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Remembering Ruth First

In 1982, anti-apartheid leader Ruth First was killed when a parcel bomb sent by South African police exploded in her office. Her comrade Ronnie Kasrils remembers her revolutionary life.

Ruth Heloise First was an outstanding revolutionary who, through practical experience, became focused on developing ideas to drive social action.  This can be seen in her range of endeavours: as scholar, investigative journalist and researcher, political activist, orator and organiser, and up to her death, in her active membership of the South African Communist Party (SACP). 

She was interested in organisational methods and the development of critical ideas as drivers of social action. She had the courage and sharpness of intellect to break with conventional wisdom. A heroine of the African National Congress (ANC), SACP and liberation movement, she was a dangerous thorn in apartheid’s flesh and marked down by the regime for elimination. She was assassinated by their hit squads on 17 August 1982 at the age of 57. But her creative ideas and scholarship are of inestimable value to this day.

Marxism teaches that the masses make history, without ignoring the crucial role of the individual in the development of revolutionary ideas, scientific discoveries and inspiring great social forces in altering the world. Ruth took to heart Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach and the conclusion: ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’  

Throughout her life, she sought the dialectical relationship between theory and practise. She was both analyst and activist, set on testing ideas in practise, and made an inestimable contribution in the field of ideas. She was a fierce antagonist of dogma and the substitution of sloganizing and mechanical schema in place of rigorous thinking, never afraid of ruffling the feathers of fellow comrades. 

Products of the Struggle

Mandela’s generation, of which Ruth First was an integral part, referred to themselves as being ‘products of the struggle.’ This reflected their understanding of the material conditions and ideas that shaped them, gave them strength and determination, and enriched their understanding of what needed to be done to overthrow white supremacy and attain freedom and equality for their people. Shared understanding and objectives brought them together as an organised collective of individuals with enduring personal ties, from different ethnic, class and racial backgrounds. 

Ruth First pictured with Nelson Mandela in 1952.

Ruth First was one such person, and who must understood in her historical context: growing up in a world at war against fascism and within her geographic space as a privileged white South African – a country deeply divided along race and class lines, colonised for almost three centuries up to the time of her birth, and coming under an even more brutal and rigid system as she attained adulthood.  

Clearly, her upbringing and awareness motivated her to see what most whites chose not to see and led her to seek the truth – to understand and to act, which required high moral principles and courage. 

Ruth First was born in Johannesburg on the 4 May 1925 into an upwardly mobile, secular Jewish middle-class home. Her parents, Julius and Tilly First, were members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), so it can be said she was a ‘Bolshevik Baby’. Julius and Tilly had arrived in the country as children in the opening decade of the twentieth century as part of the wave of Jewish immigration to South Africa, and had met and married by the time the CPSA was established in 1921. They hailed from Latvia and Lithuania respectively, then part of Tsarist Russia, where Jews suffered from severe discrimination and were generally despised, second class citizens. Such immigrants were working class, artisans and small traders, having survived poverty and bloody pogroms. Many – but by no means the majority – were fervently religious, but very few were Zionists seeking salvation in Palestine. If anything, the USA was what most dreamt of as a country to emigrate to, with South Africa among other destinations.

The founder members of the CPSA were a mix of radical white workers and socialists from Europe, among them S.P. Bunting, Ivor Jones, Bill Andrews, Solly Sachs and Julius First. By the time of Ruth’s birth, Tilly was a member, along with the first Africans to rise to prominence – J.B. Marks, Johannes Nkosi, James La Guma, Johnny Gomez and T.W. Thibedi, the first black person to be elected to the Party’s central committee. Julius founded a furniture factory which, in later years, served as a refuge for comrades avoiding the police when the Party was banned, and as the weekend venue illegal Party meetings. 

Ruth grew up in a household in which intense political debate between people of all races took place. Her parents had participated in the early Party discourse around the role of the white working class, the 1922 white miner’s revolt, the Communist International (Comintern) ‘Black Republic’ thesis which led to an upsurge in African membership, the purge within the CPSA during the thirties, the revival of Party activity during World War Two and its support for Russia. Inevitably, hearing her folks going over such arguments with comrades as she was growing up impacted on Ruth. But, of course by then, when she was a teenager, the robust debates had changed with the influx of black workers into its ranks, and the Party was strategising on the link between national liberation and socialism – which crystallised when she had become a prominent member in the fifties.

The political economy of South Africa had undergone a seismic transformation by the time Ruth was born, the consequences of which shaped the times. The discovery of gold, a mere 39 years before Ruth’s birth, triggered the Mining Revolution, which profoundly changed South Africa and its people. At the time of Ruth’s birth, Johannesburg was a young, brash city, fast-growing and urban, a melting of people. Harsh, exploitative conditions faced the black population, many of whom were living in shanty towns on the periphery, with the dominant mining houses, randlords and pro-British influence ruling the roost. 

The South African War, which was essentially between Boer and Briton for control over resources and wealth and the awakening giant of the African proletariat shook white supremacy and capital, and shaped the responses of revolutionaries of all stripes. The dual cleavages of class and colour in South Africa was reflected in the existence of the leading proponents of class and national struggle – initially set on different paths – which converged in the struggles to come in the CPSA and ANC. The leading comrades of Ruth’s generation were central to the debate about the road to national and social emancipation – whether to advance in two ‘stages’ or one, whether to ally with the ANC or not, as well as theoretical debates about the development of Colonialism of a Special Type (CST) and the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) as the road to power.

At the height of the struggle in the fifties, in which Ruth played a central and significant role, issues were resolved not from any ivory tower, not through purist notions, but through the harsh school of practical struggle which saw the class and national struggle converging into a unique alliance between Communist and nationalist revolutionaries – an achievement not seen to such a degree in other anti-colonial struggles. I would go as far as stating this was one of her most influential of achievements; her handling of such relationships as a woman tutoring the foremost African revolutionary males of the day in theory and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in struggle is testament to her insight, courage and ability.

A Foot Soldier Against Apartheid

Ruth’s attainment as a revolutionary theorist, teacher, writer and activist was honed through the tempestuous times of the forties and fifties. From the young orator rallying public support against fascism during World War Two, she was the foot soldier duplicating and distributing leaflets during the 1946 African mineworkers’ strike. Following the banning of the CPSA in 1950, she was part of the trusted circle reviving the Party in its clandestine form as the SACP. 

As a journalist, she was searing and tireless in exposing the brutality of the apartheid regime, and was at the frontline reporting on the Defiance Campaign. In 1953, she helped establish and lead the Congress of Democrats (COD), the small grouping of whites aligned with the ANC, Indian Congress, Coloured People’s Congress, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). But for a government banning order she would have attended the historic Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955, and assisted in formulating the Freedom Charter in the shadows. Together with her husband Joe Slovo, whom she wed in 1949 – and who had become a top advocate – she was part of the 156 accused in the marathon Treason Trial (1956-1961).

Ruth First and Joe Slovo after the ‘Treason Trial’ in 1956.

Ruth matriculated at Jeppe Girls, receiving an education designed like schools of its type to churn out white youngsters loyal to British ruling class traditions and ideology – something she was inoculated against. By the time she started a sociology degree at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 1942, she had joined the Young Communist League (YCL). Among her fellow university students were Nelson Mandela, Eduardo Mondlane—later President of Frelimo, the Mozambique liberation movement—JN Singh and Ismail Meer, who became leaders of the South African Indian Congress; and later Joe Slovo, studying law after a stint in army service in Italy. 

The lifelong communist Norman Levy, then aged 14, described the impact she made on him, when he attended his first YCL meeting in 1944 when Ruth had become national secretary: “I still see her image as she was at that first meeting”, he writes in his memoir The Final Prize. “Eighteen, curly-haired, short and ill at ease, pursuing her points at breakneck speed. She was earnest, self-conscious, and miserable with caring, but it was her energy and directness that marked her out from others.” 

