Ruth First Untold by Jerry Saena

This article was written by Jerry Saena and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project

Abstract: Ruth Heloise First was a journalist and book writer which assisted with her important role in the abolishment of apartheid. She wrote major articles and books that would aid anti-colonial and anti-apartheid campaigns with the struggle against the inequality, and directed all of her own campaigns in exposing the apartheid government to the world. Ruth was detrimental towards the apartheid government resulting to her being exiled in 1964. Ruth was assassinated by a letter bomb in 1982, 12 years before the prohibition of the apartheid government. Ruth First fought for a free South Africa that she would never behold for herself.

Key Words: Ruth First, South Africa, Apartheid Government, Exile.

Ruth First Untold

The year 1948 was very significant, from the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi to the rise of the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is this exact year that the South African National Party obtained the power and full control of the South African government, after which they passed legislation to segregate and discriminate. This rise to power gave the National Party the complete authority of the South African government, basically giving them the power to delegate the lives of Blacks, Indians, and even Coloureds as they see fit, in which they did. The government passed laws that had major effects on these communities, forcing them to leave their homes to be relocated into government housing. Treatment towards Black South Africans from the government during this time is described only as inhuman. Naturally these communities did not submit to apartheid willingly nor would they fully succumb to apartheid. With help from anti-apartheid groups such as the Africa National Congress (ANC), Mkhonto Sizwe (MK), and the help from white activists groups like the Congress of Democrats (COD) the war against apartheid was won in 1994. During this period of time anti-apartheid South Africans did everything they could to abolish apartheid and countless people died for the cause. This article is devoted to a White South African woman that played a significant role and deserves praise for her contributions to the abolishment of apartheid. Ruth Heloise First was an amazing and well known journalist and writer, but she is more generally known for her efforts towards the eradication of apartheid. Ruth contributed in many ways, from her writings to her public speeches. Ruth directed her campaigns labors before and throughout her exile to expose the apartheid government for what it was.

According to South African History Online Ruth First was born on May 4, 1925 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her parents were Jewish immigrants, Julius and Matilda First. Her father was a furniture manufacturer and her mother a stay at home mom. Both her parents were dedicated communists; they were even founding members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) which would later on be known as the South African Communist Party (SACP). Ruth had one sibling, her younger brother Ronald First. Ruth and Ronald grew up in an environment that was solely based on the intense political topics that included people of all races and classes. Ruth’s mother Matilda had her and her brother attend political speeches that took place at city hall. It is these experiences that might have given Ruth a little insight at an early age of the world of politics and government, thus giving her the foundation upon which she makes her decision on where she stands in the war on apartheid. During her time in school Ruth excelled in writing and it showed with her many accomplishments. One of these accomplishments includes enrolling into the Jeppe High School for Girls. While attending the Jeppe High school Ruth won a literary award, which called for her to give a public political speech at the age of 17. This is just one of her many highlights as a student; Ruth continued her education at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, from 1942 to 1946. There Ruth graduated with a BA degree in Social Studies, receiving firsts in anthropology, sociology, economic history and native administration. Later on down the road Ruth would land several jobs writing for numerous newspapers. During this time Ruth would write some of her best articles and journalist reviews, thus giving her the profound reputation of being a very articulate writer. As she began a career in journalism and writing, so too began a new system of racial discrimination in South Africa that Ruth would fight against in her writing.

EW046-1-2 Ruth First, 2 May, 2012. Photograph by Eli Weinberg UWC/Robben Island Mayibuye Archives. Image source

During her time as a journalist Ruth First was a writer that could be categorized as someone that could bring readers to not only appreciate her writing, but also to visualize the commotion that Ruth see`s through her eyes. Ruth`s resume could talk and represent itself on how well she was able to write. Ruth wrote for major city journals and even became an editor for a big city newspaper. One thing that separated her from the rest of the journalists is the fact that she took on several reporting jobs all at once. It’s noted that Ruth would take on 15 stories a week, which is a lot for a single journalist. Nonetheless, every story she had written was done in such remarkable detail and many were even controversial. During Ruth`s early campaigns which took part during 1946 to 1964, she was part of many newspaper journals. The list included The Guardian and its successor New Age, and the important Fighting Talk journal. A couple of Ruth`s major writings during this time encompasses the Bethal Scandal, the Bus Boycott and the Pass Campaign. These three campaigns were but a part of many different issues and stories that Ruth covered. Fortunately there are a handful of scrapbooks dedicated to Ruth`s journalism writings that have been preserved to this day. We are able to see and read the many articles Ruth has published, and understand how she was able to persuade and convince people with her writings.

