Long live Ruth First

The great South African writer and activist, Ruth First, was assassinated by a letter bomb sent by the South African Security Police in Maputo, Mozambique on this day, 17 August, in 1982.

Ruth First, in 1966, in a promotional image for the film about her detention in South Africa.

At a memorial meeting for Ruth First, after she was assassinated on the streets of Maputo by South African agents, Ronald Segal, another prominent exile figure and her close friend, described Ruth, as a “journalist, author, intellectual, teacher,” whose “whole life was essentially a political act.”

I remember Ruth as elegant, forceful, efficient and often impatient. Ruth’s remarkable body of writing—from investigative journalism to memoir to political and literary analysis—was driven both by her political commitments and by her frank curiosity about people and the worlds they inhabited and was characterized by the clarity of her prose, her rigorous research, her careful use of the narrative form and her interest in addressing the widest possible audience. Jack Gold, who directed her in Ninety Days, the 1966 BBC adaptation of her vivid account of her detention under the notorious 90-day law, in which she played herself, said of the script that she wrote: “her [use of] language is absolutely phenomenal, so clear, clean, powerful and of the essence. [There is] nothing wasted… in her storytelling.” (He made these comments at a screening of the film on the 20th anniversary of her death, 2012, at the University of London School of Advanced Study.)

Nelson Mandela recalled her in her student days at the University of the Witwatersrand as “brilliant…  [S]he did not suffer fools, she was energetic, systematic, hard-working … and make the maximum effort to produce the best result. She was fearless, she could criticize anybody and she rubbed people …in the wrong way at times.” As a student, Ruth engaged in disputes with J.D. Rheinhalt Jones, Director of the South African Institute of Race Relations on behalf of the Young Communist League and also with Mandela and Walter Sisulu of the ANC Youth League. She continued to differ from liberal and from nationalist politics. She always identified with anticolonial solidarity.

Ruth was drawn to practical political action. As a student, Ruth taught literacy to African workers at the night schools run by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). In 1946, during the strike of the African Mineworkers Union, the largest action by black workers in South Africa until then, Ruth, recently graduated, engaged in duplicating and distributing pamphlets, quitting her job at the Department of Social Welfare of the Johannesburg City Council. She then turned to journalism. She was a prolific contributor to a succession of leftist weekly newspapers, which were each banned and renamed until 1962. From 1947 Ruth, alongside Gert Sibane and the Rev. Michael Scott, exposed the brutal treatment and forced confinement of farm laborers in the, then, Eastern Transvaal. In 1954, she became editor of Fighting Talk, a literary journal that carried political comment and created spaces for new fictional writing.

Questions of capitalism, (male) labor, and class were always at the center of Ruth’s practice and writing. In her journalism, Ruth confronted South African capitalism in the cities and in its most brutal forms, on farms and in the mines. Ruth published three particularly incisive analyses in Africa South (in Exile) edited by Segal. The first was an account of the bus boycotts that began in Alexandra, a black township north of Johannesburg, and spread through the Reef, down to Port Elizabeth: “Through the long weeks of the boycott, the political initiative passed out of the hands of the Government and the Cabinet and into the hands of the people,” she wrote. The second documented the recruitment of contract labor and the rounding up of “foreign natives,” supplemented by private farm prisons to labor on Bethal potato farms. The third presented a compelling account of the emergence of the political economy of Southern African labor migration since the turn of the twentieth century that preceded later abstract Marxist analyses. Mining companies she explained, found labor that was “abundant” and cheap” by “us[ing] only contracted migrant labour at cut-throat wages, on the assumption that African mineworkers—brought from their rural homes to the Reef for stipulated contract periods—were really peasants, able to subsidize mine wages from the land” by establishing “a labour recruiting monopoly and [reducing] costs of wages, food and quarters by setting up a highly centralised system for controlling wages.”

In conveying the impacts of that system far beyond South Africa’s border, she prefigured her later research and writing on Namibia, in South West Africa (1963) and in Mozambique:

While two in every three African miners on the Witwatersrand come from countries other than the Union, and one in five from a Central and East Africa rapidly advancing towards independence, low wages, debased compound life, the suppression of all trade union activity, contraventions of international labour conventions—all these are the concern not only of South Africa, but of the peoples of half a dozen African countries, indeed, of all the continent.

In 1975, Ruth was to perceptively note that, “All too often, Marxist analyses… [are] mechanically transposed to African societies schema of the class relations characteristic of western capitalism.” She was not immune to these tendencies. The conclusion to Govan Mbeki’s Revolt in Pondoland (1964), which was likely penned by Ruth, its editor, reveals a conception of political consciousness, despite numerous rural rebellions and Mbeki’s own analysis: that only when African “workers were removed from the land and based on factories [would] they turn from their Chiefs and their tribal loyalties.”

Ruth later reflected that her family and their white friends enjoyed “the good living that white privilege brought” but that this way of life appeared more precarious, “as the struggle grew sharper [and] the privileges of membership in the white group were overwhelmed by the penalties of political participation.” After the government banned the CPSA in 1953, the “Congress Alliance” brought together the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress and the (white) Congress of Democrats. The last three were led by the reconstituted underground South African Communist Party (SACP). The ANC always claimed leadership of this alliance. Alongside her husband, communist lawyer and activist, Joe Slovo, Ruth contributed to the Freedom Charter adopted by the Congress of the People of 1955, which owed more to the US Declaration of Human Rights than to the Internationale. The regime responded by charging 156 men and women, Joe and Ruth included, in the Treason Trial which lasted from 1956-1961.

