If you bumped into them in the maze of one of Gauteng’s shopping malls, you would never imagine that these gentle-faced, greying, middle-aged women, were once known as Oliver Tambo’s “flowers of the revolution.” Soft spoken, an active member of her ANC branch in Soweto, and a doting grandmother Pauline Mohale was a recruiter of Umkhonto We Sizwe underground guerrilla operatives in Soweto, who was arrested en route to cross the Swazi border for military training in the seventies. Living on the other side of Johannesburg, in the city’s eastern suburbs of Cyrildene, petite Laurentia Richer is a therapeutic reflexologist involved in complementary health. No one would guess that the same hands that heal, could strip and put together an AK47 in the dark. Pauline and Laurentia are but two of thousands of women Umkhonto We Sizwe operatives who were often outnumbered by male recruits by twenty to one. Some experienced the most heinous torture at the hands of security police, all lived under a constant state of surveillance and secrecy, some having to conceal their femininity under the weight of combat gear and bazookas, but whatever role they played, all were definitely “of the revolution”. The reality of many women’s experiences in the ANC’s guerilla army was far from romantic, incredibly dangerous, sometimes heroic, sometimes ill-considered and often very mundane, but they all played a valuable role in the dismantling of apartheid with or without their machine guns. This is the full version of a story that was published in City Press in December 2016. BY HEATHER ROBERTSON
South Africa’s Minister of Communications Ayanda Dlodlo referred to them as “the women who are footnotes of footnotes” in her City Press tribute to her fellow Umkhonto We Sizwe female combatants on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the ANC’s military wing in 2011. (1) ANC President Oliver Tambo proffered a more poetic name to the women in army fatigues who were often outnumbered by male recruits by 20 to 1. He called them “flowers of the revolution”. This is the story of a few women who joined the underground army of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe. They may not have felt remotely like flowers most of the time, some experiencing the most heinous torture at the hands of security police, all living under a constant state of surveillance and secrecy, some having to conceal their femininity under the weight of combat gear and bazookas, but whatever role they played, all were definitely “of the revolution”. They did reconnaissance missions, infiltrated arms and units of guerrillas back into South Africa, set up DLB’s (dead letter boxes), trained, mapped targets, waged in armed combat against Unita in Angola and planted explosives at key points in South Africa.
The rapturous response to President Jacob Zuma belting out and toyi – toying to the MK song “”Awuleth’ Umshini Wami” (bring my machine gun) at ANC rallies and events even in 2016, more than twenty years after the guerrilla army was decommissioned, is an indication of how many South Africans still romanticise the mythic AK 47 wielding freedom fighters. The reality of many women’s experiences in the underground army was far from romantic, incredibly dangerous, sometimes heroic, sometimes ill-considered and often very mundane, but they all played a considerable part in the dismantling of apartheid with or without their machine guns.
Defence and conflict researcher Pingla Udit spells out women’s role in the South African struggle liberation struggle as being comprehensive. (2)
“Women were involved in communication, logistics and administrative experience during operations. But in addition to their own personal participation in events, the dynamic position of women in struggle was also determined by men’s activities. Women supported and organised the oppositional activities of their families, friends, lovers, 8comrades, fathers and husbands. They faced the death or injuries of their loved ones with militancy, courage and strength. Women often harboured and protected the demonstrators being chased by the security police. They played an important role in the production and circulation of oppositional literature and tapes and spread the latest Radio Freedom news and revolutionary slogans in a short span of time through women’s organisations.” (3)
THE EARLY YEARS 1960’s
In 1961 when Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki and the ANC leadership realised that their passive resistance campaigns against apartheid were being met with violence and they started planning the formation of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto We Sizwe, there is little evidence that women were sent for military training.
Women like Lillian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela Mandela were active members of the ANC in the fifties but they were not part of the group of men Mandela accompanied to the mountains of Algeria where in 1962 he participated in a joint boot camp between the African National Congress fighters and the Algerian National Liberation Army.