The interesting thing that strengthened Ruth`s position in the fight against apartheid is not some dramatic story that she witnessed, a horrible incident against Black South Africans during her childhood. No, it is when she starts to become more politically involved with social groups and movements that she discovers her own the true feelings about the apartheid government. The book Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid is solely written about the lives of Ruth First and her husband Joe Slovo during the struggle to abolish the apartheid government. Ruth’s husband, Joe Slovo was a lawyer by trade but was also a successful writer like his better-half. Ruth and Joe married in 1949, later on giving birth to their three daughters Shawn, Gillian, and Robyn. Raising a full family and fighting the apartheid government all at once was not an easy task to do. Nevertheless the determination between Ruth and Joe was never to falter, and they were able to do both and do it well. Though many times Ruth and the girls were forced to flee to neighboring countries during conflicts between them and the government, beside that the girls received a good education and learned politics at a young age like their mother. Both Ruth and Joe were well respected leaders in the anti-apartheid movement, organising the efforts in the most effective ways. Joe took over the operations of the MK forces, supervising the development and training of the youth soldiers. While Joe was in charge of the physical aspect of the war, Ruth was tasked with the political side of the war. Ruth wrote and revised many articles written by her and others about the effort against apartheid, and published them to inform and inspire people to take a stand against the government. She personally gave public political speeches and organised rally points for combatants for the war. Together Ruth and Joe played major parts in the downfall of the apartheid government. Sadly in the end only one of them would have the privilege to witness a free South Africa.

Ruth was an amazing journalist, but also a profound book author. Ruth wrote a book that was focused on her time in jail titled 117 Days that talked about the treatment she received for being a white anti-apartheid activist. She starts with the incident that resulted with her to be sent to jail. Due to the fact that the apartheid government had the right to do random searches of any household with suspicion of any laws being broken, police claimed to have found illegal books in Ruth`s home. This was enough for Ruth to see jail time under the 90 day detention law, though ultimately there was no real evidence of the crime; she was never charged with any real offense. While she was transported and processed for her crimes, she received cruel treatment from policeman and jail workers or ‘wardress’ (First 1988; 16). ‘The five police roughs joked in Afrikaans on the ride that led to Marshall Square Police Station. Only once did they direct themselves to me: “We know lots,” one said. ‘We know everything. You have only yourself to blame for this. We know”¦.”’ (First 1988; 12-13). The main reason she was treated this way was the fact that she was a white woman against apartheid. Ruth`s first couple of weeks in jail was spent sleeping most of her days, and pacing her jail cell that was barely longer than her bed. During her jail sentence Ruth was interrogated by the apartheid government’s special branch captors. The government hoped that while being interrogated Ruth would reveal any information about the anti-apartheid efforts coming mainly from the ANC. ‘The detective who had me taken out of my cell on the first morning after my return to Marshall Square brought not a torture instrument, but a piece of bait. I was still in a state euphoria at being out of the numbing stagnation of Pretoria, though nagging away at my mind and my nerves was the knowledge that I now had only five days to go before the end of ninety days’ (First 1988; 102). When Ruth`s official 90 day sentence was completed, she is re-arrested on the pavement of the police station for claims of law breaking that which again no evidence can support or be found later on. She would spend an extra 27 days in jail, with continued intense interrogations from the government agents. Though very difficult and with a single attempt of suicide, Ruth was able to hold out information during the interrogations. The interrogation process was disturbing and cruel, which meant the will that it took to not give up any information is amazing. Like Mandela, Ruth wrote her book during her time in jail on small pieces of paper she was able to get a hold on. With that in mind the books tone was a little monotone in a way, and seemed to be more analytical. Compared to her other writings and books, this one seemed like Ruth was holding back in a sense. She wrote in a way that would not get her in trouble with the government, good reasons might be that the apartheid policy was still in full effect when this book was published, and she was not exiled until later in 1964 (First 1988; 143-144). Ruth First was a woman that stood firm in the face of her opposition, she displayed this during her time in jail. Even after the long interrogations from government agents, Ruth denied them any inkling of information about the antiapartheid movement.

Ruth went into exile in 1964, moving to Britain with her family. It is here in exile that the apartheid government hoped to cut off Ruth`s involvement with the campaigns. The fact of the matter is that the government failed in their attempt to silence Ruth, because during this time period Ruth begins her campaigns around the globe to expose to the world what is taking part in South Africa. Ruth wrote books, articles, and papers during her time in exile, wasting no time to continue the fight against apartheid even from out of the country.

During her time in exile Ruth visited many countries trying to make the issue of apartheid aware and apparent to the world. Ruth visited places as far as America and close as Mozambique to continue her campaign to abolish apartheid. She wrote many articles and a few books about different events that took place during her time in exile. She started campaigns and political groups everywhere she traveled. Ruth with fellow writers wrote a book entitled The South African Connection which talks about the British and many western countries investing in South Africa. This book gives information on the status of South Africa. The major aspect of this book is the problem investing countries are trying to resolve. The issue at hand is the development of South Africa as a country. With increased western influences does the country speed up the process of modernization, or does the people reject and protest to the movement to change. South Africa at this point in time is barleyrecognisedby the United Nations (U.N.), it is seen as a country that denies human rights. Ruth and her colleagues wrote in detail about the events that would ultimately lead up to the withdrawal of the western countries’ investments. This anti-apartheid event marked the investing countries with bad publicity, leading to civic protest within each country. While Ruth was in exile she did not allow the miles between her and South Africa affect her efforts against the apartheid government.

