Ruth First: The obligation to dissent

Ruth First was a South African socialist, a political journalist and a fierce
critic of both the segregated South African state in which she grew up
and the apartheid state which emerged after 1948. As a journalist, she wrote
for a variety of leftist newspapers, including the Guardian and Fighting Talk.

In 1963, she was arrested and then re-arrested under the 90-day detention
law, a wide-ranging law that allowed anyone suspected of communist activity
or considered a threat to the state to be held without trial. First spent 117
days in jail, most of it in solitary confinement, and published a memoir of
her experience in 1965. By then, she had joined her husband Joe Slovo in
exile in London. He had escaped South Africa after joining Nelson Mandela
and his colleagues in founding Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the
African National Congress (ANC), which opposed the apartheid state (First,
2009: vii–ix). First remained active in the anti-apartheid movement abroad
and refashioned herself as an academic. She wrote eight books, among them
South-West Africa (1963), The Barrel of a Gun (1970), The South African
Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid (1972) and, with Ann Scott, a well received biography of the South African writer, Olive Schreiner (1980) (First & Scott, 1980; Williams, 1982: 55; Harlow, 2002: 232).

First was murdered on 17 August 1982 when a bomb exploded as she opened a box of books in her office at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, where she had taught since 1977. The bomb, sent by the South African Security Branch, blew a hole through the exterior wall of the building (Saul, 2014: 122). First’s last book, Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant, was published posthumously in 1983.

First was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1925 to parents who
had escaped Russia’s pogroms and immigrated as children from Latvia and
Lithuania in the early 1900s. Julius Fürst and Tilly Levitan met at a Jewish
government school in then-segregated South Africa and married in 1924.
Both were committed socialists and members of the Communist Party of
South Africa. Fürst ran a mattress factory with his brother; Levitan was the
demanding intellectual who both berated her daughter and helped shape
her political views (Pinnock, 1997: 308–9; First, 2009: i). First’s intense
interactions with her own mother were arguably recaptured in the fictionalised
depiction of First’s relationship with her eldest daughter, Shawn Slovo, who
wrote and produced the 1988 film, A World Apart, about her mother’s 1963
arrest (Slovo, 1988; Pinnock, 1997: 309; Saul, 2014: 122).
In 1942, First entered the University of the Witwatersrand, where she
studied social science and was active in the Young Communist League and
edited their newspaper. In 1946, the strike by 100,000 African mineworkers
seeking a minimum wage prompted her to quit a ‘boring’ and ‘sycophantic’
job with the city of Johannesburg. She volunteered for the mineworkers,
cranking out strike leaflets on a mimeograph machine. ‘When the mine strike
was over,’ she recalled, ‘I became a journalist.’ Journalism would become the
vehicle through which she protested the racially framed inequity that defined
South Africa. By 1947, at 22, she had been appointed the Johannesburg editor
of the Guardian (Webb, 2015: 9; Pinnock, 1997: 310, 312).

Her first major story for the Guardian was an exposé of the conditions of
farm labour in Bethal, about 160 kilometres east of Johannesburg. A short
newspaper article by the activist Anglican priest, the Reverend Michael Scott,
brought the story to First’s attention. Together, First and Scott visited Bethal
in July 1947. Bethal was rural and Afrikaans speaking. Local farmers were
suspicious of two English speakers from Johannesburg; this reflected an
antipathy that stretched back to before the brutal South African War fought
between the British and the Afrikaners from 1899 to 1902. Bethal farmers
depended on seasonal labour to sow and harvest potatoes. They were unhappy
with the series of reports First and Scott published in the Guardian, depicting
the abuse of 40,000 farm workers, contracted mostly from Nyasaland
(modern-day Malawi) and Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe). Most black
South Africans refused to work on Bethal’s farms – so strongly were they
associated with ‘callous brutality, ill-treatment and violent death’ (Webb,
2015: 14, quoting Murray, 1997: 75).

First’s Bethal articles in the Guardian did lead to a government inquiry but not to any tangible improvements in workers’ lives (Guardian, 3 July 1947;
Pinnock, 1997: 312–4). In December 1947, members of the ANC in Bethal
reported that ‘workers were still locked up in compounds after the work was
done, and then driven out the following day with whips and dogs’ (Webb,
2015: 15). First continued to follow the story. As editor of Fighting Talk she
published an article on Bethal in 1956 (Webb, 2015: 15). By then, a great deal
had changed. The National Party government was elected on an apartheid
platform in 1948, and quickly introduced the heightened form of segregation
that characterised apartheid. The South African Communist Party was
banned in 1950.

