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.
ARREST AND DETENTION
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.
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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