Ruth First and the FBI’s Historical Role of Enforcing Inequality

Ruth First playing herself in Jack Gold’s film on her imprisonment with husband Joe Slovo during the treason trial.

A few years ago I filed Freedom of Information Act requests for FBI, CIA, and US State Department files held on the murdered anti-apartheid activist, Ruth First. My interest in Ruth First was initially raised because so much the research she did for her activist writings was based on anthropological forms of participant observations. She researched her books and articles by living amongst the people she wrote about, and her analysis brought the sort of bottom-up perspectives gifted ethnographers strive to produce. Some of her approach appears to have come from her personality, but some of it also came from her academic training at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1940s, which included anthropology courses; and she later wrote about the formative impact on her life of doing field research for her books and articles documenting the brutalities of her Apartheid.

Ruth First was born in Johannesburg in 1925, to immigrants Tilly and Julius First, whose socialist political orientation shaped her early critique of apartheid. As a university student, Ruth First’s exposure to sociological critiques of power relations and anthropological methods of bottom-up inquiry shaped elements of her later work. She joined the Communist Party and helped form an activist group known as the Federation of Progressive Students, which challenged the basic assumptions of apartheid. She worked as a social worker, labor union organizer, taught in black schools, and learned the craft of writing reporting for various newspapers including the Communist Party’s Johannesburg paper The Guardian. Though The Guardian was banned in 1951, she created new journalistic outlets to publish important series of articles showing South Africans and the world the realities of apartheid. Her investigative journalism often involved simple, but dangerous, through stints of fieldwork observation she spent significant stretches time in rural settings, documenting the daily degradations of life in South Africa. She also chronicled problems facing the African National Congress (ANC).

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David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.

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