November's recommendation is by Gillian Slovo, who has written about a truly inspirational woman: her mother, Ruth First. Nelson Mandela said of First: 'Her life and death remain a beacon to all who love liberty.'
117 Days is the account by my mother, Ruth First, of her imprisonment in South Africa under apartheid’s notorious 90-day law. It is a searingly honest book that stands as testament to the crippling effects of solitary and to the courage of one woman.
Ruth was arrested in 1963 in the period immediately following the arrest of the ANC leaders who, along with the already incarcerated Nelson Mandela, were eventually to stand trial for their lives. Ruth, having been privy to many of the resistance’s secrets, risked being charged alongside them. No reason was given for her arrest: the 90-day law did not require one. It allowed for detention, in solitary and without trial, for a period that could stretch, as the then Justice Minister BJ Vorster put it, to ‘this side of eternity.’
Ruth’s account of her time in jail is shot through with crisp passion. She writes with clarity, and also humour, about the effects of solitary and the barbarity of the political system that undercut it. And she, a fiercely private person, also writes unsparingly about herself.
From the first, when a police search of her home uncovers a banned newspaper, she convicts herself of carelessness. As the days of her detention stretch into weeks and then months, she is unblinkingly honest in her descriptions of her loss of confidence and of self. Coming from a political culture that did not tolerate much weakness, she does not pull back from owning her pride and her fear of other’s judgments that led her almost to the brink of death. A woman who cared greatly about her appearance, her determination to inhabit this experience, has left an enduring account whose power lies in its lack of unnecessary ornamentation.
At the book’s end Ruth is convinced that, despite her release, they would come again. She was to be proved right. In 1982 she was killed by a letter bomb sent to her by apartheid South Africa’s security police. Yet through this most personal of her many books, her voice lives on.
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