Among some thirty ‘others’ present were the leading theoretician and scholar Lionel Foreman, Paul Joseph, Lucas Masebe – YCL national chairman, (possibly) Ahmed Kathrada, and the young man her age she married five years later, Joe Slovo.  Despite appearing to Norman as “ill at ease” he points out that “Ruth and Lionel were the stars, however, and whatever fired them also drove the others.”

I heard from one of her many admirers of the time – I think it was either Wolfie Kodesh or Ronnie Press – that racist students and alternatively those of ‘Trotskyist’ leaning, waxing irate over Ruth’s merciless denunciations, would chant ‘Ruth First, Truth Last!’ To which her supporters would respond: ‘Ruth First’s Truth Lasts!’  

She graduated with a BA (Social Studies) from Wits in 1946, obtaining first class passes in sociology, anthropology, economic history and so-called native administration. After a short stint as a researcher for Johannesburg City Council – and teaching African workers in the Party’s evening school – she was drawn into journalism, working for the CPSA journal, the Guardian. That crusading, socialist weekly became increasingly supportive of the ANC-led liberation movement, with communists keeping it running. For a decade it survived consecutive banning orders by adroit name changes and its devoted editorial staff – with its most famous masthead New Age. 

The head office was in Cape Town and was under the editorship of Lionel Foreman until his untimely death. He was followed by Brian Bunting, editor-in-chief until the final banning in 1962, when draconian laws made publication impossible. By then New Age had briefly endured as Spark.  Ruth headed the Johannesburg office; Govan Mbeki was in charge in Port Elizabeth and M.P. Naicker manned the Durban premises. These journals reflected the Leninist definition of a newspaper as an organising weapon.

It was Ruth’s expose of what came to be referred to as the Farm Labour Scandal, working with rural struggle stalwart Gert Sibande and her protégé Joe Gqabi, that demonstrated her research-based, investigative journalism, writing skills and steely determination. This brought to the surface the cruel system run by the police and magistrates, consigning luckless pass law offenders to work as virtual slave labourers on white farms such as the Bethel potato farms. 

Researching and skilfully breaking the story, and fuelling a protest campaign, epitomised what a weekly newspaper like New Age was capable of. Her writing on such topics as the defiance campaign, the mobilisation and consultation leading to the adoption of the Freedom Charter, the women’s anti-pass protests, migrant labour system, bus boycotts and slum conditions are considered among the finest pieces of social and labour journalism, and the upsurge of resistance of the fifties.  Her methodology, utilising often clandestine methods of acquiring evidence from facts on the ground, was the forerunner of her much later work in Mozambique, of participatory research at the grass roots.  

Concurrently she edited the monthly journal Fighting Talk, which provided penetrating political analysis as well as carrying literary contributions. This latter role illustrated Ruth’s ability to draw in cultural figures like Nadine Gordimer, Barney Simon, Drum writers and poets, and jazz musicians. Both she and Joe were extremely sociable, developing lifelong friendships, and their home in Roosevelt Park, Johannesburg, was the scene of many joyful parties, where black and whites had rare moments of chilling out together – while agitated police would glare from outside and take down the registration numbers of the cars. 

As experienced by many struggle households of those times, police raids, banning and arrest of parents, unsettled the children. This was no exception with regards to the Slovo family. By then they had three talented daughters—Shawn, Gillian and Robyn—all attaining successful careers as prolific writers and film makers in later life.

Ruth was often tasked by the Party to travel abroad to participate in meetings of the international democratic youth movement, experiencing at first hand conditions of socialist development in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, which she enthusiastically conveyed to a liberation movement eager to learn about alternatives to capitalism and racist rule. Her reputation grew by leaps and bounds and she became trusted and admired in Congress circles.

The stormy struggles and state repression of the fifties saw the unique unity of the ANC-SACP alliance grow, indicative of how close the parallel cleavages of class and colour had become and was to be further cemented in later years. Ruth had remarked of this development of the ANC, that an organisation that had basically had annual conferences up to the emergence of the Young Turks had become a revolutionary, militant, mass movement challenging the state and white supremacy.

