Today marks the 38th anniversary of the assassination by security forces of Comrade Ruth First, South African communist and anti-apartheid fighter. Here we reproduce a short biography of her life and contribution to the struggle originally compiled for the YCL’s 2019 International Women’s Day Series.
Ruth First (1925 – 1982) was a South African activist, scholar and journalist born on the 4th of May 1925 in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was a central force within the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa using both direct action through her affiliations with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National Congress (ANC), and her many journalistic articles and books published openly challenging the oppressive apartheid regime.
First’s parents were founding members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), which would later be outlawed by the apartheid government. She graduated with a bachelors degree in Social Studies at the University of Witwatersrand. While a student there, she was extremely politically active, helping to found the Federation of Progressive Students (a multiracial student organisation opposing apartheid) along with notable political names within the anti-apartheid movement such as Yusuf Dadoo and Joe Slovo, First’s future husband. She also served as a secretary to the Young Communist League of South Africa (YCLSA) and, for a brief time the Johannesburg branch of the CPSA.
In 1947, First worked for the Johannesburg City Council. However, this did not last long because of her political opposition to council policies. After this she turned to journalism, becoming the editor for a left-wing weekly newspaper in Johannesburg. Her journalistic talents are best seen through her works on the slave-like working conditions on Bethal potato farms, the women’s anti-pass campaign, migrant labour, bus boycotts and slum conditions.
First was also involved in supporting the Mineworkers Strike, where many unarmed workers were injured and killed by the brutal apartheid regime, and the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign, the movement against indentured labourers being sent over from India and being forced to endure intolerably harsh working and living conditions. First also played a central role in organizing resistance to the bans and attacks on Communists.
First was key player in discussions leading to the formation of the underground South African Communist party (SACP), following the banning of the CPSA in 1953 under the Suppression of Communism Act. She was also highly influential in establishing closer links between the SACP and ANC, the alliance which would bring down the apartheid regime. In 1953 she helped found the South African Congress of Democrats (COD), the white wing of the Congress Alliance, an anti-apartheid political coalition formed in South Africa in the 1950s led by the ANC.
First also used her journalistic talent to promote Communist politics, the class struggle and radical reform in South Africa. She was editor-in-chief of the progressive newspaper ‘The Guardian’ before it was banned by the apartheid government. In 1955, she became chief editor of ‘Fighting Talk’ which supported the Congress Alliance.
First worked on drafting the Alliance’s highly influential and revolutionary Freedom Charter, calling for non-racial social democracy. This document was approved in 1955 at the Congress of People gathering, however First was unable to attend, as one of her many banning orders throughout her life were in place.
First was one of the 156 defendants in the Treason Trial of 1956, which included other anti-apartheid leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Sonia Bunting and many more. The trial lasted until the 29th of March 1961 where all the accused were acquitted.
In 1961 after the Sharpeville massacre, where police open fired on a crowd of thousands of people protesting against internal passports being introduced to segregate the population (pass laws), First was victim of the government pronounced ‘state of emergency’ and was listed and banned from South Africa. She could not attend meetings, publish any works and wasn’t even allowed to be quoted within the country. She and her three children fled to Swaziland and returned six months later once the ban was lifted.
On the 9th of august 1963, First was detained following the arrest of members of the underground SACP and ANC in Rivonia on the 11th of July. The trial dealing with these arrests led to the life imprisonment of political figures such as Nelson Mandela. Although First was not among those accused, she was held in solitary confinement under the 90 day clause, making her the first woman ever to be detained under this law.
She was released but immediately re-arrested and held for a further 27 days. She wrote an account of her detainment called “117 Days” which details the brutal punishment she was subjected to by the apartheid government. After this First left the country with her children to join her husband, Joe Slovo, in Britain where she became active within the anti-apartheid movement.
In 1977 First returned to the Southern Africa after being appointed research director of the Centre for African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, where she continued her research on migrant labour. On the 17th of August 1982, First was assassinated by order of Craig Williamson, a major in the South African police, when a letter bomb was sent to her office by agents of the apartheid state.
Ruth First’s work within the anti-apartheid movement and writings were incredibly influential at the time and remain important and relevant today. Her journalistic work helped fight against the oppressive government of South Africa and her activism and work within the SACP and ANC helped build broad from against apartheid.
Ruth First remains a celebrated militant and hero of the growing SACP and YCLSA. Through her life and her struggle, she demonstrated the fundamental connection between the fight for socialism and the struggle for racial equality. Despite the constant threats to her life and freedom she was unwavering in her commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle. Ruth First is a true inspiration to working people the world over.
Challenge Editorial Team