention, First, her three daughters and her mother, joined her father and her husband in exile, first in Kenya, then in London in 1964. She never returned to South Africa.

In exile in England, First supplemented her investigative journalism with scholarly writing and shifted the focus of her political activism from organizing South African workers to petitioning European companies and governments to initiate economic sanctions against South Africa. In addition to many free-lance articles on the wars of liberation in Angola and Mozambique, she organized an international conference on South West Africa (now Namibia), edited Nelson Mandela's speeches, assisted Govan Mbeki with his book The Peasant's Revolt, and wrote a short book on Libya. In addition, her 1970 book, The Barrel of a Gun, was a passionate critique of despotic African rulers and explored the connections between imperialism, colonialism, and Africa's continuing underdevelopment. Shula Marks writes, "At a time when criticism of Africa's ruling elite was still muted on the left, this took the courage, intellectual integrity and independence of mind that characterized Ruth's approach to politics both within southern Africa and more widely." She was appointed lecturer in sociology of underdevelopment at the University of Durham from 1973 to 1979. In 1977, First began collaborative work with the Center of African Studies, at Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, on a research project studying the lives of migrant Mozambican miners who worked in gold and diamond mines in South Africa. This produced over 1,000 interviews and resulted in the book, Black Gold, published posthumously in 1983.

At the same time, in collaboration with Ann Scott , First wrote one of the finest biographies to date of the South African writer, Olive Schreiner , published in 1980. Marks suggests that First was attracted to the biography because both Schreiner and First "shared the isolation of exile, as well as the contradictions of personal and public lives." The book captures the full "paradox of Schreiner's achievements as a writer and radical as well as her personal suffering and failure, suggesting the integration in Ruth's own life of her socialism and feminism." Daughter Shawn's comments also reveal a new level of integration of First's personal and public lives in the late 1970s up to her death in 1982. "A couple of years before she was killed, we were beginning to talk about the past and forge a new kind of relationship.… For the first time—and this is something we both felt—we were each making efforts to stabilize the relationship, to confront and talk about the past, about the anger, about the guilt."

First's conclusion in her autobiography 117 Days, describing her feelings about returning home after her long detention, proved strangely prophetic: "When they left me in my own house at last I was convinced that it was not the end, that they would come again." On August 17, 1982, they came again. The letter bomb, widely believed to be the work of the South African Bureau of State Security, was addressed to Ruth First at her office as director of research at the Center for African Studies at Eduardo Mondlane University. First was killed in the explosion, while the center's director Aquino de Braganca, lecturer Bridget O'Laughlin , and visiting ANC activist Pallo Jordan were injured. President Samora Machel and other political figures spoke to the more than 2,000 mourners at First's funeral in Mozambique. In London, more than 600 heard tributes to her life.


Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 10. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, p. 169.

Dougherty, Margot, and Andrew Harvey. "A World Apart," in People Weekly. Vol. 30, no. 7. August 15, 1988, pp. 94–95.

First, Ruth. 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation under the South African Ninety-Day Detention Law (foreword by Albie Sachs, afterward by Tom Lodge). NY: Monthly Review Press, 1989.

Fuller, Graham. "White Woman's Burden," in Village Voice. Vol. 33, no. 23. June 7, 1988, pp. 59–60.

Kodesh, Wolfie. "Ruth First and New Age," in Sechaba. October 1982, pp. 29–32.

Marks, Shula. "Ruth First: A Tribute," in Journal of Southern African Studies. Vol. 10, no. 1. October 1983, pp. 123–128.

Mzala. "A Tribute to Comrade Ruth First: Why We Are With the Communists," in The African Communist. Vol. 93, 1983, pp 66–73.

Sechaba (obituary). October 1982, pp. 24–29.

Times (London, obituary). August 19, 1982.

suggested reading:

Bernstein, Hilda. The World That Was Ours. London: Heinemann, 1967.

Brown, Alasdair. A World Apart: Film Study Guide. London: BDAF, 1988.

Lazar, Carol (photographs by Peter Magubane). Women of South Africa: Their Fight for Freedom. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1993.

Lazerson, Joshua. Against the Tide: Whites in the Struggle Against Apartheid. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.

Pinnock, Don. They Fought for Freedom: Ruth First. Cape Town, South Africa: Maskew Miller Long-man, 1995.

Slovo, Gillian. Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1997.

——. Ties of Blood. NY: Morrow Press, 1990.

Slovo, Joe. Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography (introduction by Helena Dolny). London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996.

Slovo, Shawn. A World Apart (film script and diary). London: Faber and Faber, 1988.

Walker, Cherryl. Women and Resistance in South Africa. London: Onyx Press, 1982.


Correspondence, papers and memorabilia located in the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, University of London, London, England.

Colloquium on Ruth First held at the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa, in the early 1990s, papers available from The Mayibuye Center, UWC. Papers and other archival materials available from The Mayibuye Center, Institute for Historical Research, UWC.

related media:

A World Apart (114 min.), starring Barbara Hershey , directed by Chris Menges, screenplay by Shawn Slovo, produced by Working Title, 1988 (special Jury Prize and Prize for Best Actress shared by Jodhi May , Barbara Hershey and Linda Mvusi at Cannes Film Festival, 1988).

"90 Days," BBC teleplay, directed by Jack Gold, based on First's book 117 Days, in which Ruth First appears as herself.

Kearsley Alison Stewart , Instructor, Department of Anthropology and Women's Studies Program, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia