Episode 3.7: Ruth First Part 2

[Promo from Jerry Landry @ Presidencies Podcast]

Welcome back to Assassinations Podcast, and thanks so much to Jerry from Presidencies Podcast for that great intro. 

This week, we’re concluding our investigation into the assassination of Ruth First, a South African journalist and anti-apartheid activist who exposed human rights abuses in South Africa. 

Last week, we witnessed Ruth’s early struggles, and the increasingly repressive political atmosphere in the country.  And this week we’ll pick up where we left off, to follow Ruth and her husband, Joe Slovo, as they continue - and intensify - their battle against the regime. 

Before we get into the episode, I want to say a quick thank you to everyone who entered our birthday giveaway on Twitter this past week. 

We asked you to tweet us an answer to the question: what’s your favorite fictional assassination? And we got some really interesting and creative entries. 

The winner will receive a swag bag of Assassinations Podcast goodies, and we’ll be selecting our favorite entry later today and sharing it on Twitter. Best of luck to everyone who took the time to tweet their answer, and thanks for playing. Make sure to check Twitter later today to see if you’ve won!

This episode is brought to you by our show sponsors at Shaker & Spoon and Free Your Tea. 

And now, let’s conclude our investigation into the assassination of Ruth First. 

[Intro Music]

Despite the crackdown on the anti-apartheid movement, carried out by the South African government under the guise of the Suppression of Communism Act, Ruth First and Joe Solvo were still able to help the cause in their professional lives. 

Ruth continued to expose injustices through her journalistic work, and she collaborated with Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders in drafting documents and speeches. Meanwhile, Joe, a highly respected member of the South African bar, defended ANC activists in the courtroom.

But they were banned from anything that even looked like a political meeting, and sometimes even prohibited from socializing with people that the government viewed as has having Communist sympathies.

Still, within the tight-knit community of anti-apartheid activists, who trusted and defended each other with absolute conviction, the couple was able to continue with their political work, which was at this time focused on supporting the struggles of the African National Congress.

With the aid of Ruth’s parents, who were entirely sympathetic to these political tasks, their three young daughters were always taken good care of, even if Ruth and Joe’s lives were consumed by what they regarded as their primary mission in life, which was nothing short of the defeat of the entire apartheid system. 

Throughout the 1950s, the ANC was engaged in mass resistance to the law that stated all black people had to carry a pass, issued to them by their employer, in order to be in designated white areas.

Things came to a head in March 1960, when the apartheid regime carried out one of the worst atrocities of the era.

The Sharpeville massacre, in which 69 anti-apartheid protesters were gunned down by police, marked the start of a decades-long armed struggle.

In April, 1960, the ANC was banned by the National Party government.

By this time, Nelson Mandela, who’d also been charged with treason back in 1956, had risen to become one of the leading members of the ANC. 

Radicalized by the brutal conditions of apartheid, Mandela had become more left-wing than he’d been in his university days. 

He increasingly came to believe that revolutionary action was needed to overthrow white supremacist rule, and he was particularly impressed with the victory of Fidel Castro and his leftist movement, which took power in Cuba in 1959.

It’s not totally certain, but it’s widely believed that Mandela secretly joined the South African Communist Party around this time.

As a result of being outlawed, as well as the shocking events at Sharpeville, the ANC went underground and formed an armed wing in order to fight the South African regime using the methods of guerrilla warfare and sabotage.

In a speech, Mandela outlined the motivations for the decision to pursue violent methods:

After a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.

The armed group was named Umkhonto we Sizwe (in English, Spear of the Nation). 

With his combination of political commitment and military training, Joe Slovo was chosen to be one of the commanders of the group, commonly referred to simply as the MK.

His membership of the Communist Party was also an important reason for his leadership role, as the MK was heavily reliant on the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes for arms, financing, and training.

Even during the repression and anti-communist crackdown of the 1950s, Ruth and Joe, as professional white people, were able to live a very comfortable life in many regards. 

