Analysis: How women activists also suffered in apartheid’s jails

‘INVISIBLE’: Women must be recognised for their role in the liberation struggle. PICTURE: FLICKR

A TYPICAL patriarchal structure produces and reproduces male dominance and renders women ineffective and silent. This assertion is informed by the skewed reporting through published and unpublished manuscripts advancing the role of men over that of women in the liberation struggle. It is clear that apartheid was systemic and its aftermath was felt by both men and women. However, female narratives remain untold. Little justice has been done in the telling of their stories.

Their voices became minimal. Earlier this year I presented a paper at an academic conference at the University of the Free State and my topic was Personal Narratives of Women Detained in Kroonstad Prison during the apartheid era: A socio-political exploration, 1960-1990. This was difficult to realise as I struggled to get interviews with former detainees. So should it continue this way, I might need to change the topic. In October, I got a chance to visit Constitution Hill. Reading the names of women who were once detained there gave me great pride as I recognised most of their names and stories. Such events bring narratives to life.

I am an advocate for stories of women, especially those unsung heroines, those whose stories slip through the cracks or simply having had the ink dry up before we even get to write about them. We need to give them the recognition they deserve. I refer to the violations of human rights hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as this pattern was recognised during these hearings. Women often came to report stories of their loved ones, husbands, brothers, male colleagues, but often not their own stories.

A number of factors have been alluded to this including fear, the idea that their stories were not so tragic and the idea that women were not to take an active role in the liberation struggle – and that lay bare their minds that this role was only for men, which subsequently became evident in their reporting. When stories of women are not told, we run the risk of enhancing the misconception that women did not play a significant role during the liberation struggle.

It is important to note they were not exempt from the wrath of apartheid laws. In a report by the Federation of South African Women, it was stated that “one of the reasons behind the different conditions (in prisons for women and men) was the amount of campaigning and world attention focused on particular prisoners and prisons, for example, Robben Island and its inmates. “Another reason was that women’s position in society makes them more invisible than men.” The lack of reporting of the lives of these women presented them as “invisible” within the penal discourse. It became evidently difficult for them to share their experiences with anyone, especially with people who did not seem sympathetic to what had really happened to them when they were in detention. Due to these preconceptions, some women may have not bothered to share their narratives, which can largely be one of the reasons we are unaware of their suffering.

In the 15 years which Dorothy Nyembe spent in Kroonstad prison, she was not visited by her family because they saw her actions as shameful and out of character as a female. Women would be called irresponsible for dedicating their lives to the liberation struggle, which was perceived as a man’s job. The truth commission discovered that in circumstances where a woman refused to succumb to the brutal torture by the authorities, this would infuriate the authorities even more. When a man did not break under interrogation, he was considered a brave man – but not a woman who acted in the same way. The constant fear of death in detention was also traumatising.

The traumatising environment of prison and the constant feeling of helplessness and despair were experienced by political prisoners. Caesarina Makhoere said that when in solitary confinement, “you are there alone, you speak to yourself, you sing, laugh, grow paranoid and at times even hallucinate”. She said being there alone caused her paranoia and she often thought of all the things she was going through and that would put herself in a depressing state. Her anger and hatred built up and affected her mind.

She said that at night she would hear footsteps and would think that the prison warders were coming to kill her. The three lines in which social inequality is generated, class, race and sex, were experienced by most if not all of these black female political prisoners during apartheid. Sibongile Mkhabela was one of the youngest inmates to describe herself and those with whom she went to prison, all ready to fight the prison system under apartheid. She felt that the older generation had found a way of surviving prison. “We were not the generation of the ’60s, we were a new generation and our (position) was everything or nothing.” Caesarina Makhoere, on the other hand, was arrested in 1976 under the Terrorism Act and was held for 10 months in Silverton police station while awaiting trial.

She was then sentenced to five years in prison in 1977 for attempting to undergo military training – and was kept in isolation for two years. A militant, she complained about the “harsh” treatment they received in prisons, and was sent to a psychiatrist. She said: “I was furious, burning mad. Did they now think that I was (also) crazy?” Injustices varied from the food that they ate, to isolation in their cells and having no study privileges, a pattern I picked up especially with those who were arrested during and after the Soweto uprisings. It would be an insult to tell the stories of these women without hearing their voices. It is time we let the hunted tell their own stories, their own way.

My wish is that in all of this, they do not negate the feminist aspect. We need to get rid of the idea that for one to assume a formidable role, they can only be masculine, which is probably why social structures have allowed for the silencing of the narratives of women for this long a period. A pattern was picked up during this research that women who spoke on jail time, only scraped the surface where their emotional trauma was concerned. Mkhabela and Makhoere shared their stories as militant young people who wanted to prove that prison did not break them.

This was an ideal approach by Makhoere, who wrote a book exposing the atrocities suffered by women under apartheid’s prison system. But the feminist approach in their stories must not be lost by assuming manly roles. With women suffering more due to being female, as the struggle for liberation was assumed to be a male job, in their accounts the danger is of defeminising themselves.

Ntando Mbatha is a writer and historian from Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal