27 August 2017
Had she been alive, Ruth First would have been 93 years old in 2017. As a struggle veteran, a senior citizen, a mother, a communist, a gender activist, a promoter of youth development – what would Ruth First make of South Africa today?
Would she be proud of the South African society that we have created? Would she understand the modern day struggles of this middle-income developing country? What would she think of the situation of the most vulnerable in our society – children, youth and women. As the former National Secretary of the Young Communist League, what advice would Ruth First give to us?
Unfortunately, we cannot get direct answers to these questions because a bomb by apartheid assassins murdered our comrade. They took away her life but her voice still lives on. It still speaks to us. We can indeed know what Ruth First would think about South Africa today because of her writings, the causes that she fought for, the positions she adopted on key issues and the information that we attained from comrades who worked closely with her.
For those who are not familiar with Ruth First, allow me to present a short biography of our struggle icon.
Ruth First was born into the politically conscious home of Jewish immigrant parents, Julius and Matilda First, in Johannesburg in 1925. Her father was a founder member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), later known as the South African Communist Party (SACP). Her home was regularly visited by political activists of all races who discussed and debated the apartheid State. This left an immutable political impression on the young Ruth in shaping her ideas on race, class and gender.
She graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Studies in 1946. Her studies deepened her insight into the nature of political societies in general, and the political system in South Africa in particular.
Spurred by her political vision of a just society, she helped found the Federation of Progressive Students in 1946. She served as the National Secretary for the Young Communist League in the 1940’s and in the Johannesburg branch of the CPSA, as well as the Progressive Youth Council.
Throughout this period of political activism, Ruth First advocated the socialist vision of economic relations for South Africa, and relentlessly argued for the need to mobilise all sections of society for the achievement of freedom.
Her irrepressible desire for public debates on the unjust political system led her to participate in the Johannesburg Discussion Club, which, among others, fostered closer working relations between the SACP and the African National Congress.
She clearly understood that a socialist order could only be attained in the context of a free and democratic society.
In 1947, she embarked on investigative journalism until she became editor of the left-aligned newspaper The Guardian between 1947 and 1952. Even in the highly censored environment of journalism, she still managed to cover stories reflecting the miserable working conditions of the black working class.
Some of the stories included women’s anti-pass campaigns, migrant labour, and bus boycotts, all of which were framed by her concern for the peasants and the working poor.
In 1939, she married Joe Slovo, a renowned anti-apartheid activist and socialist. Frequented by their fellow comrades from the ANC and the CPSA, their home soon became a nursery of ideas with regard to the ending of apartheid.
First’s debating prowess was legendary. She also protested against the outlawing of communism in 1950 and in the same year, understanding the struggle for freedom to be the same for all South Africans, participated in the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign.
She helped form the Congress of Democrats in 1953, and became the editor of Fighting Talk, a journal supporting the Congress Alliance. She was part of the Congress of the People, which drafted the Freedom Charter in 1955, and she later channelled her energy into writing anti-apartheid investigative political reports in her pamphlets and books.
Her skills as a journalist helped her efforts to build anti-apartheid structures and support systems. She edited New Age, not the New Age that we know today. This New Age was the successor to The Guardian and Ruth First helped to formulate the initial broadcasts of Radio Freedom from a mobile transmitter in Johannesburg in 1962.
In 1963, Ruth First was detained following the arrest of senior ANC leaders, although she was not among the accused Rivonia trialists. She was detained in solitary confinement under the 90-day clause, in terms of the infamous Suppression of Communism Act. She fled to London upon her release in 1963 where she continued her fight against the apartheid regime.
In 1977, she was appointed professor and research director at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. There she wrote a number of books and edited Nelson Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom. Renouncing the material benefits afforded to her by the colour of her skin, Ruth First symbolised ultimate patriotism and love for humanity through her immense sacrifices in the struggle against apartheid.
As a struggle veteran, Ruth First was in the first instance dedicated to the overthrow of the Apartheid regime.
