What women went through – DETENTION

Thenjiwe Mtintso once said: “I think overall, many a time when stories of the struggle against apartheid are being told, the stories of women’s struggle are forgotten. They are hidden. Even when they are told, they’re told as a postscript; incidentally there were women. But the essence of this history is a history of men. It is not her story, as other people would say; it is the story of the man.”

It is important to highlight that the struggle against apartheid and the country’s victory to finally overcome unjust laws was not through men or a particular organisation only; that is a pure distortion of history and it should be corrected sooner than later. Quite frankly, I would hate that my children grow up knowing that only one organisation fought against these discriminatory laws or with the misconception that women hold a secondary citizen status.

Mr. Alan Lax once said “It’s become clearer by the day that our freedom was solely or fully dependent upon the women of this country and we wouldn’t have been here had you not gone through the hardships that you did. You have endured so much, and we would like to tell you that you have got courage and strength … probably we wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t done what you did.”

Just as men, women were jailed, they were tortured, they were killed; they were held under solitary confinement, under house arrest, moreover, these women were sexually assaulted – to undermine their  identity and integrity.

Winnie Mandela in her book Part of my soul went with him described detention as  “midnight knock when all about you is quiet. It means those blinding torches shone simultaneously through every window of your house before the door is kicked open. It means the exclusive right the Security Branch have to read each and every letter in the house. It means paging through each and every book on your shelves, lifting carpets, looking under beds, lifting sleeping children from mattresses and looking under the sheets. It means tasting your sugar, your mealie-meal and every spice on your kitchen shelf, unpacking all your clothing and going through each pocket. Ultimately, it means your seizure at dawn, dragged away from little children screaming and clinging to your skirt, imploring the white man dragging Mummy away to leave her alone”.

Solitary confinement on the other hand was aimed at manipulating the detainees’ psyche, since they were locked up alone in a dark cell for weeks and at times, for months on end. The authorities knew that it is hard for a human being to survive on his or her own. Thus, this form of torture was aimed at tormenting the detainees mentally.

Ruth First, who was also detained without trial and held in solitary confinement said: “For the first 56 days of my detention in solitary I changed from a mainly vertical to a mainly horizontal creature. A black iron bedstead became my world. It was too cold to sit, so I lay extended on the bed, trying to measure the hours, the days and the weeks, yet pretending to myself that I was not”.  Albertina Sisulu on the other hand explained her experience in solitary confinement saying that “in solitary confinement you are there sitting on the mat, with lice in the blankets, running up and down. There for months on end, with nobody to talk to, taken out for exercise for 30 minutes. The food that was there, my dear, you wouldn’t eat it”.

Winnie Mandela, who was herself detained for 491 days, recalls how women used to be humiliated by the police in an attempt to break them. She said that they had inspections everyday in prison; a practice deemed unnecessary since they were kept under strict watch. She recalls “two wardresses walk in, they order you to stand up, they take off your clothes. They start by inspecting your shoes as you stand there stark naked. They go through your panties, your bra; they go through every seam of every garment. Then they go through your hair and – of course they never succeeded with me, but with female prisoners it was common practise – they inspect your vagina. Nothing is more humiliating and you are all alone in that cell”.

When a man did not break under the torture of the police, he was considered a man and given much respect. This was however, not the case regarding women. In circumstances where a woman would refuse to succumb to the brutal torture by the authorities, this would infuriate the authorities even more and thus, she would experience even harsher forms of torture. Being challenged by a woman seemed more like an offence to the authorities as they felt women, especially black women, had no strength to tolerate such torture.

In the 1960s forms of torture were characterised by solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, standing for long periods and repeated assaults. For example Lilian Ngoyi, who was President of the ANC Women’s League and President of the Federation of South African Women (FedSAW), was banned in 1960 and confined to her home in Orlando West, Soweto. Her banning order lasted for five years and was renewed again in 1967 for a further five years. She lived under house arrest until 1980.

Torture in the 1970s took a more violent turn and women began to experience similar assaults to men. Other forms of torture were the ‘horse’ where an individual would be handcuffed to a pole and swung round and round until the victim lost consciousness. Electric shocks were also used to shock women’s breasts. Joyce Dipale, a leader in the Black Consciousness Movement was kept in solitary confinement during 1976 and 1977 for 500 days. She said that she became used to these forms of torture, but never the humiliation that came with them and explained that she lost touch with time. Deprivation of food and water, as well as sleep and being kept in dark rooms were other forms of torture, which were used during the 1970s.

In the 1980s, forms of torture became even more gruesome. Women received no mercy from their tortures; with occasional threats of rape. In the 1980s, women became even more active in the struggle against apartheid. To torture these women, the security forces started to use women’s sexuality to undermine their identity and integrity during interrogations. Elaine Mohamed, who was a university student, was detained for organising a meeting to commemorate the founding of the South African Communist Party (SACP). She explained how vulnerable she felt after she had started her menstrual cycle in detention. A policeman told her she was not allowed tampons and had to use pads “and he shook the pad and hit it against the wall saying: ‘Put it on!’ I found this incredibly threatening. It’s those kinds of experiences that I couldn’t talk about for a long time. Some of them I still can’t talk about”.

It should be stressed that women did not have just one role, they were expected to be mothers, fathers and bread-winners in the absence of their partners. These women were also expected to be a source of support for their children, partners and the rest of their family. How much more should their roles be stressed? A much broader description of what being a woman at the time needs to be highlighted, also keeping in mind their contribution towards the struggle. So many stories of women are left untold simply because these women feel their stories do not matter enough, or probably because they feel they had to go through that process in order for this country to be liberated. They need to know that their contributions are highly appreciated; that even though this was done in the name of the struggle, no human being should be raped in order for the country to be liberated. These women need to know that as much as there were a few of them in liberation camps in exile, that still left no justification for them being raped. These women need to know that these stories need to be told; people need to know what they went through; protecting their organisation from being discredited still says ”you deserved to be raped”.

The history of South Africa is not complete unless the stories of women are mentioned. It will replace the misconception that men alone played an important role in liberating the country. This post is aimed at highlighting the role which women played and the violations they experienced in their struggle to liberate all South Africans. These stories of women can add to a growing body of knowledge of apartheid policy and may also assist in understanding the pain and suffering experienced by many women, mostly of colour, under apartheid.


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