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

Mail & Guardian - - News - Carl Col­li­son

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

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