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Ruth First
""Ruth First.jpg
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[edit]

Ruth First's parents, Julius First and Matilda Levetan, immigrated to South Africa from "Latvia as 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 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. 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[edit]

Ruth First (c.1960)

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[edit]

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]

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 vessel[edit]

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 works[edit]

See also[edit]


  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. Dec 2014. Retrieved 2017-01-08. 
  4. ^ "Ruth First: Williamson given amnesty". Independent Online (South Africa). 1 Jun 2000. Retrieved 2009-04-08. 
  5. ^ "Bridget O'Laughlin testimony to TRC (half-way through the file)". TRC. 22 Feb 1999. Retrieved 2017-01-08. 
  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 links[edit]

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