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 parents, Julius First and Matilda Levetan, immigrated to South Africa from Latvia as Jewish immigrants in 1906 and became founder members of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Ruth First was born in 1925 and brought up in Johannesburg. Like her parents, she joined the SACP, which was allied with the African National Congress in its struggle to overthrow the South African government.
She attended Jeppe High School for Girls. The first person in her family to attend University, she received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1946. While in University she found that “on a South African campus, the student issues that matter are national issues” With this political outlook as a student at Witwatersrand, she was involved in the founding of the Federation of Progressive Students, also known as the Progressive Students League. Nelson Mandela, future President of South Africa and Eduardo Mondlane the first leader of the Mozambique freedom movement FRELIMO were among her fellow students.
Once graduated from university, Ruth worked as a research assistant for the Social Welfare Division of the Johannesburg City Council. In 1946, Ruth’s political position in the communist party boosted significantly after a series of mine strikes in 1946 where top members of the Communist 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. First was not only active in the anti-apartheid movement through her journalism, but also through political action. First and her husband Slovo were members of the African National Congress which resisted the South African government. 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, First was listed and banned. She could not attend meetings, publish, and could not be quoted. In 1963 during the government’s crackdown First was imprisoned and held in isolation without charge for 117 days under the South African apartheid government’s ninety-day detention laws. She was the first white woman to be detained under the ninety-day detention law.
Exile and assassination
First went into exile in London in March 1964, where she was active in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. She became a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester in 1972. Between 1973-1978 she lectured in development studies at the University of Durham, although she spent periods of secondment at universities in Dar es Salaam and Lourenco Marques (Maputo).
In November 1978 First took up a post as director of the research training programme at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, Mozambique. Here she continued to work for the downfall of the apartheid regime. She was assassinated by order of Craig Williamson, a major in the South African Police, on 17 August 1982, when she opened a letter bomb that had been sent to her university.
Memoir and other media tributes
First’s book, 117 Days, is her account of her 1963 arrest, imprisonment, and interrogations by the South African Police Special Branch. It was first published in 1965. First’s imprisonment was characterised by extensive solitary confinement and the memoir provides a detailed account of how she endured “isolation and sensory deprivation” and withstood “pressure to provide information about her comrades to the Special Branch.”
The 1988 film A World Apart, from a screenplay by her daughter Shawn Slovo and 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.
Another daughter, writer Gillian Slovo, published her memoir Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country in 1997, which is an account of her childhood in South Africa and her relationship with her activist parents.
In 2005 the South African Ministry of the Environment launched an environmental patrol vessel named the Ruth First in her honor.
The 2006 film Catch a Fire, about the activist Patrick Chamusso, was written by her daughter Shawn Slovo, and Ruth First herself is portrayed in the film by her daughter Robyn Slovo, who was also one of the film’s producers.
- First, Ruth (1963). South West Africa. London.
- First, Ruth (1965). 117 Days. London.
- First, Ruth; Segal, R (1967). South West Africa: A Travesty of Trust. London.
- First, Ruth (1970). The Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa and the Coup d’etat in Africa. London.
- First, Ruth; Steele, J. and C. Gurney, eds. (1972). The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid. London.
- First, Ruth (1970). Libya: The Elusive Revolution. London.
- First, Ruth (1983). The Mozambican Miner: Proletarian and Peasant. New York.