Born into a wealthy Jewish family in South Africa, Ruth First’s was a political upbringing. Her mother was a committed socialist - and Ruth followed in her footsteps.
At university in the 1940s she joined the struggle against racial injustice and became a member of the South African Communist Party. She would later say that she joined the Communists because it was the only organization known to her that advocated for meaningful changes. “They were immersed in the struggle for equality,” she recalled. “They were committed.”
Ruth married a fellow member of the Communist Party, Joe Slovo. Together they became leading figures in the struggle against the Apartheid Law that was passed by the National Party government in 1948, and the subsequent intensification of racial inequality to the point that South Africa became an almost completely segregated society - except when black people were employed by whites. Ruth and Joe worked with leaders of the African National Congress, such as Nelson Mandela, as the ANC and the Communist Party drew closer together in the struggle against white minority rule.
The South African government enacted a series of draconian laws to silence opposition to the apartheid regime. Though ostensibly targeting the Communist Party and saboteurs, these laws were used to raid and shut down newspapers and trade unions, ban the ANC, and arbitrarily arrest thousands of people.
Under enormous pressure, Ruth and Joe made the decision to leave South Africa. But they did not end their fight against apartheid. Rather, based in England, Ruth became a leading campaigner and a highly regarded author on conditions in South Africa. Meanwhile, Joe took on a leading role organizing the ANC’s military wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Ruth eventually returned to Africa, where she became a professor at a university in Mozambique, just over the border from South Africa. Still engaged in anti-apartheid work, including with the Umkhonto we Sizwe, she was targeted by the South African government for assassination. On the morning of August 17, 1982, Ruth was killed when a letter bomb exploded in her face.
Joe continued to lead the armed struggle. He was allowed to return to South Africa in 1990, as part of the peace deal and democratic transition between the ANC and the National Party. When Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, he made Joe a member of his cabinet.
Attribution for music used in this episode:
Assassinations Podcast Theme Music (Intro, Outro, and Transitions) written and performed by Graeme Ronald