AFTER A LONG WEEKEND , Ruth drove her Renault to the Center of African
Studies office on Tuesday morning, August 17, 1982. She was wearing a red blazer she had borrowed from Moira Forjaz, white skirt, and her favorite Italian shoes and expected something of an easygoing day. She also planned to return to the office late in the afternoon for a get-together honoring John Saul, who was leaving his post in the Department of Marxism and Leninism and returning to Canada. Joe planned to spend at least some of the day with Harold Wolpe, who was still in Maputo, and they were all meeting Sue Rabkin and Pallo Jordan for lunch at Moira and Ze Forjaz’s house. Accompanied by Moira, Ruth then ran some errands for the party. She made a quick stop at home to retrieve a bottle of wine before returning to the office.
Helena Dolny was in her office when Ruth returned to CEA, and she recalls hearing the clicking of Ruth’s shoes as she walked down the corridor with Aquino de Braganca. Aquino peeked into Helena’s office and asked if she was coming to the reception, to which she replied that she would be down shortly as she needed to finish some work. As it happened, John Saul was late for his own party. Pallo Jordan was in Ruth’s office with Aquino, Bridget O’Laughlin, and Ruth awaiting the arrival of Saul and other guests. Aquino, in his halfteasingand half-serious way, told Ruth that people might think that she was the director, not him, because her mailbox was totally full and he got so little mail. Before going to retrieve her letters, Ruth offered the refrain that she had repeated many times: “Well, you know if you want to get mail from people you have to write to them.”
When Ruth returned, Aquino was sitting at her desk, so she stood next to it. Pallo was adjacent to her and Bridget stood near the door. The four continued to chat and Ruth began to open her mail. Helena Dolny, still in her office, was startled by a large explosion. O’Laughlin, who was pregnant, heard three blasts and saw Ruth “lying straddled on the floor, facedown and motionless. She was not moving and lying totally still.” Pallo Jordan, injured badly in the bombing, holds vivid memories:
She was reading her mail and chatting away and then suddenly there was this flash. You know in the movies when they show explosives like that and they make everything go into slow motion. That is how you perceive the whole situation. I mean nothing goes into slow motion, but that is how your brain perceives it. It’s at the end of that when you try gathering yourself together and you realize that there was a bomb.
Jordan suffered multiple injuries and was hospitalized for an extended period. His left eardrum was blown out, one eye was destroyed, and he had shrapnel throughout his body, fragments of Ruth’s bones. Ruth First was dead. She was fi fty-seven years old and had been assassinated by the apartheid regime.
The apartheid regime killed Ruth First because they knew that ideas are important. They killed Ruth First because she organized an international conference that questioned the authority and actions of the South African state. They probably also killed Ruth because she was an easier target than Joe and the regime knew that her murder would devastate Joe Slovo. Since the letter bomb was already in Ruth’s mailbox during the conference, one can assume that the apartheid regime wanted her killed during the festivities.
The South African government also killed Ruth First because she mentored young people in connecting ideas and actions, with the goal of democratic socialism in South Africa. Her close friend, colleague, and comrade, Gavin Williams, summarized it best in his 2010 speech at Rhodes University:
Ruth First has come to be an icon of the revolutionary hero. This is to make too much of her. It is also to make too little. There is a danger that her real achievements, her bravery and her integrity, will be hidden behind the mirror. Ruth combined during her life the practical politics of the movement for liberation with commitments to investigating, researching and explaining.