Meet the women who stood with Winnie Mandela in the trial of 22
In December 1969, 22 men and women stood together in the Old Synagogue in Pretoria after eight months of detention without trial. The accused were arraigned before the Supreme Court on 21 charges under the Suppression of Communism Act. There were seven women among them: Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Martha Dhlamini, Thokozile Mngoma, Rita Ndzanga, Nondwe Mankahla, Joyce Sikhakhane and Shanthie Naidoo.
Some were in the same set of clothes they’d worn for months. After being pulled out of their homes around the country at ungodly hours by the Security Branch they were lumped together in Pretoria.
The 22 accused were trade unionists, messengers, pamphlet distributors and social workers and didn’t all know each other at that stage.
The Old Synagogue in central Pretoria was a building in the Byzantine style that had lost all sense of God after being converted to a court; even the stained-glass windows were boarded up to remove evidence of devotion or beauty. Police stood outside with machine guns.
Inside, armed constables sat behind the rows of the accused.
First to testify was Naidoo, 32, a third-generation activist whose grandparents were involved in the resistance movement, who was active in trade unions and was detained as a state witness.
Naidoo’s brothers, Indres, Prema and Murthie, had gone through arrests and detentions several times before. She agreed to testify after many days of interrogation.
The prosecutor, JH Liebenberg, must have fumed when she declared to the judge, Simon Bekker: “I have two friends among the accused [Madikizela-Mandela and Sikhakhane]. I don’t want to give evidence because I will not be able to live with my conscience if I do.” Threatened with further imprisonment, she said: “I am prepared to accept it.”
One line, uttered in defiance, and the case crumbled.
The next witness, Mankahla, 33, also refused to testify. “I do not wish to give evidence against my people,” she told the court.
Bekker admonished the prosecutor: “What kind of witnesses are these?” Without a chance to feel the sunlight and breathe fresh air, the witnesses were thrown back into solitary for several more months.
While Dhlamini, Mngoma and Madikizela-Mandela have died, Sikhakhane — a former journalist who later married a doctor, Ken Rankin — now lives on a smallholding in Pretoria. Naidoo is also retired and lives in Johannesburg with her husband, Dominic Tweedie, whom she met in exile in the UK. Ndzanga is in Senoane, Soweto, retired from politics but an active veteran, while Mankahla lives in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, with her daughter.
The women are in their 70s and 80s, quietly living out their lives after the heroism of their early years.
Fifty years on, Naidoo smiles at the memory of the case quickly being dismissed. “We were thrilled. The trial collapsed because we refused to testify. After the Christmas recess, they said they were discharging everybody. But then they detained us for another 90 days … Eventually, they released us in 1970.”
Ndzanga, who was 33 at the time, remembers their arrest with anger. Along with her husband Lawrence, a co-accused in the trial, she was forcibly removed from their home. Her young children watched their parents leave in the raid in the early hours of the morning and had to remain alone until an aunt arrived later in the day.
“We didn’t know each other,” Ndzanga said, “and when they called Shanthie to testify, we thought that was it. They thought she would give in because she was Indian, and she might have wanted to go home. But she refused. Then the woman from Eastern Cape [Mankahla] also refused.”
“The freezing loneliness made one wish for death,” Sikhakhane testified years later at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, referring to the 90-day detention.
In April last year, when Madikizela-Mandela died, South Africans were reminded of her time in solitary confinement. From her cell at Pretoria Central, she would have heard the voices of criminals and activists alike as they walked to the gallows close to the women’s prison. It was a warning to her and other political prisoners.
Sikhakhane recalled how an Afrikaans toddler, the same age as her three-year-old son Nkosinathi, was brought in by the police to torment her into submission. They wanted her to admit to “heinous, treasonous acts” — sabotage, plotting against the state. In fact she was a journalist for The World newspaper at the time, and a fundraiser for families of political prisoners, through her church.
The women kept sane by counting ants, sewing and resewing the hems of their skirts, folding and refolding their meagre linen.
“Solitary confinement was the most difficult part, because the cells were so small. You could touch each end if you lay flat and opened your arms. There was a bright light that made you feel dizzy. There was no 30 minutes of exercise that other prisoners got,” says Mankahla.
Naidoo says: “It almost made you wish for interrogation. Which was worse, I don’t know.”
The women faced a common interrogator, the bulbous-nosed, red-faced architect of Special Branch operations, Theuns “Rooi Rus” (Red Russian) Swanepoel, who had the rank of major at the time. Evidence at the TRC revealed that after 1960, a special squad of police officers received intensive training in interrogation and counter-interrogation techniques.
Swanepoel had also led the team of security police that raided Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia in 1963.
Naidoo says: “They made me stand on bricks for five days without sleep. I was given something to drink, I don’t know what. On the fifth day, he got someone … one of the officers, to push a chair towards me and I fainted. When I woke up, it was as if the room didn’t have a floor.”
Naidoo says she still has nightmares about Swanepoel.
“You wake up from the dream and eventually try to go back to sleep but you can’t. You don’t know if it’s real. It’s so vivid.”
The notorious Compol building in Pretorius Street was the home of the Security Branch. Sikhakhane grimaces when she remembers her ordeal. “That torture house … There were bricks on the floor and a small desk. He [Swanepoel] pulled a pistol out of a drawer. And he pointed at me and said, ‘You stand on the bricks.’ I did, but you can’t balance. It was sort of two bricks for each foot, so you just wobble. They kept asking, ‘What is it you are doing?’
