Ruth First, iron lady who lit Africa's liberation flame

By - Jul 19th 2023

Ruth First was an icon and historical political figure in South Africa. A famous anti-apartheid activist, her name rings a bell in Kenya because of her leftist ideologies, which were popular with famous Kenyans like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Pio Gama Pinto, and Bildad Kaggia. She also had a strong association with leaders in frontline states like Julius Nyerere, Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel, Kenneth Kaunda, and Nelson Mandela.

Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia, and Mozambique were her obvious destinations during the fight against apartheid. Her association with Kenya was established through Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and it is perceived she was one of Jaramogi’s special team of advisors and that is why Jaramogi even named his daughter Ruth, after Ruth First.

Besides being an anti-apartheid political activist, she was also a writer who authored many books including The Barrel of a Gun, Libya, 117 Days, and many other titles that rubbed the discriminatory apartheid regime the wrong way. Born in Johannesburg in 1925, Ruth First dedicated all her life to politics and sacrificed her time to ensure freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela were given an opportunity to be heard.

Enemy of the brutal white regime

She launched her political career while still a student at Witts University. Her marriage to a fellow famous anti-apartheid activist Joe Slovo in 1949 sealed her fate as an enemy of the brutal white regime. Although both white, Ruth and Joe dedicated all their time and resources to fighting colour discrimination in the country. It was during her student activism that Ruth rubbed shoulders with other young student politicians like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo.

Ruth and Joe joined the South African Communist Party and became central figures in its objectives and plans. They became marked individuals and after constant harassment by the police and spy agents, Ruth went into exile in 1964. This happened after her husband Joe had been arrested and jailed at the infamous Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela. In Kenya, Ruth had links with Jaramogi Oginga through her communist scholarly works.

It is believed she was the inspiration behind Jaramogi writing his memoir Not Yet Uhuru which also has a foreword by Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah. Ruth First was exiled to London but she later returned to Africa, spending more time in neighbouring Mozambique. She continued with her activism until 1982 when the South African secret service sent a parcel bomb that killed her in Maputo, Mozambique. With Joe Slovo, they had three daughters namely Shawn, Robyn, and Gillian.  

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