/ 17 August 2022

Ruth First remembered 40 years after her death

Trewhela Ruth
On 17 August, 40 years ago, the inveterate socialist Ruth First was assassinated in Maputo under the orders of Apartheid spy Craig Williamson.

On 17 August, 40 years ago, the inveterate socialist Ruth First was assassinated in Maputo under the orders of Apartheid spy Craig Williamson. Her inspiration as a Communist Party revolutionary, strategist, organiser and incisive investigative journalist was informed by her vision of a people’s democracy, which is in some ways as remote now as it was in her day.

Marikana 10 years ago and the morass of corruption, gender-based violence and despair that has become our daily reality in South Africa, has direct relevance to topics that First unearthed and exposed. 

She focused on the exploitation of the pass law, offenders on potato farms in Bethal; the Defiance Campaign; mobilisation for the Freedom Charter; the women’s anti-pass protests; the migrant labour system; bus boycotts, and slum conditions which fuelled resistance in the 1950s. 

First’s piercing political analysis in the CPSA JournalThe Guardian, Spark, New Age and Fighting Talk became the pulse of the liberation movement. In a bid to raise funds for the New Age in 1957, various political figures spoke out in support of the publication.

Walter Sisulu, who was the secretary general of the ANC at the time, said “New Age is an organiser of the oppressed and exploited people of our country.”

Lilian Ngoyi, as part of the Federation of South African Women, said: “New Age is the only newspaper which fearlessly presents to the world the truth about the conditions of the oppressed people in South Africa.”

Dr Wilson Zamindlela Conco said: “New Age is the only paper in the country which breathes the spirit of liberation.”

And Piet Beyleveld from the Congress of Democrats said the New Age was their source of information and means of contact with “our fellows in the struggle for freedom in the various parts of South Africa. It is our voice … without which the struggle would have been much more difficult.”

As editor of Fighting Talk, First incorporated literary writing, which brought her into contact with Nadine Gordimer, Barney Simon, Drum writers and poets, and jazz musicians. She and Simon subsequently became close friends who used to go to the cinema together and spend time in the house talking over coffee.

Unable to find work as a journalist as an exile in the UK in 1964, she began to write books, with encouragement from her close friend Ronald Segal.

Her book, Through the Barrel of a Gun, which talks about good people being corrupted by power in different African countries, and her writing on the mining strike in the 1940s are examples we can draw on to understand our circumstances today. 

She wore many hats. 

“She would get down in the dirt and be a total revolutionary in the townships with ordinary people, and they trusted her, and she could be a total socialite … She was eviscerating when she was taking on officials, she just tore them apart. She had a brilliant mind and she made people laugh. She was very funny, as most intelligent people can be. She could make light of a situation that was terribly dire and understand the dangers in a situation and just cock a snook at it,” remembers Don Pinnock, author of Writing Left – the radical journalism of Ruth First

Prominent South African intellectuals, philosophers, activists, writers, judges and orators have paid homage to First’s many attributes. These include Pallo Jordan, Achille Mbembe, Raymond Suttner, Ronnie Kasrils, Albie Sachs, Ahmed Kathrada and Niren Tolsi, among others. 

Kathrada was recruited into the Young Communist League by First at the age of 12, and from that time onwards, he looked to her for leadership and as a reference point for key decisions.

She is described as vivid, as having a strong personality, a strong mind, a strong tongue, a strong pen and immense critical vitality, as an Africanist and an internationalist, as being extremely brave and highly organised and having a high degree of political ethics. 

She was horrified by Apartheid and hated and feared by the Apartheid regime. Time and time again, she was silenced, banned, arrested and detained and detained, until ultimately, she was wiped off the face of the earth by her detractors. 

Sachs described the horror of seeing her body: “I looked up from the legs to the body and there was no face. The shock was enormous.”

First’s death was “the final act of censorship”, Segal said.

First lived the contradictions between subordination for the sake of the underground resistance movement, the spontaneous expression of her critical mind and independent spirit, white middle-class suburbia and her sense of being African in the depths of her being. 

Sachs, who knew First well, refers to the profound existential tension that was in everything she did.

What is spoken and written about less is First’s immense vulnerability. In 1963 she was detained and kept in solitary confinement for 90 days. Immediately after she was released, she was arrested again and detained for a further 27 days. She turned in on herself and, in her despair, attempted suicide. 

Later she was to write: “My introspection gets more and more involved as I go into my favourite pastime of undermining me and my character and seeing my faults … Pity I never had any talent for philosophy. Then my conflicts wouldn’t have to be on a personal plane…. It’s a form of masochism I suffer from; one of my afflictions, like heavy eyebrows and a mole on my nose.”

First collaborated in a poignant book on the late 19th century, early 20th century feminist writer Olive Schreiner in collaboration with an English psychoanalyst, Anne Scott. First completed the book in Maputo in 1980. There was a resonance between First’s emotional and psychological make-up and that of her subject. 

“She had books published, people were in awe of her. She lit up a room and commanded conversations. She could tackle anybody and everybody with great bravura and yet there was that inner sense of incompleteness and inadequacy,” Sachs remembers.

Perhaps it is this vulnerability that enabled First to develop such strong bonds with ordinary women in the struggle. She was fully identified with and very at home with the working class African women with often very little schooling and learning, Sachs said. People felt her sense of identification.

“Only close friends saw Ruth’s self-doubt, but in finding it they also came across her warm, sensitive self,” said Segal, who encouraged her to write her book 117 Days about her prison experience after she was exiled to England in 1964.

Writing the book was therapeutic. 

“I had been reeling towards a precipice and I had stopped myself at the edge. I had not been too late to beat them back. I had undermined my own resistance, yet I had not after all succumbed. In the depth of my agony I had won,” First wrote.

On Sunday, 14 August, a small group of comrades and friends, trade unionists and activists, and the “Ruthies” (Jeppe High School for Girls learners who are beneficiaries of the Ruth First Scholarship) gathered at Westpark Cemetery, where a memorial stone was laid alongside Kathrada’s grave.