Episode 3.6: Ruth First Part 1
This week, we’re launching a two part investigation into the assassination of Ruth First, a South African journalist and anti-apartheid activist who exposed human rights abuses in South Africa.
But before we begin, we have some exciting announcements to share with you!
This week, Assassinations Podcast celebrates its first birthday, and I’d like to take a moment to say thank you for tuning in each week to explore the darker side of history with me. To watch the show grow over this past year has been incredible, and I’m so grateful for your support.
I wanted to find a way to say ‘thank you,’ so we’ve set up a couple of exciting things to celebrate our birthday week.
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For one lucky winner, we’re also giving away a swag bag of Assassinations Podcast goodies. For a chance to win, follow us on Twitter (@AssassinsPod) and tweet us an answer to the following question: what is your favorite fictional assassination?
For me, it’s the assassination of Senator Vreenak in the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine titled “In the Pale Moonlight”. So much intrigue!
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For our Patreon supporters, we have a special bonus episode about a story that’s recently been in the news - details of that at the end of the episode.
And stay tuned after the episode to hear about a show that we’ve been enjoying lately: French History Podcast.
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Now, without further ado, let’s begin our investigation into the life and assassination of Ruth First.
In a verdant cemetery in a suburb of Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique, you will find a group of well-maintained graves under the boughs of an old and gnarled tree.
The graves are all marked with identical grey and white headstones. It is a distinctive design, simple, featuring a stylized shield and spear. A small brass plaque bears each person’s name and lifespan. Fresh flowers are often left upon each grave by those who travel to pay their respects.
This is the final resting place of a group of fighters of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress. These militants were killed in 1981, at the height of the armed struggle against the South African government during the era of apartheid.
Though identical at first glance, one of the graves is different. The year of death inscribed upon the plaque is 1982, and the name is of a woman who never took up arms.
Ruth First was a campaigning journalist, a talented writer, and a respected academic.
And though she never wielded a gun, she was most certainly a fighter - a revolutionary, who risked everything she had during the struggle against racial injustice in her homeland.
Ruth First was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to upper-middle class parents. Her family was Jewish, though not religious, with its roots in Eastern Europe.
Ruth’s was a very political upbringing. Her family, especially her mother, were ardent socialists. This was very common for Jewish families, many of whom, even if they were prosperous, felt a strong affinity for the black population of South Africa; a sense of solidarity born of the long oppression that the Jewish people had endured back in Europe.
Childhood for Ruth was filled with serious discussions in her house and in the homes of friends: of the struggles of the poor, of workers and the black population, and of the rise of fascism in Europe.
No less than her mother, Ruth felt it was her duty to fight for the socialist cause. And to so so meant studying, arguing, sharpening her wits. Politics was not a game for her, even as a child. It was a passion, and a calling - and an obligation.
In 1942 Ruth matriculated in the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Unsurprisingly, she threw herself into political life on campus, which, if you were a young left-winger at the time, meant that you moved in the orbit of the Communist Party.
The Communists gained a lot of support during the Second World War, after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 by Nazi Germany, at which point Stalin became an ally of Britain and the United States.
It was still a relatively numerically small party, but it had an outsized influence on political life.
In particular, the Communists were at the forefront of the struggle against racial inequality in South Africa. Many people, black and white, who wanted radical change to end white supremacy, as well as class oppression, gravitated towards the party.
Communism for many students such as Ruth First, represented the sharpest weapon with which to fight the racist system.
In 1943, she officially joined the Young Communist League, and began editing its student newspaper, Youth for a New South Africa.
Summarizing her relationship to the party, Ruth would later say that she became a Communist 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.”
Friends of Ruth at this time described her as very intelligent and a brilliant orator; and also very sociable, if a little reserved.
A university friend recalled seeing her speak at a debate:
I can still see her image: curly-haired, short and ill at ease, pursuing her points at breakneck speed. She was earnest, self-conscious, and miserable with caring, but it was her energy and directness that marked her out from the others.
Ruth described her own time at university unsentimentally:
My university years were cluttered with student societies, debates, mock trials, general meetings, and the hundred and one issues of wartime and postwar Johannesburg that returning ex-service students made so alive. On a South African campus, the students issues that mattered were the national issues.