She was not involved in the initiation of the Federation of South African Women by two fellow communists, Hilda Bernstein and Ray Alexander in 1954, when the Women’s Charter was adopted. It was only partially incorporated into the Freedom Charter. Ruth was directly involved in the activities of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the newly armed wing of the ANC.

Exiled to England in 1964, where she and her daughters joined Joe, Ruth’s communist identity and presumed Marxist bias went ahead of her, and she was unable to find secure employment as a journalist. Encouraged by Segal, she began a new career as an author, working across genre and posing diverse questions. While 117 Days (1965) eloquently documented her experience of detention, The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid, which she co-authored with British journalist Jonathan Steele and activist historian Christabel Gurney, linked international capitalism with apartheid.

Her books began in South Africa, she then moved northwards to The Barrel of a Gun (1970), an incisive and comparative analysis of military coups and governments with particular emphasis on Ghana, Nigeria, and Sudan. Ruth was sharply critical of the corruption and selfishness of African elites: African development has been held to ransom by the emergence of a new, privileged African class. “It grows through politics, under party systems, under military governments, from the ranks of business, and from the corporate elites that run the state, the army and the civil service.” The book is still a classic study of the military in politics and the chapter on Nigeria is still one of the finest accounts and analyses of the civil war. She followed this with her wry and insightful account of Muammar Gadaffi’s enigmatic rule in Libya: the Elusive Revolution (1974). She then wrote a book on Olive Schreiner, the South African novelist, feminist, abolitionist, and socialist, “pro-Boer” and anti-imperialist. Can a biographer “come to dislike her subject the more she writes about her?” Ruth once asked me.

Ruth joined the Department of Sociology at Durham University in 1973 where she was an inspiring and demanding teacher. A term at the University of Dar es Salaam in 1975 turned out to been disappointing, after her initial “elation”: “All of them, radicals included, are within a year or two of being turned into bureaucrats. Technocracy rides the waves here, as elsewhere,” she wrote to me in a letter from from Dar es Salaam in 1975. In 1979, she took on the Directorship of Research in the Centre of African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo.

The ambitious plan of the Centre was to combine teaching, research, and practice to “make social research an acceptable step in the making and acceptance of policy.” The development course which she established had a significant impact. Ruth edited the first three issues of Estudos Moçambicanos with Aquino de Bragança, the Director of the Centre. She and her colleagues directed several large field studies on relations between agriculture and the state. She now had the chance to carry out the research on mine workers from the Mozambican side of the border, which led to the posthumous publication of Black Gold: the Mozambican Miner (1983). The final edition was a collective project which combined text with photographs and workers’ songs. In contrast to the assumptions which underpinned Ruth’s research in the 1950s, researchers found that mine wages fueled a dynamic rural economy:

Mine wages were used to purchase sewing machines, and carpentry, and building tools, and the proceeds of mine work purchased the finished products from this sector. Mine wages were needed to ensure the reproduction of the peasant sector; and the peasant economy in turn reproduced successive generations of mine workers.

Ruth had to find a way between the political line and policy objectives of Frelimo and creating an environment for critical teaching and the protection of space for independent research on practical questions. Her style and academic politics could often be intimidating and did not always win approval. As Dan O’Meara, then a South African researcher at the center, said (quoted by Alan Weider in Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid):“We would discuss everything and once the leadership decided anything, that was it. Ruth was the leadership.”

At its Third Congress (in 1977), the now governing FRELIMO declared itself to be a Marxist-Leninist Party, which it was “quite capable of being,” Ruth commented, whereas Socialism, “had always proved a more difficult problem.” In the 1950s, after returning from international conferences, Ruth had publicized her experiences in China and the Soviet Union with enthusiasm, which was tempered when the Soviet Union reconquered Hungary. Hilda Bernstein once told me that in 1967, neither she nor Ruth accepted the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks. Their husbands, Joe Slovo and Rusty Bernstein followed the Soviet line. Ruth and Hilda did not state their positions, at least in public; it would have meant exclusion from the ANC and, for Ruth, her continued membership of the SACP, which Joe protected. When Ruth arrived in Durham in 1973 she said to me: “I am not a communist,” surprised that I should have thought that she was. She disagreed publicly with SACP (and Soviet) policies on Eritrea and on Zimbabwe (she was hissed loudly at a meeting of the Anti-Apartheid Movement for questioning the AAM line), but wrote to me in 1982 that while she disagreed, of course, with the international policy of the SACP, it protected the ANC from African nationalism.

Immediately after her death, her fellow editors at the Review of African Political Economy, published a short statement (Vol. 9, No. 23, 1). We wrote: “Ruth would not wish us to claim some special victim’s privilege for her as white, a woman, an intellectual and a writer of some distinction. Nor do we do so.” And yet, her death mattered terribly to us all:

We can hardly believe she is dead for we remember her sharpness of intellect, her trenchant comments at our meetings, her dedication to constructing a relevant political theory and practice, and the warmth and humor of her personal relationships with us. It’s a terrible blow, one from which those who knew Ruth and worked with her in South Africa, in anti-apartheid work, on the Review, and recently in Mozambique will find it hard to ever recover.

Further Reading