FIRST, (Heloise) Ruth (1925-1982)

Scope and Content

The collection includes personal material of Ruth First and her immediate family, papers relating to First's work as a journalist in South Africa, as a university lecturer, an anti-apartheid activist, and as an author and editor of numerous books and articles on Africa and other political topics, 1946-1982. The collection also includes research papers and printed material relating to First and her family, collected both during her lifetime and after her death. Principally comprising Original Deposit (RF 1): biographical material, 1964-1983 (RF 1/1); personal and family papers 1946-1982 (RF 1/2); personal correspondence 1960-1982 (RF 1/3) correspondents include Joe Slovo (1960-1978), Gillian Slovo (1965-1982), Robyn Slovo (c1965-1982), Bram Fischer (1971-1974), Gavin Williams (1975-1981); newspaper journalism, 1946-1982, comprising issues and selected cuttings from South African Communist Party newspapers The Guardian , 19446-1951, Clarion , Jul-Aug 1952, People's World , Oct 1952, Advance , Nov 1952 - Jan 1953, New Age , 1960-1962 and Spark , Jan-Mar 1963 (RF 1/4); work for magazines, book reviews, and other short pieces, 1962-1980 (RF 1/5); papers on publications researched or edited by First, including South Africa: The Peasants' Revolt by Govan Mbeki, 1963-1977, No Easy Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, 1964-1973, Not Yet Uluru: The Autobiography of Oginga Odinga , 1963-1968, South West Africa: Travesty of Trust edited by First and Ronald Segal, 1966-1967 (RF 1/6); papers on books written by First, including South West Africa , 1963-1976, 117 Days , 1964-1969, The Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa , 1965-1973, Libya: the Elusive Revolution , 1971-1976, The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid , 1970-1975, Olive Schreiner: a Biography , co-authored with Ann Scott, 1955-1981, Black Gold: the Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant , 1946-1983 (RF 1/7); papers on propopsed publications by First, including Vulnerability of African Independence 1969-1970, Power over Africa , 1970-1972, The African Predicament: a Reader , 1970-1973 (RF 1/8); papers on First's assistance with various publications, 1964-1975 (RF 1/9); scripts and associated correspondence relating to First's television and radio work, 1963-1976, particularly Ninety Days a BBC television broadcast based on First's period of detention in South Africa under the 90 Day Law, 1963-1966 (RF 1/10); papers on non-academic conferences and seminars, 1964-1978 (RF 1/11; papers on First's lecture tours of Sweden, 1965-1966, Denmark, 1971, and the USA, 1974 (RF 1/12); papers on conferences and seminars, 1965-1981 (RF 1/13); papers on First's academic career, 1964-1980, particularly as lecturer in development studies at the University of Durham, 1973-1978, and at the African Studies Centre, University Eduardo Mondlane, Maputo, 1975-1982 (RF 1/14); resource material on South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Algeria, Angola, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tanzania, Senegal, Sudan, Uganda, Zaire, Zambia, sociology and including copies of articles, seminar papers, newspaper cuttings, notes and drafts (RF 1/15); papers on bibliographical work, including correspondence, notes, catalogues and bibliographies (RF 1/16); papers on political organisations of which First was a member Native Representative Council [1945-1946], the African National Congress (ANC), [1959]-1982, the South African Communist Party (SACP) [1965-1971], the Pan-Africanist Congress [1967-1973] and the Anti-Apartheid Movement [1970-1971] (RF 1/17); papers on political prisoners in South Africa, 1955-1973 (RF 1/18); newspaper cuttings from British and South African newspapers, mainly covering political issues in South Africa, 1947-1982; the Rosalynde Ainslie Collection (RF 2); mainly research material accumulated by First during her professional career, covering a wide range of African