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Ruth First (1925–1982)

Author of 117 Days

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Short biography
Ruth First was born in South Africa to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Latvia and Lithuania, and grew up in Johannesburg. She became the first person in her family to attend university and earned a bachelor's degree in social studies from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1946. Like her parents, she became a member of the South African Communist Party. She became editor-in-chief of the radical newspaper The Guardian, subsequently banned by the government. In 1949, she married Joe Slovo, a lawyer and fellow anti-apartheid activist and Communist with whom she had three daughters. She and her husband were also prominent members of the African National Congress. From 1956 to 1961, she was one of the key figures in the Congress Alliance. For her activism, she was blacklisted and banned by the government from public speaking, publishing her writing, or attending meetings. In 1963, she was imprisoned and held in isolation without charge for 117 days, the first white woman to be detained under the infamous Ninety-Day Detention Law. The following year, she and her family went into exile in the UK, where she became active in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. She was a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, and lectured at the University of Durham. In 1978, she became director of the research training program at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, Mozambique. There she was assassinated by a letter bomb sent by the South African authorities. She wrote a memoir called 117 Days (1965) about her arrest, imprisonment and interrogation by the South African police, which was later made into a film. Her other books included The Barrel of a Gun: the Politics of Coups d'etat in Africa (1970), Libya: the Elusive Revolution (1974), The Mozambican Miner: a Study in the Export of Labour (1977); and the biography Olive Schreiner (1980), with Anne Scott. Ruth's daughter, writer Gillian Slovo, published her own memoir called Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, in 1997. It was adapted into a film called A World Apart (1988), with a screenplay by Ruth's other other daughter Shawn Slovo.
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