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An image of the Soweto Gospel Choir on the right and Ruth First on the left

On Monday 24 October, the Soweto Gospel Choir will be performing at Durham Cathedral in memory of our former lecturer Ruth First. Emeritus Professor Mike Thompson from our School of Modern Languages and Cultures has been reflecting on her life and the importance of her work.

Why was the work of Ruth First so important?

Ruth is best known for the prominent political role she played in the struggle against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela, her husband Joe Slovo and many other activists, inside South Africa at first, then in exile. Her most valuable contribution was to expose the injustices of the apartheid police state and economy through investigative journalism and sociological research. In newspaper articles, books, pamphlets and evidence to international enquiries, she showed in telling detail exactly how the system of oppression and exploitation worked in South Africa – and made illuminating connections to other parts of Africa. The threat that her work posed to the apartheid regime led first to her imprisonment in 1963 and finally to her assassination in 1982. Mandela, paying tribute to Ruth in 1992, declared that “she was murdered because of her acute political acumen combined with her resolute refusal to abandon her principles."

What was Ruth First’s connection with the University?

After being forced into exile in 1964, she focused increasingly on academic research into issues of development, decolonization, gender and social injustice in Africa. After a research fellowship at the University of Manchester, she took up a lectureship in Development Studies in the Sociology Department at Durham in 1973. She had a profound impact on the students she taught here and the colleagues she worked with. Keen to get back to working on the ground in Africa, she took a sabbatical in 1978 to carry out research on migrant labourers in Mozambique, which led to her appointment as Director of Research at the Centre for African Studies at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. She was still technically on secondment from Durham University when she was murdered by the South African police in Maputo in August 1982.

How did the Ruth First Educational Trust come into being?

At around the same time as Ruth First and her family were forced into exile by the increasing violence of apartheid, students and staff at Durham University set up a scholarship to enable students from South Africa (some of whom were themselves political exiles) to take an undergraduate degree at Durham. After Ruth’s death in 1982, the charitable trust and the scholarship were renamed in her memory. In 1994, with the dismantling of apartheid and the opening-up of educational opportunities in South Africa, we shifted the focus of the Ruth First Scholarship to supporting one student per year to take a taught Master’s degree, and since 2007 we have invited applications from all the countries in Southern Africa. Ruth First Scholars in recent years have come from Zimbabwe, Malawi and Botswana.

What is the University doing to mark the 40th anniversary of Ruth First’s assassination?

Several events have been led by the RFET and the CHESS (Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society) project and supported by the University. A colloquium at St Chad’s College examined and celebrated Ruth’s journalistic and academic work, with contributions from former colleagues. The colourful mural dedicated to her memory on the side of Ruth First House in Durham was renovated and unveiled in March. A small exhibition about her life, work and presence in Durham is being developed. The highlight of the year of commemoration is a concert by the dazzling Soweto Gospel Choir as part of their international Freedom Tour. Taking place in Durham Cathedral on 24 October, the event will remember Ruth and other victims of apartheid, and express hope for the future of southern Africa. We’ll recall Mandela’s words: ‘Her life, and her death, remains a beacon to all who love liberty. The memory of Ruth First and countless others who died that we may be free lives in our hearts.’


Read more:

  • Get your tickets for the Soweto Gospel Choir performance here