Four she-roes of South Africa’s historic freedom struggle came together by Zoom on November 29 in an event organized by the Johannesburg-based non-profit Value Ed, with some technical help given by Just World Ed. The video of this very moving event can be viewed here.
Back in 1969, these four women were organizers for the long-banned African National Congress (ANC), who were among the 22 key leaders and organizers who were arrested by the Apartheid government in an attempt to “break the back” of the ANC nationwide. (Mrs. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was another of the arrestees.) The government was preparing to bring a “case” against the 22 under the Suppression of Communism and Suppression of Terrorism Acts, but it needed at least one of the arrestees to break under torture and agree to testify against the others. None of them did, and the case collapsed– but not before the detainees, who included a total of seven women, had all been subjected to harsh torture including very lengthy periods of solitary confinement.
Very little was known about the role these she-roes had played until the publication in South Africa in August of Women In Solitary: Inside the Female resistance to Apartheid, a book in which young South African writer Shanthini Naidoo presents poignant profiles of the four surviving women detainees: Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, Shanthie Naidoo (no relation), Rita Ndzanga, and Nondwe Mankahla.
In the recent, Zoom-based “Reunion” event, author Naidoo explained that she had always hoped that when the book was released she could organize a live reunion among the four she-roes– but the Covid restrictions made that impossible. The online event was the back-up plan. It was organized by Value Ed, which is headed by Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin’s son. (The two of them are seen in the banner photo above.)
Value Ed consultant Refilwe Digoamaje hosted the event. In her introduction, she noted that she had been born in 1994– the year of South Africa’s first democratic election– and that “people my age never knew this history before!”
When it was author Shanthini Naidoo’s turn to speak, she noted the timeliness and power of the stories in the book. She said the book has been selling well in South Africa and noted that a “North American” version of it will be coming out next February, from Just World Books. This version will have a slightly different title– Women Surviving Apartheid’s Prisons— but it will have the whole of the interior of the South African version, along with a Glossary of South African terms and a Foreword by the distinguished African-American journalist Donna Bryson.
Then it was the turn of the she-roes themselves and their family members to speak.
Joyce Sikhakhani-Rankin came first. She spoke poignantly about how extremely lonely it was in the cells. “And also, there was the anxiety, because you would wonder who had broken down and was prepared to give evidence.”
Next up was Ma Rita Ndzanga. She gave a strong “Amandla!” greeting, then spoke very powerfully about how hard she and her comrades had had to work– “But today we are free!” One of her great-grandchildren played around her as she spoke, from her home in Soweto.
Ma Nondwe Mankahla gave a short reading from the chapter of the book that is about her; then she spoke out forcefully against the degree of gender-based violence that South Africa faces today. But she also expressed her wonder at being able to experience “this Zoom thing” for the first time.
Shanthie Naidoo shared a few bitter memories of the time of her arrest. Then she expressed delight at being (virtually) reunited with her long-ago comrades in this way– a sentiment that was shared by all the she-roes.
Several of the women had family members also on the call, and they offered their tributes to the amazing courage shown by their sisters/aunts/mothers back during the struggle era.
As the event came to a close, Vikela Rankin said to his mother that in the family she was treated first and foremost like a mom– but she is also a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle who has received far too little public recognition.
Shanthini Naidoo spoke about how working on the book had changed her life and assured the four women that their legacy lives on in South Africa, even 50 years after the infamous “Trial of 22.”
Next February, Just World Ed will be working with Just World Books to bring Women Surviving Apartheid’s Prisons and the transformative stories of these four she-roes that are told within it to the North American public, throughout Black History Month 2021.