Ruth First Writing for Social Change

Ruth First Writing for Social Change

Ruth First consistently sought to use her writing as an agent for social change by Joy Watson


On the afternoon of 17 August 1982, Ruth First, a vociferous champion of social and political change, was in a particularly bouyant mood in her office at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, where she worked as Director of Research at the Centre for African Studies. She had just returned from shopping for a celebratory dinner that was to take place later that evening and was immersed in discussions on a conference on Southern Africa, an event that she had helped organise. The conference had been a success and the dinner planned for later the evening was in honour of this. Pallo Jordan and an American colleague and friend, Bridget O Laughlin, were with her. Aquino da Braganza, who also worked for the university, came into the room having collected his mail from his pigeonhole.

Ruth went to fetch her mail and stood at the window sifting through her letters, engaging in a jovial interchange with Aquino about her popularity and the correspondence it generated. She cut open a small parcel and a bomb was detonated and exploded. The concrete ceiling cracked down the middle, a hole was torn in the wall and Ruth’s steel desk was split in two. She died instantly. The brutality of the act was so horrific that her remains had to be scraped off the wall afterwards. One of the motivations for Ruth’s assassination by the apartheid regime is the threat that she posed in her continuous publication of work that subverted the authority and credibility of the apartheid state. Her readership was not only confined to the borders of South Africa, but extended beyond into the African continent and the global arena.

Ruth First was an extraordinary woman, a revolutionary political activist who used the power of her writing to change the injustices of the world that she lived in. She lived a life committed to bringing about social justice. Her agenda was always to eliminate the inequities perpetrated by the state to maintain a system of white privilege and status. She was an unconventional woman who made the contribution that she did at a time when it was exceptionally hard for women to rise to the fore in liberation politics. Yet she managed to break out of the societal mould of her time to be a very non-conformist, unorthodox woman, one who made her mark and actively participated in a male-led liberation movement. She claimed this space in a way that sets an example for us today. Her friend, Ronald Segal, described her as having such strength of character that when she was sufficiently provoked, she could be very direct, to the point of being able to cut up her opponents with the speed and economy of a food processor.

In his book on the life of Thabo Mbeki, ‘The Dream Deferred’, Mark Gevisser writes that at the time that Ruth’s daughter, Shawn Slovo, released a film about the life of her mother entitled ‘A World Apart,’ Mbeki, President of South Africa at the time, expressed irritation and is reputed to have commented: “Why a film on Ruth? She spent 117 days in detention, yes, but why not a film about Albertina Sisulu?” Comments such as these undermine the contribution of a very brave woman who could easily have opted to live a relatively worry-free, privileged life that her whiteness entitled her to at the time. Instead, she opted to take a vociferous stand for social injustice, a stand that constantly brought danger onto her doorstep and was eventually to lead to her ultimate demise.

During the time of her incarceration in 1963, Ruth kept a journal and wrote,

“Several times a day I held a clean tissue in each hand to grip the bars in squeamish distaste at the grime thickly coating them, and I strained on my toes on the bedstead to see out of the window high in the wall. The figures rushing past could have been on celluloid film; they were not part of my world. The businessmen hurrying into the Danish restaurant opposite (I had eaten there myself in other times) spared an hour for their hors-d’oeuvre and poached trout, then bolted back to their desks, telephones and ticker tape. I was not hungry; I did not deny the diners their food, but I developed an antagonism towards those men in well-tailored suits who could bustle into the restaurant without turning their heads to the grilles in the grimy building opposite and whose complacency, I told myself, was a clear complicity.”

Ruth’s sense of social conscience and her need to be an active participant in transforming an unjust social order, often resulted in her feeling alienated and estranged from a white middle class social order. She felt ostracised from this world of unquestioned privilege, power and complicity, where men in business suits could go about their daily routines without questioning how their social privilege came at great expense to the black majority in the country.

Ruth’s life story has generated significant interest and as a veteran and hero of the South African liberation movement, many South Africans have wanted to claim parts of her life. At times, this has led to vastly different interpretations of the person that she was. In the attempts to retell her story, many have staked a claim in wanting to pin-down this enigmatic woman and reconstruct her story in ways that give voice to the person that she was. Yet, Gillian Slovo expresses the limitations of the ways in which Ruth is often portrayed:[1]

No one spoke of Ruth like that: no-one talked about the silk underwear that she had to take to gaol in 1956; about the way she would fall asleep if she was bored; or about her recently, and inexplicable passion for overblown jigsaws. They spoke instead of a cardboard heroine, a woman who had given her life to the struggle. I didn’t want to hear of that Ruth. I wanted to talk of the mother I had known. But if they had been able to, what would they have said? She had lived so many lives, there were so many Ruths. In the weeks that followed (her death), when people spoke of her, they each conjured up a different woman. There seemed to be no meeting point, no one picture that would join the rest together.