Raymond Suttner in his book “Women in the ANC-led Underground” says that while the early formation of MK in 1961 may have comprised mainly men, women including Jacqueline Molefe (Sedibe) were among the earliest trainees. He added that most ANC women like Albertina Sisulu, Joyce Sikhakane and Shantie Naidoo went about rebuilding the ANC undergound in the Soweto area under tremendous security restrictions after the ANC leadership was sentenced to prison during the Rivonia trial. (3)
Harold Strachan,an artist and member of the Communist party was one of the first MK members recruited to form a technical committee by Govan Mbeki in Port Elizabeth in the early sixties. He was arrested and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment after explosive powder was found on his car. “I was arrested on day one of MK. Fortunately, because of our secrecy, nobody knew what the bloody hell was going on.”
Strachan does not recall any women involved in MK in the early days but there were many women in the Communist Party.
“Women? I knew one in our CP cell who was a trade union activist and might have been in MK, but even in such a sacred place nobody would ask anybody else if they were MK operatives, such was our discipline. I’m pretty sure though that there were none in PE, except perhaps in an organisational role.” (4)
The ANC and SACP at that stage were very male dominated, paternalistic organisations despite the active political roles of women like Lillian Ngoyi who with Helen Josephs led the historic 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings against pass laws. Women were not allowed to join the ANC when it was established in 1912, but Ngoyi became the first member of the ANC National Executive Committee in in the 1950’s.
Tryphina Mboxela Jokweni, who joined the ANC while living in the informal settlement of Umkhumbane in Durban, was one of the 20 000 women who marched to Pretoria, an action which inspired her to join Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1962 under the command of Billy Nair. While she previously evaded the law by handing out pamphlets and joining the defiance campaign against apartheid laws, joining MK made her a target of security police. Jokweni fled to the Transkei to avoid arrest but she was eventually caught when she returned to Umkhumbane in 1966 and spent the next six months in prison.
After the apartheid government bulldozed Umkhumbane and her home Mboxela transformed her house in Umlazi Township into a safehouse for MK cadres who were operating in Durban and others areas of the country. (5)
WHY WAS THERE AN INFLUX OF WOMEN JOINING MK in the 70’s and 80’s?
After the Rivonia trial saw the ANC’s key leaders sent to Robben Island, many MK operatives and ANC activists who escaped capture followed Oliver Tambo to regroup the ANC in exile. Missions were established in Zambia, Tanzania, Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, England, Europe, Canada, Cuban and the USSR.
Internally it was left largely up to women to establish a network of underground structures to recruit members from the factory floors, university campuses and high schools. In a masters thesis on the experiences of ten women in MK, Kongko Louis Makau argues that women were particularly active in these networks, “as it was a politically strategic decision to have women organisers rather than men, who were already presumed as being prime suspects by the security forces.” (6)
The 1976 Soweto Uprisings proved to be a fertile ground for recruitment into the ANC with thousands of students who had experienced the brutality of the South African police and defence force determined to join the military wing of the ANC or to seek opportunities for further study in exile.
Pauline Mohale was one of the young women who were active in the ’76 uprising. She was politically influenced by her mother who was a member of the ANC Women’s league, but her father, a policeman, disapproved. (7)
In 1976 Pauline was a member of the Student Christian Movement in Soweto, and a new mother of a baby boy. She was unemployed but worked with a cell of ANC activists, distributing ANC pamphlets to students and doing administrative work. Even though she was out of school by then, she marched with the students protesting Afrikaans as a language of instruction.
Paulina remembers the police throwing teargas, killing some of her friends and arresting others. She managed to evade arrest for a long time, providing refuge to students and helping them escape the country through Swaziland. Like may other activists the line between being a member of MK and the ANC were blurred, but Pauline decided to join MK for the sake of her baby:
“I wanted to fight so my child will have a free education, a better place in South Africa to live in. I thought this cannot go on. The apartheid regime must fall.”
After many trips safely transporting several Soweto students across the border to join MK and the ANC in exile, Paulina decided to go for MK training herself on the fateful day that she was stopped and arrested in a police roadblock, the only woman with a group of young men in mini-bus about to cross the Swaziland border.
While some women joined MK and went into exile on their own, many young women followed boyfriends unaware that they may not return home, and while some were politically conscious already, others were conscientised in exile.
