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Ruth First (1925 - 1982)

The Order of Luthuli in

Ruth First (1925 - 1982) Awarded for:
Her excellent contribution to the struggle against apartheid and promoting freedom in South Africa

Profile of Ruth First

Ruth First was born into the politically conscious home of Jewish immigrant parents, Julius and Matilda First, in Johannesburg in 1925. Her father was a founder member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), later known as the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Her home was regularly visited by political activists of all races who discussed and debated the apartheid State. This homely political milieu would leave an immutable political impression on the young Ruth.

She graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Studies in 1946. Her studies deepened her insight into the nature of political societies in general, and the political system in South Africa in particular.

Spurred by her political vision of a just society, she helped found the Federation of Progressive Students in 1946. She served as secretary for the Young Communist League in 1946 and the Johannesburg branch of the CPSA, as well as the Progressive Youth Council. Throughout this period of political activism, First advocated the socialist vision of economic relations for South Africa, and relentlessly argued for the need to mobilise all sections of society for the achievement of freedom.

Her irrepressible desire for public debates on the unjust political system led her to participate in the Johannesburg Discussion Club, which, among others, fostered closer working relations between the SACP and the African National Congress. She clearly understood that a socialist order could only be attained in the context of a free and democratic society.

In 1947, she embarked on investigative journalism until she became editor of the left-aligned newspaper The Guardian between 1947 and 1952. Even in the highly censored environment of journalism, she still managed to cover stories reflecting the miserable working conditions of the black working class.

Some of the stories included women's anti-pass campaigns, migrant labour, and bus boycotts, all of which were framed by her concern for the peasants and the working poor.

In 1939, she married Joe Slovo, a renowned anti-apartheid activist and socialist. Frequented by their fellow comrades from the ANC and the CPSA, their home soon became a nursery of ideas with regard to the ending of apartheid.

First's debating prowess was legendary. She also protested against the outlawing of communism in 1950 and in the same year, understanding the struggle for freedom to be the same for all South Africans, participated in the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign.

She helped form the Congress of Democrats in 1953, and became the editor of Fighting Talk, a journal supporting the Congress Alliance. She was part of the Congress of the People, which drafted the Freedom Charter in 1955, and she later channelled her energy into writing anti-apartheid investigative political reports in her pamphlets and books.

Her skills as a journalist helped her efforts to build anti-apartheid structures and support systems. She edited New Age (successor to The Guardian) and helped to formulate the initial broadcasts of Radio Freedom from a mobile transmitter in Johannesburg in 1962.

In 1963, First was detained following the arrest of senior ANC leaders, although she was not among the accused Rivonia trialists.

She was detained in solitary confinement under the 90-day clause, in terms of the infamous Suppression of Communism Act. She fled to London upon her release in 1963 where she continued her fight against the apartheid regime.

In 1977, she was appointed professor and research director at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. There she wrote a number of books and edited Nelson Mandela's No Easy Walk to Freedom.

Renouncing the material benefits afforded to her by the colour of her skin, Ruth First symbolised ultimate patriotism and love for humanity through her immense sacrifices in the struggle against apartheid.

She was killed by a letter bomb sent by intelligence operatives on the orders of those determined to preserve the apartheid regime in South Africa.