It was in her final year at Witwatersrand in 1946 that Ruth first met her husband, Joe Slovo. He was one of those returning members of the armed forces who enrolled in university after the war.
Joe was born to Jewish parents in Vilnius, then in Poland, in 1926. At the age of 10, his family emigrated to South Africa.
Unlike Ruth, his was a poverty-stricken upbringing. Essentially left to fend for himself as a teenager, Joe struggled to get by. Unable to finish high school, he found work in a pharmaceutical company. There he became an active member of the trade union, fighting for better pay and conditions for both blacks and whites in the segregated workforce.
In order to get around the enforced separation of the races in the workplace, Joe and his union comrades would hold meetings and distribute socialist literature near the washrooms designated for the black workers, in the knowledge that white overseers would be too squeamish to go anywhere near a negro toilet.
In 1942, aged 18, he joined the Army. South Africa, as a dominion of the British Empire, was then at war with the Axis Powers, and Joe was sent to North Africa and then Italy as part of the Allied invasion.
Joe would remark that the idea of South Africans going to fight a war against fascism in Europe seemed ironic, given the state of social relations at home.
To the average member of the voteless majority, the regime’s exhortation to “save civilization and democracy” must have sounded like a cruel parody. And fight with what? At no stage was a black man allowed to bear arms; if he wanted to serve democracy he could do so only as a uniformed manservant of a white soldier.
Joe returned home to South Africa in 1946; and, thanks to an expansion of higher education for veterans, he was able to enroll in the University of Witwatersrand.
Like Ruth, Joe became very involved in socialist politics at the university, and he too became a member of the Community Party.
The university was one of the very few places where blacks and whites could mingle. Campus life was segregated: separate housing and dining facilities - separate sporting, cultural, and political clubs. But the blacks, Indians, and Coloreds were educated within the same walls.
Among the contemporaries of Joe and Ruth at Witwatersrand was Nelson Mandela, who studied law there. Mandela was a leader of the African National Congress Youth League, and he worked and socialized with Ruth, Joe, and other young activists on the campus.
He recalled his university days fondly: “We studied, talked, and danced until the early hours in the morning … the young freedom fighters.”
Ruth describe Mandela as, “good-looking, very proud, very dignified, very prickly, rather sensitive, perhaps even arrogant.”
The African National Congress and the Communists were working more and more closely together at this time. Though he appreciated the support they gave, and the genuine commitment of people like Ruth First, Mandela was wary of the Communist Party.
Already a rising star in the ANC, Mandela did not want the movement to be overtaken by the Communists. Rather, he saw the fight in South Africa as a struggle for national liberation from a particular form of colonial rule - colonialism from within.
If the Communists were willing to help to win full and equal rights for the black majority, and other oppressed minorities, then so much the better. But in this struggle, Mandela expected the Communist Party to be the junior partners.
From 1946 to 1963, Ruth worked for various leftwing publication closely linked to the Communist Party. As a journalist, she reported on industrial workers’ struggles and housing conditions for black migrant laborers.
In one investigation she illegally entered a municipal workers’ compound in Johannesburg to take photographs of the abysmal conditions that black workers were forced to live in.
One of her colleagues at the time observed that Ruth wasn’t simply a reporter - she was a campaigning journalist:
She was a remarkable journalist: wholly concerned with identifying and exposing the various horrors of racial rule; with reporting and encouraging the course of struggle against it. She was not indifferent to the risks and the costs that were involved. She simply recognized them as the necessary consequence of her choice.
In particular, Ruth worked to expose the theft of black land by white farmers, with the full support of the South African government. In one article she described a scene where a black family awoke one morning to find a white man standing on their land. The white man said that this was now his farm, and if the black family wished to remain there then they’d have to start working for him.
Many blacks were used as little more than slaves. Often rounded up by the police, they were kept in squalid, unsanitary buildings on remote farms for what amounted to indentured labor.
Ruth described speaking to one of these laborers, who, to make his point about what life was life on the farm, took off his shirt to expose the raw welts on his back from a beating he’d received from an overseer.
In another case, she spoke with black farmers who were seized by police and loaded onto lorries, forced to leave their crops and livestock behind, and then taken to a totally different part of the country. There the land was much poorer, with little water. They were simply told to start again with nothing.