Laurentia Richer was a journalism student at Rhodes University in the 1970’s and followed her then boyfriend, now husband, Pete Richer into exile to Botswana. When asked to explain how a young Afrikaner girl would decide to give up all privilege and take a great leap into the unknown she says: “You could be not be neutral after the horror of 1976. You were either for or against. The campuses were hectic,” and Pete was a Rhodesian student whose permit to study in South Africa was terminated forcing him to leave the country. (8)
Laurentia joined the ANC officially when she went to Mahalapye in Botswana in 1977. “At the time there was a big move by the ANC to recruit white South Africans. There were a lot of whites draft dodging and refusing to co operate with the apartheid regime. Marius and Jeanette Schoon were instrumental in recruiting us.” A lot of white underground activists who were in strategic positions in the country, including the SADF, provided valuable intelligence to the ANC.
She became an MK member when Pete and her were sent for training in the German Democratic Republic by Marius Schoon. She agreed to go for military training because: “We had agreed as the ANC that military impact was necessary. I was trying to destroy an evil system.”
Other women MK operatives’ motives for joining the military were more out of rebellion against parental authority and a sense of adventure. Ayanda Dlodlo came from a middle class family background, but after her parents divorce, when her mother returned to Johannesburg from Swaziland where she grew up, she left the comforts of home, much to the chagrin of her school principal father, to be like her literary heroes Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
“I can’t say I come from the poverty that drove other people to the struggle. I wanted to go for the adventure,” Dlodlo admitted to a City Press reporter about her reasons for crossing the border to join MK. (9)
Michelle Van Blerk left South Africa and went to live in Swaziland in 1982 when she was 22 because she “didn’t like apartheid, as simple as that.” (10) She came from a lower middle class white family in PineTown. At that point she couldn’t politically articulate her hatred of the system, but after going on holiday to Swaziland, she found the non-racial environment liberating.
She worked as a photographer for The Times of Swaziland newspaper where she met Lindiwe Sisulu, now Minister of Housing, who was a sub-editor at the paper. It was through Sisulu that Van Blerk got involved in Umkhonto we Sizwe. Van Blerk lived in Swaziland for three or four years. “People would stay in my home, I wasn’t deeply involved. I couldn’t get involved in Swaziland, I was too exposed. I read No Easy Walk to Freedom and that is how I got politically involved.
Once recruited for military training, there were many different routes that MK women took, to meet handlers in the frontline states, some crossing crocodile infested rivers, others driving to border posts, waiting to be screened further on the other side.
Some like Pauline Mohale were trained inside the country how to form secret cells, send code messages, recruit and transport operatives. Others were sent for short courses in handling weapons and explosives, dead letter boxes, coding, between two and three months in duration to Cuba, the German Democratic Republic or Russia.
Many others like Michelle Van Blerk and Ayanda Dlodlo were sent to training camps in Angola where they operated under strict military discipline for long periods. While life in the camps was tough and terrifying as comrades lives were lost in action against Unita, neither Van Blerck or Dlodlo reported witnessing or experiencing rape and sexual harassment by fellow male comrades as did female guerrillas who were trained in the sixties and seventies. Dlodlo who joined MK at the age of 17, did admit that: “Some of us were in the trenches since we were very young, we even lost our virginity there,” and that “if we were home, we would have probably received even counselling and advise from our parents,” in October 2012 at an address to the MK Military Veterans Association’s 4th elective national congress in Boksburg. (11)
Many women are still afraid to talk of their experiences in MK and more particularly the sexually exploitative practises which happened at the hands of senior members of the ANC. A woman who shared accommodation with MK woman recruits from the sixties and seventies in Zambia and Tanzania said the ANC at the time was ill prepared for women.
“They had to live together with men in the camps. Maybe sometimes a separate tent was all they might have been given. They did not get sanitary towels so they improvised with grass or clothes. They were constantly in fear of being raped. So to protect themselves they would get a boyfriend or sleep with someone in charge.” (12)
She relates the tale of an an MK women who was once the lover of a well known MK commander who was taken on as his girlfriend from when she left the country in the late 70’s. “The commander dumped her when she fell pregnant and she learnt very early on to use a knife and to wear clothes that made it difficult to be raped by comrades.”
Makau found that the greatest challenge the Class of 1976 had to deal with once they crossed the border was “undoing the long held perception that the military was exclusively a male domain where women had no place to be.”
Many of the young women had been treated as equals working side by side with male comrades in the Soweto uprising. As Paulina Mohale recalls: “I can say I used to work with men most of the time. They treated me with respect. I was most in the office of Moses Mabida and Joe Gqabi. I was treated like a sister.”
According to Makau, the first experience of male domination was evident and exerted upon arrival in the frontline states. “The women were advised by the ANC leadership to opt to go to school, instead of receiving military training. The women, in some instances were not taken seriously by their male counterparts or were even undermined. And, worse at times, they were seen as a threat for becoming soldiers – which was perceived as a male domain. The women, therefore, had to rely on other people, such as Chris Hani, to protect them from abuse and maltreatment in the camps.”
Thenjiwe Mtintso described to the Truth Commission how, despite her own high position in MK, one of her male comrades said to her:
“You know, it’s going to get to the point that I am going to rape you. And it’s going to be very easy to rape you … and I know there is no way that you are going to stand in front of all these people and say I raped you.” (13)
Mtintso additionally spoke about how men in leadership positions would be in love with someone’s wife and label the husband a mdlwembe (enemy agent) and went further to even influence the wife to divorce the husband because of the label of state agent.
She suggested to the TRC that sexual violence is used by those in power to destroy the identity of women who have rejected traditional roles, for example by engaging in ‘masculine’ roles in the struggle.
Lita Nombango Mazibuko reported to the TRC how after one of her comrades she had assisted to cross the border in 1988 had been killed, she became “regarded as an enemy and as a spy”. She was kidnapped, tortured and interrogated. Torture included hitting and kicking, as well as being forced to stay in holes for long periods. Mazibuko attributed this torture to her rejecting a sexual relationship with one of the torturers.
“They said I should have some men in my life who could sort out my problems.”
Mazibuko acknowledged that “within the ANC there is no such rule that women should be violated in this manner. We used to be in camps and we would be told that men do not have a right to violate us. You could only get involved if you wanted to.”
Despite this, she told the TRC she was raped by at least three comrades, one of whom “cut through my genitals and … he tied my hands, my legs, they were apart, he also tied my neck and he would also pour Dettol over my genitals.”
General Andrew Masondo’s dismissive reaction to the allegations of rape and sexual exploitation of women in the camps, in his response to the TRC could be viewed as tacit condonation of the abuse:
“In Angola there are at one time twenty-two women in a group of more than 1 000 people. There was an allegation that Commanders were misusing women. The law of supply and demand must have created some problems.”
The fact that there was no apology for the rape but instead a cavalier response to the TRC from Masondo was harshly criticised by TRC commissioner Hlengiwe Mkhize saying that “the submission fail(ed) women”. (13)
After waiting in Maputo for two months, Michelle Van Blerk was sent to the refugee camps in Arusha in Tanzania for four months.
“It was tough, it was tense . We stayed in tents in refugee camps. In a way one got into a total different mode of living. There was malaria. Hundreds of people coming in from the Eastern Cape, very young people, very damaged people. It was a really emotionally volatile situation. Most of those people came via Lesotho. I got malaria lots of times. People were sick. People were crying for their mothers. ANC medicos and doctors treated people. The ANC was pretty organised in hindsight. Having so many traumatised people missing their families, it was hard for everybody but we never went hungry. There were always kitchens in the camp and people would take turns and people ate at different times.”
She left Arusha at the end of 1985 and was flown with other recruits to Angola which was in the middle of a civil war between the ruling, and the South African government supporting Unita.
Did Van Blerk experience gender discrimination in the camp?
“I thought about this for a long time. Thenjiwe Mtintso and Thandi Modise were in the camps before us. I don’t think sexism in the camp was any worse than the sexism we are experiencing at the moment. There was a bit of flowers of the revolution kind of stuff, a very Russian kind of concept but there was always a conscious emphasis about women even if it was misguided. In the camps there was a ratio of 20 men to one woman. People in a frenzy not in their environment. So yeah there was some bullying, but it was not sanctioned.There was always an emphasis on trying to empower women. There were some deeply sexist entrenchments. I joked if they had to choose between getting food or dettol to wash women, dettol would come first. They had an obsession with washing women in dettol. . Cleanliness was always next to godliness particularly for women. They always made an effort that women got cream, roll on deodorant, always emphasis on looking after the flowers of the revolution. Men could go smelly. I think the boardrooms are more sexist than it was there. Women had power. They could control who they wanted to be with and who they did not want to be with.”
In her interview with City Press, Ayanda Dlodlo reflected that her feelings of gender equality came from the training camps.“We were treated the same as men, only we didn’t have to cook. The pots were too heavy for us to carry. The only exception was on International Women’s Day, when we would get gifts of panties or chocolates.”
Sipho Ondala who was based in Angola from 1979 to 1982 confirmed that women did the same training drills as men, but were accorded great respect. He trained with Dlodlo and said she was part of a group of four young women who were particularly brave and managed to operate both inside and outside the country without being arrested.(14)
“If you discriminated against women you would be punished, women were very protected in the camps in Angola. For minor things like whistling at a woman, you were called to order.”
“Most of the women were very strong. If anyone, man or woman, was not strong, the policy of MK was to take the pace of the slowest person. If someone is left behind you have to go back and collect that person.”
Ondala recalls women doing the most dangerous work because the apartheid security establishment underestimated their worth and least suspected them.“Women were inflitrating guerrillas back into the country, crossing the border with weapons.”
After four months in Arusha, van Blerk was flown to Angola and ferried to Gagulama camp in Malanje, east Angola, near the Democratic Republic of Congo. She describes the mood as tense: “We arrived into a war situation and lived in a state of high alert, a state of security all the time.”
Van Blerk was posted in Angola for two and half years. She and other recruits underwent six months military training with MK commanders from South Africa. This entailed running 5 kilometres a day, waking up at 5am, doing combat training, march and drill, jumping off roofs. The cadres were trained to use all weapons, AK47’s , Bazookas, hand grenades, and carrying a small branch or log and pretending it was a gun for six months.
“That was a nightmare. A small log or branch, it was your weapon, you couldn’t lose it. At a later stage you get a gun. Only certain people get bullets according to seniority. Once you pass six months you got armed. We used to do guarding. There were about 300 people training. Camps were very well run, very organised.”
Van Blerk at 26 was older than most cadres and used to be teased ruthlessly. There was some minority person who said they couldn’t run and bark at the same time and for the duration of her stay it was attributed to her. All the 14 year old young lions would shout at her “you can’t run and bark at the same time.”
Was she treated any differently to others because she was the only white woman in the camp?
“I was given favourable treatment sometimes. One time I thought I was breaking and Chris Hani thought my cultural isolation was too great. He tried to be understanding that there would be some alienation.”
All the MK soldiers speak fondly of Chris Hani who was Commissar of Umkhonto We Sizwe.
“Chris came around and gave us all the loving and talking and saying everything would be just fine. He was like “the mother of the army”, recalls Michelle.
Hani sent her from Malanje to Luanda where she was trained by Russian advisers in communications, military combat work-how to set up the underground, how to set up secret communications, DLB’s, how to do intelligence gathering.
She was subsequently sent to Russia for further training.
She recalls being very disappointed when she arrived in Moscow.
“It was the time of Gorbachev. We were really looking forward to the vodka and there was a bloody blackout on vodka in the whole of Moscow and the Bolshoi ballet was under renovation so everything we wanted, the vodka and the Bolshoi, were not available. And there was a bit of perestroika and the Russians kept taking us to these sort of mad circus exotic dancing places that we were not interested in.”
In Russia she was trained in surveillance, hand to hand combat, with Russian soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan. She remembers the Russians thought she was Afghani because she was dark. While MK soldiers were learning combat, Palestinians from the PLO were also training. “When we were told to strangle, those Palestinians were like really strangling each other. We were much more like politely throwing each other on the ground.”
Many of Van Blerck’s comrades were killed in combat with Unita. There was a time when Van Blerck was supposed to go back into the country with Hein Grosskopf, but they were turned back at Botswana. She then joined military intelligence in Lusaka with Ronnie Kasrils.
“We did research, looked at targets, information, map reading. Target identification, infrastructure targets, electrical transformers.”
“I was a new breed white. Nobody knew what to do with me. I didn’t come from Nusas, ECC, underground or internal structures. I wasn’t politically correct, I was cheeky. When people got nasty they’d call me an enemy agent. When I think of Angola. Standing on the verandah and all of us shooting AK’s into the sky, I think what the fuck where did the bullets go?”
“I wasn’t a great revolutionary really.”
For Laurentia Richer, the lines between ANC and MK were very blurred, there was no official recruitment into MK. Everyone had code names and a cover story. Laurentia’s name was Nhlanhla. She and five men including her boyfriend Pete were sent to the GDR in 1979 when she was 26 years old.
In December they flew from Gaberone to Lusaka, then to Luanda from where they were put on a plane to the GDR, there were many stops in sympathetic countries before they eventually arrived in East Berlin.
“They put us in a house, the comrades looking after us were fabulous. All six of us were in the house. We did coding, how to do DLB’s (dead letter boxes)We had political education around Marxism, coding, small arms training, training in laying landmines. We got up early, had to exercise. Pete and I had to jog for two hours in the forest. They trained us the theory of AK47’s velocity and trajectory of the bullet in a classroom in the house.”
“We were taken to a military camp where we wore uniforms outside of the city where we trained how to shoot AK47’s, we used live ammunition, shot AK47’s and pistols. I remember shooting a pellet gun on a family friend’s farm as an 10 year oldAfrikaans girl. I must say I was the best shot there out of all the guys. I remember doing target practise at 11pm. I could strip and put together an AK47 in the dark. Learnt where the best place to put a landline was for example if you wanted to blow up a train. The Germans were good about teaching us that you don’t just go for maximum destruction, go for pylons, don’t blow up a passenger train.”
As the only woman in a male unit for the three months duration of the training, she felt the pressure to keep up with the men but she “didn’ t feel it was a hassle.” She felt treated equally by the Germans and comrades.
On return to Botswana Laurentia was assigned to train recruits in small arms and hand grenades. “The Batswana did not know we were doing this-we all had legends and cover stories.”
THE RISKS OF BEING AN MK OPERATIVE
When Paulina Mohale and a group of young men heading for MK training were stopped at a roadblock near the Swazi border gate in 1976 – the police said they knew they were on the way to get military training so that they can come back and kill white people. Paulina tried to talk her way out of it by saying she was lost, but the whole group was arrested and put in cells in a prison near the border gate.
Paulina recalls the police kept demanding: “Tell us where are the guns, where are the guns?” When she said she knew nothing about guns, they prodded and poked her with what looked like an umbrella, which electrically shocked her.
“They shocked me throughout my body. The whole night I was standing there. They said to me, we want guns, tell us about guns, don’t play with us. We’ve arrested big guys like Tokyo (Sexwale) and others, but you don’t want to tell us where you’ve hidden the guns. I said I don’t know anything about guns. They continued beating me up.”
On the third day Mohale collapsed. She said she was was smelling of blood which had clotted throughout her fingers, toes, body and back. They kept electrocuting her body and legs, and she started menstruating. She was sent to Krugersdorp prison for six months and then Pretoria Central.
When she was at Krugersdorp prison, her mother’s house was raided and the police took her to John Voster Square. “They kept saying they wanted guns. I found that they had arrested my mother. They said if she didn’t show them where these guns were, they going to kill her and her mother. They took her to 10th floor and said: “You see this window, we will make you stand on top of the table and you will fly out like a bird, so many people died like you, they died there on the ground. They died flying through this window like a bird, you are also going to die if you don’t tell us the truth.” I
Paulina survived two years in solitary confinement she says “by the grace of God.” The prison cell had a Bible which she read from Genesis to Revelations and over again.
She says in solitary confinement she was driven by the belief and “the spirit to know we are going to be liberated.” She retained her dignity throughout. The warders would sometimes kick her plate of food into her cell and she would retaliate by kicking the food back saying: “Ek is nie julle hond nie. Ek eet nie geskopte kos”.
