She had been assassinated a few years before in her office at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, where she worked as director of research at the Centre for African Studies.
On the afternoon of 17 August 1982, Ruth had opened a letter addressed to her which exploded in her hands. Such was the force of the blast that it bent double her metal desk, tore a hole through the wall and cracked the cement ceiling of her office.
Her assassination, by apartheid operatives, sent shock waves around the world, but in South Africa, it was hardly mentioned. She had been living in exile and all her work was banned because it exposed the government for the regime that it was.
Ruth First, one of the accused alongside Nelson Mandela and 155 others in the Treason Trial of 1956, had been a powerful public speaker and one of the best investigative journalists South Africa has ever had. Her incisive writings probed and exposed the brutality of apartheid for the world to see. Without her work, many iniquities would have remained concealed. Apartheid was maintained not only through violence and cruel laws, but by an extensive silencing of freedom of expression which Ruth courageously and vigorously fought against.
Many of the people who had known Ruth were themselves in exile, some also banned. Don wanted to interview them and so we headed to London for a six month sojourn in 1988, where he also did research at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at London University.
When it was time to leave London, Don thought it best not to enter South Africa carrying his research papers and tapes himself. We decided that he would travel with our daughter, carrying nothing incriminating. I would travel with our son a few weeks later, taking Don’s more important research papers and tapes, the ones he could not risk sending back to South Africa as freight or by post.
I booked bargain-price tickets with Bulgaria’s Balkan Air for my son and me. Our nightmare flight began at the check-in counter, where I was told to reduce my luggage weight by half. This could only be done by discarding almost an entire suitcase of clothing. Gerry Houghton, who had accompanied us to the airport, later dropped this off at an Oxfam charity shop.
There was no allocated seating, so when we boarded the plane, there was a rush by seasoned eastern-bloc travellers, while the less experienced western or slower ones like mothers with children and old people, had to sit wherever there was an empty seat. It was a real bun-fight with jostling and distress as families became separated. I managed to swap with someone and so stay with my son. We sat next to a charming young man called Boromir, who had spent some study time in London and was now going home. He encouraged other travellers to swap with an Indian family of four so that they could keep their children with them.
The first leg of the flight took us to Sophia. A large, harsh, humourless stewardess stomped up and down the isle grudgingly attending to her passengers. I had booked us as vegetarian and she gave us a slab of chocolate each. We landed in Sophia late at night. It had been snowing and this was swept up into piles on the runway. Armed soldiers stood guard and we were led into a transit lounge, which was locked once we were all in. A small kiosk sold biscuits. I asked for water and we were each given a glass together with purifying tablets. The toilet was blocked and overflowing. We had a long wait before being shepherded into and locked in another transit room, from which we could finally board for the next stage of our journey. Armed soldiers still guarded the runway in the freezing cold night.
Now we sat with an Italian named Bruno. Again we were given a slab of chocolate as the vegetarian option. We had a stop over in Malta, though did not disembark. Our next landing was in Lagos, Nigeria. An armed official came on board barking commands – ‘Do not give your boarding pass anyone! Do not give your boarding pass anyone!’
Suddenly I was overwhelmed by panic – we had to get off here in Nigeria and we were South African whites. Although I was travelling on an Italian passport, in which my son was listed as an accompanying minor, I suddenly imagined that he would be separated from me. Bruno held my son’s hand and walked with us as though we were a family and he helped me be rational and calm. At the airport we were kept in a transit lounge without any refreshments as time seemed to grind to a standstill.
Finally we were allowed to board. When we landed in Harare, our suitcase, full of Don’s research and a few clothes failed to materialise. We had made this awful journey, trying to protect this portion of his precious research, seemingly for nothing, but actually it had been put on the wrong plane and we just had to wait for it. After a few days in Harare we headed back home on an SAA flight and walked through the customs green route of Johannesburg’s international airport without any bother.
Most of the people whom Don interviewed in London are no longer alive.
His archive of sound-recordings has been digitalised and is being made available for public access. The uploading of all the interviews should be complete within about a month.
Visit www.ruthfirstpapers.org.uk/Pinnock to hear him in conversation with people who knew Ruth First and whose own roles in bringing apartheid to an end should not be forgotten.
The interviews are with: Rowley Arenstein. Yetta Barenblatt. Esther Barsel. Mary Benson. Myrtle Berman. Adele Bernstein. Hilda Bernstein. Rusty Bernstein. Pieter Beyleveld. Brian Bunting. Amina Cachalia. Yusuf Cachalia. Luli Callinicos. Fred Carneson. Ronald First. Tilly First. Sadie Forman. Trudi Gelb. Bill Hepner. Miriam Hepner. Anne Heymann. Issie Heymann. Baruch Hirson. Peter Hjul. Rica Hodgson. Ismael Meer. Walter Sisulu. Joe Slovo. Robyn Slovo. Harold Wolpe
Portrait of Ruth First by Eli Weinberg
Writing Left – The radical journalism of Ruth First
by Don Pinnock
Hidden Histories Series
ISBN 9781 86 888365-3
Voices of Liberation: Ruth First
by Don Pinnock
They fought for freedom: Ruth First
by Don Pinnock
Maskew Miller Longaman
ISBN 0 636 01954 3
See also: South Africa: A new threat to Freedom by Nadine Gordimer: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/may/24/south-africa-new-threat-freedom/?pagination=false
from which I quote: “In the new South Africa that was reborn in the early 1990s, with its freedom hard-won from apartheid, we now have the imminent threat of updated versions of the suppression of freedom of expression that gagged us under apartheid. The right to know must continue to accompany the right to vote that black, white, and any other color of our South African population could all experience for the first time in 1994. But since 2010 there have been two parliamentary bills introduced that seek to deny that right: the Protection of State Information Bill and the Media Tribunal.
“The Media Tribunal is intended to apply to members of the press, both journalists and newspaper owners. It questions the powers of the press’s existing ombudsman and the Press Code (both of which can already be used to challenge whether an article should be published). If established, the tribunal will require journalists to submit to it the subjects they intend to investigate or have investigated and will write about. They must inform the tribunal of these subjects so it can decide whether they pose a threat to state security….
“I am among the South Africans who believe that the bill must be rejected in its entirety.” Nadine Gordimer