Monday, June 10, 2013

Ruth and The Guardian


Beginning her work at The Guardian at the end of 1946, Ruth served as the manager of the Johannesburg bureau. There were many articles that connected her journalism and politics during her long tenure at the newspaper. Modeled after The Daily Worker in England, The Guardian was not officially part of the CPSA, but it was clearly the unofficial organ of the Party. Just before Ruth joined the newspaper, Moses Kotane and Jack Simons admonished the staff stating that it was imperative for the paper to represent black voices and issues. The representation of black voices and articles on black issues was initiated intensely when Brian Bunting became editor and brought Ruth in to manage the paper’s Johannesburg office. James Zug reported on Ruth in his book on The Guardian:

Spearheading the charge into African life was Ruth First. In her first four weeks at the Guardian , the twenty-two-year-old reported on a tin workers’ strike, opined on the royal visit, visited a Sophiatown squatter camp, and interviewed Yusuf Dadoo, Michael Scott, H. M. Basner and Anton Lembede. Two months later, she illegally crept into municipal workers’ compounds and took photographs at night while holding aflashlight in her free hand… She ventured into squatters’ camps and African townships across the Transvaal and Orange Free State, and datelines as scattered as Pietersburg and Harrismith bore the name of Ruth First. She cultivated close relationships with many political figures, ranging from Youth Leaguers, to the British priest Father Trevor Huddleston, to Walter Sisulu, to Indian leaders like Ismail Meer.

Ruth wrote weekly editorials in The Guardian from the time of the Nationalist Party’s election through the 1955 launching of the Freedom Charter and beyond. Ruth wrote her most famous story in 1951 on the enslavement of Bethal farm workers. She also exposed government seizure of black land and other land rights issues, township conditions, and political protests including the train boycotts, bannings, and a series on how pass laws affected the lives of black South Africans. One of her land rights articles was titled “Africans Turned Off the Land.” Ruth reviewed a number of cases from different regions of the country and used the voices of people whose land was taken by the apartheid government. “My grandfather woke one morning in his own kraal and found a white man who said: “You are living on my farm and must work for me,” an informant told her.

It was Ruth, with the activist Anglican pastor Michael Scott, who had investigated and exposed the slave-like conditions in Bethal. Ruth would expand on the story in several articles and ten years later would report when slave like conditions were rediscovered at the area’s farms. First visited Bethal, the place where police supplied forced labor to local farmers and revealed the unsanitary dwellings where workers were forced to live with little food or water. They were paid twelve pounds for six months of labor. Ruth wrote about the conditions in The Guardian:

It is not every day that the Johannesburg reporter for The Guardian meets an African farm worker who, when asked to describe conditions on the farm on which he works, silently takes off his shirt to show large weals and scars on his back, shoulders, and arms. . . . We saw not a single blanket in any of the compounds. Food consisted of a clod of mealie meal and a pumpkin wrapped in a piece of sacking, each man taking a handful at a time.

Ruth published a series of Guardian articles under the headline, “There Are More Bethals.” Prime Minister Smuts ordered an investigation that was at best a whitewash, something Ruth had predicted in The Guardian. Michael Scott and Ruth First continued their investigations in spite of the government’s inaction. They reported on government-farmer collusion and photographed police incarcerating black people fleeing Rhodesia and transporting them to farms in Bethal. Joe went undercover and also helped in the investigations after accompanying Ruth to observe black people being taken from the courts to the farms. “The statistics I managed to gather reinforced our own observations during the so-called pass law trials that this was not a court of justice but a slave-labor bureau.”

Concluding this series was a February 1950 article titled “The Worst Place God Has Made—A State of Terror in Bethal.” Beate Lipman, one of The Guardian reporters, recalled a specific incident at the office between Ruth and the police. Two plainclothes detectives arrived there and asked for Ruth who was out of the office. The detectives decided to wait for her. When she arrived forty minutes later and saw the two men waiting, she said to Lipman: “Has Miss First come in yet?” Lipman said “no,” and before turning and walking out the door, Ruth replied: “That’s all right, I’ll catch up to her later.”

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