Our women freedom fighters tell
Female soldiers who experienced sexual assault – or its constant threat – still struggle against the myth of the untouchable men they fought alongside. And they are angry that this culture persists
It has been just over four decades since the day Sibongile “Promise” Khumalo placed a note on her mother’s old gramophone. “By the time you read this, I will be out of this country … ” it read. Forty-one years after the day she left her mother’s house in Soweto to go into exile as a freedom fighter, only now is she finally ready to speak of her experiences — a journey she refers to as one “littered with unprecedented pain”.
“I turned 55 a few days ago and decided that I want to talk about things I’ve never spoken about. I cannot die with these things that keep me depressed,” she says as we drive to a farm in Randjesfontein, just over 30km north of Johannesburg.
The farm was given to Khumalo’s organisation, Pan African Genesis, by the government.
The organisation focuses on the socioeconomic upliftment of South African military veterans. Little has been done, however, with the bequeathed land. “We’ve been rolling up our sleeves and dirtying our hands with no funding. All the work that has been done here so far was paid for from our own pockets,” she says, leading me into a tiny farm house.
At 14, she was the youngest of a group of 12 who skipped the country, eventually ending up in a camp in Mozambique where, she says, “there were many, many amputees … It was very traumatic to see that.”
Just after she arrived in Mozambique, she got her period for the first time. “When I saw the ocean for the first time, I menstruated for the first time. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was just seeing so much water for the first time, but I menstruated there and then. Right there on the white sand of that Mozambique beach. I was thoroughly traumatised.”
At 15 years old, she was sent on to Tanzania for military training under the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). She was then, as she rightfully says, “still a baby”. Yet it was not long before she came face to face with the ultimate physical violation.
“I thought I would take this to my grave,” she says. “But my real troubles started when I met Potlako Leballo [the then PAC president]. There was a roster for the women soldiers to clean his house. Little did I know that some of these women were being abused … I became one of them. He forced himself on me. He was an old man, even then.”
After a long pause, staring into the distance, she adds: “I can still smell that house.”
She added that, during her time in the house, all the girls were made to refer to Leballo as “daddy”.
Another source initially showed willingness to speak to the Mail & Guardian about her alleged abuse at the hands of Leballo, but later declined for fear of reprisal.
PAC spokesperson Kenneth Mokgatlhe expressed his “shock” about the allegation, saying there had been no prior reports of sexual assault against the party’s former president.
“We are not aware of any such cases. This is news to the PAC and only seeks to assassinate the character of the late freedom fighter and his contribution to the African struggle.”
Khumalo’s allegations come on the heels of the #MeToo social media campaign, in which women around the world have shared stories of sexual harassment and abuse. The campaign followed an exposé of sexual misconduct allegations levelled against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
The campaign also led singer and former ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson to allege that a well-known South African sports administrator and expolitician had raped her more than 20 years ago.
As to why Khumalo never reported the abuse, she says simply: “You wouldn’t report it. You couldn’t. You just had to dust yourself off and move on.”
Although she counts herself as “fortunate” for having spent only two months in Tanzania before being dispatched to Libya, her time in that country’s capital, Tripoli, “messed with my head even further — especially as a Catholic person”.
“One day, all of us were paraded in front of the media as we had, at that point, been converted to Islam. The
‘Daddy’: Former PAC leader Potlako Leballo allegedly forced himself on several of the women being trained in Tanzanian camps