Ruth First: An Ally of the Struggle

Throughout the history of apartheid, freedom fighters were subjects of legal repression by the apartheid government who would pass legislation as a way of suppressing resistance. At the height of apartheid, freedom fighters, both black and white, operated with the looming threat of being arrested, detained, or killed under a government that justified it. The apartheid government enacted laws such as the 90-day Detention Act and the Suppression of Communism Act to legally and actively subjugate those against them. One of the prominent resistors of apartheid in the 1950s and 1960s was a woman named Ruth First. Ruth First was a white freedom fighter who was able to use her status to speak on the horrors of apartheid. She was arrested in 1963 under the detainment laws and put in solitary confinement. Her account of solitary confinement under the 90-day Act is found in her book 117 Days, which gives us a personal and honest telling of the enactment of detention laws where she was held for 117 days. This account also shows how the government actively pursued to restrain freedom fighters. Time in prison was commonplace among resistors, but the experience was not completely universal. While many anti-apartheid fighters were subject to cruel treatment in prison, her status as white woman protected her. Ruth used her privileged platform to continue advocating against apartheid.

To understand her character, it is important to see where her sense of justice grew from. Ruth First was a journalist born of Jewish parents who came to South Africa from Eastern Europe.[1] She grew up in a politically active home as her parents were active members of the South African Communist Party.[2] Ruth began her career as a journalist who wrote about the oppression of Black and Indian residents of Johannesburg. She was very vocal and frank about her disapproval of the government and how it marginalized Black, Indian, and Coloured citizens.[3] She married Joe Slovo, an attorney and principal organizer of Umkhonto we Sizwe which was the armed branch of the African National Congress in 1949. They worked together as members of the Communist Party, joining other freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki and Dr. Xuma.[4] Ruth was active in political organizations that forged alliances with the ANC, one of the main acting bodies against the apartheid government.[5] She ran in circles with leaders of significance and was there to interview, document and edit works produced by them.[6]

As a journalist, First boldly exposed the wrongdoings of the apartheid government through her investigative writing. Before her imprisonment, she publicized the effects of racial rule on the labor force by writing about Black, Indian, and Coloured experiences.[7] She also publicized ANC statements,[8] campaigns of Indian Resistance, plights of Africans on mines, potato farms,[9] and the oppression derived from pass laws.[10] The articles that she wrote on the topics were not only personal and detailed accounts of the incidents, but they always pointed to the apartheid government as the seen-but-unseen hand that orchestrated these events. They all led to the same conclusion that the apartheid was a weapon of oppression for Black, Indian, and Coloured citizens of South Africa and a divisive tool that led to their inhumane and unfair treatment.

Her commitment to resisting apartheid was not only seen in her investigative journalism, but also in her active participation in political organizations. Along with being involved in the South African Communist Party, an organization that fostered relationships with other racial groups and had similar beliefs of liberation as the ANC, she was also one of the founders of the South African Congress of Democrats which were essentially the white supporters of the liberation movement in 1953.[11] In 1955, she helped pen the Freedom Charter that was presented at The Congress of the People, a conference attended by a number of different anti-apartheid organizations.[12] The charter was seen as a threat to government as it was considered an attempt of usurpation and she, along with 155 other activists, was arrested and tried in the Treason Trial of 1956.

One of the powerful tools the apartheid government had in subduing resistors was broad detention legislation that allowed the Security Branch to arrest citizens with the slightest suspicion. The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 and the General Law Amendment Act of 1963, popularly known as the 90-day detention act, gave the government rights to detain someone without rights to appeal or to a lawyer.[13] These detention laws were created to hold activists and extract information—even if it could not be used in court—by any means possible. This act quickly passed through parliament as the underground operation at Rivonia unfolded in 1963.[14] This legislation made it so that the apartheid police would not be held accountable to what happens within the cells and paved the way to her arrest and unethical detainment. Ruth First was arrested on August 9, 1963 and taken to Marshall Square Police Station under the General Law Amendment. She was at Marshall Square for the first two months of her detainment and then was transferred to the Women’s Central Prison in Pretoria for 28 days before returning to Marshall Square.

First was arrested at Wits University library under the 90-day Act. The nature of her arrest provided little information as to why she being arrested: was it her involvement in Rivonia? Her possession of illegal literature and banned publications? The ambiguous nature of her arrest left her with many questions. Once in detainment, her experience was filled with exceptions to the rules. Ruth was aware how her different treatment from the beginning, stating that it was a norm for “Africans to do the cleaning for us [white South African madams] missus.”[15] Her experience was different in three notable ways. To begin, she was able to talk back and demand things of her detainers without fearing serious physical retaliation. Upon her arrival at Marshall Square Police Station, she was stripped of her belongings and later requested that her suitcase be brought to her. The commandant demanded that her suitcase be given to her immediately after she made the request.[16] She was made complaints about her arrest and even expressed her complaints about not receiving hot water to bathe with.[17] When being questioned by Swanepoel, one of her interrogators, she raised her voice as a response to his aggressiveness for not answering his questions.[18] Her captors did not do anything but they were rather amused and left her alone for the day. When she was ready to give her statement after more than 90 days of being detained, she was able to give the statement on her grounds—she would write it and it would not be recorded.[19]

Another way we see her experience of detainment differ from other accounts is that the authorities expressed more patience and courtesy to her. Her plan to survive this arrest was to make them run in circles so they did not find out any information that might lead to her persecution or her comrades’ arrest. When she was being asked questions, she would often respond in quips and they would entertain her conversation. This worked well in her favor because one, the only time she talked was when she was being questioned and she missed conversing with others and, two, she was buying time. The interrogators would offer her cigarettes and engage in banter with her; their interviews gradually became laced with jokes.[20] Authorities were patient in collecting her statement and they would often reassure her that it is not her they wanted, it was everyone else. Later on in her detention, she met Colonel Klindt who personally swore to her that her release would be sure and swift upon receiving her statement.[21] She was given a puzzle book, which was not allowed for isolation detainees, and a sharp pencil. She was not met with punishment for her avoid and evade tactics and even though both parties knew that she had information, they did not take to extreme physical measures to obtain it.

 Lastly, her humanity was respected throughout her 117 days in detainment and that is seen in contrast to a story she includes about Looksmart Ngudle, an African detainee. Her time at Women’s Central Prison was characterized of a routine that consisted of an hour of exercise (sometimes more), a bath time, meals, and when she was in her isolated cell, she would find mind-numbing activities to do to pass time.[22]  Even under captivity, her jailors attempted to make it a habitable place for her, asking if they could make this time easier for her.[23] She was also given visitor privileges even though isolation detainees were not allowed such.[24] This is quite different from one of the accounts Ruth mentioned in her book. She includes the story of an African man named Looksmart Ngudle who was electrically shocked, assaulted, and killed by the Security Branch for not admitting to sabotage.[25] The security branch minimized their chances of being taken to court by arranging his family members to sign a form that unknowingly took the option for legal representation of Ngudle’s case. The only witness was Isaac Tlale, who also gave an account of his experience of imprisonment. He was not allowed out of his isolation cell since he entered and was only given one piece of bread per day to live off of. When being questioned if he was receiving any form of exercise, he simply stated no.[26] He further went on to describe the form of torture used and the humiliation that followed thereafter even though he had no information regarding their question. It is interesting that First decided to include this excerpt of a case like this because it serves as a foil for the reader to grasp the difference between her experience and the “average” experience for Africans. It is important to note that they were African men and she was a white woman so it places them at different ends of the spectrum, but it shows that treatment of prisoners was subjective under the law. Ruth was well aware of the benefits that came with being a white woman and used those privileges when she could. [27]

This is not to say her time in detainment was a dream, in fact, it was far from it. Isolation deprives one of human contact and effectively erodes one’s sense of sanity. Ruth describes how her mind became anxious not because she was in jail, but because she did not know how long she would be in there. She found it difficult to adjust her frame of mind and could not find peace about her future because nothing was determined. The tension caused by being in isolation, existing in a timeless limbo, and constant interrogation is enough to make anyone feel inconsolably depressed. The state of her parents and her children were a great source of anxiety for her as well. While she was not subject to physical torture, the Security Branch showed their cruelty in other ways. After 89 days of detainment, Nel, one of the officers, told her she was free to go. She was outside, dressed and ready to go before one of his colleagues arrested her for possession of illegal literature.[28] The idea of having to stay in isolation for another 90 days filled her with bitterness that led to her attempted suicide. She was able to get a visitation from her own doctor, which again shows the perks she had even while in a place of utter helplessness. In her brief summary of her suicide note, she made clear that the secrets of those she was associated with her were safe and believed that it was better to perish than to betray them.[29] She thought of her children, her husband, and her comrades and decided against self-interest, choosing to metaphorically fall on her sword. It was unsuccessful but the determination that followed that event was tangible in her refusal to be an accomplice. She was eventually let go because they did not want a woman associated with the Rivonia Trial. One of her interrogators, Swanepoel, released First under the guise of  “still have[having] respect for women in our [their] country.”[30]  After being released from Marshall Square, she went into exile and did not return to South Africa for the remainder of her life.

