Saturday, October 24, 2009

'Flushed With Elation': Ruth First at the University of Dar es Salaam

'Flushed with elation': Ruth First at the University of Dar es Salaam

Barbara Harlow
2009-10-22, Issue 454

Drawing on fascinating personal correspondence with a variety of individuals, Barbara Harlow looks back on the experiences of Ruth First during her short time as an economics lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam. First spent an autumn semester at the university in 1975, a time which coincided with the visits and debates of such prominent intellectuals as Walter Rodney, Mahmood Mamdani, Terence Ranger and Issa G. Shivji.

[Ruth First (1925-1982) was assassinated in Maputo by a letter-bomb sent from Pretoria to her office at the Eduardo Mondlane University. Her killers were granted amnesty by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But was Ruth a 'legitimate target', which in the commission’s parlance meant someone who was politically involved and therefore a target of the apartheid regime? Who was Ruth First?

Ruth First’s public and political career spanned more than three decades, from her contributions as an investigative reporter in South Africa in the late 1940s and 1950s, through her 117-day detention in 1963, to her exile years in the UK where she wrote and advocated on behalf of the anti-apartheid struggle and African liberation. Her last professional postings were as much academic as activist, at the University of Durham (UK), the University of Dar es Salaam, and in the Centre for African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University (Maputo).

The following article discusses her stay at the University of Dar es Salaam.] (Eds)

'For the first three weeks I’ve been flushed with elation at the experience of development studies having relevance, and students being responsive.'
(Ruth First to Gavin Williams, 16 September 1975)


Ruth First, on leave from the University of Durham (UK), spent the fall semester of 1975 teaching in the Department of Economics at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The early 1970s were intensely energetic years throughout recently decolonised Africa, and not least so in the universities. At Makerere University, for example, radically revised curricula in literary studies would lay the grounds for new imperatives and directions in African cultural production and critical practice.

At the University of Dar es Salaam, as at the University of Ibadan (Nigeria), it was historiography – and by implication, history itself and its contribution to 'nation-building' – that was in question. Ruth First’s semester in Tanzania coincided with the presentations, seminars, debates and colloquia across the social sciences faculty of such intellectual upstarts – now luminaries, even posthumously – as Terence Ranger, Walter Rodney, Mahmood Mamdani, Archie Mafeje, John Saul, Jacques Depelchin and Issa G. Shivji.

But if 1975 was an especially active year in post-colonial African intellectual history, it was also another turning point in First’s own critical itinerary. South African historian and journalist and ANC (African National Congress) and SACP (South African Communist Party) activist, Ruth First had left her native country in 1964 with her three young daughters following her release after 117 days of detention to join her husband, Joe Slovo, in exile in London. She would never return to South Africa and was assassinated by a letter bomb sent from Pretoria in 1982 to her office at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, where she had been a senior researcher at the Centre of African Studies since 1977. That final posting was one that First in fact visited on her return route to Durham from her semester in Dar es Salaam in December 1975–January 1976.

If less than half a year in a distinguished lifelong career as a writer and activist, Ruth First’s visiting semester at the University of Dar es Salaam is nonetheless crucial both to her own intellectual biography and to that story’s relevance for understanding the post-independence African historical narrative and its continued influence. The semester is also especially telling with regard to the early efforts toward post-colonial academic exchanges that sought, however haphazardly, as well as hazardously, to redress even then the distortions of divisions of intellectual labour (in Walter Rodney’s terms, perhaps, 'how Europe underdeveloped Africa') that have vexed programmes in international studies ever since.

Ruth First’s application did go forward, if in fits and starts, and she eventually arrived in Dar es Salaam in late August 1975 to take up her temporary teaching position at the university. This was some eight years after Nyerere’s pronouncement of the Arusha Declaration in February 1967 that outlined TANU’s (Tanganyika African National Union) policy on 'socialism and self-reliance' for Tanzania.

First herself had been living in London since early 1964 where she had resettled, following her release from South African detention, raising her three daughters and managing the household during the often protracted absences of her husband, Joe Slovo, whose work with the ANC took him regularly to Africa. Her own already distinguished career in South Africa as an ANC/SACP anti-apartheid activist and investigative reporter was critically transformed over the course of her London expatriation, under both political and financial pressures. There was, in other words, a struggle to be waged and a family to be supported. Bills had to be paid after all, debts accounted for, old scores settled and freedom won.