Ruth First was indeed so much more than a cardboard heroine, so much more than a political activist and a leader of the liberation movement. Yet, these parts of her identity, her commitment to ethical leadership; setting an example and challenging that which is unjust are the parts that we most need to cling to at a time when our political landscape seems to be riddled with unethical leadership.

Ruth’s political career began while she was still at university. After completing matric, she enrolled to do a degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1942 at the age of seventeen. University brought her into daily contact with people from across racial and cultural divides. At the time, Afrikaans universities in South Africa did not allow black students to register and study with whites. English universities were somewhat more liberal and took on black students. While they were able to enrol, they were made to never forget their inferior status and were, for example, not allowed to swim in the pools.

Ruth made many life-long friendships at university. She befriended activists who were later to become leading figures in the liberation movement, including Nelson Mandela, Rev Michael Scott, JN Singh and Ahmed Kathrada. Many of the left-wing political activists socialised in the same circles. It was therefore only natural that they were to have many a social gathering where they debated and discussed politics. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela remembers that while it was hard for a black student to fit into a white university, Ruth went out of her way to make him feel welcomed. He recalls that she had no fear in breaking with the privilege of her background and that she readily crossed racial barriers when so few others were prepared to do so.

In 1946, while completing her university courses, Ruth took on a job at the Research Division of the Social Welfare Department of the Johannesburg City Council. Working here made her realise the class and race implications of working for a state structure that served the needs of the white population only. She lamented that her hopes of doing research had been “dashed” and that she spent her days writing and editing the section headed “Social Welfare” in a commemorative album for the City’s fiftieth jubilee in 1946, a publication meant to portray the municipality in a positive light. Her work entailed reporting on the number of play supervisors for white children in white parks, the numbers of beggars on the streets and the work of the Council to stop the public from encouraging this, as well as the number of work centres for white persons with disabilities. When the Director of the Department was invited to be involved in a public broadcasting of the plans of the Department, Ruth had to prepare an account of its work. She describes the process of doing this as having the effect of both “boring and disgusting” her. Unlike many contemporary civil servants at the time, she came to see the injustice of the system and could not align herself with its purpose. She took the brave decision to leave this comfort zone with its secure remuneration to do political work aimed at subverting and transforming the South African state.

When the mineworkers strike of 1946 broke out, Ruth asked to see the Director of the Department and without serving the customary notice required by the municipality, informed him that she would be resigning with immediate effect. He indicated that this would not be possible and enquired whether she had another job lined up. She replied by saying that she had a “political” job to do. Following her resignation, Ruth went to work at the Guardian, a left-wing newspaper committed to defending justice, equality and non-racialism. Ruth’s tenure at the paper was to become an important stepping-stone in her development as a writer willing to deal with stories that transcended the boundaries of what was “safe” and profitable to write about. This was the beginning of her path of using her writing as an agency for social transformation.

At the tender age of twenty-two, while at the Guardian for only five months, Ruth worked on an initiative that became an important milestone in her career. In June 1947, Ruth together with the Anglican priest, Reverend Michael Scott, she went to Bethal, a town in the then Eastern Transvaal, characterised by potato, bean and maize farming and heavily dependent on access to seasonal labourers at little cost to farmers. They found that a system had been set up where the police were giving black people caught defying the pass laws, the option of a jail sentence or a contract on a Bethal farm. Most opted to work on the farm, but came to regret this choice. They lived in the most appalling conditions. They started work at 4 a.m. and worked a long, gruelling day until about midnight when there was a full moon. Farm workers were incentivised to work harder with the use of a sjambok, which was used to whip them. At the end of the day, they were taken to overcrowded farm compounds where they had to remain until going back to work. They were locked in the compound and not allowed out unless accompanied by an induna. They moved entirely at the will of the induna. Approximately fourteen thousand black farm workers were working and living in such conditions in Bethal alone.