They took risks for their political beliefs, but they also enjoyed an upper-middle class lifestyle, with a large house in a wealthy suburb, a pool, a black housekeeper - all the usual trappings of prosperity in apartheid South Africa.

They were a gregarious couple, well known for hosting parties at which people of all colors mixed freely. Ruth was a good hostess with a sparkling wit; and Joe was a highly sociable person, good company - universally regarded, even by those in the legal profession who did not share his politics, as a mensch.

But, as the political situation intensified, the ability to lead a so-called “normal” life disappeared.

In late 1960, in pre-dawn raids across South Africa, police arrested 19,000 members of the Communist Party, the ANC, and other opposition groups.

Joe was one of those arrested, and imprisoned for his Communist activities. He was at the time representing the families of 430 mine workers who had been killed in the worst mine disaster in the country’s history.

A state of emergency was declared, with the police given more-or-less free reign to raid the homes and businesses of anyone suspected of subversive activities.

Along with many others in the anti-apartheid movement, Ruth, with their three daughters, went into exile in the neighboring country of Swaziland.

Joe served six months in prison. It was no picnic, especially being separated from his family. But life in the white section of the prison, with other political prisoners, was, at this time, no too onerous.

He described the conditions he faced, vis-a-vis the black inmate population:

They slept on straw mats on the concrete floor, covered by blankets which smelled of prison. Their cell walls were dark, and a single bulb gave off a candle’s light. A tin bucket in the corner provided the night toilet. Their light was switched off at an early hour.

Our white man’s prison was a palace, with beds, mattresses, white sheets, bedside tables, a separate ablution block, our own control over the lights, and generally all the mod cons usually advertised in the “To Let” columns.

When he got out, Joe went strait back to his legal practice during the day, and helping to organize the MK militia by night, which was by 1961 starting to receive funding from abroad.

Joe arranged to purchase a small farm to be used as an HQ, storage depot, and training facility. But the MK was hopelessly under-resourced. They were able to make small, crude bombs, but they lacked serious technical skills. 

Several of the leaders, such as Joe, had military training, but not in insurgency warfare. They were poorly armed, with only a few pistols and the odd rifle. 

The black population of South Africa was deliberately disarmed by the government - it was a crime for a black man to be in possession of a gun. And most of the white Communists lived in urban areas where, at most, you might have a handgun in your home.

MK militants were selected to go for guerrilla warfare training in China and Algeria for six months, after which they would return to train cadres inside South Africa.

By that time, it was hoped, arms supplies would have arrived from the USSR, East Germany, other African anti-colonial movements, and newly independent countries such as the Tanzania.

The plan was to develop a militia of 7,000 well-trained and well-armed soldiers who would carry out guerrilla attacks to destabilize the National Party government and expose the vulnerability of the entire system of white minority rule.

It was hoped that these blows against the system would encourage more people to join the struggle, creating a snowball effect that would sweep apartheid into the dustbin of history.

In the meantime, Joe and Mandela were given the task of planning a campaign of sabotage with what little resources the MK had at its disposal.

This would include bombing government buildings and infrastructure, with - at this stage - a goal of causing damage to facilities without inflicting any casualties.

The armed resistance began at the end 1961. In one of the first planned actions, Joe took a bomb into the courthouse in Johannesburg where the Treason Trial had taken place five years earlier. Though he thought the building would be empty, a black cleaning crew was still at work. Joe left, bomb in his pocket.

However, that same evening, two militants succeeded in blowing up some telephone infrastructure in the city. Then an electricity pylon was brought down. These were small scale actions - but they were early days. As the numbers, confidence, and skills of the MK cadres grew, more audacious and dangerous actions were planned and mounted.

Meanwhile, Ruth and the kids had returned from Swaziland, and she’d resumed her journalistic work. Now writing for a newspaper called the New Age, she continued to report on racial injustices and industrial struggles by day, and then attending underground meetings of the Communist Party, in which she now had a leading role, by night.

