Gender and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
A submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Prepared by Beth Goldblatt and Shiela MeintjesMay 1996
GENDER AND THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION
A submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission prepared by:
Beth Goldblatt and Sheila Meintjes
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will play an extremely
significant role in shaping South Africa's collective understanding
of our painful past. It will also have to deal with the individual
victims, survivors and perpetrators who come before it and will
have to consider important matters relating to reparation and
rehabilitation. All South Africans will in one way or another
be touched by the truth and reconciliation process. We will argue
that by viewing our past through a gendered lens we gain a deeper
understanding of how our particular history has shaped the lives
of all South Africans.
A gendered approach requires that we look at the way society locates
women and men in relation to all areas of their lives, such as
the workplace, the domestic sphere and the civic life of the community.
In South Africa, race, class and gender have together, but in
different ways, structured social relationships. In this conceptualisation,
women's experience cannot be understood in isolation from men's,
but as a consequence of the interrelationship of women and men's
roles and statuses in society generally. In the past and the present
women have been and are subordinated to men. This constrains the
full development of men as well as women. To transform this imbalance
will require measures directed at restructuring all social relationships
in all spheres of society.
It is with this understanding that we may be better able to construct
a new society based on a human rights culture which allows all
people, women and men, to contribute fully to society and develop
to their full human potential.
This submission was initiated at a workshop held on the 19th March,
1996 at the University of the Witwatersrand. The workshop, entitled
"Gender and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission"
was called by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies to further
develop a process of thought about the gender issues facing the
Commission. A number of psychologists, lawyers, members of Non-Governmental
Organisations, members of the Gauteng Legislature and representatives
of the Commission were present. The workshop, while simply a collection
of interested people, included representatives from each of the
four regions of the TRC. The participants felt that the issues
raised in the workshop should be placed before the TRC in a formal
submission. We hope that this submission will be of assistance
to the Commission in fulfilling its important role.
This submission is intended only as a starting point to aid the
Commission in understanding how gender forms part of the truth
and reconciliation process. We have explored some of the issues
that need to be looked at further and we certainly do not believe
that this is the final word on any aspect covered in the submission.
We have drawn upon comparative literature in an endeavour to
provide a framework within which to understand how gender has
affected women's experience during the three decades that form
the review period of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
We have drawn upon the work of people who have written about their
own or other people's experiences of human rights abuses. We have
also interviewed a number of women whose experience we believed
would be useful in helping us to draw out possible trends during
the three decades which are the concern of the TRC. This framework
will need to be further developed and refined as more evidence
of this gendered experience becomes available in the course of
the Commission's hearings.
The interviews we conducted were in-depth, where our informants
gave of their time and spoke openly and frankly about their experiences.
We wish to acknowledge the assistance given by all of these remarkable
women whose insights provide the major substance of this submission.
We have focused on the experience of women alone and have not
explored how gender structured the male experience of our past.
We acknowledge that by not exploring how men's experience was
gendered, we are omitting an important aspect of a gender analysis
of our past. We have only looked at women's experience because
we believe that it is women's voices that are most often ignored.
Failure to approach the experience of human rights abuses through
a gendered lens will lead to the neglect of women's experience
of abuse and torture, for these are often seen as a male preserve.
We have already seen women in TRC hearings emphasise men's experiences
of violence rather than their own. This distorts the reality which
was that women too were direct victims of past abuses. While a
gender analysis involves examining men and women's differing experiences
we have chosen to focus on women's experiences lest they be omitted.
We would urge that further studies be undertaken to explore male
gender constructions in the experiences of our past.
We do not intend to suggest that men were not also subjected to
torture, nor, as the evidence which will be presented here will
show, that men, like women, were not also subjected to sexual
torture. Men and women experienced sexual torture: electric shocks
to genitals, and to women's breasts were commonplace. Both men
and women were brutally beaten; slammed against floors and walls;
flung around on beams; deprived of sleep; forced to stand or to
sit on imaginary chairs for hours; teargassed; held in solitary
confinement for months on end and forced to endure days of endless
interrogation and even killed. But the nature of these experiences,
even the sexual aspects, were felt differently. Assaults
on pregnant women, which led to miscarriage, body searches, vaginal
examinations, were all assaults on the sexuality and sexual identity
of women. Our intention is to show that gender was a key aspect
in the power relations which pertained in detention and in prisons
in South Africa. We wish to show that there was a keen awareness
by the police of the nature of gender power relations, and how
this could be used to threaten and engender fear in their victims.
Tactics used against women changed considerably during the period
under review, as we will show.
The submission begins by examining the reasons for developing
a gender analysis of political violence. We then outline our
historical analysis of women's role in resistance and their experience
of repression and torture from the 1960s to the present. We then
examine the three areas of the TRC's work ie: human rights violations,
amnesty and reparations and rehabilitation. Within our examination
of human rights violations we explore the gendered experiences
of victims in a range of situations of political violence. Finally,
we suggest that the findings of this report have certain practical
implications for the TRC and we make certain proposals in this
Gender refers to the social construction of masculinity and femininity,
not to the sexual differences between men and women. The purpose
of emphasising gender relationships is to highlight the particular
manner in which women have been subordinated and oppressed through
socially constructed differences. Indeed, gender differences
have meant that South African men and women have often experienced
our history in different ways. In South Africa, as in most societies
in the world, women have been accorded identities which cast them
in particular social roles which have restricted their civil and
political status. Intersecting with gender are also race, class
and other identities, such as ethnic and religious allegiances.
