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Ruth First, miners and murder

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.

Ninety Days film screening with limited places!

On behalf of the Ruth First Papers team you are cordially invited to attend a private screening of the landmark documentary ‘Ninety Days’ introduced by director Jack Gold. The screening will be held on Friday 17 August and will mark, to the day, the 30th anniversary of Ruth First’s assassination.

This is a free invite-only event, though donations would be gratefully received on the day. To RSVP please reply to by 16 August.

Unfortunately places are limited and places will be reserved on a first come first served basis.

View the Ninety Days Programme here

Caviar, Kalashnikovs and FRELIMO

We at Ruth First project have been reading a book by Nadja Manghezi  called The Maputo Connection. The book starts from an ambitious standpoint. People who participated in the anti-Apartheid movement and who lived in Maputo were interviewed in order to tell about their experiences in Mozambique in that period.

The author finds herself in perfect position to write a book of this nature because she lived and participated in the most events within the community of southern African revolutionaries – and western Marxist intellectuals – who found Maputo a perfect launch pad for their anti-Apartheid activities.

The Maputo Connection gives a picture of a space in which the physical abandonment by the Portuguese colonial home owners allowed Mozambicans and international socialist organisations and individuals to dream of an alternative society based on Marxist-Leninist model.

I really liked the way in which Nadja Manghezi manages to put forward the human and humorous side of the revolution. I found that the strength of her book was to be able to put on the record the experiences of people not directly involved in anti-Apartheid activities, such as the children whose parents where revolutionaries, or their partners, and Mozambicans  who were not  involved directly with the work of this group of cooperantes.

Cooperantes is a Mozambican word describing foreign workers, activists, and other non- Mozambicans  who come to help rebuild the new independent  Mozambique. The group of cooperantes on which the book tends to focus was based in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique (where most of the activities of the ANC intellectual wing where based) and Matola, which is located just outside Maputo which accommodated the military wing of the ANC, known as “Umkhonto we Sizwe”.

The book starts by narrating the circumstances in which these two movements (ANC and FRELIMO) come together on a joint mission to fight against the Apartheid regime. It is in this relationship which we would like to focus this inaugural series on the blog.

Page 99 of the book The Maputo Connection gives us an extract of a quasi-anecdotal episode which I think is useful for the reader of our blog to know that life in Maputo was also full of laughter and ignorance:

 “Once, when Sue Rabkin was there [Marcelino Dos Santos’ house] she saw Palmela’s  cat eating something black on its plate. She looked closer and found the cat eating caviar. She screamed, what is this cat eating? Pamela explained that they got tonnes of caviar from the Soviet Union and nobody in the leadership [FRELIMO] liked it very much. So what else to give it to the cat? Sue looked at her and asked, ‘Pam, what do you need?’ ‘Well, I cannot cook without potatoes and onion. For each kilo we give you, you give us a kilo of caviar’, and so it was. Internal House boomed with caviar enough to take as presents everywhere, and  Pamela was able to cook her favourite meals!”

 I quite like this episode because that demonstrated exactly the kind of priority the Soviets attached to a post-independence country.

Read more from the archive about Ruth’s time in Mozambique here.


Happy 94th Birthday Nelson Mandela (plus rare recording)

This is a guest post by Tafadzwa Choto.

Nelson Mandela turns 94 years today and l find myself joining millions of people all over the world wishing him a birthday, paying tribute to his life which he dedicated towards improving lives of many people.  Mandela has spent 67 years of his life dedicated to struggle against apartheid in South Africa – with 27 years in prison.  In the process of the struggle he sacrificed his personal happiness that included his family and the privileged life he could have led as a black lawyer for South Africa’s liberation struggle.  He stood fast without wavering, with vigor against apartheid and the need for equality even when he faced death during the Rivonia trial.  He is an international hero who continues to be an inspiration throughout the world, to all who are oppressed and deprived, to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation.  He will forever remain a symbol and a vital force in the fight for human rights and racial equality.

However, one cannot talk of South African and Mandela struggle without mentioning contributions of women such as Albertina Sisulu, Ruth First, Charlotte Maxela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela just to mention a few.  Winnie was not only a wife but also as a comrade in arms.  Besides the burden of raising their children alone she kept the fire of struggle burning and Mandela’s name alive during his time in prison.  She constantly suffered political harassment, torture, banishment to Branford but did not give up the struggle.   Ruth First was also the same, convinced of socialism as the way forward for the liberation of South Africa and the region. She gave up her privileged life to fight for her cause.  Unfortunately, unlike Albertina and Winnie, Ruth didn’t get to see the liberated South Africa and was killed in Mozambique.  Ruth might be dead today but what she stood for, her dedication, courage and confidence just like that of Winnie during the struggle continues to inspire many women on the need to fight for democracy and against poverty.

In my birthday wish to Mandela l want to end up by quoting him at the start of Rivonia trial in 1963, his words are still relevant today since violent forces are still being used against those fighting for democracy, humanity and against poverty.  “At the beginning of June 1961, after long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I and some colleagues came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable; it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.”  It is wrong for the world to continue preaching peace and non-violence when people not only in Zimbabwe but also in Sudan, Syria, Egypt etc are demanding to lead normal lives, where they have enough to eat, send children to school, health, shelter but their demands are being met with violent force.  Another world is possible, the lesson from Mandela’s life and from Ruth’s deep and penetrating analysis of the failures of national liberation movements.

To mark the occasion, the Ruth First Papers project is proud to release a previously unpublished recording of a public meeting held on the 17th of August 1992, the tenth anniversary of Ruth First’s assassination. The meeting included Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Robyn and Shawn Slovo among others. Mandela’s eulogy for Ruth begins at 4.25.

You can find the recording here [download 681mb].

Tafadzwa Choto is one of Zimbabwe’s leading human rights activists. For more than fifteen years she has played a leading role in the National Constitutional Assembly, in the Zimbabwe Social Forum and currently as Director of the Zimbabwe Labour Centre – that provides advice and support to workers in trade unions. Tafadzwa has been at the forefront of gender activism, as the women’s chairperson at the NCA. As a consequence of her advocacy of human rights and democracy change in Zimbabwe she has been beaten and arrested by the regime. Last year she was held with five others and charged with treason for attending a meeting on the events in Egypt. The trial last almost a year and though the Zimbabwe Six were found guilty of ‘insisting public violence’, national and international pressure, including from the Commonwealth, meant that the prison sentence was suspended.  Please visit the Facebook group ‘Calling for the release of Zimbabwean Activists’ for more information.


Alpheus Manghezi interview

You can now listen to the BBC World Service interview with Alpheus Manghezi on our press page.

Symposium roundup

Our symposium on Thursday was a great day, with contributions from our speakers that ranged from the history of the anti-apartheid movement to the current state of South African politics and education, all through the prism of Ruth’s life and writing. We’d like to thank everyone who attended, including the speakers, audience, those who made contributions from the floor. We’re also very grateful to our sponsors – RoAPE, the HSRC and the SA High Commission.

The entire day was recorded, and we’ll work as quickly as possible to make it available online. We also took the opportunity of having everyone in London to record some brief interviews, also coming soon.

But as Alpheus put it – ‘and what then?’

Well, we’re now turning our full attention to filling the site with as much material as we’re able to, so watch this space for updates on our progress. Equally, if you’ve got any comments or questions about the site, contact us at

The Camden New Journal


Read all about our conference in the Camden New Journal‘s interview with Gillian Slovo.