My ANC: ‘I’ve got what I lived for’

Mme Leisa was a nurse in Soweto and a member of the ANC Women’s League who ran a safe house for comrades on the run from security police. Now 97, she spoke to Lucas Ledwaba

Mme Sellwane Ethel Leisa, 97, flashes a bright smile as she recalls an incident that unfolded in her home in Mzimhlophe, Soweto, in the 1950s.

It was during the Treason Trial and Lilian Ngoyi, a leading member of the ANC Women’s League, was on the run from the security police.

Only Leisa, then a nurse at Shanty Clinic in Orlando West and a neighbour of Ngoyi’s, knew where she was hiding.

“Walter Sisulu came looking for her at the clinic. But I told him I didn’t know where she was. He asked his wife (Albertina), who also said she didn’t know where Lilian was.

“But I asked Sisulu to come to my house later that evening,” she says.

As they were chatting in her lounge, Leisa asked (Walter) Sisulu to peep behind the door of her bedroom. And as he rose to see what was there, he heard familiar laughter. It was Ngoyi.

Leisa’s home was a hideout for political activists on the run from the security police as the apartheid government clamped down on resistance against its policies.

As the screws tightened following the banning of the ANC in April 1960, so Leisa stepped up her game.

“At night we closed off the windows with blankets and lit candles on the floor. We did not want the police to suspect anything because there was always someone hiding here.

“We were chancers, but we had to be brave.

“We thought only of freedom. We never had any expectations of being rewarded.”

Mme Leisa remembers a time in Soweto when night­watchmen, each with a knobkierrie and lantern, would accompany midwives to deliver babies.

She remembers, too, a time when police officers raided the township to arrest people for passes in a bid to enforce influx control; when parents would warn their children to stay away from politics “because they ran the risk of languishing in jail like Mandela”.

“Every day you saw a young policeman travelling on foot, arresting grown men for passes.

“I often wondered why they did not run away. It made me really sad, to think there were so many of us, yet we were ruled by only a few.”

Mme Leisa was born in Ga-Marishane, Limpopo, on February 22 1914, two years after the ANC’s formation.

She joined the ANC around 1944, and she still has her original green and black Women’s League blouse, hand sewn by Lillian Ngoyi, who was an accomplished seamstress.

Leisa lived through the formative years of the ANC Youth League, then led by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Anton Lembede.

“My son was involved in a fight with a white man sometime in the 50s. He was arrested.

I went to Mandela who was working with Tambo as lawyers, to represent my son in court. Mandela took that case and won,” she says.

In the 1950s and early 60s she was one of many women who supported the ANC leaders on trial for treason and sabotage.

They raised money for the families of the trialists, arranged schooling, clothing and emotional support.

She remembers the day Mandela, Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada and others were sentenced to life imprisonment after the marathon Rivonia trial, “as a very sad day”.

“The township was very quiet. People spoke in hushed tones. But our motto was ‘No Tears’.”

She did shed tears though, when Sisulu and other Rivonia trialists were released from prison in 1989, after serving 26 years. Those, she says, “were tears of joy”.

Leisa says there should be a massive celebration for the ANC centenary.

“I think I’m happy. I’ve got what I’ve lived for, what I’ve been crying for, though things are not as they should be yet,” she says. “We’ve got our freedom, yes, but there is still poverty and unemployment.”

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