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Ruth First, miners and murder

by on August 17, 2012

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of Ruth First. On the 17th of August 1982 she was killed by a letterbomb delivered to her offices at the Centro de Estudos Africanos at UEM in Mozambique. Her assassination was intended to destabilise the FRELIMO government by removing the support it gained from the excellent and critical research of Ruth’s department (copies of which are available to read here).

As the colonial economy of pre-revolution Mozambique depended mainly on migrant labour – workers travelling to South Africa to work in the mines – it is especially important to highlight Ruth’s work now. Yesterday (Thursday) saw a new wave of strikes at the Lonmin mine near Johannesburg crushed by the police. At least thirty strikers were shot and killed by police officers (warning: distressing video). Two policemen and two mine security guards were also killed earlier in the week. There are also disturbing reports that the police are specifically targeting union officials from both the National Union of Miners and the more radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (ACMU).

It was a much earlier miners’ strike, equally repressed by the police, that led Ruth First into her early journalism and activism. In 117 Days, she explains how she quit her job at the Johannesburg City Council in protest:

When the African miners’ strike of 1946 broke out and was dealt with by the Smuts Government as though it were red insurrection and not a claim by poverty-stricken migrant workers for a minimum wage of ten shillings a day, I asked for an interview with the Director and told him that I wanted to leave the department – without serving the customary notice laid down by the municipal terms of employment. Then he asked, ‘Have you another job? What will you do if you leave here?’ ‘A political job,’ I said. (117 Days, 2006 [1965], London: Penguin)

Ruth makes is abundantly clear that it was this event, the activism of black mine workers, organising and fighting in the 1946 strike that transformed her life. At the time she was involved in the solidarity action that was provided by a relatively groups of white sympathisers and activists. The strike launched Ruth into her career as one of South Africa’s foremost investigative journalists, and a lifetime commitment to the struggle against exploitation. She writes, “when the mine strike was over I became a journalist”. We can hope that at the very least, the terrible events in Marikana might help to produce a new generation of such activists.

Today we will remember her for her dedication to the people to whom she belonged – Africans, intellectuals, activists – with a screening of Ninety Days, the film she made about her detention. Her legacy can help us to understand the current events in South Africa and inspire us to rigorously engage with the ongoing task of decolonisation in Africa.

From → News

3 Comments
  1. vanessarockel permalink

    Today it has been 30 years since Ruth First was murdered in her office in Maputo by the South African Security Forces. Her work and her bravery and her innovation in confronting injustice and transforming society is worth thinking about, today and all days. Ralph Miliband spoke movingly about First one year after her murder: bit.ly/NKH8ju

    Sadly, First’s work is especially salient on this precise day, because of what is happening in South Africa right now – which comes of the legacy of the apartheid system and the colonial economy and of compromise and corruption on the part of the post-independence government: http://bit.ly/OlDets

    It is appropriate to use today to reflect but not to rest.

    A luta continua.

  2. Stack permalink

    Sadly I think this was a no win situation for the police. They were 400 cops facing a crowd of 2000+ some of whom were armed with guns and traditional weapons, they attempted rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas and no one dispersed. I don’t agree with shooting but I’m not sure what choice they had when faced with this crowd, who were also under the influence of a sangoma who gave them muthi and told them that bullets wouldn’t hurt them. The cops couldn’t win either die or fight back or do nothing and stand aside and be vilified like the London cops last year!

  3. I do accept as true with all of the concepts you’ve offered in your post. They are really convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are too short for starters. May you please prolong them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post.

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