and political subjects, but also including personal correspondence and press cuttings; personal correspondence with friends, family and acquaintances 1947-1976, including letters to First from her daughters Shawn, Gillian and Robyn, 1968-1975 (RF 2/1); papers on First's work as a journalist, 1946-1959 (RF 2/2); correspondence and papers on Joe Slovo's work as an advocate and political campaigner, 1951-1976 (RF 2/3); papers on book Not Yet Uluru: The Autobiography of Oginga Odinga , edited by First (RF 2/4); research papers on miners in Mozambique, mainly carried out by First in association with Dave Wield and Mark Wuyts at the African Studies Centre, University Eduardo Mondlane, Maputo, 1964-1980 (RF 2/5); papers on First's academic career at the University of Durham, 1973-1978 (RF 2/6); papers on First's work on the Editorial Working Group of the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE), 1974-1978 (RF 2/7); United Nations correspondence and papers, [1964-1982], including copy of First's statement to the Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid of the Government of South Africa, 1964 (RF 2/8); research material on South African law enforcement, 1953-1966 (RF 2/9); research material on South Africa, Apartheid and the ANC, 1936-1976 (RF 2/10); research material on outside investment in South Africa, [1972-1978] (RF 2/11); research material on South African labour and trade unions, [1949-1976] (RF 2/12); South Africa seminar papers, 1968-1978 (RF 2/13); South African Institute of Race Relations publications, 1956-1963 (RF 2/14); Anti-Apartheid movement publications, 1963-1978 (RF 2/15); papers and articles relating to Southern Africa, 1965-1978 (RF 2/16); research material on South West Africa/Namibia, 1960-1974 (RF 2/17); research material on Portugese Africa (Mozambique, Angola), 1961-1976 (RF 2/18); research material on Zimbabwe, 1969-1985 (RF 2/19); research material on Ghana, 1966-1976 (RF 2/20); research material on Libya, 1969-1975 (RF 2/21); research material on Sudan, 1958-1972 (RF 2/22); research material on land use and urban development in Kampala, Uganda, 1964-1970 (RF 2/24); research material on Latin America, 1966-1972 (RF 2/25); research material on Brazil, 1973-1976 (RF 2/26); research material on Chile, 1971-1976 (RF 2/27); academic papers on Cuba, 1971-1976 (RF 2/28); research material on Peru, 1967-1977 (RF 2/29); research material on unions, strikes, and workers, 1966-1978 (RF 2/30); research material on military power, mainly in Africa, some material on Asia and Latin America, [1963-1977] (RF 2/31); newspapers and newslatters, 1933-1976 (RF 2/32); Africa Bureau publications, 1970-1975 (RF 2/33); International Defence and Aid Fund publications, 1969-1977 (RF 2/34); Liberation Support Movement publications, 1974 (RF 2/35); pamphlets, 1965-1984 (RF 2/36); Learn and Teach [South African adult literacy organisation] publications, 1983-1985 (RF 2/37); miscellaneous research material, 1965-1975 (RF 2/38); speech notes [1963-1980] (RF 2/39); Other Deposits, 1944-1991 (RF 3) includes some of First's correspondence and working papers, and secondary material created after her death, including papers of the Ruth First Memorial Trust; Reference material (RF 4), mainly printed pamphlets, reports and journals on Namibia, 1958-1973, South Africa, 1944-1981, South African legislation, 1957-1959, South African Government Gazettes, 1962-1965, reprints and official publications, 1957-1986; Open University course material: Great Britain 1750-1950 [1974], the letters of Olive Schreiner, 1889-[c1919]; material deposited by Alice Bernstein (RF 5), mainly printed material collected after First's death, 1957-1991; Don Pinnock interview transcripts (RF 6); printed copies of interviews with prominent South African figures, carried out by Pinnock whilst working at Grahamstown University, 1987-1993; Kate Carey interview transcripts (RF 7); printed copies of interviews with Rosalynde de Lanerolle [nee Ainslie] and Mannie Brown, 1993.

