Woman veterans reflect on their roles in South Africa’s armed struggle

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Woman veterans reflect on their roles in South Africa’s armed struggle
Woman veterans reflect on their roles in South Africa’s armed struggle

By Anelitha Ka Fandese, BJourn student


As part of a two-day colloquium, ‘Women and 60 Years of the Armed Struggle in South Africa’, an influential panel recounted their experiences as uMkhonto we Sizwe and Azanian National Liberation Army veterans.

The colloquium, hosted by the Political and International Studies Department at Rhodes University, the Centre for Women and Gender Studies at Nelson Mandela University and the Historical Studies Department at the University of Cape Town, took place on 9 August 2021 and concluded on 10 August 2021.

The woman veterans panel began after a heartfelt performance by jazz singer Nomfundo Xaluva and was chaired by Dr Siphokazi Magadla, Political and International Studies lecturer at Rhodes University. The panellists included Naomi Ribbon Mosholi (South African Ambassador in the Czech Republic), Busisiwe Jacqueline ‘Totsie’ Memela (Chief Executive Officer of the South African Social Security Agency - SASSA), Thulasizwe Legodi (Veteran of the Azanian National Liberation Army, AZANLA) and Ntombizodwa Zondo (Veteran of AZANLA).

Ambassador Mosholi, who joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1973, said she chose uMkhonto we Sizwe because of the poverty which surrounded her. Her decision was heavily influenced by women who conquered the struggle in other parts of Africa, like Angola and Mozambique, which had succeeded in the battle against their oppressors. Mosholi stated that they learnt about this through smuggled literature; the apartheid government had banned literature about countries who conquered oppression. This motivated Mosholi to join the struggle for freedom. “We had to decide if we, as women, would participate or just be observers,” she said.

Mosholi started working underground for the ANC under the late Joe Gqabi, the ANC’s chief representative in Zimbabwe. Due to harassment by the apartheid police, Ambassador Mosholi escaped to Botswana and then later to Angola. This is where she did most of her training. She notes that women were given supporting roles and never management positions. Mosholi later became the medic and a literature teacher in the camp. “Feminism was built in such situations. We used anything as sanitary towels. We maintained our femininity and still strived to succeed like men,” she stated.

Mosholi noted that every role she played in the struggle gave her confidence and strength to fight on.

Busisiwe Jacqueline ‘Totsie’ Memela stated that she joined the uMkhonto we Sizwe after realising that the battle would not be won without skills and training. “We realised that amatye (stones) would not get the job done; we needed to get the necessary training to conquer,” she said. Memela was inspired to join ANC’s movement because of their then slogan: ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it.’

She began working and training in Angola, where she was trained in combat work and mastering disguises. Memela was later in charge of smuggling members of the ANC into and out of the country. “I had to familiarise myself with and understand the rural areas of the Transvaal and KwaZulu-Natal because infiltration could only happen there. It was safer there. I had to anticipate and observe everything before bringing people in and out of the country.”

Memela’s biggest fear at the time was that the people she was smuggling into the country would be caught and arrested. “If people were arrested under my plan, I would be suspected as an enemy and live under that suspicion,” she explained.

Ntombizodwa Zondo, who entered Botswana as a refugee to get away from South African police, did not feel comfortable sharing her experiences in exile because she felt it was a sensitive issue for her. She reiterated that exile was not a great experience for her because of the conditions she lived in. “Sleeping in a tent, relying on supplies/rations, not being familiar with the environment and the people and the intensive physical training made the experience feel like torture,” she recounted. Despite this, Zondo is still grateful for the experience and the skills she acquired. “I would not be who I am if I did have that experience,” she said.

Thulasizwe Legodi was routinely arrested throughout her involvement in the struggle. This led to her family also suffering from the harassment of the police. “The arrests, beatings and being expelled at school because of being a ringleader felt normal for me,” she said.

Ultimately, she joined the struggle because of her love for humanity. The reality she lived in made her associate luxury with ownership. “It was the people who owned properties and land that lived luxuriously. We did not have dignity because we did not own properties,” she explained.

Her fight aimed to exert pressure on the authorities to gain land ownership and realise the dream of liberation. “In this way, our skin would stop being a badge of disgrace,” she concluded.

For more words from inspiring women and the others who participated in the two-day colloquium, please see recordings here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAztaQ4TBvjSMTxLsZ86nvVCioJemN9e6