These form the basis of the 'public-private' divide, which has
given to men the role of civil and political representative of
the household, to the exclusion of women.
Patriarchy refers to the social, political and economic system
which provides men with unequal power and authority in relation
to women in society. Patriarchy existed in pre-colonial societies,
and interacted with colonialism to create specific forms of gender
subordination in South Africa. Interlaced with the racial and
class development of our country, patriarchy has wound its bonds
around South African women. As with other forms of social and
political control, dominance of women has often been enforced
by violence. While apartheid defined blacks as secondary political
and civil subjects, women were given an even further diminished
social and legal status through both the customary and the common
law and other social mechanisms. It is this social imbalance which
has enabled men to devalue women and which can be linked to the
prevalence of abusive and oppressive treatment of women and girls
in our society.
Thus, within the exclusions of customary law, for instance, women
were given a secondary status as minors, excluding women from
rights of guardianship over children and the right to own property,
amongst other things. The common law excluded white women from
guardianship and various economic rights so that they, too, were
treated as secondary citizens. Although specific advances were
made in the first half of the twentieth century, for instance
white women received the vote and were given property rights,
it was not until the introduction of the equality clause in the
new Constitution that all women in South Africa were given formal
recognition as equal citizens. However, social norms have not
advanced in line with the Constitution and women still find themselves
politically and economically disadvantaged and remain the victims
of violence and discrimination. Women-headed households are significantly
poorer in all race groups. Women make up a disproportional section
of the unemployed and are amongst the lowest paid in most industries.
Incidents of rape and domestic violence are extremely high in
South Africa. Women make up almost a third of the Parliament but
a recent study has shown that their effective participation is
Our key concern in this paper is to show how gender is an integral
component of social analysis. This will provide a fuller understanding
of our past and will also enable the TRC to carefully consider
the manner in which it conducts its functions. This will impact
on the way in which we shape gender relations in our society in
The history and development of South Africa since colonial rule
is the history of conquest and the institutionalising of racial
discrimination and subordination. Less emphasised, but equally
important, has been the way in which patriarchal power relations
were integrated and used to bolster the power of the oppressors
within indigenous communities. Patriarchy, that system of power
and authority wielded by men throughout history, was embedded
within the social fabric of apartheid in particular ways and meant
that women and men from different racial, class and cultural backgrounds
experienced life very differently. In this section we do not attempt
a comparative analysis of the experience of women and men in a
systematic manner. Rather we are concerned here to emphasise women's
experience of the system where we believe it to have especially
violated their rights during the last three decades. Some of these
excesses were experienced equally by men but as we have explained,
we have chosen to highlight women in this paper.
This section explains how women's experience of apartheid repression
changed during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as the nature and scale
of organised popular opposition grew. The early 1960s saw the
end of open, constitutional opposition and the espousal of armed
struggle. The end of the decade witnessed the emergence of a new
black consciousness movement driven by a generation of intellectuals
educated within apartheid's Bantu education system. This included
numbers of women journalists, teachers, and doctors, amongst others.
In the 1970s, an independent trade union movement grew from massive
strikes in 1973, which included large sectors dominated by women
workers. The 1976 Soweto riots drew school children into the growing
mass opposition to apartheid. A tidal wave of young people, women
as well as men, left the country for the camps of the country's
guerilla armies based in exile. By the 1980s, international condemnation
of apartheid coincided with the emergence of a broad front of
internally organised opponents of the apartheid regime. Amongst
them were independent regional women's organisations, whose objectives
embraced national liberation together with the eradication of
Apartheid, as with earlier forms of domination and control, was
founded on and reinforced by violence. The period from 1960,
the era which forms the starting point for the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, has been described by Deborah Posel, as the second
phase of apartheid, a period which entrenched the notion of 'Separate
Development'. During this period women found themselves in a less
secure position than men in relation to opportunities for employment,
in relation to security of tenure or access to housing. Influx
control limited women's mobility more than men's. Forced removals
constituted one element of the fulfilment of apartheid, another
was the creation of 'ethnic homelands', which provided the context
for the development of a collaborative bureaucratic elite, surrogates
of the apartheid state. This was a period which had devastating
consequences upon the lives of black people. Whole communities
were uprooted from land which many of them owned and were dumped
in inhospitable environments without adequate infrastructure.
Families were torn apart and impoverished as migrant labour regulations
prevented women from joining working husbands in the towns. Women
were left in rural areas dependent upon remittances from their
migrant husbands. Rural women were prevented from seeking work
independently in the urban areas, or from joining their husbands.
Single sex hostels in these areas made it impossible for rural
wives and husbands to maintain family life. Children often lived
with grandparents and seldom saw their parents. Women in urban
areas, with permanent rights of settlement, were prevented from
obtaining housing on their own account. Single women, heads of
families, and widows were the subject of considerable abuse by
both the state and by members of their own extended families.
Many a widow was forced out of her home within weeks of her husband's
death because of the law, to spend the rest of her life as an
exploited 'tenant' in someone else's backyard. Often she was simply
"endorsed out" to a rural settlement. Her basic human
rights to security and freedom of movement, to freedom from want,
were violated by apartheid law.
