Leadership of the PEC Present
Leadership of the REC Present
Ladies & Gentlemen
Comrades and Fellow South Africans
It is a singular honour for me to be here with all of you as we gather to celebrate one of our own, a scholar, and journalist known for her relentless opposition to South Africa's discriminatory policy of apartheid.
Today, we meet here to reflect on the life and times of Comrade Ruth. She was a white woman and a revolutionary. Yet her life was dedicated to non-racialism, non-sexism and social justice.
She was a brave woman who could easily have opted to live a relatively worry-free, privileged life that her whiteness entitled her to at the time.
Instead, she opted to take a vociferous stand for social injustice, a stand that constantly brought danger onto her doorstep and was eventually to lead to her ultimate demise.
She died for an ideal of a free society. An ideal that we are lucky to have witnessed as South Africa celebrates 25 years since the advent of democracy.
Comrade Ruth’s sense of social conscience and her need to be an active participant in transforming an unjust social order, often resulted in her feeling alienated and estranged from a white middle class social order.
She felt ostracised from this world of unquestioned privilege, power and complicity, where men in business suits could go about their daily routines without questioning how their social privilege came at great expense to the black majority in the country.
She was in many ways, one of us, a true champion for democracy, a fervent anti-apartheid activist who sacrificed hearth and home for us to be free.
As they, the pen is mightier than the sword, Comrade Ruth was an embodiment of this idiom.
During the 1960s she researched and edited Nelson Mandela's book, No Easy Walk to Freedom (1967).
In his autobiography. Long Walk to Freedom, Madiba would later reflect on Comrade Ruth’s outlook on life. Mandela remembers that while it was hard for a black student to fit into a white university, Comrade Ruth went out of her way to make him feel welcomed.
Madiba further recalls that she (Comrade Ruth) had no fear in breaking with the privilege of her background and that she readily crossed racial barriers when so few others were prepared to do so.
She also helped to publish Comrade Govan Mbeki's book, The Peasant's Revolt (1967) and Oginda Odinga's Not yet Uhuru. With Ronald Segal she edited South West Africa: Travesty of Trust (1967) amongst many others.
Comrade Ruth wrote many books, and edited many progressive newspapers and magazines. She was truly an outstanding scholar and courageous journalist.
2019, marks exactly 37 years since Comrade Ruth First was murdered by the apartheid era agents. Had she lived, she would turned 94 years old this year.
She would have been a South African citizen for a whopping 90 years as she came here from Lithuania when she was four years old.
It’s a total of 66 years since Comrade Ruth, Joe Slovo and many white compatriots heeded the ANC’s call to be actively involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, and of course they formed the South African Congress of Democrats (COD), the White wing of the Congress Alliance.
Most significantly, it is 72 years the Comrade Ruth’s article on Bethal potato farms lifted a lid on atrocious living conditions of black worker. The situations was described as, ‘slavery of the worst kind.’
When Ruth visited the farms, she inspected the compounds and found that many of the workers were squatting on heaps of sacks.
There were about three or four mattresses and about fifty men, none of whom had any blankets.
The men at one compound were huddled together eating a meal of mielie meal and pumpkin, which they were served three times a day.
All the men that she spoke to complained about working in oppressive conditions and being constantly abused, cursed at and beaten (Rand Daily Mail on 28 June 1947).
Of course Comrade Ruth’s courageous journalism led to the June 1959 ANC inspired ‘Potato Boycott’ as a reaction to reported farm atrocities.
At the height of the boycott, about 100 000 bags of potatoes were said to have been abandoned at the Johannesburg produce market alone, such was the impact of the campaign by our people labouring under the harsh conditions of apartheid oppression.
In the lead up to the historic Congress of the People of 1955, Comrade Ruth was on the drafting committee of the Freedom Charter, but was unable to attend the Congress at Kliptown in because of her banning order.
Comrade Ruth would have been married to another revolutionary and communist, Cde Joe Slovo for 70 years this year.
It is 63 years since both Comrade Ruth and Joe Slovo were arrested and charged in the sensational 1956 Treason Trial that lasted four years and ended with the acquittal of all the 156 accused on 29 March 1961.
It is 56 years since Comrade Ruth was arrested and detained and kept in solitary confinement under the notorious 90-day clause.
After the first 90 days had lapsed Comrade Ruth was released but immediately re-arrested on the pavement outside the police station.
