Paul Foot

Ruth First

(January 1988)

From Socialist Worker, January 1988.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Words as Weapons: Selected Writings 19801990 (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 157–159.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I imagine there are few socialists in London (or who have recently travelled to London) who have not by now seen A World Apart, the story of Ruth First, as seen through the eyes of her daughter.

I fear the film is so very, very good, and its message so powerful, that it may not last long on the screen. So if there is anyone who hasn’t see it – just get down there as soon as possible.

There may be some people who are a little puzzled by the final titles which announce that Ruth First was assassinated in Mozambique in 1983. So she was, but the film ends some twenty years earlier, and admirers of Ruth (and there could hardly be any non-admirers alter the film) might be puzzled as to what happened in the interim.

During the film Ruth First’s life is all in South Africa, and she died not far away, so you might think that she spent all her life there. She didn’t. Soon after the period covered by the film, she escaped from house arrest and fled to Britain. She was here all through the rest of the 1960s and, I think, all the 1970s. She joined a huge army of South African exiles who made a profound impact on the British Left in those years.

Ruth wrote some marvellous books. Her book 117 Days is the finest account I have ever read of the disorientation of the rebel prisoner in a torturer’s prison. Anyone who enjoyed the film should get hold of that book.

Unlike many of her friends and contemporaries, Ruth First believed that no progress would ever come to South Africa without armed struggle. I met her often at meetings, which she arranged, of South African guerrillas, trained in armed struggle, who came to London to build support for it. All these people, like Ruth, were members or supporters of the Communist Party. I was always both delighted to be invited, and rather ashamed to find myself (every time) arguing with them. I couldn’t understand why the discussion kept turning back to the governments of the new African states.

I remember one furious argument with Ruth about the deposing of Ben Bella in Algeria and his replacement by Boumedienne. She, and the others, regarded this as a great sign of progress. They had the facts to prove it: Boumedienne’s record in struggle, in commitment and in guns.

Over the years the same basic argument rocked back and forth. I was told that the Rhodesian armed struggle depended on ‘the friendliness of the front line states’ for its existence. These states, perhaps against their will, behave like bosses towards the people, and as agents for the great companies that carve up Africa. I could not understand the argument that placed these governments above the guerrillas’ own commitment and their own strength.

In the end, Ruth First and these brave young men and women wanted a society precisely a world apart from the world run by Kaunda, Nyerere, Boumedienne, Nasser and the rest.

Since they wanted something different, since they represented something different, since they were fighting literally to the death for something different, why did they pretend and speak so eloquently for people who represented more of the same?

I never got an answer to these questions. On the other hand, to be fair, I never stopped getting the invitations.

Ruth First had a sort of grudging respect for the International Socialists (the Socialist Workers Party’s forerunners). She thought that underneath it all we were ‘Trotskyist splitters’, but she did notice that whenever there was a demo or a clash of any kind with apartheid, we were always in the front line.

On 14 September 1973 she spoke at a demonstration organized by the IS in Hyde Park. It was to protest against a mine disaster which had killed, I think, twelve African miners as a result of the most appalling employers’ negligence.

I remember the date exactly because the disaster happened on the 11th, the same day as the Chilean coup.

The Communist Party organized a huge demo on Chile. We guessed wrong and organized one on South Africa. About 600 came to ours, about 20,000 to the other (which we joined rather abjectly, after our meeting was over).

In spite of the clash of party loyalties, Ruth First agreed at once to speak on our platform. Before the meeting, we watched the masses forming elsewhere in the park. ‘You made a mistake coming here,’ I laughed at her. ‘No’, she grinned back. ‘I’ll speak at any meeting against racist South Africa. You made the mistake, not I.’

For once, I thought, she won the argument.

Last updated on 2 September 2014