Female soldiers who experienced sexual assault – or its constant threat – still struggle against the myth of the untouchable men they fought alongside. And they are angry that this culture persists.
It has been just over four decades since the day Sibongile “Promise” Khumalo placed a note on her mother’s old gramophone. “By the time you read this, I will be out of this country … ” it read.
Forty-one years after the day she left her mother’s house in Soweto to go into exile as a freedom fighter, only now is she finally ready to speak of her experiences — a journey she refers to as one “littered with unprecedented pain”.
“I turned 55 a few days ago and decided that I want to talk about things I’ve never spoken about. I cannot die with these things that keep me depressed,” she says as we drive to a farm in Randjesfontein, just over 30km north of Johannesburg.
The farm was given to Khumalo’s organisation, Pan African Genesis, by the government.
The organisation focuses on the socioeconomic upliftment of South African military veterans. Little has been done, however, with the bequeathed land. “We’ve been rolling up our sleeves and dirtying our hands with no funding. All the work that has been done here so far was paid for from our own pockets,” she says, leading me into a tiny farm house.
At 14, she was the youngest of a group of 12 who skipped the country, eventually ending up in a camp in Mozambique where, she says, “there were many, many amputees … It was very traumatic to see that.”
Just after she arrived in Mozambique, she got her period for the first time. “When I saw the ocean for the first time, I menstruated for the first time. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was just seeing so much water for the first time, but I menstruated there and then. Right there on the white sand of that Mozambique beach. I was thoroughly traumatised.”
At 15 years old, she was sent on to Tanzania for military training under the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). She was then, as she rightfully says, “still a baby”. Yet it was not long before she came face to face with the ultimate physical violation.
“I thought I would take this to my grave,” she says. “But my real troubles started when I met Potlako Leballo [the then PAC president]. There was a roster for the women soldiers to clean his house. Little did I know that some of these women were being abused … I became one of them. He forced himself on me. He was an old man, even then.” [Potlako Leballo]
After a long pause, staring into the distance, she adds: “I can still smell that house.”
She added that, during her time in the house, all the girls were made to refer to Leballo as “daddy”.
PAC spokesperson Kenneth Mokgatlhe expressed his “shock” about the allegation, saying there had been no prior reports of sexual assault against the party’s former president.
“We are not aware of any such cases. This is news to the PAC and only seeks to assassinate the character of the late freedom fighter and his contribution to the African struggle.”
Khumalo’s allegations come on the heels of the #MeToo social media campaign, in which women around the world have shared stories of sexual harassment and abuse. The campaign followed an exposé of sexual misconduct allegations levelled against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
The campaign also led singer and former ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson to allege that a well-known South African sports administrator and ex-politician had reportedly raped her more than 20 years ago.
As to why Khumalo never reported the abuse, she says simply: “You wouldn’t report it. You couldn’t. You just had to dust yourself off and move on.”
Although she counts herself as “fortunate” for having spent only two months in Tanzania before being dispatched to Libya, her time in that country’s capital, Tripoli, “messed with my head even further — especially as a Catholic person”.
“One day, all of us were paraded in front of the media as we had, at that point, been converted to Islam. The women were forced to wear hijabs and I was introduced as ‘Fatma’. That was the Muslim name they gave me,” she says. “I didn’t like it but was told: ‘You better keep quiet … This is an arrangement entered into between [Muammar] Gaddafi and the PAC.’ They didn’t look at it as a forced thing but, to me, they signed on the dotted lines with our blood.”
She had had enough. Still determined to be a freedom fighter, however, she decided to enter the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK).
“I wanted to walk from Tripoli to Cairo [where the closest MK camp was]. I didn’t care how long it took. I told myself: ‘I’m not coming back to South Africa.’ I wanted to continue as a freedom fighter. I wanted to be in those camps. I wanted those weapons. I’m ashamed to say this now, but I wanted to kill,” she says.
Frustrated with not being able to get to Cairo, she attempted suicide. The failed attempt at taking her own life had her arrested for “betraying Islam” and incarcerated for three months. On her first night in the prison she attempted suicide again.
