Joe Slovo and Ruth First were both exposed
to radical ideas in early childhood, ideas that were fuelled at
university in Johannesburg in the 1940s. When the couple married
in 1949 they were leading activists against the National Party and
helped to develop what became the Freedom Charter of the
ANC. With pressure building on activists in South Africa, the
couple fled to the UK in 1966. For the next 12 years the Lyme
Street house became a base for exiled activists seeking change in
South Africa, with the couple living on one floor and Ruth First’s
parents living in the basement. Ms First spent much of her time
in Camden Town writing, including three seminal books on African
politics, and editing Nelson Mandela’s 1967 autobiography. She also
held teaching posts at Manchester and Durham
universities. Meanwhile, Mr Slovo led the life of a revolutionary
organiser. He was the first white member of the ANC’s national
executive and was appointed chief of staff of the MK, the armed wing
of the ANC. From Lyme Street he planned missions against the South
African regime. By 1978, uprisings, sanctions and anti-apartheid
opinion began to turn the tide against the regime and the couple
moved to Mozambique. Four years later, Ms First was assassinated
by the South African secret police but Mr Slovo continued his work
to its eventual successful resolution. He died of cancer in 1995.
HUNDREDS of people packed into a small Camden Town street last
Friday to witness Nelson Mandela pay tribute to two former South
African freedom fighters.
The 84-year-old was in Lyme Street to unveil an English Heritage
blue plaque commemorating Ruth First and Joe Slovo.
The couple became close friends with Mr Mandela in the battle
against apartheid in South Africa but were forced to take sanctuary
in the UK from 1966 to 1978.
In that period, the three-storey house in Lyme Street became
their home and the meeting place for exiled anti-apartheid
Crowds crammed the street, making use of walls, trees and
stepladders to get a glimpse of the former president of South
Many passers-by who had unwittingly stumbled on the scene put
off work or chores until after Mr Mandela’s appearance. Others
rushed off to fetch cameras to capture the historic moment, on
Friday last week.
When Mr Mandela emerged from his car it was to an emotional
outbreak of applause. His first duty was to greet the choir from St
Michael’s School who had welcomed him with songs, including He’s Got
The Whole World in His Hands.
Frank Dobson, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, who played a
key part in ensuring the plaque was put up, was close to tears as he
introduced Mr Mandela to the crowd.
Mr Dobson said: “I am sorry if I sound very emotional but I am,
and I find it a huge privilege to introduce the first democratically
elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.”
Physically, the 84-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner, who spent
28 years in prison, walked gingerly with a stick. But his speech
demonstrated his mind is still far from frail.
He spoke with passion, humility and humour about his comrades
Ruth First and Joe Slovo, the struggle against racism and how he
gave away a £250,000 donation from Margaret Thatcher to the South
African Communist Party.
Mr Mandela said: “We are honouring two eminent South Africans
who as young people decided to join against those forces who
suppressed millions of people in our country.
“We do not want to dwell on the past except to say that we were
dealing with a minority who had suppressed the majority for more
than three and a half centuries and it was through the courage of
men and women like Joe Slovo and Ruth First that we were able to
He described Ms First as a “sharp lady who didn’t suffer fools”,
and Mr Slovo as “a very level-headed comrade”.
In 1982, after returning to South Africa, Ms First was killed by
a letter bomb sent by the South African secret police.
Mr Slovo continued to oppose the regime and was part of the
African National Congress negotiating team that paved the way for
the first democratic elections in 1994. He died of cancer a year
Those who witnessed Mr Mandela’s speech said they were honoured
to be in his presence.
Jacob Mothopeng, 49, said: “I think he was wonderful and I have
never seen anything like it in Camden Town. His speech was amazing
and he has a very good sense of humour.”
Gerry Harrison, the Labour councillor for Cantelowes, told the
Ham&High: “It was incredibly moving and it was wonderful to be
“He is one of the few people I would cross London to see.”
Christabel Gurney, 59, who was a friend of Ruth First, told the
Ham&High: “It brought back a lot of memories.
“Although Ruth died 20 years ago she was such a sharp and vivid
person it feels like she was here yesterday.”