History of Ruth First
The daughter of Jewish Latvian parents fleeing anti?Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, Heloise Ruth First was born in Johannesburg on the 4th of May 1925. Her father Julius was one of the founding members of the South African Communist Party. Restless and strong?willed, from an early age Ruth First struggled to bring about a world in which all people were equal.
After matriculating from Jeppe High School for Girls, Ruth First attended the University of the Witwatersrand from 1942 to 1946. Her fellow students included Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, JN Singh and Ismail Meer. She graduated with a BA (Social Studies) with firsts in anthropology, sociology, economic history and native administration and went on to work, briefly, for the Johannesburg City Council.
Leaving the Council because she could not countenance it’s actions, she became Johannesburg editor of The Guardian, a left?wing daily newspaper. As a journalist she specialised in exposé reporting; her pieces on slave?like conditions on Bethal potato farms, migrant labour, bus boycotts and the women’s anti?pass campaign are classics of 1950s social and labour reporting.
She also did support work for the 1946 mineworkers strike, the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign of 1950, and protests surrounding the banning of communism under the 1950 Suppression of Communism Act. She was active in the development of the underground SACP and of closer links between the ANC and SACP.
In 1949 she married fellow communist and anti?apartheid activist Joe Slovo; their home became an important site of political debates and gatherings during the 1950s. In 1953, First helped found the Congress of Democrats and took over as the editor of Fighting Talk, a journal supporting the Congress Alliance. Along with Slovo, she served on the drafting committee of the Freedom Charter but could not attend the Congress of the People because of her banning order.
She was among the 156 anti?apartheid activists tried for treason in 1956; all 156 were acquitted four years later. Ruth First fled to Swaziland following the declaration of a State of Emergency following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, but returned to Johannesburg six months later to become editor of New Age.
Detained in 1963 following the arrests of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, First was
placed in solitary confinement for 117 days. On her release, she and her three daughters left South
Africa to join Joe Slovo, already in exile, in Britain. Her account of her period in detention was
published as 117 Days, also made into a movie.
In Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, First was active in anti?apartheid politics in support of the ANC
and SACP. During this time she published several books now considered landmarks of Marxist
academic debate, including The Barrel of a Gun: The Politics of Coups d’Etat in Africa (1970), Libya:
the Elusive Revolution (1974), and The Mozambican Miner: A Study in the Export of Labour (1977),
also editing Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom (1967), Govan Mbeki’s The Peasant’s Revolt (1967)
and Oginda Odinga’s Not Yet Uhuru. During this time she also lectured on the sociology of
underdevelopment at Durham University.
Relocating with Joe Slovo to Mozambique in 1977, Ruth First took up the post of research director
at the Centre for African Studies at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, beginning research on
the lives of migrant labourers. This work was published, posthumously, as Black Gold: the
Ruth First was killed by a letter bomb originating from the South African military services in 1982.
Last Modified: Wed, 01 Jul 2015 11:18:06 SAST