Journalist, academic and political activist, she was
the daughter of Jewish immigrants Julius and Matilda
First. Julius, a furniture manufacturer, was born in
Latvia and came to South Africa in 1906. He and his
wife were founder members of the Communist Party of
South Africa (CPSA, South African Communist Party in
1953). Ruth and her brother, Ronald, grew up in a
household in which intense political debate between
people of all races and classes was always present.
After matriculating from Jeppe High School for
Girls, First attended the University of the
Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, from 1942 to 1946,
obtaining a B. A. (Social Studies) with firsts in
sociology, anthropology, economic history and native
administration. Her fellow students included Nelson
Mandela, Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambican freedom
fighter and the first leader of FRELIMO), Joe Slovo,
J. N. Singh (executive member of both the Natal and
South African Indian Congress), and Ismail Meer (a
Former secretary-general of South African Indian
Congress). First helped found the Federation of
Progressive Students and served as secretary to the
Young Communist League, the Progressive Youth
Council and, for a short while, the Johannesburg
branch of the CPSA.
In 1947 First worked, briefly, for the Johannesburg
City Council, but left because she could not agree
with the actions of the council. She then became
Johannesburg editor of the left-wing weekly
newspaper, The Guardian. As a journalist she
specialised in expose reporting and her incisive
articles about salve-like conditions on Bethal
potato farms, the women's anti-pass campaign,
migrant labour, bus boycotts and slum conditions
remain among the finest pieces of social and labour
journalism of the 1950s.
Having grown up in a political aware home, First's
political involvement never abated. Apart from the
activities already mentioned, she did support work
for the 1946 mineworkers' strike, the Indian Passive
Resistance campaign and protests surrounding the
outlawing of communism in 1950. First was a Marxist
with a wide internationalist perspective. She
travelled to China, the USSR and countries in
Africa, experiences that she documented and
analysed. She was central to debates within the
Johannesburg Discussion Club, which led to the
formation of the underground SACP (of which First
was a member) and to closer links between the SACP
and the African National Congress (ANC).
In 1949 First married Joe Slovo, a lawyer and labour
organiser and, like her, a communist. Throughout the
1950s their home in Roosevelt Park was an important
centre for multiracial political gatherings. They
had three daughters: Shawn (who was to script a film
about her mother called A world apart), Gillian (who
based her novel, Ties of blood, on her family) and
Robyn. House searches and the banning and arrest of
their parents by the police constantly unsettled
Despite her public profile and wide contacts, First
remained a private person. She had a brilliant
intellect and did not suffer fools gladly. Her sharp
criticism and her impatience with bluster earned her
enemies and she was often feared in political
debate. But she was not dogmatic. Her willingness to
take up a position she considered to be just was not
always welcomed within the ANC or SACP. Her shyness,
her anxieties, her vulnerable abundance of
generosity and love were unsuspected by those who
only knew her as confident and commanding in a
public context. With friends she was warm and
sensitive. She loved good clothes (particularly
Italian shoes) and was an excellent cook. However,
contradictions between her politics and her role as
a mother caused strains in her family, which are
evident in the later works of her daughters.
In 1953 First helped found the Congress of
Democrats, the white wing of the Congress Alliance,
and she took over as editor of Fighting Talk, a
journal supporting the alliance. She was on the
drafting committee of the Freedom Charter, but was
unable to attend the Congress of the People at
Kliptown in 1955 because of her banning order. In
1956 both First and her husband Joe Slovo, were
arrested and charged with treason. The trial lasted
four years after which all 156 accused were
First considered herself to be primarily a labour
reporter, and during the 1950s she was producing up
to fifteen stories a week. Despite this high work
rate, her writing remained vivid, accurate and often
controversial. Her investigative journalism was the
basis of her longer pamphlets and, later, her books.
The transition to more complex writing came easily.
During the state of emergency following the
Sharpeville shootings of March 1960 First fled to
Swaziland with her children, returning after the
emergency was lifted six months later to continue as
Johannesburg editor of New Age (successor to The
Guardian). In the following two tears she wrote
South West Africa, a book, which remains the most
incisive history of early Namibia. During this time
she helped to organise the first broadcasts of Radio
Freedom from a mobile transmitter in Johannesburg.
In 1963 First was detained following arrests of
members of the underground ANC, the SACP and
Umkhonto we Sizwe in Rivonia. In the trial, which
followed, political leaders such as Nelson Mandela,
Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki were sentenced to life
imprisonment. However, First was not among the
accused. She was detained in solitary confinement
under the notorious 90-day clause, during which she
attempted suicide. Her father fled South Africa and
soon after her release First also left with her
children to join her husband, who had already fled
the country, in Britain.
The family settled in North London and First threw
herself into anti apartheid politics, holding talks,
seminars and public discussions in support of the
ANC and SACP. Her book 117 days, an account of her
arrest and interrogation in 1963, was made into a
film with First acting as herself.
During the 1960s First researched and edited
Mandela's No easy walk to freedom (1967), Mbeki's
The Peasant's Revolt (1967) and Oginda Not
yet Uhuru (for which she was deported to Kenya).
With Ronald Segal she edited South West Africa:
travesty of trust (1967). From 1973 First lectured
for six years at Durham University, England, on the
sociology of underdevelopment.
In the 1970s she published The barrel of a gun: the
politics of coups d'etat in Africa (1970), followed
by Libya: the elusive revolution (1974), The
Mozambican miner: a study in the export of labour
(1977), and, with others, The South African
connection: Western investment in apartheid (1972).
It was during this time that she read contemporary
feminist ideas, work which she wrote with Anne Scott
(1980). Many of these works were landmarks in
Marxist academic debate.
In 1977 First was appointed professor and research
director of the Centre for African Studies at the
Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique.
She began work on the lives of migrant labourers,
particularly those who worked on the South African
gold mines. The results of this study were published
as Black gold: the Mozambican miner (1983).
Following a UNESCO conference at the centre in 1982,
First was killed by a letter bomb widely believed to
have originated from military sources within South
Africa. Until her death she remained a 'listed'
communist and could not be quoted in South Africa.
Her close friend, Ronald Segal, described her death
as "the final act of censorship". Presidents,
members of parliament and ambassadors from 34
countries, attended her funeral in Maputo.