Life in the Underground

Following the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960 and the state of emergency, Ruth avoided arrest and sought refuge with her young daughters in Swaziland, while Joe was detained with hundreds of others. When the emergency was lifted, they were reunited back home, with the situation becoming more challenging and demanding further sacrifice. 

Crucially, December 16th, 1961 heralded the birth of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), in which Joe Slovo — later Chief-of-Staff in exile — was dual commander, on behalf of the SACP, with Mandela. Walter Sisulu’s radio broadcast message from underground was partly her writing. Following the Rivonia arrests, she worked in stealth alongside Bram Fischer and Hilda Bernstein to assist and link those in hiding. 

Whilst Joe was abroad on a mission arranging training and weapons for MK, thus missing being arrested at Rivonia, time was running out for Ruth. She was arrested in August 1963 under the 90-day Detention Act, and held in solitary confinement for 117 days – which later became the title of her book on the subject. This was an arduous experience of mental torture which she battled to survive, but emerged without providing a shred of information to her tormentors.

She had been told by a security officer: ‘You could have been charged in the Rivonia case. But we didn’t want a woman in that case.’ Fortunately, her mother was available to care for the children. Tilly’s husband Julius First, who had helped finance the purchase of the Party’s underground Rivonia farm headquarters, had fled into exile. Ruth had no option but to follow on an exit visa with her mother and the children, meaning they were forbidden to return to South Africa. With the effective smashing of the underground inside South Africa, there was no alternative but at least to live and work in exile, and so they joined Joe in London.

Ruth First speaks at an anti-apartheid demonstration in London.

In these difficult conditions, where the utmost strength and dedication was required to hold onto the dream of a free South Africa, a busy new chapter commenced in Ruth’s active life, and lasted from 1964-1977 in Britain. The Slovo family set up home in Camden Town, with Julius and Tilly as neighbours, and the young girls had to restart their schooling in new, strange surrounds – which was not easy for both parents and children.

They were, however,  a close family unit, and it was clear to observe as I did – working closely with Joe – what a secure and loving home they were able to create despite both parents being so politically and academically active, with much travelling required from both of them – more especially Joe, with his Party work abroad. The home in Camden Town drew many friends, and as in Johannesburg, was a centre of social and political activity.

Ruth was often a keynote speaker, and held in the highest regard by the British Left, intelligentsia and increasing numbers of youthful activists. For six years she commuted between London and Durham, in the north of England, where she lectured in developmental studies. She mixed well with leading left academics together with her comrade and colleague Harold Wolpe, developing new theories about South Africa’s economy, and her circles included Ralph Miliband, the British Communist authority on Africa Jack Woddis, the American writer William Pomeroy, the South African exiles Ronald Segal and Ros Ainslee, and Vietnam solidarity organiser Tariq Ali. She showed an interest in the rising New Left and activity, and unlike many in the exile ranks sought to interact with them to test and refresh her Marxism and understand their viewpoint.

This drew criticism from within the Party and she was cold-shouldered by some. It is not true, however, that she was ever suspended from the Party. She became critical of the Soviet Union, questioning its bureaucratical nomenclature, and the 1968 intervention in Czechoslovakia. She was affronted that there were so few women in the Soviet central committee, which at times numbered several hundreds of members. And certainly, in 69 years of the USSR’s history, not a single woman served on its politburo. 

On one occasion she hammered me on why in wartime there had been heroines like Ludmila Pavlichenko, the anti-Nazi sniper who had a count of 309 kills to her credit, and was a particular hero of mine from my military training in Odessa in 1964, yet apart from a single woman cosmonaut, Valentine Tereshkova, there were none to be seen in top Soviet political positions. I readily admit that at times Ruth gave me a hard time, but I came to realise that if she spoke harshly it was because she was ready to be severely criticised herself. I sulked over the Pavlichenko tirade but then she surprised me with a charming presentation of a Woody Guthrie recording of his song in praise of ‘Miss Pavlichenko well known to fame’.

Ruth regarded herself as a ‘late bloomer’ regarding feminism but never became fervent about identity politics. She certainly motivated and encouraged young women in their activism, and they were greatly inspired by her. But then so were the young male cadres. If anything, Ruth did not want to be consigned to women’s politics. Throughout her political life she was in the forefront of the movement and not by way of tokenism owing to her gender.

There are some who mistakenly view her as a ‘dissident’ or ‘dissenter’ or ‘individualistic free thinker’ because she was unafraid of raising awkward questions or breaking new ground, when others remained stuck in a groove, simply repeating old slogans.  Ruth’s was the Marxism as developed and advocated by Marx. A dialectical understanding that theory needed developing with ever changing conditions; ‘ask questions and doubt everything’; enrich theory through praxis—unity of theory and action. In order to ‘understand the world and change it’ one had to keep up to date with an ever-changing world and not remain steeped in the past. 

Militant Academic

Ruth’s period in Britain saw her writing at its most prolific. Apart from numerous articles in the Anti-Apartheid News, the ANC’s Sechaba journal, and other publications, she would have also contributed to The African Communist, but unfortunately her nom de plume has not been verified. My sense is that she probably penned articles on the Sudan, Kenya and Libya, and other African issues including military coups and challenges of development; research in this regard needs to be pursued.   

She was instrumental in establishing The Review of African Political Economy in 1974 focusing on the political economy of inequality, exploitation, and oppression. The journal was the brainchild of a group of young British and South African Marxists with links to Tanzania. One of them, Katherine Salahi (then Levine), explained to me the benefit of having Ruth on board:

[A]part from anything else, she was the only one in the collective who had any publishing experience. And of course, her political nous was key. She was a vital part of the collective from early on, incredibly supportive and generous with her time both politically and practically, and steered us towards a more professionally produced publication than we were capable of in our ignorance. She also brought South African academics – Gavin Williams and Robin Cohen – into the working group. Archie Mafeje was on the advisory group and they clashed on the pages of the journal…I have memories of her helping stamp, label and stuff envelopes; she was never above getting her hands dirty. 

Ruth authored and edited several books which reflect her passion for Africa. These saw her travelling to the continent on numerous occasions to collect information on the spot. Her work gained for her an international reputation as a leading authority on Africa.

She researched and edited the writings of both Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki, published respectively as ‘No Easy Walk to Freedom’ in 1967 (not to be confused with Mandela’s later autobiography) and ‘The Peasants Revolt,’ published that same year. That was an extremely busy year, in which she had collaborated with Kenya’s Oginga Odinga, a socialist who opposed Jomo Kenyata’s corrupt one-party rule, in editing his autobiography ‘Not Yet Uhuru’, published in 1967. 

Her 1964 detention in South Africa was published under the title ‘117 Days’ (1965) and is deeply moving. It became the subject of a TV documentary in which she played herself. With fellow South African exile, Ronald Segal, she edited South West Africa: Travesty of Trust (1967). In the 1970s, she published The Barrel of a Gun: The Politics of Coups d’état in Africa (1970); followed by Libya: The Elusive Revolution (1974); and, with Jonathan Steele and Christabel Gurney, The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid (1972). 

It was during this time that she became absorbed in contemporary feminist works, resulting in an outstanding biography: Olive Schreiner (1980) which she wrote with Anne Scott. Given the situation in present day South Africa, she made a most prescient observation in Barrel of a Gun about the corruption and selfishness that came out of the coups in west and north Africa: ‘It grows through politics, under party systems, under military governments, from the ranks of business, and from the corporate elites that run the state, the army and the civil service.’ 

In 1977, Ruth jumped at the chance to work in Africa, when FRELIMO, with which she was closely aligned, sought her out to run the Centre for African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique.  Drawing together a dynamic group of young intellectuals, she engaged in the training of students in research techniques, directing several large field studies on relations between agriculture and the state. Her best-known project researched the lives of migrant labourers who worked on the South African gold mines. The results of this study, which pioneered a form of participatory grassroots research, was published the year after her death as Black Gold: the Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant (1983). 

