21st March marks Human Rights Day in South Africa. Universal human rights that were established in the 1948 UN convention after the second world war relate to “humanity, freedom, justice, and peace.” In the South Africa this day is intrinsically tied to the tragic events that took place in Sharpeville, Johannesburg on March 21st, 1960. The PAC launched its anti-pass book campaign, protestors were met with police violence and 69 people were killed. The day honours their struggles and remembers all of those who lost their lives so that a sense of dignity and equality could be achieved.

The countrywide anti-pass (anti-“dompas“) campaign was to protest the requirement for Africans to carry a passbook that controlled their ability to work. Citizens were encouraged to peacefully hand in their passbooks at police stations in defiance of the regulations. Despite the non-violent intent of the protest – some sources suggest that the crowd began to throw stones at police – protestors were met with extreme brutality by armed forces when police open fired on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring a further 180. Of those killed, 29 were children. This moment marked a pivotal turning point in the struggle against apartheid, and in the aftermath, both the PAC and ANC were banned. Consequently, a state of emergency was launched. In the wake of the massacre, leading figures in the resistance struggle began to ramp up resistance to the apartheid state. Many of these were women, including two well-known characters, Ruth First and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, both of whom spent considerable time in solitary confinement for their political work after the massacre.

Winnie Mandela and Ruth First, by Mary Benson

Remembering Ruth Heloise First 

Ruth First is well known for her fierce activism against the state. Born into the politically conscious family of two Jewish immigrants who later became founding members of the communist party, First grew up around political activism. From a young age she was used to rigorous debates from people of all races and from all walks of life. This passion for justice followed her throughout her own life. Graduating from Wits in 1949 with a first-class degree in sociology, anthropology, and economics, she went on to be a part of drafting the Freedom Charter, engaged in investigative journalism for the left-wing Guardian newspaper, and was involved with several resistance campaigns, including the Indian Passive Resistance campaign and mineworkers’ strikes. She was also a key figure within the communist movement and, until her death, remained on the communist list in South Africa. This meant that she could never be quoted, and thus the state sought to silence her writings and bold critiques.

Exile following Sharpeville

Ruth First, husband Joe Slovo, daughters, Robyn, 10, and Gillian,12 at Heathrow Airport in 1964.

In the wake of Sharpeville and the subsequent state of emergency, First fled to Swaziland (now eSwatini). She returned in 1963 when the ban was lifted but was arrested and subjected to 117 days in solitary confinement upon arrival. During this time, First attempted to take her life. Subsequently, she released an account of her experience in 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation Under the South African 90-Day Detention Law (1965). First was fiercely vocal against the state and had been one of the 156 defendants in the 1956 Treason Trial alongside Nelson Mandela. She was thus well-known by the government.

By 1964, fearing for her safety, she went into exile in London, where she joined activist husband Joe Slovo. First continued her fight against the apartheid state and was a key figure in the British movement against the regime. By 1977, she was offered a position as the director of research at the Centre of African Studies at Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University. However, on August 17th, 1982, she was tragically assassinated when she opened a parcel bomb sent by the apartheid security police under the order of Craig Williamson. To the horror of many, he was granted amnesty by the TRC despite being involved in other murders.

Human Rights Day is an occasion to remember all the South Africans who lost their lives in the pursuit of freedom against the brutal apartheid system. First was awarded the Order of Luthuli Award in Gold for “Her excellent contribution to the struggle against apartheid and promoting freedom in South Africa”.

She utilised her position of privilege to make a difference and lost her life because of her determination to fight for a better world. Her incredible insights and writings can be viewed on the Ruth First Papers website.

Photographs courtesy of South African History Archive, SA History Online, PBS, and Workers World.