Heritage: Journalist and apartheid activist Ruth First ‘remains a beacon to all who love liberty’

Activist Ruth First and others at an anti-apartheid meeting in Trafalgar Square

Activist Ruth First and others at an anti-apartheid meeting in Trafalgar Square - Credit: Archant

Journalist Ruth First’s work helped to expose the evils of the apartheid regime in her native South Africa. But she paid the ultimate price on returning to the African continent after years of exile in Camden Town, Adam Sonin reveals.

MP Frank Dobson watches Nelson Mandela pay a personal tribute to prominent anti-apartheid activists

MP Frank Dobson watches Nelson Mandela pay a personal tribute to prominent anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo at their former home in Lyme Street, Camden Town. Picture: PA/Kirsty Wigglesworth - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Ruth First was a first generation white South African Jew raised to believe in the equality of mankind, regardless of colour or religion.

Brought up by left-wing parents she became a Communist at an early age. An outstanding pupil, she studied with Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and future husband, Joe Slovo.

As a journalist, her writing proved so threatening to the “dog’s obeyed in office” that her publication was banned, her words could not be quoted, she was forbidden to attend political meetings, and was black-listed. In 1963, during a government crackdown, she was the first white woman to be imprisoned and kept in isolation without charge for 117 days.

The same year, First’s husband, Slovo, who was forced into exile by the apartheid regime, sat in a house in Camden Town awaiting news of his wife.

“Her story is a serious testimony to the distance apartheid South Africa was prepared to travel in order to stop a woman like Ruth First,” it has been said.

Ruth First (1925-1982) was born on May 4 in Johannesburg. Her father Julius, who made furniture, was born in Latvia and came to South Africa aged 10. Tilly, her mother, travelled from Lithuania aged four with her family.

Most Read

First’s childhood was relatively comfortable. The family lived in the middle-class suburb of Kensington but the house was a hive of left-wing activity. Both parents were activists and founding members of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Ruth and her brother, Ronald, grew up in an intensely political home and were exposed to revolutionary ideals.

A school friend, Myrtle, recalled a visit to the family’s house. “One day after school I went home with Ruth,” she said. “Got there about three o’clock and emerged at six o’clock with my head reeling, having had a three-hour lecture from Tilly on the history of socialism, the Russian Revolution, the origins of religion... without me saying a word! And I remember wandering home and telling my mother, who nearly had a fit.”

Outside the home Tilly and Julius would take their children to left-wing meetings on the steps of the Johannesburg City Hall.

By the age of 14, First joined the Young Left Wing Book Club and engaged in intellectual and political conversation. During her final year of high school she was honoured as the literary prefect and celebrated with a plaque which is still in the school library.

After matriculating from high school First enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and was active in student politics. Before starting her studies she gave her own commencement address, not at high school graduation, but “on the steps of city hall in Johannesburg”.

Her brother said: “What made a great impression on me was the first time I ever heard her speak... And she was young, she was a brilliant orator.”

At Wits, First read social studies. At political discussions she met key characters who would go on to “write” and “put right” the history of South Africa. Contemporaries included Tambo, Slovo young law student, Mandela.

Mandela said: “Ruth engaged in intense debate while we were at Wits together; who uncompromisingly broke with the privilege of her wealthy background; who readily crossed the racial barrier that so few whites were, or still are, able to cross; a woman whose passion and compassion enabled others, including those from liberal and conservative perspectives, to play their part.”

After graduation First worked as a journalist and became the editor of the left-wing newspaper The Guardian. Her exposés detailed the appalling conditions under which the majority of South Africans lived. After the National Party took power in 1948 her writing exposed the evils of apartheid, a reality experienced by every black South African, but the radical weekly newspaper was banned in 1952.

In 1949 First married Slovo (1926-1995), a fellow communist and activist. They helped develop what became the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress (ANC). It was the movement’s guiding document and begins: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.”

The couple were named and arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act and charged with high treason in 1956.

A trial lasted four years and all 156 accused, including Mandela, were acquitted.

On August 9 1963, police arrested First at Witwatersrand University. She was placed in solitary confinement under South Africa’s 90-Day Law which gave police the power to detain a suspect without a warrant and to hold them for 90 days denying access to a lawyer.

Following First’s release, and as she stood outside the police station where she had been captive, she called her mother from a public phone box. But she was re-arrested and spent another 27 days in prison and attempted suicide.

Never tried for her alleged crime she fled to London with her mother, three daughters and an Olivetti portable typewriter.

She was re-united with her exiled husband and her father.

The family lived at 13 Lyme Street, Camden Town, and in 2003, old friend and comrade, Mandela, unveiled a blue plaque honouring them.

An account of the experience, 117 Days (1965), made First famous in Britain and was produced for TV, shocking UK audiences and alerting viewers to the horrors in South Africa.

In the 1960s First researched, edited and wrote a number of books, including Mandela’s articles and speeches, known as No Easy Way to Freedom (1973).

In 1978 the family returned to Africa and the recently liberated Portuguese colony of Mozambique. First taught and Slovo continued to work for the ANC.

By 1982 First was director of research at the Centre for African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo.

First’s presence and her work continued to pose a potential threat to the apartheid regime, especially given her geographical proximity. Following a UNESCO conference at the centre in 1982, First was killed by a letter bomb sent by security agents of the South African apartheid regime.

Mandela wrote: “Her life and her death remain a beacon to all who love liberty.”