But the government took further action to shut down a critical press. A law was passed that banned anyone who had ever been associated with the Communists or the ANC from working in printing or publishing. 

Around the same time, the government placed a order upon Joe, restricting his movements so he could no longer leave Johannesburg.

This effectively ended his career as a lawyer. Many of his clients were tried at the high court in the nation’s capital, Pretoria. 

In a major blow to the struggle, Mandela was arrested in 1962. It’s unclear, but widely believed, that the South African government received a tip-off about his whereabouts from a man named Millard Shirley, a member of the Communist Party who was also a CIA agent.

With other senior leaders of the ANC and the MK, Mandela was convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He would spend then next 28 years behind bars.

The weight of organizing the MK now fell even heavier upon Joe’s shoulders. Unable to work, and now under near constant surveillance, he and Ruth made the decision that he should leave the country.

The MK would train abroad, in friendly African countries, under the tutelage of the Soviets and the East Germans, and their local allies. Joe would lead this armed struggle, but to do so meant he had to leave his family.

With a heavy heart, but with absolute conviction, Joe and Ruth decided, as a couple, to make that sacrifice.

Unable to pursue journalism, Ruth found administrative work in the law office of a family friend. And, of course, she continued to carry out secret political activities, such as helping to organize the sabotage operations of the MK.

She also edited the manuscript of a book by Govan Mbeki, one of the imprisoned leaders of the ANC, titled The Peasants’ Revolt. Smuggled out of the country and published in Britain, the book became a seminal work for the anti-apartheid movement.

On August 9th, 1963, Ruth was arrested.

She was detained under the draconian laws enacted as part of the state of emergency that had been declared by the National Party government. This meant that the police could hold her without charge for up to 90 days.

She ended up spending 117 days in prison, most of it in solitary confinement in a six-by-eight-foot cell. She was subjected to hours of grueling questioning by police officers in an effort to break her spirit and make her name names.

She refused to answer any questions.

Her torment was worst when she though of her three daughters, separated now from both their father and mother. But it was a comfort to Ruth that her mother was taking good care of the kids.

The children were only able to visit twice during her incarceration. On one of the visits, her 9-year-old daughter, Robyn, offered her mom a stick of chewing gum. “There are things written inside the paper,” Robyn whispered, “something for you to read in your cell.”

As Joe had done during his detention, Ruth observed the racial disparity that existed in the women’s prison. Though she was allowed very few visitors, was not permitted to speak to other inmates, and was denied any reading material in her cell, Ruth was still aware that things were better for her than for the black women held there.

She later wrote about the perverseness apartheid. Even though she was a prisoner held under top-security conditions, like any white South African lady, she would sit in bed each morning as a black woman came in and cleaned the cell. 

Should a spot appear on the floor during the day, the white warder would shout to the nearest African warder to get a black prisoner to come in to clean the floor.

The idea that a white woman, even in prison, would carry out such a menial task was simply beyond the comprehension of the apartheid system.

As the days turned to weeks turned to months, Ruth’s mental health started to crack. She had no idea when - or if - she’d be charged or released.

At one point she was told that she’d been freed, so she packed her few belongings and made ready to go. But just as she left the cell and went to an area to make a phone call, she was told that there had been some mistake and that she’d have to go back to her cell.

Interrogators deployed various tricks to break her down: shouting, intimidation, good cop bad cop, flirting, offering gifts.

Towards the end of her time in prison, and under intense pressure, she decided to make some general comments about things she felt were already publicly known.

Immediately afterwards, in her cell, she feared that she’d let slip some important piece of information relating to the activities of the Communist Party or the MK.

Desperate, she wrote a suicide note on a scrap of paper and took an overdose of sleeping pills that she’d been prescribed. 

The suicide attempt was unsuccessful. The pills were not strong enough to do any real harm.

After almost four months in prison, most of it spent in isolation, Ruth was released.

She had never been charged with a crime. 

