The Stylish Revolutionary
“Maverick – Extraordinary women from South Africa’s Past”, the book that celebrates fascinating characters of the last 350 years, will be relaunched early next year. Of the 19 profiles the author chose, few are more engaging than the story of Ruth First, journalist and freedom fighter. As part of our Media Freedom month focus we publish an extract from this captivating book by kind permission of the author Lauren Beukes.
When Tilly First ﬁnally got to see her radical writer daughter in prison in 1963, she was taken aback by her appearance. As she was ushered out of the cell, the visit over, Tilly whispered, ‘Are you cracking up?‘ It was the first time she had seen Ruth without lipstick.
Ruth First was known as the stylish revolutionary. Even during the Treason Trial of 1956, she had surprised her fellow inmates, including Helen Joseph, by packing silk panties and cosmetics when they had brought with them only the tattiest of bare essentials. While on the run from the Special Branch, she refused point-blank the suggestion that she disguise herself as a dowdy little old lady and wore a striking red wig instead. Ruth loved Italian shoes, expensive perfumes, beautiful clothes and gourmet cuisine. But that’s not to say she ever put fashion before the cause.
Ruth was born into both style and communism in 1925. Her parents, Matilda (Tilly to her friends) and Julius were, respectively, Lithuanian and Latvian Jewish immigrants who had toiled their way up to a good life in their newly adopted country. They were also instrumental in launching the Communist Party of South Africa and in 1923 Julius was elected chairman.
At a young age, Ruth picked up “stompies” of socialism from her parents’ conversations with their left wing radical friends and became actively involved when she and her little brother Ronnie (who remained resolutely apolitical throughout his life) started tagging along with Tilly and Julius to the Communist Party’s Sunday night meetings on the steps of Joburg City Hall.
In 1941, Ruth matriculated from Jeppe Girls High School and went on to study at Wits, where she became involved in various student societies, including the Young Communist League, and hung out with handsome provocateurs like Nelson Mandela (a snappy dresser himself), Ahmed Kathrada and a charismatic law student by the name of Ismail Meer. Ismail’s slatternly ﬂat on Market Street was a hotbed for student activists, who came to indulge in Indian curries and heated political discussions. To their parents’ mutual dismay, Ruth and Ismail became an item. While Tilly was delighted that Ruth was involved in such a radical circle, she wasn’t that keen on Ismail, although it is not clear whether it was because he was Indian or because she was Jewish or because she simply didn’t like him. Despite her mother’s reservations and the eyebrows they raised in public as a mixed-race couple even before the Immorality Act was declared in 1950, the love affair lasted four years.
Ruth graduated in 1945 and went to work for the welfare department, with the idea of researching the rapidly growing urban black population. Instead, she was assigned the mind-numbing task of working on Johannesburg’s 50th Jubilee. When the mineworkers’ strike broke out, she quit her job without notice and reported to strike headquarters to offer her services.
After the strike was crushed, Ruth joined the leftist weekly newspaper, The Guardian. It was the first in a string of newspapers that were banned by the apartheid government, one after the other, only to remerge with the same staff and same ideals, but under a new name. When The Guardian was banned in 1952, it was resurrected within weeks as the Clarion. She went on to work for the People’s World, Advance and New
Age as a journalist and editor, and eventually took over the helm of the incendiary monthly Fighting Talk from Lionel ‘Rusty’ Bernstein.
Ruth focused on social and labour journalism, writing up to 15 stories a week on poverty in the townships, gang violence and the bus boycotts. Her thorough, investigative and probing stories provided balance in publications with their fair share of dogmatic pro-communist pieces.
She was not content to play the impartial, detached writer. She took an active role in her stories with the aim of exposing injustice and bringing about change.
So, when she covered the women’s anti-pass campaign and the march of 20 000 women on the Union Buildings in 1956, led by Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph, she wasn’t merely recording the events, she was raising awareness of the struggle, building heroes and educating people on more effective campaigns.
