June/July/Aug 2009

117 Days

Caitlin Roper


“I was bereft of human contact and exchange. What was going on in the outside world? No echoes reached me. I was suspended in limbo, unknowing, unreached.” Ruth First’s powerful, spare account of her four-month solitary confinement in 1963 under South Africa’s ninety-day detention law is a personal memoir, but it also serves as a group portrait of a movement. Folded into the meticulous details of her internment—interrogations; the sounds, smells, and routines of prison life; impressions of the guards; the effects of deprivation and psychological torture on her active mind—are the stories of her comrades’ imprisonments as well. Her strong connection to the antiapartheid community helped First resist the despair of isolation. With the reissue of 117 Days, these stories help her survive, again.

In a new introduction, Angela Davis, who met First in London in the 1970s, after her own release from prison, points out that First’s story, in which incarceration and torture are “justified . . . as techniques to defeat racial democracy and communism,” is disturbingly contemporary. As First observed toward the beginning of her imprisonment, “the Ninety-Day law recognized no demarcation of its territory, no delimiting of its power. All were within its grasp, and the possibilities of its use to intimidate and destroy both the committed and the innocent on the sidelines were more frightening than I had realized.”

What energizes this narrative is not the singularity of her experience—First was a white woman—but her dedication to the cause and her stoic clarity in moments of uncertainty and terror. Released after ninety days and allowed to walk out of jail, she was immediately rearrested and subjected to intensified interrogations. Afraid she would say something revealing, First wrote a farewell note to her family, swallowed a vial of pills, and was surprised when she woke up. Throughout her experience, she occupied herself with thoughts of what “was going on outside the prisons, in the streets, the townships, the secret meetings. . . . In prison you see only the moves of the enemy. Prison is the hardest place to fight a battle.”

First was the daughter of Jews who had emigrated from Latvia in 1906. She grew up in a politically active household, and as a social-studies student at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in the early ’40s—Nelson Mandela was a fellow undergraduate—she helped found the Federation of Progressive Students and served as secretary to the Young Communist League. After graduating, she married Joe Slovo, a communist antiapartheid activist who would become a lawyer for and eventually the chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress.

First eventually became the Johannesburg editor of New Age, the influential leftist newspaper, and helped organize the first transmissions of Radio Freedom from Johannesburg. She was taken into custody in August 1963, shortly after the arrests of Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki, the black leaders who would soon be sentenced to life imprisonment in the infamous Rivonia Trial. At the end of her incarceration, she went into exile with Slovo and their three daughters, settling in North London, where she continued her antiapartheid work. After publishing 117 Days in 1965, First researched and edited Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom, Mbeki’s South Africa: The Peasants’ Revolt, and Oginga Odinga’s Not Yet Uhuru. In the ’70s, she published articles and books on African politics and became research director at the Centre for African Studies at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, Mozambique. After a unesco conference there in 1982, she was killed by a letter bomb sent by agents of the South African government.

First could only have been silenced by death. Imprisonment, police surveillance, censure—not even exile could dissuade her from activism or check her dedication to a free and democratic South Africa. But as she could not be deterred, neither would the government desist in its effort to stop her. At the end of 117 Days, which concludes with her release from prison, First presciently comments, “When they left me in my own house at last I was convinced that it was not the end, that they would come again.”

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