Her release was facilitated by a member of parliament who had been a professor at Witwatersrand and who’d known Joe when he was a law student there.

Though no longer incarcerated, Ruth could hardly be said to have been free. She was constantly and closely surveilled, and she knew that any contact she had with the movement risked bringing with it a detail of the South African police assigned to watch her every move.

It seemed likely that the authorities would lock her up again, given the slightest pretext.

She now feared for the safety of her children. After 117 days of psychological torture, Ruth was in no doubt that the apartheid government was not playing games - and that it could resort to extreme methods to silence opposition.

Let’s take a break. We’ll be right back.

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Now, back to the show.

After her release from prison, Ruth made plans to leave South Africa. Joe, who had been training with the MK in Tanzania, had recently moved to London. There he was working to build support for the movement among opponents of apartheid in Britain.

Ruth applied for a passport, which was rejected. However, she was told that it would be no problem to get an exit visa for her and the children. The authorities in South Africa were no doubt glad to see a troublemaker leave.

She and the kids were escorted by police officers to the airport in Johannesburg, and boarded a flight to England. Ruth’s mother followed them a few days later.

It was a happy reunion at Heathrow Airport, London, as Joe embraced his wife and kids. But, from a political point of view, things looked bleak in that moment.

The Communist Party had been suppressed, the MK militia was nothing much to speak of, and many of the leading members of the ANC, including Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki, were in prison.

Still, there was work to be done. There was a lot of sympathy in Britain for the anti-apartheid cause, and Ruth found herself in high demand to speak at political meetings and rallies. 

Meanwhile, Joe was working at the ANC’s small office in London, for which he received a meager salary. Fortunately, Ruth’s parents were able to purchase a house for the family to live in together, and help meet the costs of living in an expensive city.

Ruth wrote an account of her time in prison, titled 117 Days, which proved popular and was turned into a play and then a film.

She also edited and wrote the preface to Mandela’s book, No Easy Walk to Freedom, which was published in Britain in 1965.

Money was in short supply, but there was a degree of normality for the family in London. The kids went to school, the family went for day trips to the countryside, Ruth and Joe could meet with friends and comrades also exiled in London, and there were dinner parties in their house in Camden.

There were even celebrity friends, including well-known opponents of the apartheid regime such as Paul Robeson and Zero Mostel, then appearing on the West End stage.

But they were always acutely aware that though there were safely in London, many of their comrades and friends were in prison or at great risk back in South Africa.

While Ruth carried out her literary work, as well as submitting journalistic articles to the British press about apartheid and the conditions endured by black people in South Africa, Joe and other leading figures within the Communist Party in exile were preparing to take the armed struggle to the next level.

In 1965, Joe and five other MK leaders traveled to Moscow for consultations about how best to proceed. After this, he made his way back to Tanzania, while other MK cadres went to Odessa in Ukraine for specialist guerrilla warfare training.

Joe soon came back to London. It was decided that he should be the roving international ambassador for the MK, based in Britain, but traveling often to East Germany and the USSR, Cuba and Vietnam (where he learned about the  successful use of guerrilla tactics), as well as friendly African countries such as Zambia and Tanzania, and the liberation movements of Angola and Mozambique. 

By the mid 1960s, there were around 500 people receiving military training in the Soviet Union and another 500 trained militants stationed in camps in Tanzania, waiting for orders to move into South Africa to initiate operations against the regime there.

From 1967, the MK also fought alongside African militants in Rhodesia, the former British colony that was, like South Africa, run by government based on white-minority rule.

During this time, Joe and Ruth began to disagree more and more about politics. 

Ruth had enrolled at the London School of Economics to carry out postgraduate study, and there she began to think more and more critically about the Communist Party.  Especially after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, she was of the view that the political line coming out of the Kremlin was often wrong.

Joe, however, was a committed Stalinist, who at this time accepted everything that Moscow said as pretty much gospel. 

