First, Ruth, 1925-1982

Alternative names
Birth 1925-05-04
Death 1982-08-17
South Africans

Biographical notes:

Heloise Ruth First was born on 4 May 1925 in Johannesburg, the daughter of Julius and Matilda ('Tilly') First, Jewish emigrants to South Africa from the Baltic states. Her parents were members of the International Socialist League and founder members of the South African Communist Party (SACP). After attending schools in Johannesburg, Ruth First began a Social Science degree in 1942 at the University of Witwatersrand. Whilst at university, she helped found the left-wing Federation of Progressive Students, and also served as secretary of the Young Communist League and Progressive Youth Council. On her graduation in 1945, First took a job in the Research Division of the Department of Social Welfare of Johannesburg City Council, but she resigned in 1946 in order to pursue a career in journalism. In the same year she produced pamphlets in aid of the miners' strike and was temporarily secretary of the Johannesburg offices of the South African Communist Party. In 1947, together with Michael Scott, she exposed a farm labour scandal in Bethal, Eastern Tansvaal. Between 1946-1952 she was the Johannesburg editor of the weekly newspaper The Guardian , the mouthpiece of the SACP. When this publication was banned in 1952, it was restarted under the name Clarion , a pattern which continued throughout the next decade, the titles used being People's World , Advance , New Age and Spark . Between 1954-1963 she was also the editor of Fighting Talk, a Johannesburg based monthly. In 1949 Ruth First married Joe Slovo. They had three daughters, Shawn (b 1950), Gillian (b 1952) and Robyn (b 1953). In 1950, First was named under the Suppression of Communism Act and her movements restricted. In 1953 she was banned from membership of all political organisations, although in 1955 she helped draw up the Freedom Charter, a fundamental document of the African National Congress, and was later a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's military wing. In December 1956, she and Joe Slovo were among the 156 people charged in the so-called Treason Trial, although her indictment was dismissed in April 1959. In August 1963 she was arrested and detained under the 90-Day Law for a total period of 117 days. Effectively forced into exile, in March 1964 she left South Africa for the United Kingdom, accompanied by her three daughters. From 1964 she worked full-time as a freelance writer, before becoming a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester in 1972. Between 1973-1978 she lectured in development studies at the University of Durham, although she spent periods of secondment at universities in Dar es Salaam and Lourenco Marques (Maputo). In November 1978 she took up a post as Director of the research training programme at the University Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo. Ruth First was killed on 17 Aug 1982, when she opened a parcel bomb addressed to her at the above university.

From the guide to the FIRST, (Heloise) Ruth (1925-1982), 1889-1991 [predominantly 1946-1982], (Institute of Commonwealth Studies)


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