In 1960, First was banned from practising journalism. She and Slovo,
who remained prominent anti-apartheid activists, were closely watched by
the police. In 1963, a search of their home turned up a copy of Fighting Talk
– by then a prohibited publication – and First was arrested under the 90-
day detention law (First, 2009: 1, 44). Released after ninety days and then
immediately rearrested, she broke under the psychological harassment of her
interrogators. She was never physically tortured. Fearful that she may have
exposed fellow activists, she attempted suicide in an effort to protect them
from her weakness. It was a courageous and political act.

As shaken as First had been by her imprisonment, she quickly rebounded
to the fierce and critical thinker that both intimidated friends and colleagues
and endeared her to them. As her fellow activist John S. Saul recalled: ‘I doubt
there is anyone who knew Ruth First well who didn’t have difficult moments
with her. She was tough, demanding, even occasionally domineering. She
was forged in a hard school, a revolutionary socialist and a woman fighting
consistently and unflaggingly against racism, chauvinism and capitalist
exploitation in the teeth of one of the most brutal regimes the world has
ever seen’ (Pinnock, 2014: 98–9; Saul, 2014: 122). She also did not hesitate
to criticise the left for its shortcomings or blind spots; this was clear in The
Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa and the Coup d’État, her critique of
the first decade of postcolonial independence in Africa. As the historian Shula
Marks observed, ‘Criticism of Africa’s ruling elite was still muted on the left’
when the book was published in 1970. For First, ‘who cared passionately
about the liberation of Africa,’ writing The Barrel of a Gun embodied, in
Marks’s view, ‘the courage, intellectual integrity and independence of mind
which characterised Ruth’s approach to politics both within southern Africa
and more widely’ (Marks, 1983: 126–7).

Black Gold, First’s last book, written while she was teaching and researchingat Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, was published in 1983. Its
style reflected an observation by her husband, Joe Slovo, who ‘suggested that
she always had too much on her plate, too many deadlines before her, and
that her “facility for the flow of words was sometimes an impediment to a
more finished structure”’ (Webb, 2015: 10). Black Gold, however, involved an
extensive set of interviews with Mozambican miners working in South Africa
and traced the impact of their wages on their families and communities in
Mozambique. The book included excerpts of the interviews and photographs
of the miners. Her assessment of the long-term health of South Africa’s
mining industry would prove prescient.

In 2014, Ruth First’s legacy was celebrated in an issue of the Review of
African Political Economy, twenty years after South Africa’s first democratic
election, which elected Nelson Mandela of the ANC to the presidency. The
contributors included John Saul, who had worked with First in Mozambique.
Saul wondered what First might think of the modern state, which in his
opinion had been ‘“recolonized” by a still dominant Empire of Capital’ (Saul,
2014: 123). We cannot know though: The Barrel of a Gun, with its unflinching
criticism of corruption and coup d’états in newly independent African states
in 1970, might give us a hint (First, 1970). As Saul notes, ‘the extent that
such a question haunts us – or, at least, haunts me – is a measure of how
courageous, independent-minded and strong a writer-activist she was, and of
how much we all still miss her clear and principled voice’ (Saul, 2014: 124).

First, Ruth. 1970. The Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa and the Coup d’État.
London: Allen Lane.
First, Ruth. 1983. Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant. Sussex,
UK: Harvester Press/New York: St. Martin’s Press.
First, Ruth. 2009. 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation under the
South Africa 90-Day Detention Law. New York: Penguin Books.
First, Ruth & Scott, Ann. 1980. Olive Schreiner: A Biography. London: Andre Deutsch.
Harlow, Barbara. 2002. ‘Looked class, talked red: Sketches of Ruth First and redlined
South Africa’, Meridians, 3(1).
Marks, Shula. 1983. ‘Ruth First: A tribute’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 10(1).
Murray, M.J. 1997. ‘Factories in the fields: Capitalist farming in the Bethal district’, in
Alan H. Jeeves & Jonathan Crush (eds), White Farms, Black Labour: The State and
Agrarian Change in South Africa, 1910–1950. Oxford: James Currey.
Pinnock, Don. 1997. ‘Writing Left: The journalism of Ruth First and the Guardian in
the 1950s’, in Les Switzer (ed.), South Africa’s Alternative Press: Voices of Protest
and Resistance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Pinnock, D. 2014. ‘Building an alternative consensus for political action: Ruth First as
journalist and activist.’ Review of African Political Economy, 41: 139.
Saul, John S. 2014. ‘More comfortably without her?: Ruth First as writer and activist,’
Review of African Political Economy, 41: 139.
Slovo, S. 1988. A World Apart. Atlantic Entertainment Group, DVD.
Webb, Christopher. 2015. ‘Fighting Talk: Ruth First’s early journalism, 1947–1950’,
Review of African Political Economy, 42: 143.
Williams, Gavin. 1982. ‘Ruth First: A preliminary bibliography’, Review of African
Political Economy, 25.