The 1960s were a period of intense repression, following the vitality
of protest movements to the pass laws and to the introduction
of Bantu Education and apartheid. The period benefitted from a
global economic resurgence. At the same time, influx control was
a major focus of government policy. Endorsements out of urban
areas became widespread - between January 1959 and March 1962,
7 280 women and 18 931 men were returned to the homelands from
the Cape Peninsular alone, an area where the Coloured Labour Preference
policy was rigidly enforced. The African National Congress and
the Pan African Congress were both banned after the Sharpeville
massacre in March 1960, events which significantly altered the
scale of public opposition to state controls. Eight women, ten
children and fifty one men were killed at Sharpeville. A state
of emergency was declared during which more than 10 000 people
It seems clear that methods of interrogation changed after the
State of Emergency. Mass arrests had given people a chance to
consolidate their collective identity into a community of opposition.
The state developed strategies aimed at undermining the possibilities
for coherent and collective action. In particular, more sophisticated
and psychological methods of interrogation were developed. With
the introduction of new measures in 1963 which allowed for 90
days detention without trial, a new, more sinister era opened
for detainees. In 1965, this was increased to 180 days detention.
The Terrorism Act of 1967 entrenched the powers of the state for
purposes of deterring all internal opposition.
Techniques of mental torture developed during the 1960s as the
Security Branch learned about assaulting the mind during periods
of extended isolation in detention. The experience of black and
white people was very different. The police were not shy to use
brute force against black women. Hilda Bernstein has described
the experience of beating, house burning, destruction of possessions
endured by the women of Zeerust, for instance, in their struggle
against the pass laws and the Bantu Authorities in the 1950s.
Albertina Sisulu spent years restricted by banning orders and
house arrest in her home in Orlando. She was held in solitary
confinement on several occasions, in 1963 for three months and
again in 1981 and in 1985. In 1963 both she and her young son
Zwelakhe were detained under the Suppression of Communism Act
in order for the Security Branch (SB) to try and find the whereabouts
of Walter Sisulu, who was in hiding. She described the mental
torture by her captors, who would taunt her with lies about the
severe illness and subsequent death of her youngest child. But
for Albertina Sisulu, personal concerns were not an issue, and
although she was clear about the centrality of her role as wife
and mother, her struggle against the repression and oppression
of the state and its legislative apparatus was always a 'national'
struggle, and her own will subject to the collective will of the
It is not clear why a prominent person like Albertina Sisulu was
not assaulted at any time during her frequent detentions and continuous
police harassment. Other women were not so fortunate. Rita Ndzanga
had been an active trade unionist during the 1950s, and she and
her husband were members of South African Congress of Trade Unions.
In December 1969 she and her husband were detained under the Suppression
of Communism Act, their children left for months without parents.
She recounted her experience in detention:
They dragged me to another room, hitting me with their open hands
all the time...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...I managed
to stand up and then they said: "on the bricks!'...and they
hit me again while I was on the bricks. I fell. They again poured
water on me.
Neither the torture of detention, nor the death of her husband,
Lawrence Ndzanga, in detention in January 1977, deterred Rita
Ndzanga's continued involvement in the trade union movement, and
in resistance to state repression.
Ruth First has described her diabolical experience of personal
disintegration in her book 117 Days, where she felt so
wretched about giving in to write a statement that she tried to
kill herself. More than twenty years later, another member of
the South African Communist Party, Jenny Schreiner, also described
her breaking point as when she agreed to make a statement. Schreiner
also tried to end her life. But Ruth First was not assaulted as
far as we can establish, nor were other white women detainees
of those early 1960s detentions. The exception was Stephanie Kemp,
who was the first white woman to be assaulted in detention in
1963. This changed dramatically after the emergence of SASO in
1968 and during the 1970s. And by the 1980s race was no longer
a factor in brutality when Ruth First was murdered by a parcel
bomb sent by South African agents in Mozambique.
Whilst white women may not have experienced the same levels of
physical abuse, they were subject to continual harassment in other
ways. Helen Joseph, for instance, was silenced and politically
ham-strung by banning, listing and house arrest. Indian women,
too, experienced continuous police harassment and intimidation.
Amina Cachalia described to us the way in which the police threatened
her and her children, as well as her husband, when they raided
During the sixty's, as early as 1961, everything was in uproar.
The ANC and the PAC are the organisations (concerned), and soon
after they clamped down on house arrests and bannings... It had
a more individual effect on families and people...it was a psychological
warfare...because it really clamped down on us in that fashion.
It had a very detrimental effect on my children. We had decided
at some stage to send the children to boarding school because
of the continuous harassment by police. Security police came to
the house on a daily basis, at any time of the day and night.
The kids were absolutely beside themselves with fear that either
their father or I would be taken away...We thought if we sent
the kids away to boarding school it might save them that terrible
life that they were going through with us.
During the 1960s the methods of banning organisations and individuals,
listing people whose activities were seen as a danger to the state,
and employing house arrest were all used to demobilise people
and organisational activity. Banishment was also frequently used.
Frances Baard, a trade unionist who had spent her working life
in the Eastern Cape was banished to Mabopane in the Transvaal.
Here she was linguistically foreign, without shelter, far from
her home and family. She describes her experience in moving terms:
They got this place in Pretoria for me...a little dirty place:
it was a two-roomed house. Not a house, a shack, and I was put
in there. I had nothing with me from jail - only the clothes I
was wearing...There was no blanket, nothing. It was very cold...I
didn't even know a person in that place, I couldn't even speak
the language of the people there. Since I was brought there by
the S.B.(Security Branch) the people were afraid of me, to talk
Persecuted for refusing to take a pass, flung into a hostile environment,
Frances Baard, just released from prison, was penniless and jobless.
At home in Port Elizabeth, her house was appropriated, her furniture
removed. Her children were thrown into the street, one also arrested
and jailed for being without a pass. Political activity became
personally dangerous, and activists risked extended periods of
detention and harassment. This was the case for many people who
had been part of organisations now banned, like the ANC Women's
League. By 1963 the Federation of South African Women was effectively
defunct as a result of state action against its member organisations
The 1960s ended, then, with a significant shift in methods of
torturing women. Solitary confinement in indefinite detention
without trial was combined with psychological and physical torture.
Sleep deprivation, standing for long periods and repeated assaults
were among the methods used. Further research needs to establish
the numbers of women detained during this period, and the conditions
of their detention.
Black Consciousness (BC) emerged during the latter part of the
1960s as a new political and ideological current, to become the
strongest internal influence on black politics until the resurgence
of trade unionism after 1973. "BC stressed the need for blacks
to reject liberal white tutelage, the assertion of a black cultural
identity, psychological liberation from notions of inferiority,
and the unity of all blacks including 'coloureds' and 'Indians'",
argued Jonathan Hyslop. Its origins lie in the South African
Student's Organisation (SASO) led by Steve Biko and others including
a number of women intellectuals. Its manifestation amongst the
youth in fostering confidence was particularly important. In addition,
and an aspect not brought out by Hyslop and others, was the significant
support given to the youth by adult women. This occurred not simply
at the individual level, though this was important, but took the
form of organisation. In 1975 the Black Women's Federation (BWF)
had been formed to bring black women together in a broad front
to create opportunities for themselves, and to reject Bantu Education.
In 1976, in the wake of the Soweto uprising, the Black Parents
Association was formed.
Even initially, during the peaceful demonstrations, parents supported
the pupils. But what really thrust the parents into action was
the brutal police killings...Nobody expected the cold-blooded
murder of young children. So besides their solidarity with young
people they were angered - and their hatred and rejection of the
whole system came to the surface. They were completely with the
students in their militancy.
Of further significance during the 1970s was the emergence of
a burgeoning trade union movement after widespread, and successful,
strikes in 1973 and 1974, beginning in Durban, and developing
in the East Rand and Eastern Cape. In few of the accounts of these
developments does the role and participation of women workers
appear. Hilda Bernstein's short history of women's experience
of apartheid, provides little evidence for women's involvement
in trade union activity, nor the extent of their persecution by
both employers and the state. But Bernstein does show that in
all the arrests and detentions, women were amongst those rounded
up, detained and assaulted.
Methods of torture had by the 1970s assumed a much more violent
form against those in opposition. Detention and the process of
interrogation was one which involved the most callous and vicious
forms of assault, and did not exclude women on the basis of their
sex. Thenjiwe Mtintso, a former journalist, member of SASO and
later a commander in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), described her experience
of detention and interrogation as one of constant physical assault
and abuse of her womanhood. Mtintso's account of detention shows
that in the early days of SASO, women were initially treated by
the Security Branch as if they were simply the bed-fellows of
the men. There was no perception that women might be equal players
in the struggle against the apartheid system. However, this view
changed as women proved to be stubborn subjects in detention.
Women began to experience similar physical assault to men, which
included punches in the face and all over the body. However, Mtintso
also suggested that women received a lot of severe blows, either
from punches or from kicks, in the area of the womb. She also
describes how there were on occasions threats of rape, though
she was never in fact raped. However, the assaults were brutal
and continuous. For instance during her second detention, in 1976,
her head was repeatedly banged against a wall for a whole day
by successive members of the torture team. She says that although
she cannot prove the connection, the most searing headaches have
dogged her ever since.
Joyce Dipale, another Black Consciousness leader, had been kept
in solitary confinement during 1976 and 1977 for 500 days. Her
graphic description of being tortured by a method known as the
'horse' indicates that by this time women were being subjected
to similar brutal treatment as their male colleagues. Hilda Bernstein
wrote about Dipale's experience:
She was subject to many agonizing forms of torture, including
the 'horse'- she was handcuffed to a pole and swung round and
round until she lost consciousness - electric shocks on her bare
breasts, buttocks and genitals ('I got used to the pain but never
the humiliation'); beatings; prolonged standing with deprivation
of sleep, food and water; and being kept in a dark room, she does
not know for how long - 'I lost touch with time'.
The combination of physical and sexual torture is evident from
both Dipale's and Mtintso's detention experience. Men also experienced
torture of their genitals and no doubt psychological attack on
their masculinity as well. But as we have indicated, our aim is
to highlight women's experience. During the 1970s, combined with
ordinary forms of physical torture, were also quite specific and
systematic sexual forms of torture which women found more difficult
to cope with than simply being hit or battered.