Prior to taking up her post at the University of Durham in 1973 then, First had already published (or researched) numerous books, on South West Africa (1963), Libya (1974), coups in Africa (1970), sanctions against South Africa (1972), her own prison memoir, 117 Days (1965), and her credentials as a researcher were academically impeccable if politically, and probably just as predictably, controversial. She would go on to publish several more books, including Olive Schreiner (1980) and the posthumous Black Gold (1983). Whatever then could the former South African political detainee, journalist, professor, public speaker, rally crier and exile, possibly be doing in Dar es Salaam in 1975?

According to the Arusha Declaration, advocating as it did policies of socialism and self-reliance, and perhaps with particular and exemplary relevance for reconstituting academic endeavours and enterprise in the newly independent nation, the 'biggest requirement (for development) is hard work' but, the declaration admonishingly continues, 'the second condition of development is the use of intelligence.' 'Unintelligent hard work,' emphasised Nyerere’s declaration, 'would not bring the same results as the two combined.'

Although Ruth was most certainly intelligent, and it would be difficult, even for her critics, to deny that she was a hard worker – on any number of fronts – there were still the requisite bureaucratic and political protocols attaching to the Durham–Dar exchange that needed to be worked out before the deal could be done. For example, as one Dar es Salaam colleague wrote to First regarding the possibility of establishing 'some sort of inter-departmental link' between the two institutions, 'the more good postgraduates you can send the better but they will have to learn Swahili' (David Rosenberg to Ruth First, 08/06/74).

Nor was language facility the only issue. Shortly afterwards, First wrote back to Rosenberg regarding monetary, cost-benefit arrangements: 'Since the suggestion for the inter-departmental links organised with the Inter-University Council, we are at present exploring the financial aspects of such an exchange, and the possibility that the Council might finance the secondment of teaching staff from here to your Department, so that you would not be burdened with any additional financial cost but, on the contrary, would benefit to the extent that you want additional teaching.' (Ruth First to David Rosenberg, 26/08/74). But there were political investments as well that would be at stake. Rosenberg wrote, for example, that 'we are extremely keen on bringing here people who have worked on Cuba, China, West Africa, etc etc' (24/10/74).

Two months later, as the prospects for the exchange evolved, First herself would reply to Dr Rweyememu regarding both her intellectual interests and her academic bonafides, that, as she wrote, 'my strongest concerns and interests are in Africa, both independent Africa and the South, though I have been teaching across a broadly comparative Third World board' (28/12/74). Her teaching and research interests, and her political commitments too, would seem to have qualified Ruth First for the opportunity to join for a semester the faculty in the Department of Economics at the University of Dar es Salaam, even if, as her head of department in Durham, Philip Abrams, wrote to her in June 1975, 'I suppose the invitation is a Good Thing, although I must say it will cause some problems. I will start now,' Abrams nonetheless went on, 'to unravel the administrative tangles if any.' After all, since 'we want,' he wrote, 'a special relationship with Tanzania I suppose we really should take the opportunity to bring it to life if we can' (06/01/75). Within a matter of months, Ruth would be in Dar es Salaam, where Arusha-provoked crises still simmered on the campus – and intellectual excitement continued to ferment.


In one of her first epistolary communications from Dar es Salaam, this one to her husband Joe, Ruth suggested both the exhilaration and the frustration that came with the new posting and its inevitable prevarications. 'Today,' she wrote, 'after 24 hours of searching for him, Professor Guruli [then chair of the Economics Department], who got me out here, dropped his entire course in my lap, and I start Monday.' (Ruth First to Joe Slovo, 15/08/75). That lament was perhaps enhanced by an apparently uncomfortable BAA flight and seemingly unsatisfactory accommodation at a (albeit luxury) hotel too far from the campus.