She was held for a further 27 days, during which she attempted suicide. As a fervent writer, Cde Ruth documented her prison ordeal in a journal which later became a book titled ‘117 Days,’ which was published in 1965. The book was also made into a film with Cde Ruth playing herself.
After her release without trial, she fled South Africa and joined Cde Slovo to become an outlaw despite having a place called home, South Africa.
She would later play a significant role in the international Anti-Apartheid Movements in many countries.
It was her resolve never to tire in her fight for social justice that led to her untimely demise on the afternoon of 17 August 1982, at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique.
Comrade Ruth is one of the most inspiring political figures of the 20th century yet the least celebrated at home because she was a woman.
As far as I know the South African Government through the Department of Environmental Affairs honoured Comrade Ruth through naming an environmental patrol vessel named the Ruth First in 2005.
In 2010, Comrade Ruth’s former high school, Jeppe Girls, set up a scholarship entitled the Ruth First Jeppe High School for Girls Memorial Trust, with Albie Sachs as patron.
Yet, everywhere you go you will find king size statues, museums and of course yearly memorial lectures of male comrades.
As women, we must reclaim our place in history. We can ill afford to remain footnotes in a history that we played no small part.
We should do more to honour our forebears such as Comrade Ruth not as a vanity project but an act of self-love and affirmation.
Comrade Ruth was an extraordinary woman, a revolutionary political activist who used the power of her writing to change the injustices of the world that she lived in.
She lived a life committed to bringing about social justice. Her agenda was always to eliminate the inequities perpetrated by the state to maintain a system of white privilege and status.
She was an unconventional woman who made the contribution that she did at a time when it was exceptionally hard for women to rise to the fore in liberation politics.
Yet she managed to break out of the societal mould of her time to be a very non-conformist, unorthodox woman, one who made her mark and actively participated in a male-led liberation movement.
She claimed this space in a way that sets an example for us today. Her friend, Ronald Segal, described her as having such strength of character that when she was sufficiently provoked, she could be very direct, to the point of being able to cut up her opponents with the speed and economy of a food processor.
Comrade Ruth was a woman of principle and disciple of peace she dedicated herself into the progressive pursuit of knowledge as part of a quest to bring freedom to the people.
No wonder she was killed primarily because she was a writer, first and foremost.
One of the motivations for Comrade Ruth’s assassination by the apartheid regime was the threat that she posed in her continuous publication of work that subverted the authority and credibility of the apartheid state.
As an internationalist, her readership was not only confined to the borders of South Africa, but extended beyond into the African continent and the global arena.
She more than any other freedom fighter of her generation, emptied herself for humanity through the might of her pen.
Throughout the course of her life, Comrade Ruth used her writing to pursue a transformative social agenda. Her writing was linked to a social movement pursuing political change.
She had a great affinity for the written word, for people and their stories, for societies and their collective narratives.
Underpinning all of this was a quest to uncover facts, through the processes of research and investigative journalism, to expose hidden narratives and experiences, the unspoken stories and the injustices that were indelibly woven into the thread of these stories.
We are truly and deeply honoured that she choose the warm shores of Africa as her home.
She was truly an internationalist in her outlook, thus she came to embody the struggle for social justice around the world.
Thirty seven years after her departure from this mortal world, we have come to appreciate that in fact Comrade Ruth was a true servant of the downtrodden.
She was ahead of her time in understating the power of research and publishing. The power of the written word, the migrating word.
It is no historical revisionism to refer to this giant of time as our lodestar.
Therefore, we owe it to her to push back against the agents of State Capture and their masters.
We must redouble our efforts in the struggle against the relentless slaughter of our women and children.
We must raise our voices against racists whose preoccupation is a vain attempt to take us back to the abyss of a violent race-based past.
We can’t give up on an ideal of South Africa becoming a truly non-racial society - an oasis of racial tolerance and harmony.
We owe it to Comrade Ruth to keep fighting without ceasing.
Public servants and us as public representatives must forge hands in dismantling the corrupt web of bribe givers and bride takers because this pervasive corruption siphons off public resources meant for the poor.
The raiders of the public purse and shareholders’ funds cannot be allowed to succeed in robbing South Africa of her future.
In honouring the memory of Comrade Ruth, we must return the movement and our government to ethical leadership, and selfless pursuit of social justice and Better Life for All.
I thank you.
With thanks to the South African History online, and Nasty Women (feminist website). https://www.nastywomen.org.za/ruth-first-writing-social-change/and https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/ruth-heloise-first