Flowers of the revolution

2016-12-18 06:04
Pauline Mohale.

Pauline Mohale.

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If you bumped into them in the aisle of one of Gauteng’s supermarkets, you would never imagine that these gentle-faced, greying, middle-aged women were once known as then ANC president Oliver Tambo’s “flowers of the revolution”.

Pauline Mohale, now a doting grandmother, was a recruiter of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) operatives in the 1970s. She was arrested while en route to cross the border into Swaziland for military training. The soft-spoken woman is still an active member of her ANC branch in Soweto.

Living on the other side of Johannesburg, in the city’s eastern suburbs, is Laurentia Richer, a therapeutic reflexologist involved in complementary health. No one would guess that the same hands that heal could strip and put together an AK-47 in the dark.

Mohale and Richer are two of thousands of unsung female MK operatives, who were outnumbered 20 to one by men. Some experienced torture at the hands of security police and all constantly lived under surveillance and in secrecy, concealing their femininity under combat gear and bazookas.

Many women’s experiences in the ANC’s guerilla army were far from romantic. It was extremely dangerous, at times heroic, at times ill-considered and often mundane, but they all played a valuable role in helping to dismantle apartheid with or without their machine guns.

After the Rivonia Trial, which took place from 1963 to 1964 and 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. It was left largely up to women to establish a network of underground structures to recruit members from factory floors, university campuses and high schools.

The 1976 Soweto uprising, which took the form of a series of protests led by high school students, was fertile ground for recruitment into the ANC. Thousands of students, who experienced the brutality of the South African police and defence force, were determined to join the ANC’s military wing or seek study opportunities in exile.

Mohale was active in the student uprising. She was politically influenced by her mother, a member of the ANC Women’s League. However, her father, a policeman, disapproved.

In 1976, Mohale was a member of the Students 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 against Afrikaans as a language of instruction.

Mohale remembers police throwing tear gas, killing some of her friends and arresting others. She evaded arrest for a long time, providing refuge to students and helping them escape to Swaziland. She decided to join MK for the sake of her baby.

“I wanted to fight so my child would have a free education and a better place in South Africa to live in. I thought: ‘This cannot go on. The apartheid regime must fall,’” she says.

After many trips safely transporting Soweto students across the border to join MK and the ANC in exile, Mohale decided to go for MK training herself. But that fateful day, she was stopped and arrested in a police roadblock – the only woman with a group of young men in a minibus about to cross the Swaziland border.

While some women joined MK, and went into exile on their own, many young women followed their boyfriends, unaware that they might not return home. While some were already politically conscious, others were conscientised in exile.

Richer was a journalism student at Rhodes University in the 1970s. She followed her then boyfriend – now husband – Pete Richer into exile in Botswana.

Asked how a young Afrikaner girl decided to give up privilege and leap into the unknown, she says: “You could not be neutral after the horror of 1976. You were either for or against.”

She 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 dodging military conscription and refusing to cooperate with the apartheid regime. Marius and Jeanette Schoon were instrumental in recruiting us.”

Many white underground activists in strategic positions in the country, including the SA Defence Force, as it was called then, provided valuable intelligence to the ANC.

She became an MK member when she and Pete were sent for training in East Germany by Mac Maharaj. “We had agreed as the ANC that military impact was necessary. I was trying to destroy an evil system.”


Once recruited, there were many different routes MK women took to meet handlers in frontline states ¬– crossing rivers, driving to border posts, waiting to be screened further on the other side.

Some, like Mohale, were trained in the country on how to form secret cells and recruit and transport operatives. Others were sent to Cuba, East Germany or Russia for two to three months, to do courses on intelligence gathering and weapons and explosives handling.

Richer remembers everyone had code names and a cover story. One of her aliases was Nhlanhla. She and four men, including Pete, were sent to East Germany in 1979, when she was 26.

That December, they flew from Gaborone in Botswana to Lusaka in Zambia, and then on to Luanda, capital of Angola, from where they flew to East Germany.

“They put us in a house. The comrades looking after us were fabulous. All five of us were in the house. We did intelligence training and coding, and learnt how to do dead letter boxes. We received political education about Marxism and were trained to use small arms and lay landmines. We got up early to exercise. They trained us in the theory of an AK-47’s velocity – and the trajectory of the bullet – in a classroom in the house.”

The last time she had held a gun was when shooting pellets on a family friend’s farm when she was 10.

In East Germany, she and the unit did target practice at 11pm. “I could strip and put together an AK-47 in the dark. I learnt where the best place to put a land mine 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; rather go for pylons. And don’t blow up a passenger train.”

As the only woman in her unit on a three-month course, Richer felt pressurised to keep up with the men, but “didn’t feel it was a hassle” as she says she was treated equally by the Germans and her comrades.

On returning to Botswana, Richer was assigned to train recruits in handling small arms and hand grenades.


When Mohale and a group of young men heading for MK training were stopped at a roadblock near the Swazi border in 1976, the police said they knew they were on the way to military training so they could come back and kill white people. Mohale tried to talk her way out of it by saying she was lost. But the group was arrested and detained in a prison near the border gate.

