Ruth First Slovo

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Heloise Ruth First

Also Known As: "Slovo"
Birthdate: (57)
Birthplace: Johannesburg, South Africa
Death: August 17, 1982 (57)
Maputo, Mozambique
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Julius Furst and Matilda Furst
Wife of Joe Slovo
Mother of Gillian Slovo; <private> Slovo and <private> Slovo
Sister of Ronald First

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Ruth First Slovo

Ruth First Jeppe High School for Girls Memorial Trust

25 August 2010

A small group of staff and learners from Jeppe High School for Girls recently attended the Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University on 17 August 2010. This was the 9th memorial lecture of its kind, but it was the first time Jeppe High School for Girls had been represented.

Ruth First (4 May 1925 – 17 August 1982) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and scholar born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was killed by a parcel bomb addressed specifically to her in Mozambique, where she worked in exile from South Africa.

Contents [show] Family and education[edit] Ruth First's parents, Julius First and Matilda Levetan, immigrated to South Africa from Latvia as Jewish immigrants in 1906 and became founder members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), the forerunner of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Ruth First was born in 1925 and brought up in Johannesburg. She too joined the Communist Party,[1] which was allied with the African National Congress in its struggle to overthrow the South African government.

She attended Jeppe High School for Girls and then became the first person in her family to attend university. She received her Bachelor's degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1946. While she was at university she found that "on a South African campus, the student issues that matter are national issues". She was involved in the founding of the Federation of Progressive Students, also known as the Progressive Students League.,[1] and got to know, among other fellow students, Nelson Mandela, future President of South Africa, and Eduardo Mondlane, the first leader of the Mozambique freedom movement FRELIMO.

After graduating, Ruth First worked as a research assistant for the Social Welfare Division of the Johannesburg City Council. In 1946, her position in the Communist Party was boosted significantly after a series of mine strikes during which leading members of the Party were arrested. First then became the editor-in-chief of the radical newspaper The Guardian, which was subsequently banned by the state.[1] In 1949 she married Joe Slovo, a Jewish South African anti-apartheid activist and Communist.

In addition to her work with The Guardian and its successors, in 1955 Ruth First assumed the position of editor of a radical political journal called Fighting Talk. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement not only through her journalism, but also through political action. First and her husband Slovo were members of the African National Congress as well as the Communist Party, and she was also active in the extensive riots of the 1950s.[1]

Treason trial and detention[edit] Ruth First was one of the defendants in the Treason Trial of 1956-1961, alongside 156 other leading anti-apartheid activists who were key figures in the Congress Alliance. After the state of emergency that followed the Sharpesville massacre in 1960 she was listed and banned. She could not attend meetings or publish, and she could not be quoted. In 1963, during another government crackdown, she was imprisoned and held in isolation without charge for 117 days under the Ninety-Day Detention Law. She was the first white woman to be detained under this law.[2]

Exile and assassination[edit] In March 1964 First went into exile in London, where she became active in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. She was a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester in 1972, and between 1973 and 1978 she lectured in development studies at the University of Durham. She also spent periods on secondment at universities in Dar es Salaam and Lourenco Marques (Maputo).

In November 1978 First took up a post as director of the research training programme at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, Mozambique. There she continued to work for the downfall of the apartheid regime. She was assassinated by order of Craig Williamson, a major in the South African Police, on 17 August 1982, when she opened a letter bomb that had been sent to the university.[3]

Memoirs[edit] First's book 117 Days is her account of her arrest, imprisonment and interrogation by the South African Police Special Branch in 1963. It was first published in 1965. The memoir provides a detailed account of how she endured "isolation and sensory deprivation" while withstanding "pressure to provide information about her comrades to the Special Branch".[2]

Her daughter, the writer Gillian Slovo, published her own memoir, Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, in 1997. It is an account of her childhood in South Africa and her relationship with her activist parents.

