After matriculating from Jeppe High School for Girls, First attended the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, from 1942 to 1946, obtaining a B. A. (Social Studies) with firsts in sociology, anthropology, economic history and native administration. Her fellow students included Nelson Mandela, Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambican freedom fighter and the first leader of FRELIMO), Joe Slovo, J. N. Singh (executive member of both the Natal and South African Indian Congress), and Ismail Meer (a Former secretary-general of South African Indian Congress). First helped found the Federation of Progressive Students and served as secretary to the Young Communist League, the Progressive Youth Council and, for a short while, the Johannesburg branch of the CPSA In 1947 First worked, briefly, for the Johannesburg City Council, but left because she could not agree with the actions of the council. She then became Johannesburg editor of the left-wing weekly newspaper, The Guardian. As a journalist she specialized in expose reporting and her incisive articles about salve-like conditions on Bethal potato farms, the women’s anti-pass campaign, migrant labor, bus boycotts and slum conditions remain among the finest pieces of social and labor journalism of the 1950s.
Having grown up in a political aware home, First’s political involvement never abated. Apart from the activities already mentioned, she did support work for the 1946 mineworkers’ strike, the Indian Passive Resistance campaign and protests surrounding the outlawing of communism in 1950. First was a Marxist with a wide internationalist perspective. She travelled to China, the USSR and countries in Africa, experiences that she documented and analyzed. She was central to debates within the Johannesburg Discussion Club, which led to the formation of the underground SACP (of which First was a member) and to closer links between the SACP and the African National Congress (ANC).
In 1949 First married Joe Slovo, a lawyer and labor organizer and, like her, a Communist. Throughout the 1950s their home in Roosevelt Park was an important centre for multiracial political gatherings. They had three daughters: Shawn (who was to script a film about her mother called A world apart), Gillian (who based her novel, Ties of blood, on her family) and Robyn House searches and the banning and arrest of their parents by the police constantly unsettled their childhood.
Despite her public profile and wide contacts, First remained a private person. She had a brilliant intellect and did not suffer fools gladly. Her sharp criticism and her impatience with bluster earned her enemies and she was often feared in political debate. But she was not dogmatic. Her willingness to take up a position she considered to be just was not always welcomed within the ANC or SACP. Her shyness, her anxieties, her vulnerable abundance of generosity and love were unsuspected by those who only knew her as confident and commanding in a public context. With friends she was warm and sensitive. She loved good clothes (particularly Italian shoes) and was an excellent cook. However, contradictions between her politics and her role as a mother caused strains in her family, which are evident in the later works of her daughters.
In 1953 First helped found the Congress of Democrats (COP), the white wing of the Congress Alliance, and she took over as editor of Fighting Talk, a journal supporting the alliance. She was on the drafting committee of the Freedom Charter, but was unable to attend the Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955 because of her banning order. In 1956 both First and her husband Joe Slovo, were arrested and charged with treason. The trial lasted four years after which all 156 accused were acquitted.
First considered herself to be primarily a labor reporter, and during the 1950s she was producing up to fifteen stories a week. Despite this high work rate, her writing remained vivid, accurate and often controversial. Her investigative journalism was the basis of her longer pamphlets and, later, her books. The transition to more complex writing came easily.
During the state of emergency following the Sharpeville shootings of March 1960, First fled to Swaziland with her children, returning after the emergency was lifted six months later to continue as Johannesburg editor of New Age (successor to The Guardian). In the following two tears she wrote South West Africa, a book, which remains the most incisive history of early Namibia. During this time she helped to organize the first broadcasts of Radio Freedom from a mobile transmitter in Johannesburg.
In 1963 First was detained following arrests of members of the underground ANC, the SACP and Umkhonto we Sizwe in Rivonia. In the trial, which followed, political leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki were sentenced to life imprisonment. However, First was not among the accused. She was detained in solitary confinement under the notorious 90-day clause, during which she attempted suicide. Her father fled South Africa and soon after her release First also left with her children to join her husband, who had already fled the country, in Britain.
The family settled in North London and First threw herself into anti Apartheid politics, holding talks, seminars and public discussions in support of the ANC and SACP. Her book 117 days, an account of her arrest and interrogation in 1963, was made into a film with First acting as herself.
During the 1960s First researched and edited Mandela’s No easy walk to freedom (1967), Mbeki’s The peasant’s revolt (1967) and Oginda Odinga’s Not yet Uhuru (for which she was deported to Kenya). With Ronald Segal she edited South West Africa: travesty of trust (1967). From 1973 First lectured for six years at Durham University, England, on the sociology of underdevelopment.
In the 1970s she published The barrel of a gun: the politics of coups d’etat in Africa (1970), followed by Libya: the elusive revolution (1974), The Mozambican miner: a study in the export of labor (1977), and, with others, The South African connection: Western investment in Apartheid (1972). It was during this time that she read contemporary feminist ideas, work which she wrote with Anne Scott (1980). Many of these works were landmarks in Marxist academic debate.
In 1977 First was appointed professor and research director of the Centre for African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. She began work on the lives of migrant laborers, particularly those who worked on the South African gold mines. The results of this study were published as Black gold: the Mozambican miner (1983).
Following a UNESCO conference at the center on the 17th of August 1982, First was killed by a letter bomb widely believed to have originated from military sources within South Africa. Until her death she remained a ‘listed’ communist and could not be quoted in South Africa.
Her close friend, Ronald Segal, described her death as “the final act of censorship”. Presidents, members of parliament and ambassadors from 34 countries, attended her funeral in Maputo.