Heloise Ruth First (4 May 1925 – 17 August 1982) was a South Africa
activist and scholar. She was assassinated in Mozambique
, where she was working in exile, by a parcel bomb
built by South African police.
Family and education
Ruth First's Jewish
parents, Julius First and Matilda Levetan, emigrated to South Africa from Latvia
in 1906 and became founding 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
. Like her parents, she joined the Communist Party,
which was allied with the African National Congress
in its struggle to overthrow the South African government.
As a teenager, 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,
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, 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.
Through investigative journalism, First exposed the racial segregation policies known as apartheid
, targeting black South Africans following the rise of the National Party in 1948.
In 1949 she married Joe Slovo
, a South African anti-apartheid activist and Communist, with whom she had three daughters, Shawn
. Together, Slovo and First became a leading force in the 1950s protest era in which the government outlawed any movements that opposed their policies.
In addition to her work with ''The Guardian'' and its successors, the South African Congress of Democrats
(COD), a white-only wing of the Congress Alliance, was founded in 1953 with support from First. In 1955, she assumed the position of editor of a radical political journal called ''Fighting Talk''. First and Slovo were also members of the African National Congress, in addition to the Communist Party. She also played an active role during the extensive riots of the 1950s.
Treason trial and detention
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
. First's early work and writings were largely used as evidence to prove treason on behalf of the Congress Alliance
. Following four years of harassment by the state, First alongside the 155 other activists were all acquitted of their charges. 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.
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 Lourenço Marques, Maputo
In November 1978, First took up the post of director of research at the Centre of African Studies (Centro de Estudos Africanos), Universidade Eduardo Mondlane
. She was assassinated by order of Craig Williamson
, a major in the South African Police
, on 17 August 1982, when she opened a parcel bomb that had been sent to the university. Bridget O'Laughlin, an anthropologist working with First, was in First's office when she was murdered, and testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
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 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.
The 2006 film ''Catch a Fire
'' about the activist Patrick Chamusso
was written by Shawn Slovo, and in it First is portrayed by another daughter, Robyn Slovo
, who was also one of the film's producers.
In 2005 the South African Ministry of the Environment launched an environmental patrol vessel
named ''Ruth First''.BuaNews, 20 May 2005: ''SA's marine protection vessels''
Retrieved 11 March 2013.
In March 2011, the country of Gambia issued a postage stamp in her honour, naming her as one of the Legendary Heroes of Africa.
Main published works
* with R. Segal,
* coedited with J. Steele and C. Gurney,
*List of people subject to banning orders under apartheid
*Marion Sparg - female ANC guerilla sentenced to 25 years in prison for treason
*South African potato boycott
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
Category:Jewish South African anti-apartheid activists
Category:South African communists
Category:South African women in politics
Category:Assassinated South African politicians
Category:South African Jews
Category:South African feminists
Category:South African socialists
Category:Academics of Durham University
Category:South African exiles
Category:South African people murdered abroad
Category:South African people of Latvian-Jewish descent
Category:Deaths by letter bomb
Category:People murdered in Mozambique
Category:Members of the South African Communist Party
Category:People acquitted of treason
Category:White South African anti-apartheid activists
Category:South African prisoners and detainees
Category:Prisoners and detainees of South Africa
Category:20th-century South African politicians
Category:Assassinated South African activists
Category:Members of the Order of Luthuli