These political disagreements, which often turned into furious shouting matches, combined with the pressures of  life in exile, and their respective work lives, led them to drift apart.

Ruth had become a successful writer and political commentator, appearing in many papers, magazines, and journals around the world. She wrote reports on conditions in South Africa, and across Africa more generally, for the United Nations and the human rights organization Amnesty International.

Her book, The Barrel of a Gun, which looked at politics and society across post-colonial Africa, was published in 1969 and became an international success, leading to further writing opportunities.

Ruth’s growing reputation as a serious authority on Africa opened a route for her into academia.

In 1972 she took up a year-long fellowship at the University of Manchester, followed a permanent position at the department of sociology at the University of Durham in the north of England.

In 1978 Ruth left England to return to Africa, taking up a position at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique.

By this time, the children were all grown up, with lives of their own. And as much as she’d made a home in England, and built a successful career there, she was thrilled to go back to Africa. 

Mozambique had won its independence from Portugal in 1975, and was led by a leftwing government. Maputo, near the border with Swaziland and South Africa, would become an important center for ANC activities, including a base for the MK militia.

At the university, Ruth helped to build a new African Studies department. She attracted a team of smart and eager young academics from across African and Britain, and launched research into various social and political movements in the continent, as well as economic issues such as the development of peasant agriculture and conditions in the mining sector. She also mentored Mozambican journalists and newspaper editors.

As well as her academic work, Ruth was able mix with many exiles from the anti-apartheid movement who lived in Maputo. Joe was still the leading figure in the MK, acting as strategist, organizer, and the go-between that connected the movement to its Soviet backers. After a long struggle to build the armed wing of the ANC into a serious guerrilla force, by the 1970s, the MK was launching regular attacks inside South Africa, while training and organizing its cadres from bases in neighboring countries.

A sea change in social relations in South Africa took place in 1976. The Soweto Uprising was a series of demonstrations by black schoolchildren in the sprawling township suburb of Johannesburg. Students were protesting the poor state of bantu education in general, and in particular a new law that forced black schools to learn Afrikaans, the language spoken by the Dutch settlers who formed the majority of the white population, and were the base of support for the National Party.

The students, most of whom spoke a native language at home, wanted to be educated in English, which was seen as a useful international language, rather than the tongue of their Afrikaans oppressors. Some 20,000 students took part in these protests, which were met with police brutality. At least 176 children were killed, with hundreds more wounded by live fire, rubber bullets, tear gas, and beatings.

Photographs, published in newspapers across the globe, of the bloodied bodies of children lying in the streets shocked the conscience of the world, turning the South African government into even more of a pariah. However, the apartheid government still retained the backing of the United States, which viewed it as an ally during the Cold War; as well as the discrete support of Britain, not least because of the many economic ties between British mining interests and South Africa.

The Soweto Uprising revived the status of the ANC, which had long suffered from the imprisonment or exile of most of its senior leadership. A new generation of anti-apartheid activists now came to the fore, such as Thabo Mbeki, the future president of post-apartheid South Africa and Steve Biko, the youth leader who would be captured and tortured to death by the South African regime in 1977, only to become one of the most iconic martyrs of the struggle. 

The slogan of the post-Soweto Uprising era was: “Don’t Mourn, Mobilize.” A radicalized generation of black youth was willing to give their lives to the cause, including joining the MK militia. Hundreds of black youths snuck across the border in order to train and join the fight.

Joe moved to Zambia in 1977 to take charge of the training of this new generation of fighters, before relocating to Angola, which had also recently won its independence from Portugal, where the leftist government was supportive of the anti-apartheid government.

To facilitate the growing organization, Joe continued to travel extensively across Africa, and to the USSR and East Germany. As well as training and financial aid, the Soviets provided expertise, such as hundreds of expertly faked passports to allow ANC and MK cadres to travel to and from South Africa to carry out missions.

