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Who was Ruth First?

Who was Ruth First?

The Ruth First Educational Trust is named after the campaigning journalist, writer, anti-apartheid activist and Durham University Sociology lecturer who was assassinated in August 1982 by a letter bomb sent by the South African police.

Heloise Ruth First was born in 1925 in Johannesburg, South Africa. She studied Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she joined the communist party and founded a multi-racial students’ group.

After graduating, she embarked on an extraordinary career that combined fearless investigative journalism, incisive sociological research, imaginative writing and progressive political activism in exposing injustice and defending human rights. She investigated labour issues and living conditions in South Africa, African nationalist and protest politics, military intervention in the politics of African and Arab countries, and foreign investment in South Africa. She also acted as a consultant and researcher for the United Nations on human rights and on political and economic issues in southern Africa.

Alongside her husband Joe Slovo, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and 150 others, she was a defendant in the notorious Treason Trial of 1956, in which all were eventually acquitted. She was later banned from working as a journalist in South Africa, and in 1963 she was arrested and held in solitary confinement for 117 days. This experience gave rise to her best-known book, One Hundred and Seventeen Days (Penguin, 1965; reissued by Little, Brown in 2010), and to the docudrama 90 Days, directed by Jack Gold for BBC television (broadcast in 1966), in which Ruth played herself and provided the narration.

Ruth came to live in London in 1964 with her three daughters, and worked as an independent researcher and writer on commissions for publishers and international bodies, travelling widely in African and Arab countries. As well as her own publications, Ruth also worked with other prominent anti-apartheid campaigners as researcher and editor for their books: Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom (1967), Mbeki’s The Peasant’s Revolt (1967) and Oginga Odinga’s Not Yet Uhuru (1967). She began to participate in academic seminars in Britain and Holland, and in 1972-73 was Simon Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. She was appointed to a lectureship in Sociology (development studies) at the University of Durham in 1973, where she continued to develop her research and infused her teaching with her practical experience and passionate commitment to social justice. She took a sabbatical in 1977 to carry out research on migrant labourers in Mozambique, which was extended in 1979 when she took up the position of Director of Research at the Centre for African Studies at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. In April 1982, she wrote to the Head of Sociology at Durham confirming that she would not be returning to her post there.

Ruth was in Maputo when she was killed by a bomb concealed by the South African police in a parcel originally sent by a UN agency. One of the policemen responsible claimed in his application for amnesty in 1998 that the parcel had been addressed to Joe Slovo (who was military leader of the ANC at the time), but in any case admitted under questioning that “it made absolutely no difference to me whether I killed Joe Slovo or Ruth First”. In June 2000 Craig Williamson and Roger Raven were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s amnesty committee for the murder of Ruth First and the attempted murder of Joe Slovo, as well as for other murders.

Two of Ruth and Joe’s daughters have produced moving accounts of their family history. Shawn Slovo wrote the screenplay for the successful film A World Apart (1988, directed by Chris Menges), and in 1997 Gillian published Every Secret Thing (Little, Brown), which tells the story of their childhood in the shadow of their parents’ political activity. Gillian’s novel Red Dust (Virago, 2000) turns her experience of witnessing the confessions of her mother’s murderers into a confrontation between a torturer and his victims before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Robyn Slovo is a TV and film producer. She produced Catch a Fire (2006, directed by Phillip Noyce), a political thriller set in South Africa in the 1980s based on the true story of Patrick Chamusso. Shawn wrote the screenplay for this film, and Robyn played the role of their mother.

Celebrating Ruth First Project

A research project based in Durham University’s Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society, led by Professor Nancy Cartwright. The team is documenting First’s connections with Durham and examining her career as an inspiring example of inter-connection between objective academic research and political action.

Tributes to Ruth First

The Ruth First Papers Project: aims to build up a digital archive of a selection of her writings and related materials held at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London.

In August 1992, on the 10th anniversary of Ruth’s death, Nelson Mandela paid tribute to her courage and freedom of spirit: “Ruth spent her life in the service of the people of Southern Africa. She went to prison for her beliefs. She was murdered because of her acute political acumen combined with her resolute refusal to abandon her principles. Her life, and her death, remains a beacon to all who love liberty.”

Ronnie Kasrils published an article in Umsebenzi, the magazine of the South African Communist Party, in 2020 entitled: “The revolutionary life and times of Ruth First, and her legacy.” He emphasises both her central political role in the struggle against apartheid and her creative intellectual leadership: “Her life is exemplary for men as well as women, young and old, who wish to understand the world and change it.”

Ruth was remembered by Ed Miliband, then leader of the UK Labour Party, in his speech to the party’s conference in October 2012: “Every upbringing is special, and mine was special because of the place of politics within it. When I was 12 years old, I met a South African friend of my parents. Her name was Ruth First. The image I remember is of somebody vivacious, full of life, full of laughter. And then I remember a few months later, coming down to breakfast and seeing my mum in tears, because Ruth First had been murdered by a letter bomb from the South African secret police – murdered for being part of the anti-apartheid movement. Now I didn’t understand the ins and outs of it, but I was shocked, I was angry. I knew that wasn’t the way the world was meant to be. I knew I had a duty to do something about it. It is this upbringing that has made me who I am.”

Ruth First by Diana Collecott

Diana shared a house with Ruth in Durham in the 1970s. Read her tribute to Ruth here.

Books by Ruth First

1963 South West Africa (Harmondsworth: Penguin)
1965 One Hundred and Seventeen Days: An account of confinement and interrogation under the South African Ninety-Day Detention Law (Harmondsworth: Penguin, reprinted by Bloomsbury 1988 and by Little, Brown in 2010)
1967 South West Africa: Travesty of Trust. The expert papers and findings of the
International Conference on South West Africa, Oxford, 23-26 March 1966 (London: Deutsch), edited by Ruth First & Ronald Segal
1970 The Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa and the Coup d’état (London: Allen Lane)
1971 Portugal’s Wars in Africa (Christian Action)
1972 The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid (London: Temple Smith), with Jonathan Steele & Christabel Gurney
1974 Libya: The Elusive Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin, reprinted by Africana 1975)
1980 Olive Schreiner (London: Deutsch/The Women’s Press, reprinted by Rutgers University Press 1990), with Ann Scott & Nadine Gordimer
1983 Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant (London: Harvester, reprinted by Palgrave-MacMillan 1983)
2023Ruth First: Selected Writings (International Union of Left Publishers)
Available online from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research
Updated December 2023 Mike Thompson
[email protected]
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