Of sexual abuse in camps
women were forced to wear hijabs and I was introduced as ‘Fatma’. That was the Muslim name they gave me,” she says. “I didn’t like it but was told: ‘You better keep quiet … This is an arrangement entered into between [Muammar] Gaddafi and the PAC.’ They didn’t look at it as a forced thing but, to me, they signed on the dotted lines with our blood.”
She had had enough. Still determined to be a freedom fighter, however, she decided to enter the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK).
“I wanted to walk from Tripoli to Cairo [where the closest MK camp was]. I didn’t care how long it took. I told myself: ‘I’m not coming back to South Africa.’ I wanted to continue as a freedom fighter. I wanted to be in those camps. I wanted those weapons. I’m ashamed to say this now, but I wanted to kill,” she says.
Frustrated with not being able to get to Cairo, she attempted suicide. The failed attempt at taking her own life had her arrested for “betraying Islam” and incarcerated for three months. On her first night in the prison she attempted suicide again.
Slowly lifting the white blouse she is wearing, she shows me a scar under her breast. “I used a broken bottle. I wanted to get to my heart.”
Realising her desperation, prison authorities, African embassies and other liberation movements in Tripoli initiated communications with MK leaders in Angola, who, she says, “flew to Tripoli and said: ‘This is our child.’ We flew to Luanda together and, from that day, I was mollycoddled by MK; literally treated like an egg. I was treated very well.”
Reclining on a spacious sofa in her son’s home in Irene, outside Pretoria, Thenjiwe Mtintso — currently the South African ambassador to Malawi — recalls her experiences as one of the few female MK commanders.
“We were like a rare species. We were heroines for the fact that we chose to join MK, because patriarchy didn’t expect us to join the armed struggle. In general, we were really protected. But, on the other hand, even those who were protecting you would, you know, put themselves forward as possibilities …”
Although she says she “knows of very few women during my time in the camps” who reported sexual violence, she concedes that “one man threatened to rape me”.
“I felt really in danger. But when he threatened to do it, I just said to him: ‘You’re not going to do it, because I’m going to shoot you. It’s as simple as all that. I’m just going to shoot you.’
“Because I was in a senior position, I was carrying a pistol instead of an AK-47. It would have been much easier for me to shoot him,” she says.
“He just retreated. And right through my stay in the camp, he kept saying: ‘One day I will get you.’ So there was always this threat hanging over me.”
Despite this ever-present threat, Mtintso did not report the incident — “because I handled it”, she says matter-of-factly. “I was quite clear that I will shoot him. One thing that I’m proud of is that with a pistol I am very good. Give me a pistol and I’m fine,” she laughs.
“But it made me develop a very bad attitude: you attack me, I kill you. And it really is very negative. Very, very negative. But I was in the military frame of mind. And the solution in the military is not conversation. It’s ‘you kill me or I kill you’. Simple.”
Mtintso adds that the reasons women rarely reported incidents of sexual abuse were varied.
“I think they just didn’t think they would be believed and also didn’t think they would be protected. And there was also a sense of embarrassment. That feeling of: ‘Did I do something to encourage him?’”
She adds: “In MK, there was also this belief that you don’t want to divide the movement. You don’t want to do anything to divert from the liberation struggle by talking about women’s liberation and feminism. So, if you were a woman MK soldier and you were violated, you wouldn’t get support from everybody. You’d get support — probably — from the women. Probably. Because some of them would just not support you.”
The continuing culture of sweeping the issue of sexual abuse under the rug was brought to the fore during the trial of President Jacob Zuma, after Fezekile “Khwezi” Kuzwayo — the daughter of a fellow former Robben Island political prisoner — accused him of rape.
But there were some in MK who knew of Zuma’s apparent predatory ways decades ago.
An MK operative, who chose to remain anonymous, told the M&G: “There were other people who were extremely well known who were extremely problematic. I was told to avoid Zuma in the Eighties, specifically because — and I quote — ‘he couldn’t keep his hands off women’. And one of the shocking things about the Khwezi rape trial was that we all bloody knew that. I was told by a male comrade that, if I could, not to even let Zuma know I existed [while I was within MK]. This was on the grounds that ‘he could not keep his hands off any woman he met and he did not take no for an answer’.”
The presidency did not respond to repeated requests for comment on these allegations.
Judy Seidman was a member of MK; she now works with the Khulumani Centre, an organisation that assists victims of apartheidera violence. For Seidman, the lack of support from women for other women who had reported sexual violence continued post-liberation.
“At that time, the [ANC] Women’s League, who were supposed to be her [Kuzwayo’s] support, actively turned against her,” she says, adding: “During our time picketing outside the court … one senior women’s league member came over to our side of the picket and said she didn’t know how to deal with what we were saying; she just couldn’t process it.”
Mtintso adds that, despite the gains made in the women’s movement, “there are many steps we have taken backwards”.
“What is beautiful, however, is the rise of critical mass of young activists. Our democracy has allowed for the offshoots of new movements. If [only] the women’s league, for example, was interacting with these young people … In general, though, we women in the ANC are not part of this movement that is rising.”
Forty-plus years after setting out to join the fight for the liberation, Khumalo says: “I’m angry.”
As we drive out of the ramshackle farm, she says: “One of our camp songs went: Savumelana bo ngalo msebenzi — simply put: ‘We made a promise to each other to free our people from the shackles of oppression.’ This is not the freedom we fought for. What do we tell the young people? To keep the faith? No, this is not the freedom we fought for.”
Teenage fighter: Sibongile ‘Promise’ Khumalo claims that, after running away from home in the 1970s to receive military training in exile, she was sexually abused by the then PAC president. Photo: Oupa Nkosi