He was the prime target of the South African government, and survived at least one assassination attempt. One thing, I feel, sums up the hatred of the apartheid regime towards him - as well as its sadism

The South African special forces ran a secret facility on a remote farm, where captured MK militants would be taken. The torture chamber in the basement of the farmhouse was named the Joe Slovo Suite.

Throughout the 1980s, Joe helped to train and lead thousands of young people who joined the MK. A middle aged Jew from Lithuania, he was perhaps an unlikely leader of a guerrilla army largely made up of black youth. But he was admired, respected, and liked by militants who saw in him a man of principle and utmost commitment, a man who had spent his entire adult life fighting a white-supremacist system that he could have chosen to profit from.

The MK launched a series of very successful coordinated actions inside South Africa on May 31st, 1980. Three oil refineries were hit, causing massive damage.

The loss of oil and machinery one one thing. But far more damaging was the psychological impact of the attacks. They exposed just how far the MK had come - it was no longer a ragtag group with a few guns and rudimentary bombs. It had become a military force skilled in sabotage,  able to move covertly across borders and throughout the country.

Crucially for the anti-apartheid movement, this exposed how susceptible the regime was to attack. In order to retain control of a county that was overwhelmingly non-white, the South African government had to project an image of invincibility. That the MK could strike deep inside the country, causing significant damage to critical infrastructure, shattered that image.   

The attacks raised morale among MK cadres and were a cause for celebration in the black townships that were the main recruiting grounds of the militia. But, as we shall see, the National Party government in Pretoria was not about to roll over. Far from it, they would strike back, time and again, with the aim of crushing the MK and decapitating its leadership.

In this, the South African regime continued to have the backing of the United States. The bombings of the oil refineries were condemned by the US government and much of the media as terrorist actions. Time magazine ran an article titled “Public Enemy Number One” with a picture of Joe Slovo.

Joe lived with Ruth in Mozambique at this time, but he travelled all the time, often based at training camps. Meanwhile, she was occupied with her own travels for research, or going back to Britain to see the kids. So, they spent relatively little time together. But, despite the stresses of their respective jobs, and their ongoing political disagreements, they chose to see each other when they could. And they wrote to each other often when they were apart. Their relationship, their love, was complex; but it was one based on a lifetime of shared struggle and sacrifice, as well as a shared love for their three children.

Maputo seemed like a safe place. The ANC and its allies had been given protection by the Mozambican government, and the city had become almost a capital in exile for the leadership of the anti-apartheid movement. 

Any notion that they were safe in Maputo was shattered on the night of January 30th, 1981, when a special forces unit of the South African army struck inside the city. Commandos in blackface and wearing Mozambican army uniforms crossed the border from South Africa and made their way to Maputo. They had intel about where MK cadres were living. Under the cover of darkness, the commandos killed 14 MK fighters, all of them members of a specialist sabotage unit.

The raid was a shock to the MK, not least because the South African government clearly had accurate intelligence about the residences of MK cadres in Maputo, information that most likely came from either a spy or from some captured militant who had been tortured.

The struggle continued, with attacks by the MK on infrastructure, and further raids by South African forces. The apartheid regime also utilized assassination as a means of weakening the opposition. Not all of those targeted were MK militants or members of the Communist Party. For example, in 1977, a well-known anti-apartheid academic was murdered; then in 1981, a civil rights lawyer was killed. It was clear, therefore, that the entire movement based in Maputo was at risk. 

On the morning of August 17th, 1982, Ruth drove to her office at the university. She had a stack of letters on her desk - a common sight, as she maintained a voluminous correspondence with many people. She started to go through the pile. One of the people in her office tells the story:

She was reading her mail and chatting away and then suddenly there was this flash. You know in the movies when they show explosives like that and they make everything go into slow motion. That is how you perceive the whole situation. I mean nothing goes into slow motion, but that is how your brain perceives it. It’s at the end of that when you try gathering yourself together and you realize that there was a bomb.

Ruth, holding the letter bomb near her face at the moment of detonation, died instantly. Two other people in the office suffered serious injuries from the shrapnel. 