Transportation to 'the hill' (both physical and occasionally ideological) would be a persistent problem, but in any case, the 'University is pretty confusing, come to think of it', the visiting lecturer wrote home, giving as one example, the vexing political assessment of two of her new colleagues. She’d been, as she noted, '… talking to Mamdani (whose work is the Shivji equivalent on Uganda…), but he [Shivji] must label Mamdani a Trot. Like many labels, they stick to the wrong surface.' In the same letter, the self-conscious epistolary expatriate described as well a disturbing 'slaughter at a seminar', the occasion being 'when Terence Ranger – founder of the so-called Dar es Salaam school of history – was put on the chopping block. I must say he deserved it, for a woolly ambiguous treatment of so called peasant consciousness though the attack was ferocious. Apparently the calculated murder-in-public of liberal ideology is part of class struggle, but even my stony heart was moved by Ranger’s plight' (Ruth First to Joe Slovo, 15/08/75). Heady stuff for sure, even for 'stony hearts' like that of Ruth First who, for all her accomplishments, was already known both for her diffidence in venturing into new areas of inquiry and for her refusal 'to suffer fools gladly'.

Ruth First’s letters from Dar es Salaam provide thus both a provocative, dramatically punctuated and scrupulously scriptorial account of the academic activities on 'the hill' and an analysis of the challenges of academic exchanges generally, but particularly when complicated by the combined and uneven syllabic form and content of courses in 'development'. Even the very letter-writing itself was something of a hurdle for Ruth, inveterate and notorious typist that she was. As she wrote to her daughter Gillian, for example: 'Am typing this in office hours on an Italian portable; the structure of Italian is apparently different, so the m z w ? . ! รณ o and heavens knozs what else are all in the zrong positions. You’ll have to decipher as you go; it’s not intended to be coded' (Ruth First to Gillian Slovo, 20/10/75).

At least she had a typewriter though, even if with an Italian keyboard (but then Ruth had always been enamoured of most things Italian – shoes, leather, and former colonies too – from Libya to Eritrea). Still and all, general working conditions in the Economics Department did pose some frustrations for the relocated researcher, teacher and epistolarian, as she wrote to Joe after a month in Dar: 'Had been running out of paper till today (the econs dept has nought: I ordered 2 lead pencils, 2 file covers and some paper and gem clips and the list came back with crosses against all items) when a friend showed me round the White elephant of a fishery institute next door this hotel. It’s Dutch money and expertise all down the drain. The huge freezers are empty; the building deserted; rather like an antonioni film. But the cupboards are full of stationery so I’m in stock again' (Ruth First to Joe Slovo, 18/09/75).

The letters, like the luta, continued and so, another month and a half later, Ruth wrote again to Joe regarding the epistolary episteme: 'If you want to know how I manage so many letters, they’re generally easier than lecture or seminar preparation, and when I’m apprehensive about starting a new lecture, I warm up on letters, on the grounds that friends and relatives are less hostile than students. Not that the latter are, rather they’re demanding. In fact, I’m getting a lot of good feedback from them and will be really sorry to be back among my English lumps [in Durham].' Ruth, that is, was learning too, as well as teaching, at least according to the version in the same letter: 'My course hit a few good high spots – and some low – but they’re hipped on the analysis of under-development, and it’s really intriguing how they react when they have to apply their method to Tanzania. This when the divide comes. The radicals persevere with the analysis; the nationalists take refuge in statements about exceptions. Or something even less tangible…' (Ruth First to Joe Slovo, 1/11/75).

Teacher–student relations, however, were not Ruth’s only concern. There were collegial (and then again sometimes not so collegial) interactions that preyed on her efforts, both pedagogical and political, to participate in the educational processes in that African university, representing a continental space from whose liberationist transformations she had been exiled for more than a decade now. In the same letter to Joe, then, she wrote further, perhaps by way of attempted reassurance to both herself and her spouse: 'In case you’re worried, my relations with the people that matter remain very good. I’ve not quarrelled, only argued! Of course I’ve been blackballed by that silly crowd at the university which clusters like a cabal round the GDR staff and trainees' (Ruth First to Joe Slovo, 01/11/75). Already in September, she had written to Joe that 'S…' and his lot are beginning to character-assassinate me. Mildly, but they’re testing, I suppose. Tried it out with a chap connected with IDS with whom I’m friendly. Asked him if he knew I was using a British passport. They’re actually beneath contempt. Not that this item is that significant or important but it’s a measure of their tactics. They should stick,' Ruth blandishes nonetheless, 'to the non-capitalist road' (Ruth First to Joe Slovo, 18/09/75).