Ruth First was a journalist, political activist and a communist—her arrest was bound to happen one way or another. From her background and activities before her imprisonment, and even after, it is clear to see that her affiliation with the liberation struggle was not a superficial one. She was able to use her privileges as a white woman to continue the fight against apartheid as an ally of the liberation movement. As an active member of the Communist Party, she worked closely with other organizations to carry forward the movement of abolishing apartheid. Her time in confinement gives us an honest and first-hand account of the detention laws in place to silence freedom fighters.

While she did not meet her end in this manner, her account proves that apartheid was increasingly harmful for all South Africans, white people included. These unlawful imprisonments have served as a prime example of the unimaginable difficulties freedom fighters had to endure and the level of injustice they suffered on a daily basis. Even though she was fighting the same government as Africans, her white, middle class status protected her—even in jail.[31] While her experience was not as despicable as her African counterparts, Ruth First’s imprisonment account shows us the corrupt and injustice reality of the apartheid government. She was aware of her privileges and used it to protect her comrades who would have most likely ended up being subject to more gruesome and inhumane treatment than she did. Her status would help her in publishing her book, allowing her to discuss this experience before other women detainees. It also helped her escape South Africa safely, but it did not protect her from the diabolical and evil doctrine of apartheid held by the government that would eventually assassinate her.

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project


[1] Milton Shain and Miriam Pimstone. 2009. "Ruth First | Jewish Women's Archive." Jwa.Org.

[2] Shain and Pimstone. 2009. "Ruth First | Jewish Women's Archive." Jwa.Org.

[3] Shula Marks. "Ruth First: A Tribute." Journal Of Southern African Studies 10, no. 1 (1983):

123-128. doi:10.1080/03057078308708071

[4] Shain and Pimstone. 2009. "Ruth First | Jewish Women's Archive." Jwa.Org.

[5] "Ruth Heloise First | South African History Online." n.d. Sahistory.Org.Za.

[6] "Ruth Heloise First | South African History Online."

[7] Ruth First. “Time For Unity.” Guardian, May 8, 1947.

[8] Ruth First. “Xuma Explains Resignation.” Guardian, March, 1950.

[9] Ruth First. “Forgotten Men of the Strike.” Guardian. August 21, 1947.

[10]Ruth First. “Man on the Run.” Guardian, n.d, 1950.

[11] Ruth Heloise First | South African History Online."

[12] Marks, “Ruth First: A Tribute”

[13] Robert Vassen. "South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid". Overcomingapartheid.Msu.Edu, n.d.

[14] Vassen. "South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid". 

[15] Ruth First. 117 Days: an Account of Confinement and Interrogation Under the South

African 90-Day Detention. New York: Penguin Press. p.37

[16] First. 117 Days p.17

[17] First, 117 Days p. 45

[18]First, 117 Days p. 54

[19] First, 117 Days p. 54, 115

[20] First, 117 Days p.139

[21] First, 117 Days p.126

[22] First, 117 Days p.61,73

[23]First, 117 Days p. 64

[24]First, 117 Days p.60

[25] First, 117 Days p.96.

[26] First, 117 Days p.97

[27] First, 117 Days p. 37,75, 122

[28] First, 117 Days p.109

[29] First, 117 Days p.130

[30] First, 117 Days p.122

[31] Alan Wieder, Ruth First And Joe Slovo In The War Against Apartheid. 1st ed. New York:

Monthly Review Press, 2013.

  • First, Ruth. 117 Days: an Account of Confinement and Interrogation Under the South African
  • 90-Day Detention Law / London: Penguin Books, 1982.
  • First, Ruth. “Man on the Run.” Guardian, n.d, 1950.
  • First, Ruth. “Time For Unity.” Guardian, May 8, 1947.
  • First, Ruth. “Xuma Explains Resignation.” Guardian, March, 1950.
  • First, Ruth. “Forgotten Men of the Strike.” Guardian. August 21, 1947.
  • First, Ruth. “Terror in Bethal.” Guardian. February 27, 1950.
  • Marks, Shula. "Ruth First: A Tribute." Journal of Southern African Studies 10, no. 1 (1983):
  • 123-128. doi:10.1080/03057078308708071
  • "Ruth Heloise First | South African History Online." n.d. Sahistory.Org.Za.
  • Shain, Milton, and Miriam Pimstone. 2009. "Ruth First | Jewish Women's Archive." Jwa.Org.
  • Wieder, Alan. Ruth First and Joe Slovo In The War Against Apartheid. 1st ed. New York:
  • Monthly Review Press, 2013.
  • Vassen, Robert. "South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid". Overcomingapartheid.Msu.Edu, n.d.