Films[edit] The film A World Apart (1988), which has a screenplay by her daughter Shawn Slovo and was directed by Chris Menges, is a biographical story about a young white girl living in South Africa with anti-apartheid activist parents, although the family is called Roth in the film. Barbara Hershey plays the character based on Ruth First.[4]

The film Catch a Fire (2006), about the activist Patrick Chamusso, was written by Shawn Slovo and Ruth First is portrayed in the film by another daughter, Robyn Slovo, who was also one of the film's producers.[5]

Patrol Vessel[edit] In 2005 the South African Ministry of the Environment launched an environmental patrol vessel named the Ruth First.[6]

Main published works[edit] Library resources about Ruth First Resources in your library Resources in other libraries By Ruth First Resources in your library Resources in other libraries First, Ruth (1963). South West Africa. London. First, Ruth (1965). 117 Days. London. First, Ruth; Segal, R (1967). South West Africa: A Travesty of Trust. London. First, Ruth (1970). The Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa and the Coup d’etat in Africa. London. First, Ruth; Steele, J. and C. Gurney, eds. (1972). The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid. London. First, Ruth (1970). Libya: The Elusive Revolution. London. First, Ruth (1983). The Mozambican Miner: Proletarian and Peasant. New York.

Pelonomi Moiloa, Head Girl, announced the launching of the Ruth First Memorial Trust for Jeppe High School for Girls at the lecture. The Trust commemorates Ruth First, our most famous alumnus, who in Pelonomi’s words was “cut from the same splendid cloth as Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela.” Ruth First’s history” she went on to say,” does not only lie in her great contribution as a compassionate intellectual to black and white freedom and equality but also in the black and white stripes she wore on her back as a Jeppe girl.” The Ruth First Memorial Trust aims to provide scholarships and support that will help turn young women from ordinary circumstances into principled leaders who will make a difference in South African society. It is hoped that the Ruth First scholarship will enable promising learners whose parents may have considered Jeppe Girls to be out of their financial reach the opportunity of attending this school.


Ruth First attended Jeppe from 1939 – 1941 where her talents as a leader, writer and thinker were already evident. A library prefect, she won the English prize as well as obtaining a distinction in English, which was a very rare occurrence in those days. Born into a middle class family, Ruth, spurned a comfortable and privileged life to become a remarkable leader in the anti-apartheid struggle. 

She was an exceptional writer and political thinker who used her skills and intellect to highlight the injustices in South African society. She enrolled at Wits to do a BA degree and became involved in student politics, joining the South African Communist Party. Her first job was as a researcher in the Johannesburg municipality, which she found exceptionally boring. She left and began working with trade unions, where she distinguished herself as an investigative journalist, exposing the vicious truth of apartheid rule. She joined the Guardian newspaper and later became editor. The South African government sought to crush all opposition to apartheid during the Fifties and Sixties. In 1956 the Guardian was banned and Ruth was one of 150 people charged with high treason, alongside Nelson Mandela and her husband Joe Slovo. She spent 117 days in solitary confinement before she was acquitted. She died in 1982 when a letter bomb, sent to her by apartheid agents, exploded in her office at the university in Maputo.

Justice Albie Sachs has agreed to be a patron of the fund, and has this to say:

“Ruth First was a wonderful friend, a brilliant thinker and writer and remarkably courageous in pursuit of freedom. I will do everything I can do to honour her memory. I am delighted that Jeppe High School for Girls has taken this initiative which I support wholeheartedly. I commend it to all who value Ruth’s profound contribution to the establishment of democracy in South Africa and respect the sacrifices she made. It will be wonderful for many young women of diverse backgrounds to be given the opportunity to obtain top quality education at Ruth’s old school and thus follow in her footsteps.”

The first 4 recipients of the Ruth First Memorial Trust Fund will be introduced at the official launch function on 27 October 2010. The Trust Fund has the full support of Ruth’s three daughters, Shawn, Gillian and Robyn Slovo, and Gillian will be attending the launch. Ruth’s daughters had this to say: “We are delighted that Jeppe High School should remember her in this way. Ruth was the first in her family to matriculate and she believed firmly in the power of education, especially for girls.  We can think of no better way of honouring her memory than to encourage   future  generations to develop the  skills and understanding  that   can be used for the betterment of the country to which she dedicated her life and  so loved.”  

For further information on the Ruth First Jeppe High School for Girls Memorial Trust, please contact Mr Kevin Tait on 011 616 5090 or

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Ruth First Slovo's Timeline

May 4, 1925
Johannesburg, South Africa
March 15, 1952
Age 26
August 17, 1982
Age 57
Maputo, Mozambique