The sexual dimensions of gender power relations found expression
also in the experience of women within political movements. Men
from all quarters found it difficult to accept women's growing
prominence in political movements. For instance, after she went
into exile, Mtintso describes some of the difficulties she faced
as a woman in maintaining discipline amongst her comrades. Although
she became a senior commander in MK, she experienced forms of
sexual harassment which she attributes to the cultural norms within
South African society. Men found it difficult to take orders from
a woman, and attempted to undermine her authority by using sexual
innuendo. Unlike others, she was in a strong enough position
to be able to effectively counter this with threats of her own.
During the 1980s, the context of resistance had profoundly changed.
International hostility had grown considerably, and in spite of
British, French and United States' reluctance to take a strong
stand against apartheid, an international boycott movement had
got under way. Moreover, internal organisation and opposition
forces had grown in scale. The South African regime was forced
into cosmetic attempts to reform the worst aspects of apartheid.
In the context of a combination of reform and repression, internal
opposition movements became more strategically organised, and
a strong mass movement emerged. Alliances across race and class
barriers developed which threatened the cohesion of the apartheid
state. State repression became more violent, with the state increasingly
supporting reactionary forces within the homelands. The ANC and
PAC began to step up their guerilla attacks.
From the mid-1980s the struggle for competing control escalated into what some analysts have termed a civil war. In conditions of war, civil war, or in situations where people were involved in what they conceived to be a political struggle for control over terrain or over resources - in South Africa this was also constructed in ethnic terms, as in the township struggles between hostel and town dwellers - militarised constructions of masculinity and femininity became more pronounced, in spite of counterveiling forces within MK, where it was well known that women were soldiers and commanders. Women increasingly became drawn into the violence which grew throughout South Africa, as activists themselves, or as indirect victims. In the latter case, on all sides of the conflict, women become ideological objects, as both desirable and thus to be protected as nurturers, lovers and wives or to be captured to show the other side's inefficacy in that role. The kidnapping of young women to serve as sex slaves in the hostels is one example. So humiliation of women was at times used to humiliate opponents.
Although these may have been the interpretations that men placed
on the role of women, women themselves put a quite different construction
upon their own actions. Even though women's role in resistance
has often seen them defined within their maternal function, women
have used this as a means of lifting themselves out of the private
realm and entering the public arena. This has had the effect of
politicising private issues and placing women's pain at the loss,
abduction and attack on themselves and their families on the oppositional
But while women were increasingly prominent in struggles against
apartheid, methods of sexual torture during the 1980s assumed
greater prominence in women's testimony. In our research there
is evidence to suggest that women's sexuality was used to undermine
their identity and integrity as human beings during their interrogations.
Elaine Mohammed gives graphic detail of the threat that sexual
innuendo played in her detention 1982. She was just twenty one,
a University student and a member of the Black Student's Society,
when she was detained for organising a meeting to commemorate
the founding of the South African Communist Party. She describes
an ambience of sexual terrorism imposed by the Security Police
in their dealings with her. She also felt extreme vulnerability
when she began menstruating in detention:
A policeman came into my cell and said,"You're not allowed
tampons in here. You have to wear pads." And he shook the
pad and hit it against the wall saying, "Put it on."
I found this incredibly threatening. The first week I wasn't allowed
to wash or have any change of clothing. After that when they brought
in my fresh underwear, they flung it around and said how very
small my panties were. I felt far more vulnerable with these kinds
of experiences than when I was actually threatened.
Some women had endured the most sadistic torture. Mohamed describes how one woman she knew "-had rats pushed into her vagina as a means of torturing her".
Rats would come into Mohamed's cell at night and eat the soiled
pads. This was linked in her mind with her friend's experience,
and became an enduring nightmare.
So I'd just pick up the bits of my pads, but that experience
was terror for me. I always felt that the rats were gnawing at
me. But how could I explain to someone that I found that more
threatening than someone hitting me? 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 was not only men who were involved in this strategy of attacking
detainees sexuality. Mohamed expresses her disappointment at the
participation of women police in these sexual tactics:
I felt very betrayed by what the women police did to me in prison,
because I expected more of women. I always liked my breasts because
they are very firm. The policewomen would flick them with their
nails on my nipples, saying, "It's a shame nobody wants you.
You've obviously never had a boyfriend. No one touched these breasts,
else why are they so firm?" I found this incredibly humiliating.
Men and women police were accomplices in degrading detainees sexually:
I was body-searched twice a day every day at the Fort, which
was also very humiliating. They made me stand astride and do star
jumps to check that I wasn't hiding anything in my vagina. I remember
police-women making me strip in front of men and people laughing
at me...When they didn't strip me, they'd feel through my clothes,
slipping a hand into my pants and bra. I found this much more
traumatic than stripping...
Nor was it only the police who were involved in this system of
sexual harassment. Mohamed describes the behaviour of the District
Surgeon who visited the prison:
I remember lying on the bed with the prison doctor leaning over
me and putting his forearm between my legs to examine my throat.
When I stood on the scale to be weighed, he ran his hand over
my behind and up between my legs and told me to walk across the
room undressed. I found this traumatic because a doctor is someone
I normally trust.