Slowly lifting the white blouse she is wearing, she shows me a scar under her breast. “I used a broken bottle. I wanted to get to my heart.”
Realising her desperation, prison authorities, African embassies and other liberation movements in Tripoli initiated communications with MK leaders in Angola, who, she says, “flew to Tripoli and said: ‘This is our child.’ We flew to Luanda together and, from that day, I was mollycoddled by MK; literally treated like an egg. I was treated very well.”
Reclining on a spacious sofa in her son’s home in Irene, outside Pretoria, Thenjiwe Mtintso — currently the South African ambassador to Malawi — recalls her experiences as one of the few female MK commanders.
“We were like a rare species. We were heroines for the fact that we chose to join MK, because patriarchy didn’t expect us to join the armed struggle. In general, we were really protected. But, on the other hand, even those who were protecting you would, you know, put themselves forward as possibilities …” [Thenjiwe Mtintso. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)]
Although she says she “knows of very few women during my time in the camps” who reported sexual violence, she concedes that “one man threatened to rape me”.
“I felt really in danger. But when he threatened to do it, I just said to him: ‘You’re not going to do it, because I’m going to shoot you. It’s as simple as all that. I’m just going to shoot you.’
“Because I was in a senior position, I was carrying a pistol instead of an AK-47. It would have been much easier for me to shoot him,” she says.
“He just retreated. And right through my stay in the camp, he kept saying: ‘One day I will get you.’ So there was always this threat hanging over me.”
Despite this ever-present threat, Mtintso did not report the incident — “because I handled it”, she says matter-of-factly. “I was quite clear that I will shoot him. One thing that I’m proud of is that with a pistol I am very good. Give me a pistol and I’m fine,” she laughs.
“But it made me develop a very bad attitude: you attack me, I kill you. And it really is very negative. Very, very negative. But I was in the military frame of mind. And the solution in the military is not conversation. It’s ‘you kill me or I kill you’. Simple.”
Mtintso adds that the reasons women rarely reported incidents of sexual abuse were varied.
“I think they just didn’t think they would be believed and also didn’t think they would be protected. And there was also a sense of embarrassment. That feeling of: ‘Did I do something to encourage him?’”
She adds: “In MK, there was also this belief that you don’t want to divide the movement. You don’t want to do anything to divert from the liberation struggle by talking about women’s liberation and feminism. So, if you were a woman MK soldier and you were violated, you wouldn’t get support from everybody. You’d get support — probably — from the women. Probably. Because some of them would just not support you.”
The continuing culture of sweeping the issue of sexual abuse under the rug was brought to the fore during the trial of President Jacob Zuma, after Fezekile “Khwezi” Kuzwayo — the daughter of a fellow former Robben Island political prisoner — accused him of rape.
But there were some in MK who knew of Zuma’s apparent predatory ways decades ago.
An MK operative, who chose to remain anonymous, told the M&G: “There were other people who were extremely well known who were extremely problematic. I was told to avoid Zuma in the Eighties, specifically because — and I quote — ‘he couldn’t keep his hands off women’. And one of the shocking things about the Khwezi rape trial was that we all bloody knew that. I was told by a male comrade that, if I could, not to even let Zuma know I existed [while I was within MK]. This was on the grounds that ‘he could not keep his hands off any woman he met and he did not take no for an answer’.”
The presidency did not respond to repeated requests for comment on these allegations.
Judy Seidman was a member of MK; she now works with the Khulumani Centre, an organisation that assists victims of apartheid-era violence. For Seidman, the lack of support from women for other women who had reported sexual violence continued post-liberation.
“At that time, the [ANC] Women’s League, who were supposed to be her [Kuzwayo’s] support, actively turned against her,” she says, adding: “During our time picketing outside the court … one senior women’s league member came over to our side of the picket and said she didn’t know how to deal with what we were saying; she just couldn’t process it.”
Mtintso adds that, despite the gains made in the women’s movement, “there are many steps we have taken backwards”.
“What is beautiful, however, is the rise of critical mass of young activists. Our democracy has allowed for the offshoots of new movements. If [only] the women’s league, for example, was interacting with these young people … In general, though, we women in the ANC are not part of this movement that is rising.”
