Ruth First

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.

Ruth First
Ruth First c.1960
Born(1925-05-04)4 May 1925
Died17 August 1982(1982-08-17) (aged 57)
OccupationAnti-apartheid activist
Spouse(s)Joe Slovo

Family and educationEdit

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,[1] 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,[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 South African anti-apartheid activist and Communist, with whom she had three daughters, Shawn, Gillian and Robyn.

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. However, journalism was not the only outlet for her political activism against apartheid. First and her husband 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.[1]

Treason trial and detentionEdit

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.[2]

Exile and assassinationEdit

Plaque in Camden Town

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 in Maputo, Mozambique.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]


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]

A mural by Ben Slow in Nomzamo Park, Soweto.

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.[6]

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.[7]

Patrol vesselEdit

Fisheries protection vessel Ruth First at Buffels Bay.

In 2005 the South African Ministry of the Environment launched an environmental patrol vessel named Ruth First.[8]

In March 2011, the country of Gambia issued a postage stamp in her honor, naming her as one of the Legendary Heroes of Africa.

Main published worksEdit

  • South West Africa. London. 1963.
  • 117 Days. London. 1965.
  • with R. Segal, South West Africa: A Travesty of Trust. London. 1967.
  • The Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa and the Coup d’etat in Africa. London. 1970.
  • coedited with J. Steele and C. Gurney, The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid. London. 1972.
  • Libya: The Elusive Revolution. London. 1970.
  • The Mozambican Miner: Proletarian and Peasant. New York. 1983.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Marks, Shula (October 1983). "Ruth First: A Tribute". Journal of Southern African Studies. 10 (1): 123–128. doi:10.1080/03057078308708071. JSTOR 2636820.
  2. ^ a b First, Ruth (1965). 117 Days. Penguin. p. vii. OCLC 222077295.
  3. ^ "Why Was Ruth First in Mozambique?" (PDF). Deportate, Esuli e Profughe [Deported Exiles and Refugees], no. 26, pp.26-41. December 2014. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  4. ^ "Ruth First: Williamson given amnesty". Independent Online (South Africa). 1 June 2000. Retrieved 8 April 2009.
  5. ^ "Bridget O'Laughlin testimony to TRC (half-way through the file)". TRC. 22 February 1999. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  6. ^ IMDb: A World Apart Retrieved 2013-03-11
  7. ^ IMDb: Catch a Fire Retrieved 2013-03-11
  8. ^ BuaNews, 20 May 2005: SA's marine protection vessels Retrieved 2013-03-11

External linksEdit