This exciting new chapter in her life, from 1977 to 1982, saw her close involvement with the ANC in Maputo, addressing meetings and assisting young cadres involved in reconstructing the underground within South Africa. She was a keen member of the SACP structures and encouraged comrades in their work to follow Lenin’s exhortation of ‘the concrete analysis of the concrete situation,’ and – as ever – to be open minded and ‘question everything.’ Ruth was in her prime and living in an apartment with Joe. Everyone assumed he would be the prime target for the murderous Apartheid regime. The life of this extraordinary woman was cut down by a cowardly parcel bomb, which she opened in her office on 17 August 1982. It was part of a growing number of assassinations by apartheid hit squads, and followed the murder the year before of her New Age protégé, Joe Gqabi, in Harare. There was an outpouring of grief internationally, with 3,000 people attending her funeral in Maputo. 

In his funeral oration, Moses Mabhida, General-Secretary of the SACP, declared

The bomb that took Comrade Ruth’s life was intended to deprive our movement of the services of one of its most gifted militants. We openly acknowledge the exceptional gravity of the loss to us caused by her death. But we equally proclaim that her immense contribution to our movement will never be lost but will help to guide our actions and inspire our militants in the years to come.

He ended with the words

We want to say, Farewell, Comrade Ruth and we want to assure you that the struggle you so loved will be carried out with all determination and intensity.

We still grieve for the life of Ruth First. She would have been 95 in 2020, a year in which three of her close comrade-in-arms died: Denis Goldberg, Andrew Mlangeni and John Nkadimeng. The latter two worked with her in Johannesburg, and Mlangeni was one of the comrades who hid out at her father’s factory when the police were on his tracks.

We pay tribute to her, as we honoured those heroes recently, can we say in all honesty that the assurance given by Moses Mabhida, at her graveside 38 years ago, is being carried out by the Movement she gave her life for? To repeat the commitment: ‘that the struggle you so loved will be carried out with all determination and intensity.’

Ruth First’s Truth Lasts

Whilst there is much Ruth would have been thrilled about, including the ANC’s insistence on the elevation of women to high government posts and presence in parliament, she would have without question been appalled at the state of the ANC and the country today. 

I have no doubt she would have raised her trenchant voice against the corruption; mismanagement; appalling conditions of unemployment, poverty and living conditions of the poor; the violence against women.  Given her analytical mind, that analysis would not have simply stopped at the Zuma years of plunder, but certainly have interrogated the decisions taken that brought the demise of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), the introduction of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy, and lurch into the grip of corporate capital’s free market, neo-liberal economy. 

She would certainly be involved in a bold Marxist discourse about an alternate socio-economic model – not only for our country, but for Africa and the world. That would include not only such issues facing women and the poverty-stricken, but a planet and ecosystem endangered by climate change and environmental destruction. What would have alarmed her, too, would be the failure of our country to act more decisively on the situation in Zimbabwe, and the rising threat of ISIS terrorism in the north of Mozambique.

One cannot think for the dead, at least the living. But in learning from Ruth’s invaluable lessons and legacy, we must carry on the struggle she and her generation were so committed to, and with determination, intensity and integrity. In so doing, we should be guided by such ideas that energised and propelled her – ‘understanding the world to change it’, ‘asking questions and doubting everything’, and proceeding from the ‘concrete analysis of the concrete situation’.

On the anniversary of her death, as I was preparing this lecture, I heard Faith Ringold, an African-American artist and active supporter of the Black Lives Matter rebellion sweeping the USA stating: ‘It’s harder to be a woman than black.’ 

On that same day, the Wits student Kwasa Zozo was brutally murdered by her boyfriend. Ruth’s struggle to change the world continues. Her life is exemplary for men as well as women, young and old, who wish to understand the world and change it.

A version of this piece was first published by Umsebenzi Online, a publication of the South African Communist Party.

About the Author

Ronnie Kasrils is a former minister in the South African government. He was a member of the national executive of the African National Congress (ANC) and a founding member of uMkhonto we Sizwe.