Though everyone knew that she had been murder by the South African regime, it would not be until the end of the apartheid system that the facts about who assassinated Ruth First were made public. 

In 1994, white-minority rule in South Africa came to an end. That year, Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison in 1990 as part of the transition to democracy, was elected as the first black president of the country. The new ANC-led government instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to account for the crimes committed under the apartheid years without retribution for those who had commit those crimes. As painful and controversial of a policy as this was, Mandela and other leaders of the new South Africa were convinced that it was only by this process that recriminations and further bloodshed could be avoided.

One of those who came forward to give evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a man named Craig Williamson. He confessed to being a government spy who had infiltrated the anti-apartheid moment and ingratiated his way into Ruth and Joe’s circle in Maputo. Williamson admitted orchestrating the letter bomb.

Ruth was mourned by the anti-apartheid movement, and hailed as one of its martyrs. Though shattered by Ruth’s death, Joe was determined to continue their struggle. In 1990 he was allowed to come back to South Africa. One of the first people he met with was Mandela.

In 1994, President Mandela appointed Joe Slovo to his cabinet. But Joe didn’t get to enjoy the fruit of his long years of struggle for very long. He died of cancer in 1995.

His funeral was held in a soccer stadium in Soweto, with over 40,000 mourners packed inside to bid farewell to the leader of their armed resistance. 

As the cortege made its way through the township, the streets were lined with thousands more people, who were celebrating Joe’s life, dancing and singing the battle hymn of the resistance: “Hamba Kahle Umkhonto”, or “Go Well, Spear of the Nation.”

His body was lowered into the earth by his former comrades in arms. Mandela and the entire leadership of the African National Congress stood reverently at the graveside. Of the 300,000 people laid to rest within the sprawling Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, many of them martyrs of the struggle against the apartheid regime, Joe Slovo is one of only two whites.

Of his wife, Joe had said: 

During the 33 years of our married life Ruth and I enjoyed a warm companionship and stimulating mutuality. It was not without its moments of contest which sometimes perturbed those of our acquaintances who were not yet aware of the chemistry of our relationship. Ruth expressed well an aspect of our spirited comradeship in a letter during one of our unavoidable separations: “Oh, for a good row in close proximity.” For me there is no measure to gauge her loss.

Ruth First viewed journalism and her later academic research as a means to an end - a way to expose what was rotten in order to end it. But, as one of her contemporaries put it, she was never content to merely propagandize or sloganize:

She believed that the best propaganda was the facts, and editors and readers knew they could rely on every word she wrote.

One of Ruth’s students at Maputo later said that if Ruth had lived to see the end of apartheid, she would have been overjoyed. But if she had seen what South Africa was like in the years and decades that followed, she would have been appalled by the ongoing problems such as unemployment, sexism, outrageous CEO salaries, disparate housing, education and health care, government and corporate corruption, and censorship. 

If Ruth First were still alive, her former student observed, she would still be fighting, fueled by a passion for economic justice and a hatred for inequality.

Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of Assassinations Podcast

We’re taking a break next week, but we’ll be back in two weeks to look at the assassination of Martin O’Hagan, a journalist from Northern Ireland who was murdered by a paramilitary group in 2001.

O’Hagan had been a member of the Irish Republic Army, and was imprisoned by the British in the 1970s. On the outside, working as a journalist for various newspapers and on TV, he exposed links between the police and paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.

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 check out 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.

You’ll find us on Twitter, @AssasinsPod, where we tweet about show related updates and assassinations in the news today. 

Our podcast will always be free, but we value the support of our patrons. For as little as a dollar a month, you can support the show and gain access to exclusive bonus content and episodes, For those willing to give a little bit more, you can score stickers, shoutouts, merch store credit, and even the opportunity to collaborate with me on the topic of a future show. For more information, check out patreon.com/assassinationspodcast 

Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you in two weeks. 

Until then, goodbye.