Among her most important work was the reporting she did over 17 years on the brutal farm labour scandals. In 1947, at just 22, she and churchman Michael Scott, following up on a ‘cryptic little paragraph in a rival newspaper, uncovered horriﬁc abuses on a Bethal farm. Black labourers were bound with chains, beaten with sjamboks and forced to sleep naked and chained together in a cramped and ﬁlthy room.
While her gender and complexion ruled out going gonzo undercover as Drum’s star reporter Henry Nxumalo did in 1952, her expose caused a public uproar, not least from the 1 500 farmers and townsfolk who threatened to lynch the reporter and the priest for their ‘unfounded allegations’.
The pair returned to Bethel and met with a group of black workers who told them that far from exaggerating conditions on the farms, Ruth had only touched on the edge of the foetid rottenness in the community. The labourers scrounged together enough money to pay the way for six representatives to return to Johannesburg with them to state their case.
The government responded with only a superﬁcial investigation and the mainstream media were content to let it go at that. But Ruth dug deeper. She discovered that the government was rounding up illegal black immigrants and presenting them with the choice of volunteering for slave labour on potato farms or being deported. Then pass offenders were targeted. They were bust in police raids and told their infraction would mean months or even years in jail. Or they could work on a farm. The ugly truth was that the worst punishment a pass offence held at that time was a fine of a few pounds.
In her personal life, Ruth had become involved with another law student in 1948, a magnetic young socialist known as Joe Slovo. His real name was Yossel Mashel Slovo and although the 22-year old was slightly podgy, he was a charmer and a reveler, and with his brown curly hair and square-framed glasses, utterly adored by women.
Joe had been in love with Ruth for years. While he’d initially dismissed the beauty with her dark curls and immaculate make-up as the kind of intellectual who only liked to gab about making a difference, he was soon disabused of the assumption. When Ismail and Ruth split up, he was waiting.
The couple wasn’t an obvious match. Outside of their shared commitment to communism and changing the world, they were very different people. Joe was a genial raconteur with an easy, earthy sense of humour, while Ruth was focused, intense and, despite her ﬁerce intelligence, desperately insecure, a trait she disguised with a veneer of arrogance. Their lifetime romance would prove to be tumultuous, marked by long separations, imprisonments, inﬁdelities, ideological differences and wounding arguments, but for all their differences and the sharp cruelties, there was also a sense of ﬁerce love, commitment and support – they buttressed each other against the world.
By 1949 they were living together and Ruth was pregnant with the first of three girls born in quick succession over the next four years: Shawn, Gillian and Robyn. That same year, the couple decided they’d ﬂouted convention long enough and tied the knot at the magistrate’s court with a simple signing of the registry. Ruth kept her last name and they celebrated with a raucous garden party at Tilly and Julius’ house in Kensington, attended by every high proﬁle dissident in town.
Ruth’s parents bought them a house and a Citroen. Joe started practising law and Ruth, ever ambitious, took up motherhood and her career in journalism simultaneously.
In 1950, the Communist Party was banned. Undeterred, Ruth and Joe and their fellow subversives started up the Communist Party again in 1953, only this time underground and based on a cell structure to ensure secrecy, so that most members didn’t know who their fellows were.
The first banning orders were just coming into effect and Ruth and Joe together with Nelson Mandela, Water Sisulu and hundreds of other activists were barred from attending public gatherings or meeting with more than two people at a time or joining any other anti-apartheid groups.
On 5 December 1956, The Star ran a photograph of the three Slovo daughters gathered around the breakfast table eating Rice Krispies. It was newsworthy, because, as six-year old Shawn explained, ‘Mommy’s gone to prison to look after the black people.’ During the night, the government had rounded up and imprisoned 156 dissidents and ‘troublemakers’ involved in the Congress movement, including Ruth and Joe. They were to be tried for treason.
The trial, which dragged on for four years, was an untidy affair (documented by Helen Joseph in her book If This be Treason) with bungled evidence and incomprehensible arguments from the prosecution that only proved the pettiness of the fascist state. Eventually everyone was acquitted.
