4 May 1925|
Johannesburg, South Africa
17 August 1982 (aged 57)|
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Ruth First (4 May 1925 – 17 August 1982) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and scholar born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was killed by a parcel bomb addressed specifically to her in Mozambique, where she worked in exile from South Africa.
Family and education
Ruth First's Jewish parents, Julius First and Matilda Levetan, immigrated to South Africa from Latvia in 1906 and became founding members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), the forerunner of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Ruth First was born in 1925 and brought up in Johannesburg. She too joined the Communist Party, which was allied with the African National Congress in its struggle to overthrow the South African government.
As a teenager, First attended Jeppe High School for Girls and then became the first person in her family to attend university. She received her Bachelor's degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1946. While she was at university she found that "on a South African campus, the student issues that matter are national issues". She was involved in the founding of the Federation of Progressive Students, also known as the Progressive Students League, and got to know, among other fellow students, Nelson Mandela, future President of South Africa, and Eduardo Mondlane, the first leader of the Mozambique freedom movement FRELIMO.
After graduating, Ruth First worked as a research assistant for the Social Welfare Division of the Johannesburg City Council. In 1946, her position in the Communist Party was boosted significantly after a series of mine strikes during which leading members of the Party were arrested. First then became the editor-in-chief of the radical newspaper The Guardian, which was subsequently banned by the state. In 1949 she married Joe Slovo, a South African anti-apartheid activist and Communist, with whom she had three daughters, Shawn, Gillian and Robyn.
In addition to her work with The Guardian and its successors, in 1955 Ruth First assumed the position of editor of a radical political journal called Fighting Talk. However, her journalism was not the only outlet for her political activism against apartheid. In addition to their membership in the Communist Party, First and her husband Slovo were members of the African National Congress, and she was also active in the extensive riots of the 1950s.
Treason trial and detention
Ruth First was one of the defendants in the Treason Trial of 1956-1961, alongside 156 other leading anti-apartheid activists who were key figures in the Congress Alliance. After the state of emergency that followed the Sharpesville massacre in 1960 she was listed and banned. She could not attend meetings or publish, and she could not be quoted. In 1963, during another government crackdown, she was imprisoned and held in isolation without charge for 117 days under the Ninety-Day Detention Law. She was the first white woman to be detained under this law.
Exile and assassination
In March 1964 First went into exile in London, where she became active in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. She was a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester in 1972, and between 1973 and 1978 she lectured in development studies at the University of Durham. She also spent periods on secondment at universities in Dar es Salaam and Lourenço Marques (Maputo).
In November 1978, First took up the post of director of research at the Centre of African Studies (Centro de Estudos Africanos), Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, Mozambique. She was assassinated by order of Craig Williamson, a major in the South African Police, on 17 August 1982, when she opened a parcel bomb that had been sent to the university. Bridget O'Laughlin, an anthropologist working with First, was in First's office when she was murdered, and testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
First's book 117 Days is her account of her arrest, imprisonment and interrogation by the South African Police Special Branch in 1963. It was first published in 1965. The memoir provides a detailed account of how she endured "isolation and sensory deprivation" while withstanding "pressure to provide information about her comrades to the Special Branch".
Her daughter, the writer Gillian Slovo, published her own memoir, Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, in 1997. It is an account of her childhood in South Africa and her relationship with her activist parents.
The film A World Apart (1988), which has a screenplay by her daughter Shawn Slovo and was directed by Chris Menges, is a biographical story about a young white girl living in South Africa with anti-apartheid activist parents, although the family is called Roth in the film. Barbara Hershey plays the character based on Ruth First.
The film Catch a Fire (2006), about the activist Patrick Chamusso, was written by Shawn Slovo and Ruth First is portrayed in the film by another daughter, Robyn Slovo, who was also one of the film's producers.
Main published works
|Library resources about |
|By Ruth First|
- South West Africa. London. 1963.
- 117 Days. London. 1965.
- with R. Segal, South West Africa: A Travesty of Trust. London. 1967.
- The Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa and the Coup d’etat in Africa. London. 1970.
- coedited with J. Steele and C. Gurney, The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid. London. 1972.
- Libya: The Elusive Revolution. London. 1970.
- The Mozambican Miner: Proletarian and Peasant. New York. 1983.
- List of people subject to banning orders under apartheid
- Marion Sparg - female ANC guerilla sentenced to 25 years in prison for treason
- Gert Sibande
- South African potato boycott
- Marks, Shula (October 1983). "Ruth First: A Tribute". Journal of Southern African Studies. 10 (1): 123–128. doi:10.1080/03057078308708071. JSTOR 2636820.
- First, Ruth (1965). 117 Days. Penguin. p. vii. OCLC 222077295.
- "Why Was Ruth First in Mozambique?" (PDF). Deportate, Esuli e Profughe [Deported Exiles and Refugees], no. 26, pp.26-41. Dec 2014. Retrieved 2017-01-08.
- "Ruth First: Williamson given amnesty". Independent Online (South Africa). 1 Jun 2000. Retrieved 2009-04-08.
- "Bridget O'Laughlin testimony to TRC (half-way through the file)". TRC. 22 Feb 1999. Retrieved 2017-01-08.
- IMDb: A World Apart Retrieved 2013-03-11
- IMDb: Catch a Fire Retrieved 2013-03-11
- BuaNews, 20 May 2005: SA's marine protection vessels Retrieved 2013-03-11
- Ruth First Papers online
- Ruth First papers at the University of London
- Ruth First Educational Trust provides opportunities for South African postgraduate students to study at Durham University.
- The First pan-African martyr, Mail & Guardian, Adekeye Adebajo, 25 August 2010
- Ruth First Jeppe High School for Girls Memorial Trust was set up in July 2010 and will award scholarships for full tuition at Jeppe High School for Girls for the duration of secondary school education. It is aimed at girls in Grade 7 that show characteristics of leadership, courage, determination and the ability to influence their community positively.
- Remembering Ruth First, a woman with vision, passion, by Peter Vale, The Daily Dispatch, 17 August 2012