Despite the tremendous trauma, pain and fear she felt, Mohale never broke. She eventually appeared stoic and strong next to her 11 make co-accused at the Supreme Court, in Pretoria, facing charges in the Terrorism Act in a case which lasted10 May 1977 to 7 April 1978. Six of the accused including Toxyo Sexwale were sentenced but Mohale and five other acquitted due to insufficient evidence. The mental and physical torture took its toll on her and she had a nervous breakdown after she was released. She wanted to go into exile but her mother intervened and she was brought back to health with the help of her mother, other family members, her church and the South African Council of Churches. There were no psychologists available at the time, so she went to a neurologist at Baragwanath hospital for treatment. Paulina eventually recovered and continued sending young students to MK, married and has four children.
Sexwale acknowledged Paulina’s courage at the TRC.
“She was humiliated, her dignity was violated, her values were questioned, alone resisting, and when the whole Pretoria 12 as we were known at the time, resumed, Paulina Mohale stood tall. She nearly lost her mind, but she stood tall. To us that represented a focal point of admiration. We often thought that it is only the men who were supposed to withstand the kind of pain. Many were able to withstand with their lives and many without their lives, but that name, Paulina Mohale, I thought I should invoke her to indicate that in the chambers of torture, many such unsung heroines also stand to be counted.” (15)
Pete and Laurentia Richer’s names were on the hit list to be killed in the 1985 raid on Gaberone. At the time, the couple had had two small baby daughters, a 9 month old and a 1 year and 9 month old. The ANC had received intelligence that Gaberone was gong to be attacked in some way, so the couple moved from house to house with their babies. On the night of the raid though, they were at home, the backyard cottage owned by a Batswana woman, and were awoken by the sound of exploding bombs.
“We decided to not be sitting ducks and get into our car and drive out with our two babies. For a long time I could not talk about this. I ran back to our house to get boots and that saved us. We didn’t know that the SADF were shooting people who came out to the road. Their intelligence was out of date. They wanted to kill ANC people and stop the Botswana government from giving ANC people refuge.”
Twelve people were murdered in the raid. In the amnesty application of Jan Anton Nieuwoudt he stated that he targeted George Pahle who was killed along with his wife, Lindiwe Pahle. The other South Africans killed were a prominent artist, Thami Mnyele, from whose home the attackers stole a number of paintings; Mike Hamlyn, a draft resister who had just graduated from the University of Botswana with a first-class degree in mathematics; a schoolteacher, Duke Machobane, who was killed along with his six-year-old old nephew Peter Mofoka, a Basotho citizen visiting him at the time; Basil Zondi, a seventy-one-year-old refugee and neighbour of one of the missed targets, Tim Williams; Joseph Malaza and Dick Mtsweni. Among the non-nationals killed were a Somalian, Ahmed Geer, whose Dutch wife, pregnant at the time, was seriously injured, and two young Batswana women, Gladys Kesupile and Euginia Kobole. Two other Batswana were wounded at a roadblock. The reaction to the raid was so negative that security agent Craig Williamson planted stories in The Citizen and Sunday Times under the headlines “Guns of Gaberone”. Security Branch agent Eugene De Kock admitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that some of the weapons shown in the newspapers were borrowed from him by Williamson. (16)
The Richers like many in the ANC and MK community left Botswana after the raid, the Richers moving to Zimbabwe. The raid, says Laurentia affected their youngest child the most as they lived in a state of fear and constant surveillance after knowing they had been on the SADF hit list.
OPERATIVES IN ACTION
There were many MK women who lost their lives in action. Many were very young, still teenagers or just out of their teens. In Cape Town, a 22 year old young activist and drama student from the township of Bonteheuwel, Coline Williams, was blown up with her Ashely Kriel MK unit member Robert Waterwitch in 1989 after a defective limpet mine they had planned to place at the Athlone Magistrate’s Court in the Western Cape detonated prematurely.