Lydia Kompe describes how the bantustan police were able to brazenly
terrorize and torture during the 1980s. They taunted her and used
her womanhood against her in their interrogation:
They came in numbers I'm sure there were about 20 well armed
police and in the same village there was a police station which
was like a camp where they were torturing people and we were taken
to that torture camp... The majority of us were woman and they
even took Patsy's young girl of about 15 years. A beautiful young
girl which I was worried about...They harassed me at that little
office and I was very strong I was very adamant and they got very
angry with me. They questioned me saying things like "you're
such an old woman coming from an oppressive country" because
they saw themselves as a different country... "What do you
think your husband thinks about you? This is the reason why all
the men are getting divorced. You will sleep for the whole six
months alone because we're going to keep (you)." And I could
hear the screams (of people) being tortured that were kept in
those tents but they would never let me go and see what they were
doing. It was worse than the central government torture, so people
She described how electric shocks were administered during torture
by means of instruments powered by a generator specially brought
to this rural area for the purpose. She describes how the police
later took them to the police station. During the course of the
night each young woman was called in turn to leave the cell. On
their return, the women would not speak about what had happened
to them but Kompe suspected that they had been abused or raped.
She explained the failure of the young women to discuss these
incidents in terms of the prevailing cultural view that sexual
abuse is shameful and cannot be divulged.
During the later part of the 1980s, during successive States of
Emergency, women were detained in large numbers. In the Fedtraw
publication A woman's place is in the struggle not behind bars
a long list of reported sexual assaults and torture on women are
described. 12% percent of the State of Emergency detainees in
1986/7 were women. This amounted to 3050 women and girls. The
violation of their identity and integrity, their sense of themselves
as women, would all have been part of the form and content of
their interrogation. In most cases, women will find it very difficult
to speak of these kinds of attacks upon their identity in a public,
let alone a private, forum. If any of them were raped, as many
were, it will be virtually impossible for them to suffer the public
humiliation that divulging such experience will entail.
What this brief history has tried to show is that during the three
decades during which women were the victims of apartheid, they
experienced repression in particular ways. Women's identities
whether as mothers, as wives or sexual partners, or as independent
beings were systematically abused. Women were abused by laws which
blocked mobility, or prevented their acquiring land or houses
in their own right, or which treated them as minors. Women were
abused by societal norms which treated them as sexual objects,
empowering men to treat them without respect, and to degrade their
sexual integrity. These laws and norms legitimated the sexual
abuse of women by men, particularly those who found themselves
in positions of power and authority, such as the police. This
meant that women's experience of detention and torture was "gendered"
both because of how they were treated and because of their own
subjective experience of their treatment.
This development of repression against women is not only worth
understanding for historical purposes but affects the way in which
the TRC should conduct itself in all areas. With this history
as a backdrop we now look at how the TRC should address the question
of gender throughout its work.
The Promotion of Truth and Reconciliation Act defines "Gross
violation of human rights" as comprising "the killing,
abduction, torture or severe ill-treatment of any person".
We submit that the words "severe ill-treatment" should
be interpreted to include a wide range of abuses which took place
under apartheid. Detention without trial itself is severe ill-treatment.
Imprisonment for treason against an unjust system is severe ill-treatment.
Forced removals, pass arrests, confiscation of land, breaking
up of families and even forcing people to undergo racially formulated
education are all forms of severe ill-treatment.
Whilst it is important to emphasise the killing and torture in
our past and the extraordinary suffering of opponents of apartheid,
we need also to pause and recognise that the apartheid system
itself violated the basic rights of human beings in ways that
systematically destroyed their capacity to survive. In addition,
the gendered dimensions of this system had an added dehumanising
effect on many people's lives. The influx control system, lynch-pin
of the migrant labour system, not only separated families, it
also criminalised a huge number of men and women who were merely
trying to be together and to find work to support themselves and
their families. This experience often violated the integrity of
individuals in devastating ways.
Lydia Kompe, a former trade unionist and campaigner for rural
women's rights, and now a Member of Parliament, points to the
multiple meanings and subjective understandings of violence during
the apartheid years. She describes her experience of the system
which gradually but systematically undermined her identity and
her way of life. She lost her rural home, was forced to seek
work in town as a domestic worker, where she could not live with
her husband nor bring up her children in a family. What she describes
is how the law, and its implementation and effects, were different
for men and women. While men's lives were hard under apartheid,
women suffered even greater economic burdens and social restrictions
that oppressed them and caused suffering. To spend time with her
husband meant risking arrest. He was twice arrested visiting her
room in the suburbs where she was a domestic worker. Of her experience
Can one actually say it's violence... It's not as serious as
my husband being killed in jail. One would say, it's not like
me having left my own country going to stay thirty years outside.
So that's what I always say to myself, what is this violence?
How can one express it to somebody who can actually feel sympathetic?
What I'm telling you now is a story. I don't think it will be
seen as violence. It's a story that this is how we lived in the
past. And this was where it actually crippled me in my mind.
The system which Lydia Kompe describes is one which forced her
to adopt illegality in order to survive and violated her sense
of integrity. She shows how the pass laws had a particular impact
on African women. While these laws also determined the movement
of African men, they were even more harsh in their effect on women.
Because of the nature of gendered social relations, women had
primary responsibility for child care and support and were disadvantaged
in their access to the labour market:
It was an internal violence... I lived in a society for many
years using false identities for my survival because I was a victim
of the influx control... I had to do away with my own African
culture, with my own self and call myself a different thing so
that I could come and work, because I was not allowed to work
in the so-called proclaimed areas of Johannesburg, because I didn't
qualify, I was a rural women. I had to use false names and false
identities... The surname Kompe is not my surname, it is a false
one... I respect that name because it made me bring up my children
and send them to school.