This was what animated Ruth First.
Let’s take a break. We’ll be right back.
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Now, back to the show.
In the 1948 general election in South Africa, where only white people were allowed to vote, the very conservative National Party came to power.
The Nationals drew their support mainly from the Afrikaans-speaking population of Dutch decent.
In the post-war period, many people across the world, especially in Africa, were saying that the era of colonialism had to come to an end. This was a new world, one in which native peoples should have full and equal rights.
The victory of the National Party was a reaction to this trend. Far from liberalizing the system in South Africa and opening the way for a the black majority to play a full role in the country, the new National government doubled down on racism.
It instituted the system of apartheid, an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness”.
Based on white supremacy, the system essentially divided every aspect of life along racial lines. Such divisions were already a fact of life in South Africa, but the new apartheid laws marked a qualitative intensification of the oppressive conditions faced by the non-white majority in the country.
As one commentator in 1948 put it, “It is not a new policy. All they propose to do is make the non-European more of a slave, and outcast, and a third-class citizen in the land of his birth.”
From housing to education to transport to parks and swimming pools, everything was strictly legally separated, with, of course, the best of everything reserved for the whites. It wasn’t just blacks and whites that were kept apart. People of Indian and East Asian heritage, as well as so-called Coloreds, a mixed race group, were also targeted for official racial separation. Intermarriage between races was banned.
In fact, most interactions were prohibited, except in cases where blacks worked for whites. Blacks were kettled into shanty towns or herded onto the poorest agricultural land. They required passes, signed by a white employer, to enter whites-only areas.
Eventually, blacks were stripped of their citizenship and designated to one of ten so-called “tribal homelands”, or bantustans. These were impoverished non-contiguous entities that were established as supposedly independent states within South Africa.
But, in effect, the creation of the bantustans was little more than a pseudo-legal mechanism to deny the black majority any rights and to contain them within reservations that were totally economically dependent and could be ruthlessly policed.
Or, as one historian put it, the apartheid regime was committed to a totally segregated society: politically, socially, economically, educationally, and culturally.
Joe and Ruth married in 1949. I think it would be fair to say that they had a sometimes difficult relationship. They were both passionate people, and they often argued about politics. They also came from quite different social backgrounds, Ruth being the privately-educated daughter of a wealthy family, and Joe basically having had to raise himself.
Theirs was what might be called a political marriage. They loved each other; but everything was, ultimately, subordinate to the great historic struggle in which they were engaged - the fight against apartheid.
Joe graduated from university and gained admission to the Johannesburg bar in 1952. He went on to become a successful and well-respected lawyer, often defending fellow communists accused of seditious activities, as well as black people who had come up against the injustices of the system.
Known as a skilled and tough courtroom lawyer, Joe struggled to get a modicum of justice for his black clients. He observed that while the judicial system came down hard on black people accused of crimes against whites or the apartheid system in general, judges often gave very light sentences to blacks who had been convicted of injuring or killing other black people.
“When a capital crime has been committed against a black,” he observed, “the investigation is usually shoddy and the prospects greater for the accused of an acquittal … the attitude towards violence was casual - if it did not involve the white community.”
He was also very involved in the legal struggle against the Bantu Education Law, which segregated black children and sent them to inferior schools. Many teachers, black and white, rebelled against segregation, and parents and students went on strike for a fair education. Joe defended several of these teachers and parents, who he said were only guilty of the crime of wanting to provide a good education.
He also defended political activists, such as the African National Congress national secretary Walter Sisulu, who was charged with attending a prohibited meeting of the ANC leadership, which had been disguised as a simple luncheon at someone’s house.
The political activities of Ruth and Joe were never easy, but they’d become far more difficult following the passage in 1950 of the Suppression of Communism Act. The legislation banned the Communist Party, sought to liquidate its assets, attempted to root out its influence, and made membership a treasonous offense.
Forced to shut down and go underground, the party soon reformed as, in effect, an ancillary wing of the African National Congress, which remained a technically legal - though highly suppressed - political organization.
Ruth and Joe, while continuing their professional work, now had to carry out their political duties in secret, with the watchful eye of the state looking out for any indiscretion that might lead to their arrest. Meanwhile they had started a family, with three daughters born between 1950 and 1953.
