Ruth First
Ruth First

‘Man’s world’ can learn from remarkable Ruth First

By Letters To The Editor Time of article published Aug 17, 2015

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Eusebius McKaiser

Like most men, I know woefully little about the historic contribution of women to our society. I also know too little about the girls and women in contemporary South Africa who endure, survive and struggle in violent patriarchal structures daily.

I know woefully little about more than half the population of this country of ours because that is part of my unearned privilege as a human being born with a penis. That biological accident has ensured a lifetime of benefiting from the patriarchy into which I was born.

One of tens of thousands of such great women in South African history is Ruth First. She was an anti-apartheid activist, journalist, researcher and scholar. She was killed while living in Maputo in 1982 by a letter bomb that was sent to her by the apartheid government.

Ruth was the daughter of Jewish-Latvian parents who fled anti-Semitism in eastern Europe and settled here in South Africa, giving birth to her in 1925. She was educated at Jeppe High School for Girls and then excelled at Wits University by graduating with distinctions in anthropology, sociology, economic history and native administration.

She worked as a journalist and became active in the SACP (of which her father was a founding member), as well as working, later, actively in ANC structures while living in Britain. She had fled there after also spending time in Swaziland and after having been held in solitary confinement for 117 days by the apartheid government. In 1977, she returned to Mozambique with her husband, Joe Slovo, and took up the post of research director at the Centre for African Studies at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, at the time focusing her research on migrant labour.

It was in this city that she would be killed in 1982. Tonight at the Wits Great Hall, we will recall this remarkable South African in the annual Ruth First Lecture. It is open to the public, so long as you can make it by 6pm.

Memorial lectures are often about the invited speaker. That should not be the case. It should, first and foremost, and centrally, keep the memory alive of the person in whose honour it is being held. We still have incredible lessons to learn from Ruth First as we deal with contemporary challenges in our land.

I have not mentioned the fact, in this brief summation of First’s biography, that she was white. But, of course, in a country still deeply scarred by anti-black racism, dating back to colonialism, relationships between blacks and whites remain an enduring awkwardness in post-apartheid South Africa.

Yet, it is not clear that white women like Ruth could be part of a Struggle for a non-racial South Africa unless they were able to forge friendships with black comrades.

It is precisely this theme that the first of our Ruth First Fellows for 2015, Sisonke Msimang, picks up on tonight. She has done research into the prospects of interracial friendship in post-apartheid South Africa.

It’s been a privilege, as a Ruth First Memorial Lecture committee member, to work with Sisonke as she framed her question, did her research, thought about the critical feedback she was receiving and refined her intuitions in the light of evidence, and argument, she opened herself to. She has, without giving it all away, arrived at both a sceptical and optimistic conclusion.

The philosophical demands of true friendship, she will argue, require serious commitment from white South Africans in particular. Friendship isn’t mere acquaintanceship; it isn’t merely conversing without fighting. The demands are high, as she shows with the help of Aristotle. She offers evidence why current structural facts and interpersonal relations in our society rule out immediate prospects of substantive interracial friendship. But she helpfully spells out what the requirements are, provided we are willing to do the work.

Panashe Chigumadzi, our second Ruth First Fellow, has defiantly used the insult of being called “coconut”, and punctured its intended diss. She interviewed many “coconuts” to make sense of why, in this year of Rhodes Must Fall protests, many middle-class black kids joined in the demands for transformation across campuses. Where do their racial politics come from, despite having enjoyed the benefits of whiteness in former Model-C and private schools?

Ruth would have been proud of the rigour of Sisonke and Panashe. All three are South African women with great intellect and a deep sense of justice. We men would do well to let go of the assumption that men rule the world.

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