Fighters against apartheid
Posted: 9 January 14
Alan Wieder, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Jacana Media, 2013), £20
Joe Slovo and Ruth First were South Africans who spent their lives (and in Ruth’s case gave her life) in the struggle against apartheid. They were also members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) for most of their adult lives. They married in the late 1940s and despite a stormy relationship remained together until Ruth First was murdered in Mozambique’s capital Maputo in 1982. Their lives are worthy of celebration (and study) and Alan Wieder has written the first thorough account of their lives. The book details the struggle in South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and their life in exile in Britain, and across sub-Saharan Africa. Wieder presents the politics of this revolutionary couple with the sympathetic though critical attention they deserve.
Both Joe and Ruth were exceptional activists. Ruth grew up in a privileged household in Johannesburg with left wing parents. Radicalised by the famous miners’ strikes in 1946, she wrote afterwards:
When the African miners’ strike…broke out…a great squad of volunteers of all colours helped them set up strike HQ in the most unlikely places, and from lodging rooms like the one I shared with a girlfriend, the handles of duplicating machines were turned through the night, while in the early hours before dawn white volunteers drove cars to the vicinity of the mine compounds and African organisers, hiding in their city suits their bundles of strike leaflets under colourful tribal blankets, wormed their way into the compounds.
When the strike was over she gave up her civil service job and became a journalist.
If First was only remembered for her journalism she would still be a remarkable figure. She wrote for papers such as Fighting Talk and The Guardian, writing as both a polemicist for the leading national liberation organisation, the African National Congress (ANC), and the SACP but also as a pioneering investigative journalist exposing the crimes of apartheid. Ruth’s journalism exposed slave labour in the 1950s which involved black South Africans, obliged to carry passbooks, arrested for “pass” offences and then forced to work out their sentences on white-owned farms. For more than 15 years she wrote about the poverty and desperation of black South Africans, but also their campaigns and protests…