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Award-winning gospel choir to commemorate former Durham University Lecture

A Grammy World Music Award-winning choir will mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination of a former Durham University lecturer.

As part of their global Freedom Tour, the Soweto Gospel Choir will be performing in the unique setting of Durham Cathedral to mark the death of Ruth First, a South African anti-apartheid campaigner and journalist.

The Soweto Gospel choir won the 2019 Grammy World Music Award for their album Freedom, a collection of uplifting songs celebrating the struggle for freedom in South Africa and honouring Nelson Mandela.

Emeritus Professor Mike Thompson from Durham University’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures said: “This year marks the 40th anniversary of Ruth’s assassination. We wanted to mark this with a range of commemorative events, including a performance from the Soweto Gospel Choir. Their uplifting celebration of freedom in South Africa is a perfect way of celebrating the memory and legacy of Ruth First.

“The event will also be an opportunity for the public to learn more about the inspirational work of Ruth.”

Ruth First played an important role in the struggle against apartheid and other abuses of human rights in South Africa. She exposed violence and exploitation through fearless investigative journalism and campaigned tirelessly for truth and freedom. In exile since 1964, Ruth worked as a lecturer in Sociology at Durham University between 1973 and 1978. While in Mozambique in 1982, Ruth was assassinated by a parcel bomb by order of the South African police.

In collaboration with the Ruth First Educational Trust (RFET) and the Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society (CHESS), the University has carried out a series of events over the last year to celebrate the life and work of Ruth. This included the unveiling of a restored mural, located on the side of Ruth First House on Providence Row in Durham.

Durham City Parish Council commissioned the original artist, Lotte Shankland, to restore the mural, which was originally created to coincide with the first free 1994 democratic elections in South Africa.

The public were also invited to an online and in-person event at St Chad’s College, Durham University, where a series of speakers explored the work of Ruth First and the issues faced by activist research in relation to objectivity.

The event was attended by one of Ruth’s daughters, Gillian Slovo. During the event, she said: “My mother Ruth was first in very many ways. She was the first in her family to go to university and throughout her life in South Africa, she used her smart brain and tongue to fight against apartheid. Despite being in solitary detention for 117 days, she continued to fight for equality and justice in our world.

“It’s wonderful that 40 years on people still remember not just who Ruth was, but how important her work was. They remember someone who had very strong beliefs and would interrogate things with proper research and knowledge.

“I grew up with two parents whose main objectives were to fight for justice and equality in South Africa. They put their lives, quite literally in Ruth’s case, on the line for this cause. Their passion made me understand that there are more important things than just an individual life. There is something about joining up with other people to ensure the world is a more equal place.”

After Ruth’s death in 1982, the scholarship set up in 1964 to enable South African students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds to undertake postgraduate study at Durham University was renamed in her memory. Each year, the university and the Ruth First Educational Trust provide a scholarship to a South African student.

Former Ruth First Scholar from 2014/15, Dave Mankhokwe Namusanya, said: “The RFET scholarship was for me an opportunity that enabled me to get an education that I would not have been able to get.

“I was able to get expert knowledge on community work, which is what I have mostly relied on to understand societies and how best to work within them in support of their own development.

“After graduating from Durham, I came to realise that beyond the education that I got in class it was the transformation that I had in my outlook to life, specifically social justice issues.

“The experience of being a RFET scholar and studying at Durham shaped my way of imagining the world.

“The RFET scholarship also set me on a career path of research seeking to support the ground of interventions in Malawi in real life research. Currently, I am doing my PhD at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland, researching on climate change and water practices in Malawi looking at ways through which indigenous knowledge can be used to support communities facing the impacts of climate change in Southern Malawi.”

The Soweto Gospel Choir performance will take place at Durham Cathedral on Monday, 24 October at 7pm. Tickets and further information can be found on the cathedral’s website.


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