Dar es Salaam, the university ('the hill'), the economics department and the hotel too were vital crossroads to, fro and within Africa at the time, however, and so Ruth First, however trepidatious, however venturesome, found herself from the very first in the thick of things, looking out on various sides and from across sundry fronts: 'The place is flooded with expatriates and new ones are coming every day. As are the consultants and experts […] There’s also top FAO man here, who once worked with John Saul and co and knows everything there is to know, it is said. He is appalled that this luxury hotel is still running. When tourism was part of planning, there was an outcry against the wastage of resources, but this was excused on the grounds that tourists would bring foreign currency…' Even so, Ruth goes on, 'there is, as usual, a great deal of new work being done, especially on the rural areas' (Ruth First to Joe Slovo, 21/08/75). And she had, after all, been seconded to teach courses in the 'political economy of underdevelopment and planning' and 'African society and environment.'


For all the 'new work being done', there was, even for Ruth, much work to do, and she was especially concerned – at times even 'panicked' – about her courses and lectures. Just over a week or so into her stay in Dar es Salaam, she wrote to Joe in serious jest, 'Can you believe that I’ve not had a swim yet? Partly, mostly, because,' she confessed, 'I fell on such a pile of daily preparational living from lecture to lecture' (Ruth First to Joe Slovo, 21/08/75). It wasn’t the first moment of panic, however, since a few days earlier she had already found anxious camaraderie with an Italian colleague: '… sunbathed [note, not swimming] for an hour or so but am panicked about my lecture tomorrow so worked mostly, in between talking to the Italian whose lecture tomorrow is panicking him too. What a dreary routine this academic life…' (Ruth First to Joe Slovo, 15/8/75 – postscript Sunday night).

The 'panic' notwithstanding, First was, in the early days of her semester-long sojourn at least, especially impressed with the 'Africanisation' of the university and the programmatic priority, the crises notwithstanding, given to the matriculation of 'mature' students. As she wrote reflectively and speculatively to her husband Joe shortly after her arrival, on 3 September, 'I’m amazed at the level of my students, though I’m sure there are duds and conservatives among them too. But this is the first year of the mature intake i.e. university entrants are no longer processed through the schools but through the workplaces, and need Tanu credentials. From the looks of it numbers of older people, experienced people have got in, and their commitment is very earnest, even if only for careers.'

Parenthetically, however, she continues: '(One negative effect is that the intake of women dropped from 10 to 2.5 per cent; a reflection of the discrimination against women in life after high school.).' (Ruth First to Joe Slovo, 03/09/75). A short month and a half later, however, the same teacher of the second half of the year-long 'Economics 202: Political Economy of Underdevelopment and Planning' would write, if not less enthusiastically then still rather more critically, to her daughter Gillian:

'My students are complaining that in the essay assignments I've set them – as 40 per cent of the exam mark – they have to read more than one book. More explicitly they are open-ended questions: they complain, they have to think out an answer: and a direction of argument: Surely some will take to it well: many are very bright, though instinctively set for conservatism once this university training guarantees them a meal ticket for life. Which it will.

'What gets me is when, in conversation or in class, some of them try putting over this socialist ethos thing: an official line that carries less and less conviction as they proceed to pretend bureaucrats and workers and peasants alike have their shoulder to the socialist wheel.

'The workers' term for the bureaucrats is the Nizers: those who have never looked back since they were Africanised into the controlling posts of the system.' (20/10/75)

The course assignments for Econ 202’s second term, as identified on the syllabus, were, however, indeed demanding and organised under the topics of 'theories of underdevelopment', 'strategies of development', 'industrialisation', 'rural questions', 'rural co-operation in Tanzania' and 'class and development', with readings ranging from the classical works of Marx and Lenin through contemporary critics such as A.G. Frank, Samir Amin, E. Laclau, H. Alavi, and Issa G. Shivji, to cite but a few examples.

First herself was not unconcerned at the kinds of academic exchanges that were enabled – or disabled – by her own relative newness to the situation and the challenges of the experiment in higher education launched in the early years of the University of Dar es Salaam and into which she had entered. Her lecture notes for the introductory session are provocatively suggestive of the pedagogical imperative she worked under in this historic setting:

'Today an introd lecture by way of exploration

'Find my feet, find out where yours are, for we have to run this course together!

