Ruth First

From Wikispooks
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Person.png Ruth First  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Ruth First.jpg
Born4 May 1925
Johannesburg, South Africa
Died17 August 1982 (Age 57)
Maputo, Mozambique
Children • Shawn Slovo (1950)
• Gillian Slovo (1952)
• Robyn Slovo (1953)
SpouseJoe Slovo
An anti-apartheid activist, investigative journalist, and scholar. She wrote in her autobiography that her life was dedicated "to the liberation of Africa for I count myself an African, and there is no cause I hold dearer."

Ruth First was an influential figure who saw activism, solidarity work (for the anti-apartheid struggle) and her research and writing as inextricably linked. She was exiled from South Africa in 1964, with her husband, prominent South African communist Joe Slovo, and their children.

Family and education

Ruth First's parents, Julius First and Matilda Levetan, immigrated to South Africa from Latvia as Jewish immigrants in 1906 and became founder 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,[1] which was allied with the African National Congress in its struggle to overthrow the South African government.

She 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 Jewish South African anti-apartheid activist and Communist.

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. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement not only through her journalism, but also through political action. First and her husband Slovo were members of the ANC as well as the Communist Party, 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 Sharpeville 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.


In March 1964, Ruth 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 Lourenco Marques (Maputo). In November 1978, Ruth First took up a post as director of the research training programme at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, Mozambique. There she continued to work for the downfall of the apartheid regime.


On 17 August 1982, Ruth First was killed by a letter bomb sent by Craig Williamson of the South African State Security Council that arrived at the university in Mozambique where she worked.[2][3]


Ruth 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 eldest 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.[4]

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 her youngest daughter, Robyn Slovo, who was also one of the film's producers.[5]

See also

Many thanks to our Patrons who cover ~2/3 of our hosting bill. Please join them if you can.


External links