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Ruth First

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Title: Ruth First  
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Subject: A World Apart (film), Linda Mvusi, Catch a Fire (film), List of Jews from Sub-Saharan Africa, South African Communist Party
Collection: 1925 Births, 1982 Deaths, Academics of Durham University, Anti-Apartheid Activists, Assassinated Activists, Assassinated Jews, Assassinated South African Politicians, Deaths by Letter Bomb, Members of the South African Communist Party, People Acquitted of Treason, People Murdered in Mozambique, Slovo Family, South African Communists, South African Exiles, South African Feminists, South African Jews, South African People Murdered Abroad, South African People of Latvian-Jewish Descent, South African Socialists, South African Women in Politics, White Left (South Africa)
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Ruth First

Ruth First
A mural by Ben Slow in Nomzamo Park, Soweto
Born (1925-05-04)4 May 1925
Johannesburg, South Africa
Died 17 August 1982(1982-08-17) (aged 57)
Maputo, Mozambique
Occupation anti-apartheid activist
Spouse(s) Joe Slovo

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 1
  • Treason trial and detention 2
  • Exile and assassination 3
  • Memoirs 4
  • Films 5
  • Patrol vessel 6
  • Main published works 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

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.

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.,[1] 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.[1] 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 African National Congress as well as the Communist Party, and she was also active in the extensive riots of the 1950s.[1]

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.[2]

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 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. There 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 the university.[3]


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".[2]

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

Patrol vessel

In 2005 the South African Ministry of the Environment launched an environmental patrol vessel named the Ruth First.[6]

Main published works

  • 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. 

See also

  • Marion Sparg - female ANC guerilla sentenced to 25 years in prison for treason


  1. ^ a b c d Marks, Shula (October 1983). "Ruth First: A Tribute". Journal of Southern African Studies 10 (1): 123–128.  
  2. ^ a b First, Ruth (1965). 117 Days. Penguin. p. vii.  
  3. ^ "Ruth First: Williamson given amnesty". Independent Online (South Africa). 1 Jun 2000. Retrieved 2009-04-08. 
  4. ^ A World ApartIMDb: Retrieved 2013-03-11
  5. ^ Catch a FireIMDb: Retrieved 2013-03-11
  6. ^ SA's marine protection vesselsBuaNews, 20 May 2005: Retrieved 2013-03-11

External links

  • 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
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