Mohale recalls the police kept demanding: “Tell us, where are the guns, where are the guns?” When she said she knew nothing, they prodded 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 didn’t know anything about guns. They continued beating me up.”

On the third day, she collapsed. She smelt 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 to Pretoria Central.

While there, her mother’s house in Johannesburg was raided and the police took Mohale to John Vorster Square. They took her to the 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.”

Mohale survived two years in solitary confinement “by the grace of God”. The prison cell had a Bible and she read it, from Genesis to Revelations and over again.

In solitary confinement she was driven by the belief and “the spirit to know we are going to be liberated”.

Mohale never broke. She eventually appeared next to her 11 male co-accused at the Supreme Court in Pretoria, facing terrorism charges in a case which lasted from May 1977 to April 1978. Six accused, including Tokyo Sexwale, were sentenced to jail. But Mohale and five others were acquitted because of insufficient evidence.

Although she was released, the mental and physical torture took its toll and she suffered a nervous breakdown. She wanted to go into exile, but her mother intervened, saying she needed to heal. With no available psychologists at the time, she went to a neurologist at Baragwanath Hospital. She married and had four children, but continued sending young students to join MK.

Sexwale acknowledged Mohale’s courage at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). “She was humiliated, her dignity was violated, her values questioned, [she was] alone, resisting; and when the whole Pretoria 12 trial resumed, Mohale stood tall. She nearly lost her mind, but she stood tall.”


The Richers’ names were on the hit list for the 1985 raid on Gaborone. They had two daughters, aged nine and 21 months at the time. The ANC received intelligence that Gaborone would be attacked, so the Richers moved from house to house. On the night of the raid they were in a backyard cottage owned by a Motswana woman, and were awoken by the sound of exploding bombs.

“We decided to not be sitting ducks, and to 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. That saved us,” she recalls.

“We did not know that the defence forces 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. The reaction to the raid was so negative that apartheid spy Craig Williamson planted stories in The Citizen and Sunday Times under the headline, Guns of Gaborone, displaying images of weapons he had sourced from his security branch colleague, Eugene Coetzee.

The Richers, like many in the ANC and MK, left Botswana and moved to Zimbabwe. The raid, says Laurentia, affected their youngest child the most as they lived in a state of fear and constant surveillance after learning they were on the SA Defence Force hit list.


Many women are still afraid to talk of their experiences in MK, and of the sexually exploitative practices that happened to some at the hands of senior ANC members.

In a master’s thesis about 10 MK women, submitted in 2009, Kongko Louis Makau found that the greatest challenge the Class of 1976 had to deal with after crossing the border, was “undoing the long-held perception that the military was exclusively a male domain where women had no place”.

Many of the young women had been treated as equals during the Soweto uprising.

As Mohale recalls: “I used to work with men most of the time. They treated me with respect. I was mostly in the office of Moses Mabhida and Joe Gqabi. I was treated like a sister.”

Makau found that once they arrived in the frontline states, “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.

“The women, therefore, had to rely on other people, such as Chris Hani, to protect them from abuse and maltreatment in the camps.”

One woman, who shared accommodation with MK female recruits from the 1960s and 1970s 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 them-selves they would get a boyfriend or sleep with someone in charge.”

She relates the tale of an MK woman, who was once the lover of a well-known MK commander. He took her on as his girlfriend in the late 1970s. “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.”

Thenjiwe Mtintso told the TRC how, despite her own high MK position, a male comrade told 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.”

Mtintso also spoke about how men in leadership positions would be in love with someone’s wife and would label the husband a mdlwembe (enemy agent). They even influenced the wife to divorce the husband because of the label.

In his response to the TRC, General Andrew Masondo’s dismissive reaction to these allegations of rape and sexual exploitation could be viewed as a tacit condonation. “In Angola, at one time there were 22 women in a group of more than 1 000 people,” he said.

“There was an allegation that commanders were misusing women. The law of supply and demand must have created some problems.”

That there was no apology for the rape allegations, but instead a cavalier response from Masondo, was harshly criticised by then TRC commissioner Hlengiwe Mkhize, who said that “the submission fail(ed) women”.

She was right.

There were many MK women who lost their lives in action, some of whom were very young. In Cape Town in 1989, Coline Williams, a 22-year-old activist from Bonteheuwel in Cape Town, and Robert Waterwitch – both members of the Ashley Kriel MK unit – were blown up after a defective limpet mine they planned to place at the Athlone Magistrates’ Court detonated prematurely.

In 1988, 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 while sitting in their Toyota Corolla.

Both these incidents resulted from tip-offs to security police from informants within MK.

With many lives lost, and even more people emotionally and psychologically damaged, are there any regrets by the women who chose a path of violence to end apartheid? Neither Mohale nor Richer regret joining the armed struggle.

Richer says: “I do not 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 did not kill anyone, but I might have been instrumental in giving someone else the tools to do it. I would not feel bad about killing someone like Craig Williamson, who had done immense harm to courageous, good people in the struggle and was responsible for the deaths of many.”

Mohale, too, has no regrets. Does she believe she achieved the dream she almost sacrificed her life and sanity for?

“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 have a healthy country?”

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