In 1961, Nelson and Joe made the difficult decision to set up a paramilitary wing of the ANC and the Communist Party, citing the old African saying ‘sebatana ha se bokwe ka diatla (‘the attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with bare hands’). It became Umkhonto We Sizwe and while a select group was sent to China for training, Joe led the first wave of sabotage. He was interrupted trying to set a homemade bomb that was intended to burn down the Drill Hall, used for preliminary hearings at the Treason Trial, and was forced to abandon the attempt.
In the meantime, Ruth found that she was being silenced, as surely as if she had hands choking her throat. The Congress of Democrats, of which she was an executive member, was banned in 1962, as were both the papers she edited, Fighting Talk and New Age. The latter resurfaced almost immediately as Spark, but this time the government
had outmanoeuvred her. All the staff, including Ruth, were banned from writing or even setting foot in the door of a newspaper’s offices. Spark soon folded.
On 11 July 1963, an innocuous baker’s van followed by another innocuous dry cleaner’s van rolled through the gates of an equally innocuous Rivonia farm. In reality, the vans were bristling with Special Branch cops and the Lilliesleaf Farm was the nerve centre of the resistance movement. Ironically, the night before the point had been raised about how dangerous it was for all the resistance leaders to be together in one place. Now it was too late. The van doors ﬂew open and 40 cops swooped on the property, taking 14 activists into custody and conﬁscating damning evidence that included maps of potential sabotage sites, provocative pamphlets and bomb ingredients.
They came for Ruth one month later. Special Branch cornered her in the corridor of Wits University and escorted her home to watch them search for evidence that would implicate her as a co-conspirator in the Rivonia farm debacle. Tilly orbited outside, peeking anxiously through the windows as the police turned the house upside down.
Ruth had long since destroyed anything incriminating, but while the police failed to find the secret drawer built into her desk, they did find a long-forgotten back issue of Fighting Talk. Possession of the banned publication could cost her a year in jail. Ruth was furious with herself for the oversight. Just before they took her away, Julius arrived home with the three girls and seeing what was going on, Shawn ﬂed to the garden so Ruth wouldn’t see her cry.
Although her friends, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were to be dragged before the judges in the Rivonia Trial facing 222 counts of sabotage and charges of organising an armed uprising in October, Ruth was detained under the controversial 90-day clause that allowed the government to keep dissidents for three months without charging them. It’s been speculated that she wasn’t put on trial because the government feared the public reaction if a white woman appeared in the dock facing a possible death sentence. Perhaps they didn’t have enough evidence to nail her or maybe they were hoping she would turn state’s witness. Whatever the reason, Ruth was to endure a hellish time of solitary conﬁnement that nearly broke her.
Her cell was dark and claustrophobic, barely larger than her bed. She wrote that it reminded her of the inside of ‘a steel trunk’. She was denied any reading material except for the Bible and the obscene graffiti scratched into the walls. Worst of all, she had little human contact with anyone except her interrogators and the wardresses, although Joe sent her carefully self-censored letters of support and encouragement. Very occasionally she was allowed visitors.
She remained fastidious throughout. She was allowed to keep her make- up and she meticulously applied it every day, put on her earrings and brushed out her thick curls, that she usually had straightened once a week at the hairdresser. When she held onto the bars to look out her little window, she did so using a tissue to avoid dirtying her hands. She was 38 and afraid she was losing her looks.
She was moved to Pretoria Central Prison just before the Rivonia Trial commenced. She was sick with loneliness, succumbing to ennui and frustration. To prevent the onset of insanity, she plucked out the hairs on her legs one by one with her tiny pair of tweezers, made and re-made her bed, repeatedly packed her suitcase, folded her clothes, wiped down the walls, unstitched the seams of her pillow case and sewed them back up, over and over. After her unbearable isolation and the interrogation tactics designed to break her down, could she really be blamed for responding to a gesture of kindness whatever the source?
Ruth had refused to co-operate from the ﬁrst day. But towards the end of the year, four days before her 90 days were up, a 34-year old lieutenant entered the scene. A former fraud squad officer, Johannes Jakobus Viktor told Ruth he was very reluctantly ‘on loan’ to the Special Branch. He did everything right to set her at ease, playing good cop to the evil bastards who yelled at her in the interrogation room. He said he had
known Joe, had actually saved him once, from a gang of stiletto—wielding prostitutes who were chasing him down the court corridors after a case where he’d represented a rival madam. Viktor had shown him another way out. Ruth was too smart to fall for his show of sympathy, yet too vulnerable not to. He wanted her co-operation. She wanted an ally.
In the unﬂinchingly personal book she wrote about her time in prison, 117 Days: Ruth recorded, ‘Between Viktor and me there was an atmosphere of bristling animosity. He was provocative; I was waspish. And felt all the better for it.’ For his part, Viktor declared that he had fallen in love with the beautiful red and encouraged the later (false) rumours that he was the one procuring her special privileges such as the gift of a crossword book.
Her daughters were allowed to visit her days before her release, but Tilly also brought news that an imprisoned comrade who knew her was spilling his guts. It could mean that Ruth would be charged. She was on tenterhooks and when one of her interrogators called her to a room and told her that she was to be released, she didn’t believe him and shouted at him that he was being unnecessarily cruel by raising her hopes. ‘Don’t bluff me… Don’t make a farce out of this thing.’ Eventually he convinced her and in spite of herself, Ruth could feel the giddy elation building. The wardress helped her pack her suitcase and a smiling sergeant behind the desk ﬁlled out her release papers.
Outside, she was ﬁve steps away from the phone booth, coin already in hand, to call Tilly to tell her to come and pick her up, when two policemen intercepted her and grimly served her with another 90-day sentence. They escorted her back into the charge office where the no- longer- jovial sergeant put a new set of papers in order.
Back in her cell she sat for hours, shaking with sobs as she unleashed the self-pity that she had kept tightly locked in during her humiliation outside. And then she made two horrible mistakes. She went on hunger strike in protest and, in her debilitated state, decided to give a statement to find out what they knew. It was better than sitting around waiting, she reasoned and she thought she could outwit her captors. After the ﬁrst terrifying session surrounded by cops gagging for information willing her to slip up, she realised the extent of her blunder. She revealed only names they already knew of people who were outside the country, but she knew she couldn’t endure another session. The next day she started eating, but refused to accompany Viktor back to the interrogation room. He said her mother was there to see her and unable to resist, Ruth went to see Tilly. It was on this occasion that she neglected to put on her make-up. When Tilly whispered on her way out, ‘Are you cracking up?’ Ruth nodded. Her mother added, ‘We’re depending on you.’
It was too much for Ruth. Deprived of everything she loved and suffering the effects of months of seclusion that were eroding her sharp mind and her ability to concentrate, she became convinced that she had already committed a hideous betrayal in saying as much as she had. She tortured herself over the razor-edged ﬂirtation with Viktor and terriﬁed that her friends would condemn her as a traitor (she always worried too much about what other people thought), she wrote a suicide note in the back of the crossword book she had been allowed. She apologised for her cowardice, expressed her love for her family and then swallowed every sleeping pill her doctor had brought her on a recent visit.
She woke up hours later. Still alive. Ruth wept hysterically for days, but when she finally emerged from the jag, she had recovered a sense of calm. She refused to resume her statement and spent the rest of her days in conﬁnement quietly.
On the 117th day of her conﬁnement, she was released, this time for real. Ruth had no idea why they were letting her go, but she wrote that she had the terrible feeling that the Special Branch was not done with her. That they would come for her again. Eighteen years later, they did.
She was still restricted to Johannesburg and she spent the Christmas of 1964 alone. The children were holidaying with friends in Cape Town and most of her intimates were either in exile or banned themselves and forbidden from contacting her. Finally, her exit permit came through in March I965 and together with the children and her mother Tilly, Ruth moved to London and was reunited with Joe.
Joe traveled a great deal, spending time in Angola, Zambia and Mozambique for his work in co-ordinating the armed insurrection. Ruth and Joe were beginning to ﬁght over ideology – Joe was a hard-line Marxist who thought the Soviet regime could do no wrong, while Ruth was outraged by the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and believed
Communist China was a better model for the new world.