Administrative / Biographical History

Heloise Ruth First was born on 4 May 1925 in Johannesburg, the daughter of Julius and Matilda ('Tilly') First, Jewish emigrants to South Africa from the Baltic states. Her parents were members of the International Socialist League and founder members of the South African Communist Party (SACP).
After attending schools in Johannesburg, Ruth First began a Social Science degree in 1942 at the University of Witwatersrand. Whilst at university, she helped found the left-wing Federation of Progressive Students, and also served as secretary of the Young Communist League and Progressive Youth Council.
On her graduation in 1945, First took a job in the Research Division of the Department of Social Welfare of Johannesburg City Council, but she resigned in 1946 in order to pursue a career in journalism. In the same year she produced pamphlets in aid of the miners' strike and was temporarily secretary of the Johannesburg offices of the South African Communist Party. In 1947, together with Michael Scott, she exposed a farm labour scandal in Bethal, Eastern Tansvaal.
Between 1946-1952 she was the Johannesburg editor of the weekly newspaper The Guardian , the mouthpiece of the SACP. When this publication was banned in 1952, it was restarted under the name Clarion , a pattern which continued throughout the next decade, the titles used being People's World , Advance , New Age and Spark . Between 1954-1963 she was also the editor of Fighting Talk, a Johannesburg based monthly.
In 1949 Ruth First married Joe Slovo. They had three daughters, Shawn (b 1950), Gillian (b 1952) and Robyn (b 1953). In 1950, First was named under the Suppression of Communism Act and her movements restricted. In 1953 she was banned from membership of all political organisations, although in 1955 she helped draw up the Freedom Charter, a fundamental document of the African National Congress, and was later a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's military wing. In December 1956, she and Joe Slovo were among the 156 people charged in the so-called Treason Trial, although her indictment was dismissed in April 1959. In August 1963 she was arrested and detained under the 90-Day Law for a total period of 117 days. Effectively forced into exile, in March 1964 she left South Africa for the United Kingdom, accompanied by her three daughters.
From 1964 she worked full-time as a freelance writer, before becoming a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester in 1972. Between 1973-1978 she lectured in development studies at the University of Durham, although she spent periods of secondment at universities in Dar es Salaam and Lourenco Marques (Maputo). In November 1978 she took up a post as Director of the research training programme at the University Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo.
Ruth First was killed on 17 Aug 1982, when she opened a parcel bomb addressed to her at the above university.


The collection is divided into seven individual deposits which have been deposited separately at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. As far as has been possible, the arrangement of the material within each deposit reflects the system of arrangement used by First, although much has been re-sorted.

Access Information

Mainly open although advance notice should be given. Access to personal papers must be granted by the Library Staff at ICS in conjunction with the Chairman of the Ruth First Memorial Trust. Those wishing to access the tapes and tape transcripts require the written permission of the interviewee as well as of the Chairman.

Other Finding Aids

Detailed catalogue, compiled by Matti Watton between Jun 2000-Mar 2001, available in the ICS Library. Also available online. See link to repository catalogue.

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

Mostly paper, but also included are around 240 photographs, 8 audio tapes, 2 photographic plates and 2 envelopes of microfiches.

Archivist's Note

Created 2000, revised by Alan Kucia as part of the RSLP AIM25 Project, Aug 2001.

Conditions Governing Use

Most items may be copied, at the discretion of the Library staff. Copies are supplied solely for research or private study. Requests to publish, or quote from, original material should be submitted to the Information Resources Manager.

Custodial History

The collection is on indefinite loan to the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and remains the property of the Ruth First Memorial Trust. The possibility exists that the papers will be transferred to South Africa at some stage in the future.

Related Material

The library at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies holds most of the books authored by Ruth First. A large number of printed books owned by First have also been deposited at ICS and the compilation of a list of these is planned. The ICS also holds papers relating to the following prominent South African figures: Mary Benson, Marion Friedmann, Baruch Hirson, Julius Lewin, Nelson Mandela, Edward Roux, Albie Sachs, Ben Turok and Phillip Vundla, together with some records of the ANC.