“I was raising funds for families of political prisoners through the Anglican Church. There wasn’t much else. I would collect money and distribute it to those families, the money was in envelopes. I don’t even know how many times I repeated this and how long it was. These things are so frightening, that you don’t know the time …
“You are so scared you are going to be shot.”
Mankahla remembers that Swanepoel travelled to Port Elizabeth to question her, slapping her repeatedly in the Sanlam building where Steve Biko was tortured to death years later.
Ndzanga’s torture is documented in a paper by the International Defence and Aid Fund from May 1970. “Maj Swanepoel called me by a name. I kept quiet and did not reply. Other Security Police continued to question me. Day and night is the same in this room because of the thick heavy planks covering the windows.
“I remained standing. It was late at night. One policeman came round the table towards me, and struck me. I fell to the floor. He said, ‘Staan op [stand up]’ and kicked me while I lay on the floor. They closed the windows. I continued screaming.
“They dragged me to another room, hitting me with their open hands all the time. In the interrogation room they ordered me to take off my shoes and stand on three bricks. I refused to stand on the bricks.
“One of the white security police climbed on a chair and pulled me by my hair, dropped me on the bricks. I fell down and hit a gas pipe. The same man pulled me up by my hair again, jerked me, and I again fell on the metal gas pipe.
“They threw water on my face. The man who pulled me by the hair had his hands full of my hair. He washed his hands in the basin. I managed to stand up and then they said: ‘On the bricks!’
“I stood on the bricks and they hit me again — while I was on the bricks. I fell. They again poured water on me. I was very tired. I could not stand the assault any longer. I asked to see Maj Swanepoel. They said: ‘Meid, jy moet praat [you must talk].’”
At 85, at her home in Senoane, Soweto, she says her arm never recovered from the fall.
After her release in 1970 Mankahla recalls travelling back to Port Elizabeth by train, third class. “I was thinking that I might die in jail. I thought I’ll never see my children.”
She was so afraid of being rearrested that she got off at a station before the final stop and walked home.
My children, they didn’t know me. I left them when they were very young … when I remember, that’s when I get hurtNondwe Mankahla
“I found my sister-in-law who is a nurse, she took care of me. I sat down, then I started to shake. I couldn’t sleep, and I was just shaking all the time. For two or three months, I was talking and shivering, shaking. I couldn’t hold anything. I had to see the doctor. They felt it was a lack of nutrition. I had to take multivitamins and eat healthy food like cheese and lettuce on brown bread, which was expensive but I think my body was not nourished.”
She tears up remembering seeing her children after 18 months. “My children, they didn’t know me. I left them when they were very young … when I remember, that’s when I get hurt. I don’t like to talk about it.”
Mankahla says it was difficult to find work. “People were scared, if you went to jail for politics. I didn’t get a job straightaway, but the Black Sash helped us. My children, they questioned why we were not OK after I came back. I couldn’t do much to educate them.
“Since the trial, I spent my life working for my kids and my mom, mostly at a hardware store.”
Sikhakhane and Naidoo went into exile. Naidoo says: “When they sent me home, I couldn’t sleep for two nights. And then I couldn’t stop talking. I remember … it was getting over the loneliness. After having nobody to talk to and nobody to say anything to, being cut off.”
She decided to leave the country after being served with a banning order.
“What kind of life was this? You couldn’t be in the company of more than one person at a time. Your friends are banned, who do you communicate with?”
After overcoming several legal obstacles she managed to join the exile community in London.
There are photos of her outside South Africa House, in a warm overcoat, long-haired with dark kohl around her eyes. “We would sit outside and fast for 24 hours, make a noise until someone listened. It was the end of the Vietnam War, and there were protests, there was the Greek junta, and of course we campaigned for SA.”
One of the campaigns was an attempt to halt the hanging of Solomon Mahlangu, 22, in 1979. A lawyer was dispatched, but the execution was brought forward two hours. “What a waste of life that was,” she says.
Sikhakhane’s escape to exile was more dramatic. In 1972 the ANC sent a woman to recruit her. “My mom said: ‘Why don’t you go?’ I thought if it is false, I am a dead woman.”
But the escape, via Swaziland to Germany, was successful. She was reunited with her husband, Dr Rankin, in Scotland later that year.
Ndzanga worked as an MP for many years. Her husband was tortured to death in detention in 1977. She was in detention and could not attend his funeral. And then two of her sons died, after 1994.
Despite these tragedies, Ndzanga believes the suffering was worthwhile: “In the country [at that time] we never lived like the way we are living now. We have got lives, really. We wanted our dignity back.”
As for Swanepoel, he died at home in Roodepoort in 1998, having never paid for his deeds in the security police.
The Times of London said at the time: “Swanepoel lived in retirement on his pension still paid by the Mandela government in an outer suburb of Johannesburg.
“He made no move to seek amnesty from the TRC. One of his former victims who wished to bring charges against him discovered, however, that Swanepoel’s career may have taken its toll, for by his 60s he was already suffering from premature senility.”
• This is an edited extract for a Master’s degree in Journalism at Wits University.