117 Days (Ruth First)
An account of confinement and interrogation under the South African ninety-day detention law
Introduction by husband, Joe Slovo,
1998 (first published in 1965), Bloomsbury,
ISBN: 0-7475-0233-1, Pages: 144
In December 2015 I visited Robben Island with a friend, Selaelo Letsoalo and halfway through the tour we stopped at the little Island tuck-shop where people could buy snacks. I of course headed for the bookshelf and found this precious gem of a memoir. The book is only 144 pages and can be read in a day or two or three J. I was immediately drawn to the book because when I go to my parents’ home in Mabopane, I take an off ramp named ‘Ruth First’ and I had always wondered who she was since I never studied about her in history in school. I mean you have to be pretty awesome to have anything written or named after you right? So I figured she must be something, and quite something she was I soon discovered.
First, a petite summary about Ruth First
Ruth First was a journalist, an anti-apartheid activist, and a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). She was one of the 156 defendants of the famous Treason Trial together with Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and others. Ruth First was the first non-black woman to be detained under the 90-day law of the apartheid times. This law empowered authorities to detain a person for a period of 90 days without a warrant, a charge, and a trial. Only she served more than 90 days as many others did; 117 days to be exact in isolation. She was married to Joe Slovo, another ANC stalwart and was killed by a letter bomb in Mozambique in the year 1982. Ruth and Joe had three daughters, Shawn, Robyn and Gillian Slovo. The book is Ruth’s Memoir of her time in prison during her 117 isolated imprisonment.
This book has made me appreciate freedom and democracy all over again. Things our parents and grandparents were exposed to under apartheid were just atrocious. I didn’t realize how many non-black people were involved in the struggle and this book introduced me to some of them. I took long to finish this book because I often paused to google names I had never heard of before.
So in a nutshell, the book chronicles Ruth First’s courageous, unapologetic defiance of the system of the time even under difficult conditions. She shares what she was exposed to, how she coped with the loneliness and fear, her relationship with the wardens, and basically how she kept herself sane away from her family and friends. Many ways of getting information from her by the security branch were tried but she never cracked. At times they would tell her that such and such a person had said a particular thing in order to get her to say what she knew regarding the happenings at the farm house but she stood her ground. The story is gripping, emotional and very personal.
The book also balances out the bold experiences where she stood her ground and commanded respect from her enemies during interrogation and also does not shy away from experiences where her emotions showed. When a shower was built in the prison bathroom on her request, I took my hat off for her – this is one of the parts in the book that has stuck to my mind – so much respect. On day 89 when she was released only to be rearrested, this exposed the ugly of the system and how much they played on people’s emotions and the abuse of power by the authorities. Freedom and equality for all at all costs – that was the goal, always overshadowing any kind of pain and torture for Ruth and many others who went through the same.
These people of old were made of the sterner stuff. The resilience, the strength, the character, the politics and the history of the day are a rich come away in this book. My confidence is renewed and I appreciate my freedom all the more.
Read this book.