This Day in Jewish History

An Anti-apartheid Activist Is Blown to Bits by South African Intelligence

Ruth First even joined the African Mine Workers Union and won the dubious distinction of being the first female jailed under the '90-Day Detention' law – for 117 days.

Derek Smith, Wikimedia Commons

On August 17, 1982, the South African writer, academic and anti-apartheid activist Ruth First was killed when a letter-bomb addressed to her exploded in her hands. At the time, First was living in exile in Maputu, Mozambique, but remained targeted by South African intelligence services.

Heloise Ruth First was born on May 4, 1925, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her father, Julius First, a furniture manufacturer, had arrived in the country from his native Latvia in 1907. Her mother Matilda (Tilly) Leviton, had arrived a few years earlier from Lithuania.

Both parents were politically active socialists who participated in founding the Communist Party of South Africa. Ruth was their first child, and she was raised in Johannesburg in a highly political atmosphere. At age 14, she was a member of the Young Left Book Club, and soon joined the Communist Party herself.

After two years at Johannesburg’s Jewish Government School, and attendance at the Barnato Park School, Ruth graduated in 1941 from the Jeppe High School for Girls. That was followed by the University of Witwatersrand, where she earned a B.A. in social sciences in 1946.

Marrying Joe Slovo

At university, First focused on politics as much as on academics. She was a founder of the multi-racial Progressive Students League, and a secretary of the Young Communist League.

After a brief stint as a research assistant for the Johannesburg city council after graduation, she quit to become a member of the African Mine Workers Union, after its 100,000 members went out on strike. She began writing for the cause, using journalism as a means to tell the public about the conditions under which blacks in the apartheid state worked in mining and in agriculture, among other things.

In 1949, Ruth married Joe Slovo, whom she had met at university. He was a Lithuanian-born Jew, also a Communist, who became a long-time leader of the ANC and in particular of its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

The following year, First became subject to official surveillance under the Suppression of Communism Act, and in 1953, was banned from membership in any political organization. Nonetheless, both she and Slovo participated in drafting the foundational document of the South African Congress Alliance, the umbrella group of the anti-apartheid movements - the Freedom Charter.

Tried for treason

The period of the 1950s and early ‘60s was one of constant cat-and-mouse between the activists of the multi-racial ANC and the authorities. In 1956, Ruth and Joe were among 156 activists arrested and tried on charges of treason: All were finally acquitted, but the trials went on until 1961.

Over the years, the South African authorities pursued First and restricted her activitiesIn 1963, she became the country’s first woman to be incarcerated under the so-called “90-Day Detention” law.

For First, who in fact was held for 117 days, in solitary confinement (an experience described in her 1965 book “117 Days”), it was more than she could take. She tried killing herself while in prison, and, after her release, she and the daughters left for London, where Joe Slovo was already working for the ANC in exile.

First remained in the United Kingdom from 1964 until 1978, working first as a journalist and later as a university researcher and lecturer on development issues. In the latter year, she accepted an invitation to become director of a research training program at Eduardo Mondlane University (named for a Mozambican anti-colonial fighter who was killed by a letter bomb in 1969), grooming former freedom fighters for government in newly independent Mozambique.

With many other ANC exiles in Maputu, and South Africa just across the border, First became a concern for security forces back home, and intelligence Major Craig Williamson ordered her assassination. Letter bomb was the method chosen, and the envelope used to carry the explosives had been stolen five years earlier from the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Swaziland, and kept for the right occasion. 

Joe Slovo died in 1995, after serving as housing minister in post-apartheid South Africa. His and Ruth’s daughters, Gillian, Shawn and Robyn Slovo, all live in London and work in the creative arts.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen