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The sto­ries of two women who joined Umkhonto weSizwe af­ter the 1976 stu­dent up­ris­ing

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.

Con­tin­ued on page 14

I wanted to fight so my child would have a free ed­u­ca­tion and a bet­ter place in SA to live in. I thought: ‘This can­not go on. The apartheid regime must fall.’

WENT INTO EX­ILE Lau­ren­tia Richer

AR­RESTED Pauline Mo­hale

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