Ruth First: 117 Days – The violence of detention


THE word “detention” signifies fear and loathing in thousands of South Africans and yet our police use it every day when describing arresting citizens.

Is this forgetfulness or deliberate?

Either way, we should prick up our ears when it is uncritically written in press releases. It is also a good time for play based on one of the first political detainees, Ruth First, to appear on our stages working as a sharp reminder about why we need to resist this State abuse of personal and political rights.

Historically, South Africans called it “detention without trial”, and Fred and Marcel Abrahams’ adaption of the First’s book, 117 Days, penned soon after she was released in 1963, brings out the horror which opponents of government were about to face for the next 25 years.

First was a mother, a wife of Joe Slovo, a democrat and leading SACP and ANC member whose writing skills were put to work in drafting of the Freedom Charter.

The passing of the 90-day detention law was in direct response to the State’s attempt to crush opposition to its apartheid project, and this stellar, nuanced performance by Jackie Rens reminds us of the multiplicity of evils wreaked upon individuals held “in cement”, as we called it in the 80s.

There is sensory deprivation, bullying, insiduous psychological and emotional white-anting, the tearing down of personality, and then there is violence of an unimaginable depth.

I did some unexperiential research into detention in 1986 and I can confirm that  All of this aimed at ratting on your comrades, your friends, your loved ones, your lover.

It is a fight for survival, and often to the death.

Many detainees were murdered inside by the security branch and other cops, but others, like Neil Aggett, a former Kingswood College pupil, chose, apparently, to take their own lives.

Believe me, the branch encouraged it. They enjoyed the contest.

It may have been that First felt she had won the battle by not cracking, but the branch finally had their way with Ruth, and assassinated her in exile in Mozambique in 1982 using a letter bomb.

This is a beautiful rendition of the emotional journey which races in First’s mind while the clock slows to the drip, drip of a prison tap.

There is also a shocking revelation of her own failed suicide attempt.

Abrahams and Meyer have managed to tease out the most important element in the story, that when the politics is done and dusted, this is a women’s story, a herstory. First was a beautifully groomed woman who wore smart outfits, fashionable dark glasses and lipstick. That was her right and her choice, and perhaps her armour.

Within that aesthetic was the mind of a lioness who raised a family of like-minded democrats and this work is a wonderful tribute to this.

For those of us still alive after our detention in the 70s and 80s, this play is a creative and incandescent reminder of where we must not go again.



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