Ruth First: Her contribution to Namibia’s political scholarship

Dear Editor,

AUGUST is celebrated as ‘Women’s Month’ in South Africa. This is in the recognition of the heroic 9th August 1956 women’s march to the Union Building demanding an immediate end to the extension of pass laws to African women by the apartheid government. Among those who marched on that day and made an irrevocable contribution to Namibia’s scholarly political literature was one named Ruth First, an anti-apartheid activist, investigative journalist, and a celebrated scholar.

First’s contribution to Namibia’s early political literature is not widely known beyond the academic circles, and I want to introduce her to the broader reading public here, as part of the celebration of women’s month.

She published her first book on Namibia in 1963 simply entitled South West Africa, after she spent almost two years working on it, examining South Africa’s expansion of its apartheid laws into the territory. She visited Namibia, observed the situation on the ground, interviewed main political protagonists at the time, and spent time in libraries and archives, collecting data.

She accomplished all this, despite being under surveillance by the South African police. She was, however, not oblivious of this surveillance, because in her book First talks about the people who were interrogated by police after she interviewed them; and unidentified vehicles following her wherever she went in Windhoek. She also speaks of archivists and librarians who were instructed to deny her access to certain documents.

Many scholars regard the book South West Africa as one of the most incisive political histories of early Namibia.

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Adekeye Adebajo (2010) calls it a “pioneering work about South Africa’s export of racist methods to Namibia”. I have a copy of this book. However, my intention is not to review it, but to introduce its author to the reader.

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It is a key piece of work that introduces students of Namibian politics to the country’s early socio-economic and political relations. All these are laid out in a way that reflects First’s core attributes as a radical activist, creative thinker and fine writer.

Apart from South West Africa, First authored six other books, The Barrel of a Gun: the Politics of Coup d’etat in Africa (1970); Libya: The Elusive Revolution (1974); The Mozambican Miner: A Study in the Export of Labour (1977); The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid (1972) (co-authored with J. Steele and C. Gurney) and the biography of Olive Schreiner (1980), which was co-authored with Anne Scott. She edited three biographies: Nelson Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom; Govan Mbeki’s The Peasant Revolt and Oginde Odinga’s Not yet Uhuru.

I was fortunate to examine First’s journalistic discourse closely during my MA research at Rhodes University, supervised by Donald Pinnock and Guy Berger.

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Pinnock introduced me to First’s work. Pinnock was completing his PhD research in 1992 on South Africa’s ‘radical journalism’ of the 50s, with a focus on First’s political writings. His study was titled Writing Left: Ruth First and Radical South African Journalism in the 1950s. It was published by Unisa Pressin its Hidden Histories series in 2007.

Pinnock invited me to read his draft chapters. Initially, I did enjoy what I was reading. Moreover, First’s work informed my understanding of the broader apartheid political economy, and at the same time helped me to appreciate the radical opposition by progressive forces in the country to the Afrikaner attempts of hegemony.

Being a critical sociologist, First, appreciated the media as a social institution and thus, she ‘engaged’ her publications to expose the wrong doings of the apartheid state, while at the same time contributing to radical change in society. Labour related matters were the core focus of her writings. This was obvious, as labour matters were central to Marxist analyses.

Interestingly, her concern with labour matters stretched beyond the borders of her country. Gavin Williams tells us that “labour was First’s foremost area of inquiry” and that she “revealed poverty and inadequate conditions faced by farm and mine labourers at a time when such humanitarian thought was not fashionable”. Her investigative journalism produced incisive reports on slave-like conditions on potato farms and those faced by migrant workers. She exposed the plight of Mozambican migrant labourers, who travelled from distant parts of their country to satisfy the South African mining industry’s demand for abundant cheap labour.

In addition, First produced forceful reports on women’s anti pass campaigns, bus boycotts and on the poor living conditions of the black population. These exposés made her a fierce enemy of the apartheid state and a target of its security establishment.