She was committed to the pursuance of the National Democratic Revolution, whose main goal was the liberation of Africans in particular and blacks in general from national, gender and class oppression. In the ultimate, First believed that the NDR is the shortest route towards socialism. She at all times articulated the revolutionary link between the national, the gender and the class struggle. As an activist, whose revolutionary credentials were impeccable, we can safely say that Ruth First would not have been captured today. In fact, she would abhor the notion of activists sacrificing their ideals for a quick buck.
She would be concerned about the rising influence of the growing elite. When she helped edit Oginga Odinga’s study of post-colonial Kenya, “Not Yet Uhuru,” she had to contend with the reality that the Kenyan liberation movement had in many respects failed the people who had brought it to power.
To her dismay, she also discovered that Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, the doyen of the independence struggle and a liberation fighter who had for decades been considered a man of the left, had become the leader of a rapacious indigenous elite, bent of savouring the fruits on freedom on their own, to the exclusion of the mass of the peasantry who had struggled and died for it.
As a member of the SACP, First also believed in the ideals of socialism. She believed and struggled for an end of exploitation of one person by another. She struggled for the creation of a society where from equal work there shall be an equal stake for all. Ruth First would have consistently challenged the market driven development approaches that seem to resonate in our country today. She would have challenged the growing dominance of private education and vigorously advocated for high quality and relevant public education.
Ruth First would have led the Fees Must Fall movement. Her idealism would have wanted free education for all but her pragmatism would have endorsed free education for the poor. But Ruth First the educationist would have wanted free education to mean much more than affordability.
Free education would have embraced the unshackling of the mind, the unrestricted engagement of ideas without the fear of factional thinking. To Ruth First, ideas mattered not slogans.
In Ruth First’s intellectual work, both as a journalist and an academic she boldly confronted issues. Her study of coups in Africa , “The Barrel of a Gun “, portrayed old elites, the emergent propertied classes, and the captured wishing to loot the state’s coffers in order to acquire property, emboldened by such tactics, while the ordinary working people were reduced to passivity or disoriented. Ruth First’s activism was punctuated by an equal dose of intellectual curiosity. Revolutionary ideas were something that she cherished and was prepared to debate ideas to the contrary.
As a gender activist and a mother, Ruth First would be dismayed at the level of violence against women and children. Structural violence as evidenced by their vulnerable position in society would be something that Ruth First would have consistently fought against. As a young women serving as the National Secretary of the YCL, Ruth First would have been all too aware of the patriarchal relations in society, even in liberation movements.
Through her diligence and sacrifice, Ruth First demonstrated the hollowness of arguments against women serving in senior positions. Ruth First would have challenged young men to stand up and be counted as an advocate for the protection of women and children.
Education was always fashionable for Ruth First; it was something that she cherished dearly. She would be at the forefront of education campaigns to improve access and quality. She would be encouraging young people to take advantage of educational opportunities that are available today.
She would want Young Communists to be leading these types of educational campaigns. She would want Young Communists to be studying, as a lifelong commitment to learning and gaining knowledge. She would want Young Communists to lead with ideas and the militant debating prowess that would debunk bankrupt sloganeering. She would want Young Communists to lead young people and society towards a progressive socialist future.
As a youth activist, Ruth First would be dismayed by how youth organisations, especially political youth organisations have been co-opted. She would not recognise many of the political youth organisations today and would question where their agenda was created.
It would simply boggle her mind as to why these organisations are not vigorously championing the needs and aspirations of their important constituency but instead have been championing the agendas of the few, politically connected elite. Shaped with a progressive youth agenda and giving youth a critical voice, Ruth First would be unashamedly Youth First.
Ruth First is no more in body. But her spirit lives on. Her spirit lives on through her revolutionary zeal for freedom and equality. Her fervent pursuit of education and truth. Her spirit lives on through her activist record on the side of progressive struggles for, with and behalf of the poor and vulnerable. Her youth activism spirit lives on for us to emulate as we consolidate and strengthen the YCL for the battles ahead of us.
We salute Comrade Ruth First. We pledge to live by the example that she set as a Young Communist.