The Bethal workers were living in conditions of slavery of the worst kind. When Ruth visited the farms, she inspected the compounds and found that many of the workers were squatting on heaps of sacks. There were about three or four mattresses and about fifty men, none of whom had any blankets. The men at one compound were huddled together eating a meal of mielie meal and pumpkin, which they were served three times a day. All the men that she spoke to complained about working in oppressive conditions and being constantly abused, cursed at and beaten. In some instances, workers had tried to escape from the farms. Those who were caught were beaten to death, their bodies disposed of and the word would be put out that they had indeed escaped. Ruth was very affected by this experience. Together with Michael Scott, she worked on writing up the situation on the Bethal farms. The story appeared in the Rand Daily Mail on 28 June 1947 and was followed by a piece in the Guardian in the following week. This prompted all the South African newspapers to follow suit and the Bethal story became a front-page focus. Ruth’s work on the Bethal scandal served to catapult her into a position where her writing on social injustices was put into the public domain and used to start asking difficult questions about some of the things being condoned at the time.

Ruth continued to do a number of significant things. As a formidable opponent of the apartheid regime, she played a prominent role in the Passive Resistance Campaign of 1946-7, helped lead the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and the campaign for the Congress of the People in 1955 and was part of the decision-making process to launch the armed struggle in 1961. Her achievements include the fact that a year after the Federation of South African Women was formed in 1955; she was instrumental in planning the march to the Union Buildings to demand an end to the pass laws. She wrote about the march in New Age and subsequently assisted with the women’s pass campaign, using her writing as a tool to promote it. Later on in her life, she came to engage in feminist theory and taught courses on gender studies during her time at the University of Durham. She also co-authored the first biography of one of South Africa’s greatest feminist icons, Olive Schreiner. Notwithstanding this, her work and contribution have not been viewed in terms of their gendered implications.

As an internationalist, Ruth was also deeply involved in the liberation struggles of other African countries, especially the former Portuguese colonies, Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau and used her writing to give voice to these struggles, to critically analyse the impact of the colonial legacy on the African continent and to critique the violence and despotism in some of the post-colonial states. This is evidenced by the number of books she produced in this regard, such as Power in Africa, South West Africa, Libya: The Elusive Revolution and The Barrel of a Gun. An integral part of Ruth’s identity was that of being a researcher and a writer, one who used her work to give voice to her political beliefs.

Throughout the course of her life, Ruth used her writing to pursue a transformative social agenda. Her writing was linked to a social movement pursuing political change. She had a great affinity for the written word, for people and their stories, for societies and their collective narratives. Underpinning all of this was a quest to uncover facts, through the processes of research and investigative journalism, to expose hidden narratives and experiences, the unspoken stories and the injustices that were indelibly woven into the thread of these stories. During the course of her imprisonment, she consistently pined for books and her narrative on this experience, 117 Days, is rife with references to the effect that this deprivation had on her.

As an intellectualist, Ruth was an analytical thinker and a theorist and she used this to question, critique and inform her understanding of the world around her. As a theorist and a writer, Ruth was always actively engaged in using her reading and writing to inform her cognitive view of the world. She worked and wrote in a manner that linked research and the production of transformative knowledge to activist agendas to pursue social change. She used her writing as a conduit for pursuing political agendas. Her writing therefore sought to create a synergy between her investigative journalism, her consciousness-raising initiatives and her political action and advocacy.

There are a number of ways in which research can be activist. It can, for example, be a call to action or seek to inform action. Ruth’s writing sought to do both these things and was firmly grounded in the social movement out of which it emerged. There was, therefore, very little dichotomy between her thoughts and actions and her writing and her politics. Her legacy and her commitment to using her writing as an agent for social change are a rich source of inspiration for other writers who want to write as part of an attempt to create a more equitable, just and sane social order.


References Benson, M (1966) The Struggle for a Birthright, Penguin African Library, London

First, R (1965) 117 Days, Penguin Books, London

Gevisser, M (2009) Thabo Mbeki: A Dream Deferred, Johnathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg.

Pinnock, D (1995) They Fought for Freedom: Ruth First, Maskew Miller Longman, Cape Town

Scott, M (1958) A Time to Speak, Faber and Faber, London

Slovo, (1997) Every Secret Thing:  My Family, My Country, Little Brown Book Group

Slovo, J (1995) The Unfinished Autobiography, Ravan Press, Randburg

Zug, J (2007) The Guardian: A History of South Africa’s Extraordinary Anti-Apartheid Newspaper,

[1]Slovo G, 1997: 25

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