In 1976, she moved to Mozambique with Joe, leaving her now grown children behind to take up the post of professor and research director at the Centre for African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo.
Mozambique mellowed Ruth. The primitive conditions meant that she was no longer able to indulge her taste for high fashion or immaculate grooming. She took to wearing simple cotton dresses and letting her hair dry naturally in a frizzy semi-afro. She used her expensive Italian shoes to beat of the hordes of cockroaches that assailed her kitchen.
Her success in the Centre also made her feel less competitive with Joe. She was doing good work and getting kudos for it. Under her guidance, the Centre became known for its serious and innovative research, undertaking work speciﬁcally commissioned by African governments looking for answers to social or development problems, rather than getting bogged down in academia simply for the sake of it. Of course, some of what she did could have been seen as a danger to the apartheid regime, such as her research into how Mozambique could pull itself out of its economic dependence on South Africa, but it wasn’t as though she was actively involved in the struggle or even still a member of the Communist Party. But she was still Joe’s wife.
Unbeknown to the ANC, most of the mail for Southern Africa was routed through Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts airport and sorted in a huge chamber nicknamed the ‘bomb room’. Missives to listed persons were often intercepted and when a parcel from a UN agency addressed to Ruth First landed in their laps, Special Branch leapt at the opportunity. They unsealed the manila envelope using kettles specially modiﬁed for
the purpose, wired it with explosives and sent it on its way.
On 17 August 17 1982, Ruth was in her office with three friends and colleagues, Pallo Jordan, Aquino da Braganza and Bridget O’Laughlin, waiting to have a farewell drink with a colleague. When Ruth went to collect her post from her cubbyhole, Aquino teased her good-naturedly, ‘You always get mail. ’Ruth shot back,”That’s because I, unlike you, always write letters.’
As she tore open the unassuming brown envelope with its hand-written address, it ripped the office apart. The force of the blast blew out the window and brought the industrial air conditioning unit crashing to the floor. Pallo, Aquino and Bridget sustained burns and injuries and burst eardrums. Ruth was collapsed over the desk. Weeping,
Bridget called frantically for an ambulance, forgetting in her trauma that Maputo had none.
When Joe received a frantic phone call, he rushed to the scene, arriving just as Ruth’s three companions were being shuttled to the hospital in a commandeered jeep. He shoved his way through the shocked crowd, but when he saw Ruth’s feet in the tan high-heel shoes (her favourites) sticking out from the ruins of the room, he stopped abruptly. The stillness and the angle of her legs told him everything he needed to know. In the aftermath, they would have to scrape her remains from the walls.
In the Truth Commission hearing held 17 years later in South Africa, apartheid spy and mastermind Craig Williamson denied that Ruth was the intended target, even though the envelope was clearly addressed to her and she would never have opened Joe’s mail. To the horror and outrage of Ruth’s friends and family, he was granted political amnesty.
Later, her daughter, Gillian Slovo, confronted Craig Williamson while she was researching her autobiographical book on growing up with Ruth and Joe as parents. He told her it was just business as usual in the strategy of ‘terrorising the terrorist’ and ‘almost luck of the draw’. He expressed no remorse, but conﬁded it was Special Branch that had started the rumours blaming Joe for Ruth’s assassination.
Writer Ronald Segal described Ruth’s death as ‘the final act of censorship’. She was buried in Maputo beside 19 black men, all MK soldiers. Statesmen and ambassadors from some 34 countries attended the funeral.
Commemorating Ruth’s life at the time of her funeral, Joe wrote, ‘She was a lady of style and elegance, both in wit and vanity. She was a comrade whose intolerance of hypocrisy, inefficiency and humbug won her the respect even of those who were discomforted by the razor- sharpness of her thrusts. She was a friend and companion with a rich, albeit private passion… Why did they do it? Why was she who had nothing to do with the planning or implementation of armed activities, chosen as the target of their killing machine? The answer is crystal-clear.
Her boundless energy and intellectual productivity in opposition to racist savagery posed a threat to them which was no less sharp than a whole arsenal of weapons.’