She was born Ruth Heloise First in 1925 in Johannesburg to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. She matriculated from the famous Jeppe High School and obtained a BA degree in Sociology from the University of Witwatersrand, popularly known as Wits, in 1946. Her parents were founding members of the Communist Party of South Africa, now South African Communist Party (SACP) established in 1921 in Cape Town.

After university, First worked briefly for the Johannesburg City Council as a researcher, while teaching literacy classes run by the communist party in the evenings to African workers. She left the Council to edit The Guardian, a left-wing newspaper, a move that landed her her first journalistic job and entry into journalism as a career.

When The Guardian was banned following the enactment of the Suppression of the Communism Act in 1951, First and her staff still managed to bring out each banned publication under a new name.

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So, from 1952 to 1963 they published New Age, Fighting Talk and others as substitutes of the original The Guardian.

First married a fellow political activist and communist intellectual, Joe Slovo in 1949. They had three daughters whose childhood was constantly unsettled by house searches and the banning and arrest of their parents by the police. One of the daughters, Gillian, scripted a film about her mother called A World Apart, based on her novel, Ties of Blood, on her family.

First played a significant role in establishing the Federation of Progressive Students. She also served as secretary to the Young Communist League and the Johannesburg Branch of the Communist Party. She was part of the drafting committee of the Freedom Charter but could not attend its launch due to a banning order.

First was arrested a few times for her political activism and was slapped with several banning orders. In 1956, she was arrested and charged with treason together with her husband, but the charge was later withdrawn. She was again detainedin 1963 and held in solitary confinement.

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On her release the same year, she left the country with her daughters and settled in the United Kingdom, where she continued her anti-apartheid activism. Her experiences under solitary confinement are well-documented in a book titled 117. This has been filmed into a documentary in which she plays the leading role.

In 1977, she left London to take up a Research Director position at the Centre of African Studies (CAS) at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique. She was assassinated on 17th August 1982 in Mozambique via a parcel bomb sent by the South Africa police. Various theories were dished out as to why she became a target of the South African police when she was no longer a threat to the apartheid state.

Peter Vale (1999) provides one of the plausible hypotheses as to why she became a target. First’s CAS started gaining popularity due to its increased research output in a short space of time. Not only was the centre’s success measurable in both quantitative and qualitative terms but it became “a source of changing minds of people in the region”, according to Vale.

Thus, the aim of the apartheid state was, according to him, to “disrupt the sense of regional solidarity, which the intellectual work offered by First (and her colleagues) sought to demonstrate and foster”. Vale goes on to say that the South African regime could not match the “sophisticated analyses offered by a clutch of Marxist scholars in neighbouring Mozambique”. For South Africa, violent elimination of First was the only response. Her assassination was, according to her best friend, Ronald Segal, the “final act of censorship”.

First was a product of her era. Events and issues of the time influenced and shaped her character and actions. Her reactions were designed to confront the challenges of the time. She belonged to a bunch of Marxists intellectuals, the majority of whom were members of SACP, although not all sang the same song, at times.

Despite its uncritical support for the Soviet Union and Stalinism, a tag it had to endure because of this, the SACP played an important role at many levels of the struggle for a democratic South Africa. There were communist organic intellectuals who significantly participated in South Africa’ struggle for change. While some communist intellectuals contributed to the political and armed struggle (such as Joe Slovo, Mac Maharaj, Ronnie Kasrils, Moses Kotane, Rob Davis, Alec Ervin, etc., there were intellectual giants (such as Joe Slovo, Martin Legassick, Harold Wolpe, Dan O’Meara) who distinguished themselves as the ‘thinking strata’ of the movement.

For those who want to know more about Ruth First the journal Review of African Political Economy Vol. 25 (1984) has a selection of her writings and important biography of her published work, including reviews of her books, news reports about her assassination and obituaries, collected by Prof Gavin Williams.

Professor William Heuva is a senior member of the School of Communication at North West University in South Africa. He is a former AG 26 political detainee (1978 and 1979).