Makhosi Nyoka, Lindiwe Mthembu and Nontsikelelo Cotoza were driving to Piet Retief in Mpumalanga on a reconnaissance mission with Lenny Naidoo when they were ambushed by Eugene De Kock and mowed down in cold blood while still seated in their Toyota Corolla in May 1988. The driver who drove them into South Africa was a police agent, who stopped the car and ran out of the way as De Kock and his henchmen shot the four activists. They had no weapons on them, so De Kock planted a pistol in Lenny’s hand and his sidekick planted hand grenades in their carry bags. (17) Both these incidents resulted from tipoffs to security police from informants within MK. The brutal and bloody deaths of these young people, who with hindsight, were in short grasp of a free democratic South Africa, brings home the duplicity, tragedy and horror of the war in which they sacrificed their lives.
With many lives lost and even more people emotionally and psychologically damaged, are there any regrets by those women who consciously chose a path of violence to end apartheid?
Despite their sacrifices and suffering, none of the MK women who shared their stories regret joining the armed struggle. Reflecting on her past Laurentia Richer who is now an aromatherapist healer says: “I don’t regret being involved in the armed struggle. There are small decisions I would have done differently.. I made a conscious choice that I was willing to kill and be killed. I didn’t kill anyone but I might have been instrumental in giving someone else the tools to do it. If I had killed Craig Williamson I don’t think I’d feel bad about it.”
Michelle Van Blerk is proud of her MK involvement. She too has no regrets as she believes she fought in a just war. “I was not naive and I am not an ideological demagogue so I always spoke my mind. Recently I heard a group of MK guys saying ‘How did Michelle know? How did she know how people would become corrupt?’ I am not so disappointed because I knew what power does.”
Despite the torture she endured, Paulina Mohale also has no regrets. Does she believe she achieved the dream she almost sacrificed her life and sanity for?Reflecting on the cancer of corruption that has eroded the values of some in the ANC today she answers: “Not 100%. 45%. There are still a lot of imbalances as far as education is concerned. You know money is the root of all evil. We are politically free, we should be economically free and socially free, but that is a challenge. Unfortunately things are happening the way we never planned.”
Mohale is still involved in her ANC branch which she says is wracked by factionalism. She calls for a renewal of the values the ANC initially stood for
“Should we fight again for things to be done or how should we do it? How do we break the chain? We have a challenge. This pie is sufficient for all of us. Can’t we share piece by piece for everyone and let us have a healthy country?”
- Dlodlo, Ayanda. The flowers of the revolution. City Press 8/8/2011 retrieved from www.news24.com on June 16 2016
- Facebook messenger interview with Pingla Udit, June 10, 2016
- Suttner Raymond, Women in the ANC-led Underground, South African History Archives, retrieved on June 16, 2016
- Email interview with Harold Strachan, June 10, 2016
- SABC Truth Commission Special Reporthttp://sabctrc.saha.org.za/victims/jokweni_tryphina_mboxela.htm
- Makau, Kongko Louis, Master thesis in History, University of Johannesburg, 2009: ASPECTS OF SOME EXPERIENCES OF WOMEN IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LIBERATION IN THE MK: 1976 – 1988: A CASE STUDY OF 10 WOMEN.
- Face to face Interview with Paulina Mohale, June 18, 2016
- Face to face nterview with Laurentia Richer, June 17, 2016
- Dlodlo Ayanda, Home and Away – City Press, 2012-02-04 12:21 retrieved on June10, 2016
- Face tof ace interview with Michelle Van Blerck, June 19 , 2016
- Sex fired up ANC camps – Dlodlo got pill, AK47 – SundayWorld
Hlabathi Hlengiwe, www.sundayworld.co.za/…/sex-fired-up-anc-camps—dlodlo-got-pill-ak..retrieved on June 10 2016
- Facebook messenger interview with XXX (asked to be anonymous) July 2, 2016
- TRC Report Vol. Four Chapter Ten: Special Hearing: Women
- Telephone Interview with Sipho Ondala, July 1, 2016
- TRC Final Report. Vol 4. Chapter 10. Subsection 10. p 302. Paragraph 73 retrieved from SAHA.org on July 2 , 2016
- TRC Final Report. Vol 2. Chapter 2. Subsection 41.
- Simpson Thula: Umkhonto we Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle. Penguin Books. 2016