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Ruth First

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

Critical Communist and Feminist Ancestor:

Ruth First was assassinated on the 17 August 1982 for fighting against an unjust patriarchal, racist and capitalist system. Ancestors in the fight for equality, peace, justice and freedom have valuable lessons for current struggles against this global order and its local injustices. Like Ruth First, death will not silence their voices and their wisdom.

In August 2020, COVID-19 has deepened long-existing class, race and gender inequalities across a world facing climate crisis, increasing hunger, homelessness, unemployment, state violence and gender based violence. This deepening inequality is linked directly to capitalism. As fascist leaders prey on growing insecurities capitalism's logical results are clear and horrifying. During COVID-19, capitalism's billionaires have profited massively from this time of illness and death (IPS reveals increases in profits for Jeff Bezos of $30 billion, Mark Zuckerberg of $21 billion, Steve Ballmer of $11.6 billion, Elon Musk of $11.3 billion, Michael Bloomberg of $10 billion and Bill Gates of $6 billion).

Today I honour Ruth First by sharing the Ruth First lecture I presented in 2004. (The full speech is at the end of this blog post).

“I stand here in memory of Ruth First, a critical communist who was killed for her beliefs and her activism. Like those who have shown the greatest courage, First knew fear.

Her daughters have captured her vulnerability on paper and film. In Hilda Bernstein’s book, The Rift, First’s youngest daughter, Robyn, describes getting her mother to admit to her fear and vulnerability in prison. Robyn talks of “being brought up in a country-size struggle…there isn’t room for imperfection within that. There’s lots of humanity that gets lost in that.”

I stand here today aware of our fears, imperfections and of our humanity. My lecture is dedicated to First and all those who have experimented and continue to experiment with politics as the power of love and courage.

It was love and not hate that was the most powerful force in the fight against apartheid. Love for child, lover, friend, parent, comrade, community, country… love for our world, for humanity, for peace, equality and justice. The best in our movement resolved that hatred of Apartheid’s brutality would not lead them to emulate that brutality, nor become heroes in one context and bullies in another.”­­

In the first Ruth First Lecture in 2000, Pallo Jordan (a close comrade and friend of Ruth First, who was injured during the explosion that killed Ruth First) observed that:

“The full weight of the blow struck against us when the apartheid regime ordered the assassination of Ruth First is felt at moments like the present. Her incisive, analytical mind would have greatly enriched the national debate both inside and outside the liberation movement and helped to define the way forward. Comrade Ruth First was outstanding because she had taken to heart Marx’s eleventh Theses of Feuerbach: 'Philosophers have only described the world in different ways, the point however is to change it!' Despite the terrible reverses, disappointments and broken promises associated with the name of socialism during the 20th century, Comrade Ruth First never wavered in her commitment to socialism as an honourable cause and as a realisable goal. Hers was a commitment not rooted in a complacent and dissembling acceptance that everything from Moscow was gospel; or that pretended that all was truth and light in East Berlin; or that everything that came from Beijing was immersed in incense. Hers was a truly revolutionary commitment in that her solidarity with the socialist countries was always critical. Like Karl Marx, from whom she drew her inspiration, she firmly adhered to his favourite adage: “Doubt and question everything”

Craig Williamson, who served the apartheid state, including as a National Party member of the President’s Council, ordered the letter bomb that killed Ruth First. Williamson and those he served, have never gone to prison for this or the other murders Williamson ordered, including that of a 6 year old child. In an interview before going to the TRC to argue for amnesty for his crimes he boasted that ‘I’m not confessing. I’m going to set the record straight…I was congratulated, decorated…in the struggle against communism.’

In 2003, to honour Ruth’s memory the Ruth First Trust and the University of Witwatersrand’s department of Journalism established the Ruth First Fellowship. I was awarded its inaugural fellowship towards the end of that year. The year before I had resigned from Parliament after being the only MP across party lines, to register opposition to the arms deal when it came into effect in the Defence Budget Vote itself and after chairing public hearings on the impact of HIV and AIDS during the Mbeki government's denial of treatment.

This blogpost includes the 2004 Ruth First lecture as published in the Mail and Guardian and Gail Smith’s article that reports on the lecture including Luli Calinicos’ powerful introduction to Ruth First.

It links to two of Ruth First’s books, 117 Days (with an introduction by Angela Davis) and her book on Olive Schreiner (co-author, Anne Scott) and to the Wits Journalism site featuring many subsequent Ruth First Fellows, including Pumla Dineo Gqola, Leonie Joubert, Hilary Joffe, Henk Roussouw, Santu Mofokeng, Alon Skuy, Maggie Davey, Jacob Dlamini, Crystal Orderson, Christa Kuljian, Kally Forest, Eusebius McKaiser, Saliem Fakir, Panashe Chigumadzi, Sisonke Msimang, Niren Tolsi, Irwin Jim, Lwandile Fikeni, Nolwazi Tusini, Achille Mbembe, Leigh-Ann Naidoo, Makhosi Khoza, Bongani Kona and several others. The site also includes Ruth First Lectures by Dikgang Moseneke, Zwelinzima Vavi, Frene Ginwala and Kgalema Motlanthe. May we all continue to honour Ruth First’s memory as we search for solutions in our country and in our world!


I listen

and hear my voice

freed of judgement

it speaks

of possibilities







to all of life

It speaks of love

from which courage grows


I listen and hear your voice

freed of judgement

it speaks its heart

its truest mind

its gentlest soul


I hear

the bitter hatred of broken minds

the howling anguish of broken hearts

the fearful rage of broken bodies

Unnamed, unspoken


by stranger

by beloved


I touch it as it slowly

melts and burns into the ground

One day only the scars will remain

one day the tree will yield its fruit

the seed will flower

the mother will birth herself

One day we will accept this power

that is our birthright'

Poem 'Silent' from 2004 Ruth First lecture below

Remembering Ruth: An article by Gail Smith published in This Day newspaper on the 23rd of April 2004.

Ruth First's book with a foreword by Angela Davis, 117 Days, click here.

the original cover of 117 Days by Ruth First.

The modern cover of 117 Days by Ruth First


Ruth First's book on Olive Schreiner (co-author, Anne Scott), click here.


The Wits Journalism's Ruth First Memorial Lecture site that features Ruth First Fellows, and an archive of the Ruth First Fellowship lectures, click here.

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