First also traveled around Africa to help end the oppression that was consuming the African continent. Ruth wrote the book The Barrel of a Gun which involves the political power struggle and coup d’Etat in Africa. Ruth goes into details about the many different situations that the African countries are in. Here Ruth realizes that it is not only her country that is in a bind in terms of fair governments. She wrote about her experiences visiting other countries and learning the political struggles that each country is facing. The three main countries include Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana. Ruth studied and examined the different state of the countries comparing them, and also finding what makes them apart from each other. Ruth wrote in very fine detail the events that took part during her examinations of the countries. In terms of Sudan she wrote about the long war and continuing imperial influences over the country of Sudan, including Britain and France. With the help of the U.S., the Sudanese government and army was able to cut ties from other countries and become somewhat independent. First explained the option ‘to join liberal countries in their struggle for the freedom of Africa; or to lose independence through “imperialist tricks”’ (First 141). Here you can see that Ruth is drawing a bigger picture for readers in terms of the continental wide struggle that the African countries were facing in the course of gaining individual independence. Ruth used her time in exile not only to help the war on apartheid in South Africa, but also to evaluate and help other countries in their own struggles for independence. Ruth had vision to see the importance of helping neighboring countries and form alliances that would aid South Africa in their own struggle in the future.

But First’s campaign came to an end on 17 August 1982 in Maputo, Mozambique. A horrific event took the life of a woman dedicated to abolishing the apartheid government. Ruth First was targeted by the apartheid government and assassinated by a letter bomb she received in her office in Maputo. Ruth was returning from a United Nations Educational, Scientific and CulturalOrganisation(UNESCO) conference at thecentrebefore it happened.Her death was mourned by many including Presidents, Ambassadors, and Political Officials which all attended her funeral in Maputo. The anti-apartheid effort suffered a great loss this day, but would recover in time and accomplish their goal.

Even today the major impacts and contribution that Ruth First provided alongside the efforts of others in the war against apartheid government can be seen and enjoyed in today’s South Africa. The Ruth First papers which include documents like her journal entries, written articles, stories, pictures, and many other important documents related to the prohibition of the apartheid government, resides in London in the care of her daughters. Ruth was able to write and give first hand experiences to the reader of what it was like to live during the time of apartheid. With her work continued during her time in exile, it can be said that she made aware to the world what the apartheid government stood for, which sent a ripple effect of having countries cease purchasing merchandise from South Africa and discontinuing any further business. Ruth First gave everything she could to help win the war of apartheid, in the end Ruth paid the ultimate sacrifice of being a martyr for a cause she devoted her life to.

To re-illustrate what Ruth First did as a journalist and key role she played in the war against apartheid, it is obvious that her many contributions from her writings to her speeches helped in the struggle against apartheid. It is safe to say that without her valiant efforts, the possibility that the prohibition of apartheid might have never came to pass is highly likely. Ruth First was a writer, journalist, editor, daughter, mother, wife, and most importantly a leader in the war against the apartheid government. Ruth led men and women in the war against apartheid and gained the respect of many doing so honorably. The effects of Ruth Firsts life is felt to this day in millions of lives. Ruth was unable to witness a free South Africa with her own eyes, so she will forever be remembered as one of the major keystones used in building an independent South Africa.


References:
• Weinberg, E., (2012). EWO46-1-2 Ruth First. [Image/Online] Permission: Unknown. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ruthfirstpapers [Accessed 11 Nov. 2014].
•   First, R., (1963). South West Africa. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
•   First, R., (1970). The barrel of a gun. London: Allen Lane.
•  Ruth First Papers., (2012). 2014. Web. 8 Dec. 2014.London: Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library. [Online] Available at: http://www.ruthfirstpapers.org.uk/
•  First, R., (1965). 117 days. New York: Stein and Day.
•   First, Ruth., (2001).In Encyclopedia of women social reformers, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, USA.From Credo Reference. [Online] Available at: http://literati.credoreference.com/ [Accessed 11 Nov. 2014.
•   First, R. Steele, J. Gurney, C., (1972).’Western Investment in Apartheid’ from the South African Connection, Oxford: Maurice Temple Smith Ltd.
•   Marks, S., (1974). ‘Ruth First: A Tribute’ in the Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol 10, No.1, pp.123-128. [Online] Available at: http://www.jstor.org/
•  Sahistory.org.za., (2014). Ruth Heloise First  South African History Online. [Online] Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/ruth-heloise-first [Accessed 15 Dec. 2014].
•   Wieder, A., (2013). Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the war against apartheid, Oxford: Monthly Review Press. [Online]

Last updated : 15-Jun-2015

This article was produced for South African History Online on 15-Jun-2015