AFTER Ruth First was released from detention she wrote presciently that ‘it was not the end … they would come again.’ Indeed they did, with a letter bomb delivered to the Centre for African Studies at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo in Mozambique on 17 August 1982. The sender was the notorious security policeman Major Craig Williamson. He later received amnesty; she died instantly.

The brutality of the apartheid regime and its security forces towards township activists is legendary. Yet some of their violence was directed against peaceful people who broadcast ideas regarded as a threat to apartheid’s survival: Steve Biko and David Webster both perished as a result. First was a journalist and academic as well as political activist. Her sudden death sent a message to the Maputo government not long before signature of the Nkomati Accord.

She was born in Johannesburg in 1925, the daughter of East European immigrants who were founder members of the Communist Party of South Africa. A graduate of Wits University, she was Johannesburg editor of The Guardian and from 1955 editor of Fighting Talk. As one of South Africa’s first investigative journalists, she helped expose forced labour in the Bethal district and covered the Alexandra bus boycotts. In her academic life she took an early interest in labour migration and exploitation in the mining industry and also wrote about the occupation of Namibia. On top of that she was the joint biographer of Olive Schreiner.

With her husband Joe Slovo, First was an important figure in the Congress of Democrats, played a role in drafting the Freedom Charter and was one of the 156 charged in the 1956−1960 Treason Trial. Shortly after her discharge she was banned and following the arrest of the Rivonia trialists, with whom she had close links, she was detained under the Sabotage Act which allowed for renewable 90-day detention (or eternity as the Security Branch liked to point out). Her 117 days inside, especially long stretches of solitary confinement, were faced with great fortitude. This later showed itself in intellectual toughness in spite of Ralph Miliband’s description of her as ‘self-demanding and unassuming’. In common with many highly intelligent, capable people she was apparently affected by inner doubt.

Her account of detention without trial was one of the earliest, but has remained the best. Held at Marshall Square police station and Pretoria Central prison, she was not harmed physically, but orchestrated psychological pressure amounted to torture so severe that during her second detention she tried to kill herself by overdosing: she knew far too much for her own good about the Rivonia operation that she realised had been betrayed by an informer, who turned out to be Bruno Mtolo. Her bed was her comfort: she describes how she turned from a vertical creature to the horizontal. Time, she wrote, was determined ‘only by the scratches on the wall and the visits of Security Branch interrogators.’ Detention was ‘abandonment in protracted time … living in the unknown’. Ironically, a substantial portion of this was spent in a cell in the very heart of the nation’s largest and busiest city. Her toughest challenge came with release after 90 days: walking towards a public telephone outside Marshall Square she was re-detained.

Shortly after she was let out in March 1964 First took her three daughters into exile to join her husband. She continued her work as journalist and writer on African affairs, an early critic, unusual from the political Left, of post-colonial leadership both civilian and military. Miliband points out that she was committed to her cause yet critical of her political home: ‘she deplored the shortcomings, stupidities and crimes of her own side.’ The last years of her life were spent in academia first at Durham University and then in Maputo.

She described her political involvement as ‘vigorously provocative’ with a conscience that was ‘healthy in a society riddled with guilt.’ But there remain the enigmatic aspects. It is hard at this distance to imagine the enormous sacrifice and dedication shown by First and many others. Yet there is no doubt that her family suffered. Miliband described her as ‘one of the most gifted and dedicated South African revolutionaries’. But in her tribute Shula Marks noted trips by First to China and the Soviet Union in the 1950s that resulted in bland and uncritical writing. Penetrating analysis of South Africa’s iniquities was accompanied by loyalty to the party. However, by the time of her death she had become a critic of Stalinism and was officially out on a limb amongst communists.

A Durban highway, an environmental patrol vessel and a women’s residence at Rhodes University are named after her. It seems somewhat insufficient. Miliband believed that First’s name would be recorded on a list of martyrs for a free South Africa. Sadly, he has proved over optimistic.

This article was first published in The Witness on 17 August 2012 and entitled ‘Forgotten martyr’.

Further reading: Ruth First, 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation under the South African Ninety-Day Detention Law (London: Bloomsbury, 1988); Gillian Slovo, Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country (London: Little, Brown, 1997).