Ruth was born in 1925 in Johannesburg, to Julius and Matilda First. Her father was born in Latvia, and immigrated to South Africa in 1907, while her mother was born in Lithuania, and emigrated three years earlier. Both were founder members of the CPSA, and harboured a deep commitment to non-racial politics. Julius was one of the key spokesmen of the Party, and became CPSA chairman in 1923.
Though they lived a privileged upper-middle class life as white South Africans, Ruth and her brother Ronald, grew up in a household where intense political debate between people of all races and classes was always present. Tilly and Julius immersed their children in radical politics, and took them to weekly left-wing meetings on the steps of Johannesburg City Hall. Tilly recalls,
“We made them conscious. We wanted them to have an understanding of what was going on.”
Ruth went to school in Doornfontein, a Jewish immigrant enclave, and joined the Left Book Club as a 14 year old, reading and discussing literature and politics with her parents. In the First home, even their social lives revolved around politics — so much so that when they vacationed, it was with families like the Buntings, who were also intimately involved with the Party.
One of the most important legacies that Ruth’s parents gave her, therefore, was that of political conscientisation, and the ardent belief in pursuing Communism’s New World Order. They played an instrumental role in equipping a young Ruth to break free from the predominant political paradigms of many white families at the time.
Like Albie Sachs and Denis Goldberg, the seeds of political activism and conscience that had been planted during Ruth’s formative years in a politically active household began to germinate during her time at university. From her early student days, she challenged the oppressive apartheid regime through active involvement in organised politics, campaigning for the most basic human rights of the black population. She joined the Young Communist League in 1943, and built a career as a prolific writer and investigative journalist, using her writing to expose many of the injustices of apartheid, and the harsh conditions under which it forced black South Africans to live.
She married Joe Slovo in 1949, and together, they played leading roles in the increasingly radicalised protests of the 1950s. Ruth was on the drafting committee of the Freedom Charter, and in 1956, both she and Joe were arrested and charged in the Treason Trial. The trial lasted four years, after which, all 156 accused were acquitted on 29 March 1961.
Photograph of Ruth First conversing with fellow accused Nelson Mandela during a break from Treason Trial court proceedings in 1957. (source)
In 1963, Ruth was imprisoned and held in isolation for 117 days without charge, under the Ninety-Day Detention Law. She subsequently went into exile in London, where she joined the British Anti-Apartheid movement.
Ruth was killed by a letter bomb in 1982, while still in exile, working as a professor in Mozambique.
Photograph of Ruth First and Joe Slovo with two of their daughters in 1964. (source)