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Ruth First: Relentless fighter against South African apartheid

Ruth First: Relentless fighter against South African apartheid

Heloise Ruth First was a South African scholar and activist known for her relentless opposition to South Africa’s apartheid policy.

Ruth was born on May 4, 1925, to Jewish immigrants Julius and Matilda in Johannesburg, South Africa. Julius was a furniture manufacturer born in Latvia. He migrated to South Africa when he was 10 years old. Matilda had come to South Africa from Lithuania when she was 4. 

Julius and Matilda were the founding members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Ruth grew up in a household where intense political debate between people of all classes and races often took place. 

Ruth completed her schooling at Jeppe High School for Girls. She graduated with a BA in Social Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. She received firsts in Sociology, Anthropology, Economic History and Native Administration. Her fellow students included Nelson Mandela, Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambican freedom fighter), and Ismail Meer (former secretary-general of the South African Indian Congress). Along with them, Ruth founded the Federation of Progressive Students, a radical multi-racial student organisation that opposed apartheid. She served as secretary to the Young Communist League, and she was also active in the Progressive Youth Council. 

In 1947, Ruth worked for the progressive newspaper The Guardian, which specialised in exposing Black labour conditions. In 1949, she married Slovo. By 1954, the couple had three daughters. 

In 1950, the South African government banned the CPSA by an apartheid-era legal action that was used to suppress organisations and publications and severely restrict a person's activities. After the ban, Ruth played an active part in organising its successor, the underground South African Communist Party (SACP), in 1953. She was also involved in founding the Congress of Democrats, the White wing of the Congress Alliance. It was a multi-racial group of organisations that opposed apartheid. 

In 1956, Ruth and her husband were defendants in a treason trial that lasted over four years.

Ruth was the editor of the journal Fighting Talk, which supported the alliance. She also worked on drafting the Alliance’s Freedom Charter, which called for non-racial social democracy in South Africa. However, she was not able to attend the Congress of the People, where the charter was approved, owing to a banning order. Ruth was subjected to several banning orders by the South African government during her lifetime.

In 1956, Ruth and her husband were defendants in a treason trial that lasted over four years. Along with them, over 100 other anti-apartheid leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Albert Luthuli, were a part of the trial. After the trial, all the defendants were acquitted. However, many of them, including Ruth, were subjected to new banning orders.

As a journalist, Ruth considered herself to be primarily a labour reporter. During the 1950s, she produced up to 15 stories a week. Her writing was vivid, accurate and controversial. Her works in investigative journalism were the foundation stones of her pamphlets and books.

In March 1960, the South African government clamped a state of emergency in the aftermath of the Sharpeville shootings. During the state of emergency, Ruth fled to Switzerland with her children. She returned when the emergency was lifted after six months, and continued as the Johannesburg editor of New Age, the successor to The Guardian. In the following years, she wrote the book South West Africa, which is the most incisive history of early Namibia. 

The members of the underground ANC, the SAP and Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested in Rivonia on July 11, 1963. Following the arrests, on August 9, 1963, Ruth was detained at the Wits University library. After the trial, anti-apartheid leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, were sentenced to life imprisonment. 

However, Ruth was not accused. She had to spend solitary confinement under the notorious 90-day clause. After 90 days, Ruth was released and re-arrested. She was held for another 27 days, and during this time, she attempted suicide. After her release, she left with her children to Britain to join her husband Joe Slovo, who had already fled.

Ruth settled in North London and joined the anti-apartheid movement. She organised seminars and public discussions in support of the ANC and SACP. In 1965, she published her book 117 Days, an account of her arrest and interrogation. During the 1960s, Ruth edited Nelson Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom, Govan Mbeki’s The Peasant’s Revolt (both published in 1967), and Oginda Odinga’s Not yet Uhuru

Ruth was deported to Kenya for her association with Not yet Uhuru. From 1973, she lectured for six years at Durham University, England, on the sociology of underdevelopment.

In the 1970s, Ruth published The Barrel of a Gun: The Politics of Coups d’etat in Africa (1970); followed by Libya: The Elusive Revolution (1974); The Mozambican Miner: A Study in the Export of Labour (1977); and, with J Steele and C Gurney, The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid (1972). During this time, she started reading contemporary feminist works. It resulted in the work Olive Schreiner, published in 1980, which she co-authored with Anne Scott. 

In 1977, Ruth was appointed professor and the research director of the Centre of African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. During this time, she studied the lives of migrant labourers who mainly worked in South African gold mines. The results of her study were published as Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner in 1983.

On August 17, 1982, Ruth was killed by a letter bomb. According to South African History Online, it is widely believed that it was the work of security agencies within South Africa. Until her death, Ruth remained a ‘listed’ communist and could not be quoted in South Africa.

Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.

How would you describe the term “apartheid” to your students?

How would you describe Ruth First’s contributions to the Anti-apartheid movements?

Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children, and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.

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