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Durham University News



South African High Commissioner gives Ruth First Lecture at Durham

(5 November 2004)

Lindiwe Mabuza, the South African High Commissioner in London, will give the annual Ruth First lecture at the University of Durham on Tuesday (9 November).

Ms Mabuza, who was a member of the first democratic parliament in South Africa in 1994, will talk on “South Africa: Ten Years of Democracy” and will pay tribute to the memory of Ruth First, a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner who was a lecturer at the University of Durham and was assassinated in 1982.

The event is organised by the Ruth First Educational Trust, a charity based in the University of Durham, which raises money to bring a student from South Africa to Durham each year for postgraduate study.

The Ruth First Lecture takes place in the University of Durham’s Elvet Riverside (Room 142) at 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 9 November. The event is open to the public.

The South African High Commissioner will look at the changes that have taken place since the end of apartheid and the challenges that lie ahead. Her talk will be authoritative and entertaining.

She has taught English and Sociology in South Africa and the USA; has represented the ANC in Zambia, Sweden and the USA; has edited the ANC's magazine Voice of Women’ ; she has represented her country in Germany, Malaysia and the Philippines (picture and biographical info on

For information about the Trust and Ruth First, see:


For further details contact:
Dr Mike Thompson, Chairman of the Trust. E-mail:
Tel. 0191 334 3436, Mobile: 07732 131227

Notes to Editors

Ruth First (1925-1982)

  1. Journalist, academic and political activist, she was the daughter of Jewish immigrants Julius and Matilda First who were founder members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in 1953. Ruth grew up in a household in which intense political debate between people of all races and classes was always present.
  2. In 1946 she graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg obtaining a BA (Social Studies) with firsts in sociology, anthropology, economic history and native administration. Her fellow students included Nelson Mandela, Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambican freedom fighter and the first leader of FRELIMO), Joe Slovo, J. N. Singh (executive member of both the Natal and South African Indian Congress), and Ismail Meer (a Former secretary-general of South African Indian Congress).
  3. In 1947 after working briefly for the Johannesburg City Council, she became Johannesburg editor of the left-wing weekly newspaper, The Guardian. As a journalist she specialised in expose reporting and her incisive articles about slave-like conditions on Bethal potato farms, the women's anti-pass campaign, migrant labour, bus boycotts and slum conditions remain among the finest pieces of social and labour journalism of the 1950s.
  4. In 1949 First married Joe Slovo, a lawyer and labour organiser and, like her, a communist. Throughout the 1950s their home in Roosevelt Park was an important centre for multiracial political gatherings. They had three daughters: Shawn (who was to script a film about her mother called A World Apart), Gillian (who based her novel, Ties of Blood, on her family) and Robyn House searches and the banning and arrest of their parents by the police constantly unsettled their childhood.
  5. In 1953 First helped found the Congress of Democrats, the white wing of the Congress Alliance, and she took over as editor of Fighting talk, a journal supporting the alliance. She was on the drafting committee of the Freedom Charter, but was unable to attend the Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955 because of her banning order. In 1956 both First and her husband Joe Slovo, were arrested and charged with treason. The trial lasted four years after which all 156 accused were acquitted.
  6. During the state of emergency following the Sharpeville shootings of March 1960, First fled to Swaziland with her children, returning after the emergency was lifted six months later to continue as Johannesburg editor of New Age (successor to The Guardian). In the following two years she wrote South West Africa, a book, which remains the most incisive history of early Namibia. During this time she helped to organise the first broadcasts of Radio Freedom from a mobile transmitter in Johannesburg. In 1963 First was detained following arrests of members of the underground ANC, the SACP and Umkhonto we Sizwe in Rivonia. In the trial, which followed, political leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki were sentenced to life imprisonment.
  7. However, First was not among the accused. She was detained in solitary confinement under the notorious 90-day clause, during which she attempted suicide. Her father fled South Africa and soon after her release First also left with her children to join her husband, who had already fled the country, in Britain.
  8. During the 1960s First researched and edited Mandela's No Easy Walk To Freedom (1967), Mbeki's The Peasant's Revolt (1967) and Oginda Odinga's Not Yet Uhuru (for which she was deported to Kenya). With Ronald Segal she edited South West Africa: Travesty of Trust (1967). From 1973 First lectured for six years at Durham University, England, on the sociology of underdevelopment.
  9. In 1977 First was appointed professor and research director of the Centre for African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. She began work on the lives of migrant labourers, particularly those who worked on the South African gold mines. The results of this study were published as Black Gold: the Mozambican Miner (1983).
  10. Following a UNESCO conference at the centre on the 17th of August 1982, First was killed by a letter bomb widely believed to have originated from military sources within South Africa. Until her death she remained a 'listed' communist and could not be quoted in South Africa. Her close friend, Ronald Segal, described her death as "the final act of censorship". Presidents, members of parliament and ambassadors from 34 countries, attended her funeral in Maputo.

(Source: New Dictionary of South African Biography)

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