It is not every day that the Johannesburg reporter of the Guardian
meets an African farm labourer who, when asked to describe the
conditions on the farm on which he works, silently takes off his
shirt to show large weals … and scars whipped on his back … He
cannot really explain why. He knows that after the whipping he
came in to the town to lay a charge with the magistrate; was then
handed 11s. 4d. by his employer (pay for several weeks’ work) and
told he was discharged. This is the story of ‘Work Nyeilande’,
15-year-old (note his age) contracted labourer from Nyasaland.

We met him in Bethal about a mile from the centre of the
town as we went to inspect two corrugated iron structures to
which contracted labourers are brought in batches of 50 or 60
every Friday by the local farmers’ recruiting organisation. These
labourers are recruited in the Northern Transvaal after crossing
the border illegally from Rhodesia or Nyasaland in search of
work. They are locked in the central compound for three or four
days until they have been allocated to the local farmers.
What are the conditions of these contracted farm labourers?
They were eager to tell us.

They sign on for a six-month contract under which the most
handsome remuneration is £2 for 30 working days. … They are
housed in barn-like buildings with concrete floors, often no
windows, and no chimney or hole in the roof for smoke from
the braziers or open flames in tins suspended from the roof with
wire, which serve as lights. We saw not a single blanket in any of
these compounds. The labourers sleep on sacks.

I was appalled by the events of the last three days. They had beaten
me. I had allowed myself to be beaten. I had pulled back from
the brink just in time, but had it been in time? I was wide open
to emotional blackmail, and the blackmailer was myself. They
had tried for three months to find cracks in my armour and had
found some. The search was still on. Some, many perhaps, of my
weaknesses had been revealed to the Security Branch; if they had
any inkling of others, I would have no reserves left. I could no
longer hold to an intransigent stand because I had already moved
from it. It was too late to say stoically that I would say nothing,
not one word, to them.

Sleep had been a refuge in the cell; now it had fled. On top of
sleeplessness I had nausea and diarrhoea. It all spelled anxiety I
suppose, but an anxiety that had got out of hand and that I could
no longer control with my own resources. I asked for a visit from
my own doctor.

The days were grey and melancholy. I barely noticed the
exercise periods. I had reeled back from a precipice of collapse
but I felt worse than ever. I was persecuted by the dishonour
of having made a statement, even the start of a statement. Give
nothing, I had always believed; the more you give the more they
think you know, and the more demanding they become. I had
never planned to give anything, but how could I be the judge?
It would be impossible to explain such an act, to live it down …
My air of confidence had always been useful in keeping others
from knowing how easily assailed and self-consciously vulnerable
I was; it had worked many a time, but it could do nothing for
me now. I had presided over my collapse with a combination
of knowingness and utter miscalculation. My conceit and selfcentredness
had at last undone me. I had thought to pit myself
against the Security Branch in their own lair. What had I hoped
to learn?

This study of the worker-peasants of the south of Mozambique,
who have been locked into both mine work and peasant
household production, captures the end of an era whose demise
is being ushered in by a two-fold series of events. The first has
been the accession to power of Frelimo, and its commitment to
restructuring the Mozambican economy and the eventual ending
of migrant labour. Second, there have been two forms of labour
displacement by the mining industry. These have been influenced
partly by Frelimo’s victory and its implications for the balance
of political power in Southern Africa, but they have principally
derived from changes in the pattern of capital accumulation and
employment in the South African mining industry.

There have been two forms of labour displacement in
mining. The first has been the substitution of capital for labour
in an extended programme of mechanisation, especially in
recently developed mines. The scope for substituting machinery
for labour in the South African gold mines is limited, given the
cost conditions and technical requirements of deep-level South
African gold mining; and technical changes will not end the
industry’s dependence on large numbers of African workers, but
they will bring about changes in the size and the structure of the
African labour force. According to projections for employment
levels in mining for the rest of this century, employment in
gold mining in South Africa will fall by about 65 per cent, from
424,992 to some 148,000 in the year 2000. The expansion of
coal and base metal mining, which is increasingly exploited by
open-cast and highly capital-intensive techniques, will keep total
employment in mining up to its 1977 total.
The second form of labour displacement is the substitution of
South Africans for other mine labour. The alarming projections
for African unemployment in South Africa, as both industry and
agriculture reduce their labour requirements, suggest that the
present trend towards the internalisation of mine labour supply
will be at the continuing expense of labour recruited fromoutside. After 1974 … the ratio between ‘foreign’ and South African labour was dramatically reversed.

By 1976 the proportion of ‘foreign’ workers on the mines had dropped to 57 per cent;by 1977, it was 48 per cent; by 1979 it had fallen lower still, to
 46 per cent. As the trend continues, the African labour force
of the mines will be drawn increasingly from the South African
‘Bantustans’, especially the Transkei and the Ciskei. This does
not mean that the Chamber of Mines will cease all importations
of labour from the outside supply areas, but that it will perfect
its strategy of spreading its supply of controlled labour inputs.