Her story is one of dispossession and impoverishment. Deprived of the independence of small commodity production on the land, her family was forced to uproot itself to seek wages in the urban areas:
(The) Betterment scheme, which is another apartheid law I will
never forgive and forget, because they made us what we are. We
were so independent. My father had a lot of cattle, lots of pigs,
lots of chickens... We never ate any bread unless my Mother grinded
wheat to make us home-made bread. Sweet potato is the food we
grew from. My father was exchanging sweet potato crops for livestock
and all those things. That system destroyed them and we saw ourselves,
my parents, growing poorer and poorer like somebody knowing he
has cancer, one day he will die. That's exactly what happened
to us. I did my Standard eight, my parents couldn't make it any
more. They were forced to come to Johannesburg in their old age
to come and work. That's why I am what I am. I can't speak English
properly, I can't write English properly, I can't express myself
like I want to express myself to people.
For Lydia Komape, the move to the city required violating her
rural and African identity. She acquired a false identity as Lydia
Kompe: "Komape was a Bantu name, which would have prohibited
me from entering the urban areas". Yet she was tortured by
the guilt associated with her new identity as a coloured woman,
which gave her advantages over her black fellow-workers. She discovered
that the coloured toilets were better than those for African women.
It was this which led her to begin organising on the shop floor
against the divisions imposed on workers by apartheid. She concludes
by saying that "The system crippled me and my mind. I was
committing a crime in order to survive, to avoid the crime of
Whilst this experience may not be a gross human rights violation
in terms of a narrow reading of the definition in the Promotion
of Truth and Reconciliation Act, in terms of the human suffering
and psychological trauma involved, the system as a whole was a
gross violation of the human rights of a whole society. Lydia
Kompe's experience shows how not only apartheid as a system shaped
South African's lives, but how gender fed into this experience
and added to the burden suffered by black women. While both men
and women suffered from all of these methods of social control,
we have argued above that factoring gender into the apartheid
equation produces a more complete understanding of South African
history. In order to develop this understanding the TRC needs
to locate itself within a more expansive reading of the definition
of "gross human rights violations".
Some would argue that the Truth Commission is not the vehicle
for pronouncing on such rights violations. The Land Court is being
used to restore successful claimants to their improperly seized
land. The Human Rights Commission, Gender Commission, Constitutional
Court and Public Protector are fora for raising grievances and
asking for relief. But will any of these bodies look back into
our past and acknowledge the suffering that so many experienced
? One of the harshest legacies of apartheid is the poverty it
caused and the worst victims of this poverty are women. Where
do these women lodge their complaints ? The Truth Commission
needs to acknowledge all forms of past suffering in some way,
even if its main attention must remain focused on the most extreme
cases of violent rights abuses. The final report should locate
the abuses within the context of the apartheid system as a whole
and wherever possible, this context should be used to provide
a backdrop for evidence that comes before the Commission. The
way in which the final report is used to educate and inform future
generations must be carefully considered. This could have a profound
impact on the development of equality and a culture of respect
for all people.
The definition of victim in the Act also includes relatives or
dependants of victims. This is very important since it locates
wives, mothers and children in centre stage as having suffered
"gross violations of human rights". It is important
to see these women as primary, not secondary victims because they
themselves suffered directly. It is indeed difficult to separate
the psychological pain of a mother whose child has been tortured
from the physical and psychological pain of the child itself.
Both are victims in need of support and rehabilitation.
This is supported in the law of delict which has developed both
in South Africa and elsewhere towards recognising that witnesses,
relatives and others who find themselves in a relationship of
proximity to someone who suffers direct harm are themselves able
to claim pecuniary damages from the perpetrator. This is an acknowledgment
by our law that the person who causes harm is liable to compensate
the indirect victim who suffered trauma and harm as a result of
that person's negligent or intentional act.
A further dimension of loss is the economic or material one. In
poor families and communities, detention, imprisonment, exile
and death in a family might have meant the difference between
starvation and survival. Jesse Duarte emphasised this aspect when
she spoke at a recent workshop on 'Gender and the TRC':
Women who lost their sons or daughters for example, at the time
when they were just beginning to become economically active, have
something to say to us as a society about having reared a child
to a particular point and then that child is taken away from them
without an explanation... Then there is the cultural perspective
of the economic position of that particular family. It may be
that that family did not need, or that person did not contribute
to the financial security of any family. But in the minds of people
right now they lost a potential breadwinner. It seems to me that
that issue has been sidelined because it has been raised mainly
by women. It also seems that women are (seen to be) raising it
because they want to be paid for the contribution that their children
made towards the struggle and that is not true. What is true
is that there was that reality - that your breadwinner was taken
away from you.
Responsibility for maintaining family life rested very much upon
women's shoulders. This was the case for wives of political prisoners
or detainees. June Mlangeni's experience echoes that of many women
as she describes the impact of her husband's imprisonment:
We were young when Andrew was arrested and I was looking forward
to the future with him.. but it was torn apart by a government
which separated two people who aimed to build a future together.
After I saw him on Robben Island I became stronger, and I could
cope better with the police harassment. Before I used to shiver
when the knock came at 2am knocking from window to door, front
and back doors ... and they knew that I was a woman alone in the
house...When Andrew was arrested I was a housewife .. I started
to work when Andrew was in prison and I took time off to go to
court to listen to Andrew's case .. then my employers found out
that my husband was one of the Rivonia Trialists, and I was fired.