'Difficulties of not being with you right from outset


'My purpose today: to check where you are at.'

The notes go on:

'MAIN purpose: to draw some threads together

'Provide an overview which does not repeat the theories of development, underdevelopment, but which slots them together, for they do make a pattern.'

First also admonished and encouraged her students about the 'importance of feedback', noting to her students:

'Hope you’ll speak up, even dissatisfaction, complaints. Lectures pack too much? too thin? Coming over too fast? […] Interruptions (questions) during lectures? You must judge. Break continuity – danger. throw me off my balance? On the other hand sometimes helpful to ask for clarification. And if I can’t give it at the time I promise to go away and think about it for the following time.'

As for the seminars, these are to be 'working sessions', she emphasises to the students, 'YOU to do the work.' For that first introductory lecture, the teacher’s notes run to 15 typewritten, handwritten, much redacted pages. Ruth First was, as she wrote at the time to her Durham colleague and friend Gavin Williams, 'flushed with elation at the experience of development having relevance' (16/09/75).


The final exam questions that First set, following meticulous revisions and painstakingly cramped rewritings, for the students of Econ 202, not only ask the exam-takers to respond to the concerns of the syllabi, but also perhaps to summon a critical analysis, even if not an elated one, of the 'experience of development having relevance':

'Answer Three (3) Questions, 1 (one) from Section A and two (2) from Section B.

Section A

1. Outline and evaluate ‘vicious circle’ explanations for poor economies.
2. Outline and evaluate Rostow’s Stages of Growth theory.
3. Distinguish between ‘growth’ and ‘development’.
4. What factors explain the expansionist tendencies of capitalism (a) in the period of the scramble for Africa in the late 19th century and (b) in the post-independence situation of the second half of the 20th century?

Section B

5. ‘For capitalism to penetrate into the sphere of industrial production it must have a market which is ready to absorb a continuously increasing volume of products’. What obstructs this process in under-developed economies?
6. Explain Samir Amin’s theoretical model for self-centred (developed) and dependent (peripheral) capital accumulation.
7. ‘In under-developed economies the state performs the function of merchant capital’. How would you substantiate this statement from the characteristics of merchant capital?
8. ‘Industrialisation can deepen under-development’. Demonstrate this with reference to the case of Tanzania, giving careful and accurate instances of the trends in industrialization policy since Independence.
9. ‘External dominance is only possible where it finds support in national sectors which benefit from it’. Is this statement valid in the case of Tanzania OR Kenya?'

The questions that Ruth First posed to her Econ 202 students at the end of the 1975 academic year, and at the conclusion of her own semester-long academic exchange at the University of Dar es Salaam, were indeed pressing questions, not only for her students, who needed to pass at least the exam if not the hurdles awaiting them in the public sphere, but for the researchers, colleagues, policy-makers and politicians, Tanzanian, African and international alike, with whom she shared and disputed the intellectual premises and academic corridors and offices. The same questions, that is, animated importantly the discussions among the 'intellectuals on the hill', as Issa G. Shivji referred to his colleagues on the campus, or critics – both positive and negative – still identified in the literature as the groundbreaking 'Dar es Salaam school of historiography'.

For now, however, which Econ 202 exam question(s) would you want to try to answer? Then? Currently? Or which of the interrogatory puzzles might Ruth First herself have been most keen to investigate at the time? Would Question Four, for example, among the options under Section A, be considered as timely, anachronistic, or even, just perhaps, prescient, asking as it does after a longer historical narrative that would connect critically the 'expansionist tendencies of capitalism (a) in the period of the scramble for Africa in the late 19th century and (b) in the post-independence situation of the second half of the 20th century.' Beginnings and ends, not to mention means, were implied in the exam question. In other words, why was Ruth First, so 'flushed with elation at the experience of development having relevance', asking her Econ 202 students about colonialism on their final exam, to comment on the 'scramble for Africa' of all things?


* This article first appeared in the maiden issue of Chemchemi, bulletin of the Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan-African Studies of the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editorial board of Chemchemi.
* 'Looked Class, Talked Red: Ruth First, An Intellectual Biography' by Barbara Harlow is a forthcoming publication from Pluto Press and Pambazuka Press.
* Barbara Harlow is a professor of English literature at the University of Texas.
* Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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