Ruth First

Ruth First (1925-1982) was a South African socialist, anti-apartheid activist, and scholar. She fled South Africa in 1963 after serving 117 days in solitary confinement in South African jails. She worked from exile in England until 1977 when she returned to hands-on political work in Mozambique. On August 17, 1982, she was killed by a parcel bomb in Maputo, Mozambique.

Ruth First was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1925, the daughter of socialist immigrants Tilly and Julius First. Educated in Johannesburg, she completed a bachelor's degree in sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1946. Her years as a university student were filled with political exploration and set her commitment to pursue the struggle for social justice for all South Africans. First was instrumental in the foundation of the non-racial Federation of Progressive Students and joined the South African Communist Party—the principal party open to whites forging interracial political activity.

Upon graduation First worked as researcher for the Johannesburg municipality and taught evening classes in black schools. As a Communist party member she collaborated in organization of the African Mine Workers Union. When the mine workers went out on strike in 1946, the government brutally suppressed the strike and arrested the Communist party's entire executive body. First resigned her research position to become acting party secretary and ultimately editor of the Johannesburg edition of the party newspaper, The Guardian.

Throughout the 1950s First engaged in intense investigative journalism, revealing the brutal reality of South African rule while also publicizing statements by the increasingly persecuted leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), the principal anti-apartheid party. She supported the ANC's 1952 Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign and in 1954 helped found the Congress of Democrats branch of the Congress Alliance—a political coalition including the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People's Congress, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions. She helped draft the Congress Alliance's Freedom Charter, which called for "… a non-racial South Africa based on equal rights for all."

With the Suppression of Communism Act in 1951, The Guardian was banned. Despite a series of banning orders which cumulatively circumscribed First's ability to research, publish, and organize, she and her staff managed to publish a series of newspapers between 1952 and 1963. In 1956 First, her husband attorney Joe Slovo, and much of the Congress Alliance leadership was arrested and charged with high treason. After more than a year of litigation the case was dismissed, but this persecution set the tone for future events. When Hendrik Verwoerd, the principal architect of apartheid legislation, became prime minister in 1958, efforts to penetrate, undermine, and suppress the militant anti-apartheid movement redoubled. Within half a decade the Congress Alliance leadership was largely dismantled, murdered, imprisoned, or driven into exile.

First exploited the privileges of her race and sex to remain active in political activity after her colleagues were jailed. Although she was known to support the ANC and to be a respected strategist within the movement, First was not arrested in July 1963 when the government raided the underground headquarters of the Congress Alliance at a Rivonia farm house. Key ANC leaders were taken and charged in the so-called Rivonia trial (1963-1964). Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, and Walter Sisulu, were sentenced to life imprisonment. When First was arrested in August 1963 under the 90 day detention act, she was told by a security officer: " … You could have been charged in the Rivonia case. But we didn't want a woman in that case." Shortly after her release in late 1963 First, her three daughters, and her mother joined the rest of the family in exile in England.

Banning and exile did not suffocate First's activism, but encouraged a qualitative change—from political journalism to activist scholar. Her first major monograph, a study of South Africa's continuing illegal domination of South West Africa, researched while under police surveillance in 1961, was widely acclaimed and remains a classic. Despite banning orders First edited ANC members' speeches and trial addresses and was instrumental in the publication of Mbeki's South Africa: The Peasants Revolt and Mandela's No Easy Walk to Freedom. In 1970, with the publication of Power in Africa, she won international recognition as a key African analyst. She became a lecturer at the University of Durham and during the 1970s combined scholarship, a sharp critical eye, and firm political commitment to author and co-author many important works on South African apartheid, African politics, and an outstanding biography of Olive Schreiner.

In 1977 First seized the opportunity to return to southern Africa as director of research at the Center for African Studies in Mozambique. Free from the constraints of banning orders and the frustration of exile, First flourished under the demanding task of training Mozambican cadres to develop appropriate, useful, and politically informed research techniques in an effort to stabilize the fledgling socialist state. She turned her talents as teacher, activist, strategist, and scholar to strengthen and sharpen the struggle for social justice.

First was never a politician, yet she was a towering force in political circles—the all important behind-the-scenes strategist, the gifted problem solver who never left a stone unturned, a question unasked, or a bold initiative untried. A prolific and influential writer, First left an important legacy of political analysis of modern Africa, and her work in Mozambique set the international pace for integrating social science research into the creation of socialism. She was at a highpoint in her life's work when she was cut down in 1982.


Further Reading on Ruth First

A selection of her writing and an important bibliography of her published works, including reviews of her works, news reports of her murder, and obituaries, collected by Gavin Williams, is contained in "A Tribute to Ruth First," Review of African Political Economy, Volume 25 (1984). The student's best introduction to Ruth First is 117 Days (1965), her account of solitary confinement under the Verwoerd regime in South Africa. The book was re-issued after her death with a preface by her life-long friend Ronald Segal (1983). Her publications include: South West Africa (1963); Power in Africa: Political Power in Africa and the Coup d'Etat (1970); Libya: The Elusive Revolution (1973); Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant (1983); and, with Ann Scott, Olive Schreiner (1980).