Then, in 1956, their lives were thrown into turmoil when Ruth and Joe were charged with treason under the Suppression of Communism Act. They were swept up in a dragnet operation by the South African government, designed to stamp out underground communist activities and influence.
The trial was a major political turning point in South Africa. In total, 156 people, black, white, Colored, and Indian; including trade unionists, lawyers, youth activists, and members of the Communist Party and the ANC; were charged with treason. A total of 48 anti-government organizations were raided by police, including newspapers and trade unions, their documents and assets seized, their operations hampered or shut down altogether.
The Treason Trial was about far more than the 156 individuals in the dock, or even the few thousand underground communist members and sympathizers across the country. By this point in South Africa, and elsewhere, the word “Communist” had taken on a new meaning - it was an epithet, a tarnish, an insult, a smear. It was charge that could be leveled against anyone who didn’t conform to the status quo. To be branded a communist was to be made an enemy of the people.
One of those charged with treason was Albert Lutuli, the leader of the ANC. He said that the 1956 Trial was part of a calculated effort to stifle all political opposition to the apartheid system.
The legal proceedings dragged on and on, with several of the accused detained in prison, while others were released on bail. One of those incarcerated was Nelson Mandela, who, half jokingly, described the experience of having so many leading members of the ANC in prison as “the largest and longest unbanned meeting” that the group had been able to have in years.
Joe was both a defendant and part of the legal team during the trial. His tough courtroom style was put to full use as he demolished the evidence given by police officers and the coached witnesses of the prosecution.
The government called as an expert witness a South African academic, known as a rabid anti-communist, who was asked to identify whether or not documents possessed or published by the defendants were communistic in character. The academic claimed that all manner of articles and pamphlets produced by the ANC and other anti-apartheid organizations were Communist. However, when the defense team got to him they handed over a document and asked the academic to read it and give his expert opinion. Having read over the document, which talked of a war for freedom and equality, the academic stated that it was most definitely a revolutionary Communist incitement to violence. Joe then revealed that the document in question was in fact an extract from a speech by Abraham Lincoln.
The government relied for much of its case on witness statements made by black people who were either paid or coerced to give testimony that they’d overheard violent communist language being used at ANC meetings. These witnesses, who had no sympathy for the state, readily let their stories unravel.
The entire proceeding descending into an embarrassing farce for the prosecution and the government. With growing domestic and international support for the defendants, eventually all charges were dropped. However, this did not reflect any let-up by the government, nor did it represent much of a victory for the opponents of apartheid. Rather, the struggle between these two sides would soon intensify, as South Africa turned into a political pressure cooker set to explode.
Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of Assassinations Podcast.
Next week, in the conclusion to our episode, we will find out about the intensifying repression in South Africa, resulting in Ruth and Joe going into exile, and then their return to the African continent in order to take the struggle against apartheid to the next level.
We’d like to take this opportunity to recommend another podcast that we’ve been enjoying - French History Podcast. Please stay tuned after the credits for more information about their show and an episode recommendation.
This episode was researched & written by me, Niall Cooper.
Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show.
Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald. To hear more of Graeme’s music, check out his band, Remember Remember. We’ve included a link to his iTunes band page in our show notes.
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For our Patreon supporters, keep an eye out for a new bonus episode, in which we look into the recent killing of Northern Ireland journalist, Lyra McKee. She is the first journalist to be killed in Northern Ireland since the 2001 assassination of Martin O’Haggan, whose case we will examine in a full episode later in this season.
Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you next week.
Until then, goodbye.
This week, we’re recommending that you check out French History Podcast. Creator and host, Ph.D candidate Gary Girod, looks at the history of France through a scholarly lens, and traces the great nation’s history from 3 million years ago to the present.
This week’s episode features an interview with one of America's leading Cold War historians about the role of France in the Cold War. If you enjoyed our episodes on Georgi Markov, then I recommend you check this out to get an idea what was going on in France around this time.
You can find the show on iTunes, Stitcher, or your podcatcher of choice.
You should also follow French history podiast on twitter, as they are really active, and post all sorts of facts, maps, and cool stuff about France.