Forty-plus years after setting out to join the fight for the liberation, Khumalo says: “I’m angry.”
As we drive out of the ramshackle farm, she says: “One of our camp songs went: Savumelana bo ngalo msebenzi — simply put: ‘We made a promise to each other to free our people from the shackles of oppression.’ This is not the freedom we fought for. What do we tell the young people? To keep the faith? No, this is not the freedom we fought for.”
The deafening silence on rape in MK camps lingers
For years, women freedom fighters from camps operated by the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), have remained silent about the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of men they called comrades.
Some of these atrocities came to light at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In one confession, former MK commander and defence minister Joe Modise said that sexual abuse in MK camps was a “very serious problem” — but maintained that leaders had acted on such abuses.
“Some of the camp commanders took advantage of their positions and started asking or pressuring some of the young ladies to do them favours,” Modise said. “I think it is understood what type of favours I am talking about. Some commanders had been removed for this. So it was a problem that was addressed by the movement and its armed personnel.”
Modise tried to explain this by saying that men in the camps struggled to find women they could pursue.
“It is the kind of problem that manifests itself in places such as camps, very far from home, isolated, in hostile areas, and the difficulty of young men going out into the towns to go and look for young ladies was rather limited, because there were ambushes also on the way.”
A similar remark was made by former MK commissar Andrew Masondo, who testified at the TRC about violations against women in the Quatro MK camp in Angola, where ill-disciplined MK members were sent to be corrected. But Masondo was criticised for his comments on sexual violence during his testimony.
“In Angola there are at one time 22 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,” he said.
When Thabo Mbeki, who was deputy president at the time, presented the ANC’s report to the TRC he also said that those in MK accused of “gender-specific violence” were punished. He did not, however, specify what the offences were or what punishment was meted out.
MK and ANC leaders, including Chris Hani, visited MK camps after allegations of sexual assault began to emerge. In her own testimony, Gertrude Shope, a former ANC Women’s League leader, said that members of the league would visit the camps to assist women.
But Teddy Williams, an MK commander who was trained in the Soviet Union, told the TRC that he was punished when he tried to speak out about sexual violence in the Quatro camp. Williams said that section commanders used to call women and “do what they wished to them”. Those who objected were secretly targeted.
Despite these admissions, women were still reluctant to testify at the TRC. When current ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte came before the TRC, she said that women were silenced by the liberation movement itself during the anti-apartheid struggle and that other women activists were complicit.
“If women said that they were raped, they were regarded as having sold out to the system in one way or another,” Duarte said.
But there were some brave women who spoke about their trauma for the first time at the TRC.
Lita Mazibuko, an MK member who organised safe routes for comrades over the South African border into Swaziland, recounted three occasions when she was raped.
During one operation, a comrade had died crossing the border and the movement suspected she was a spy. Mazibuko was eventually cleared, but she suffered brutally. She spoke of a man named Mashego who raped her in Swaziland and also told the TRC about another horrific rape.
“And there was another one by the name of Tebogo, who was also very young. He raped me and he also cut my genitals. He cut through my genitals and they were cut open and he put me in a certain room and he tied my hands, my legs, they were apart. He also tied my neck and he would also pour Dettol over my genitals,” Mazibuko said. “The pain that I experienced, I have never spoken about this. I have never even told my children about this. It is the very first time that I speak about this.”
ANC members allegedly attempted to silence her. She said that, two weeks before her testimony, Mathews Phosa — who was Mpumalanga premier at the time — told her he “has a right to protect” the ANC.
Mazibuko’s harrowing testimony could not defeat the silence that hung over the TRC from women who could not speak about the violence they faced. Higher Education Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize was a TRC commissioner. She listened to the testimonies and commented that the “submissions had fail[ed] women” because the silence remained deafening.
During the TRC hearings, members of the Pan Africanist Congress’s armed wing, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (Apla), maintained that rape was never condoned. They said that, if any member was found to be guilty, then the TRC should not hesitate to deny them amnesty.
“Rape is not accommodated and was never accommodated and I think we are among the few liberation movements in the world that never experienced that in our camps,” one Apla delegate testified. – Ra’eesa Pather