For women, the loss of a husband in struggle had a very significant
impact on her status in her community. Widowhood could mean the
loss of status. Again, Jesse Duarte pointed to this in her discussion,
when she explained the cultural position of widows in society:
It's not so much the economic loss there that is the issue. It's
actually the cultural loss and the loss of position within the
community that begins to impact on people. I think that a lot
of times repression is only understood to be the direct physical
inflicted repression on a person not the repression of years afterwards.
When women lose their husbands they become doubly repressed by
your own community because you are a woman without standing in
the present context of the South African cultural reality. Certainly
in the eighties we had a number of reasons to provide constructive
support to women who became widows at that time because they were
almost illegitimized by the communities they came from. These
women had no more standing and the son became the women's husband
even if that woman was a very high-powered political activist.
The minute her spouse or her partner was taken away that was the
end of her.
In her testimony to the TRC, Sepati Mlangeni, the widow of Bheki
Mlangeni, spoke of the awful effects of her untimely widowhood,
a mere two months after her marriage: "I am an outcast in
my own society", she said.
Effect on children and family life
A number of children were taken into custody and detention with
their mothers, whilst others were abandoned and left in the care
of relatives or even strangers for long periods. While the scope
of this paper does not extend to examining the experience of children,
it is important to remember that they were often also direct/indirect
victims of human rights violations. Young people disappeared
from their homes, detained by the police, who never informed their
families where they were. Robert Brand gave one chilling example
of this kind already described to the Commission:
Maudline Lutya's brother, Wiseman, disappeared during rioting
in Guguletu in 1976. She inquired at police stations and hospitals
and asked around the local community, to no avail. Nobody told
her anything. Three weeks later...she went to the Salt River mortuary...She
found her brother "shot through the head, some of his brains
were coming out"
The Report on the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation
examines the impact of the most serious human rights violations
on families and social relations. It talks of the break up of
families, for example: "in order to work I had to distribute
my children. I was left with no husband and no children."
Other examples include: "The oldest daughter took care of
her brothers and sisters while her mother was trying to locate
her father" and "my father was the family breadwinner.
We were all little. We had to leave school and start working".
Poverty also impacted on people's experiences of human rights
violations eg: "I went looking for my 17 year old son everywhere.
I did it all on foot because I didn't have money to take the bus.
I never found out anything about him." This experience resonates
with South Africa's systematic control of people's mobility and
the brutal and inhumane administration of the apartheid system
in general. It also mirrors our experience regarding the impact
of political violence and repression on family life.
Women's supportive role
Women's role in supporting their detained husbands and children
began to take on a political character. During the detentions
of the 1980s a support movement comprised of families and friends
of detainees emerged, the Detainees Parents Support Committee
(DPSC). This movement constantly brought to the attention of authorities
and the public the harshness of the deprivations caused by detention.
It acted as a counter to the attempts by the state to destroy
political opposition. Indeed it intensified it. Women, traditionally
located in the private sphere, were forced into the public sphere
by the political struggles.
In another context, Jean Franco argues that the meetings at government
offices of mothers and families of the disappeared "constituted
a space of memory that also became a counter to the public sphere".
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement in Argentina and Families
of the Disappeared in Chile placed women in centre stage when
other political activity had ceased - they could "mediate
between the state and the individual". The women had been
rejected by traditional society and thus had nothing to lose by
acting "abnormally" - "The adoption of a public
self in the face of ridicule". They physically moved from
the private into the public space - the Plaza de Mayo. The mothers
"remade" reality and restored individual meaning/proof
of existence. Franco says "the movement exploited the traditional
view that mothers were the vessel of reproduction, but they also
went beyond any essentialist definition of "mother"
and thus demonstrated that it was possible to transform protest
into a broader ethical position, one based on life and survival".
Many of the people who have already spoken in the TRC are wives
and mothers of men who were killed. Many of these women were themselves
detained and harassed by the police. Although these women are
coming forward to speak about their husbands, fathers or sons,
they should also be encouraged to speak about their own experiences.
In the first week of the Truth Commission's hearings in the Eastern
Cape, the widows of the "Cradock Four", came to speak
about their murdered husbands. They themselves had been harassed
and arrested, yet their stories were not probed and were treated
as incidental. Our society constantly diminishes women's role
and women themselves then see their experiences as unimportant.
The TRC should empower these women so that they are able to locate
themselves not just in the private realm as supporters of men
but in the public realm as resisters to oppression. There is nothing
in the Act which prevents these types of questions from being
asked by Commissioners.
Even Albertina Sisulu, one of the most prominent fighters for
justice who suffered a great deal of repression, was more able
to talk about her husband and children's experiences than her
own. She uses the second person to describe her experience because
she finds it difficult to speak about herself as a suffering individual.
She also locates her subjectivity within the collective - the
The above discussion shows that women, even in acting in support of men, must be seen as both victims and resisters in their own right. We must however, also recognize that many women were directly active in resistance and were detained, tortured and killed because of their own effective opposition to the state.
The history of torture and violence, explored above, highlighted
the varied forms of physical and psychological torture used against
women. Some of these were also used against men, but others targeted
women's femininity and sexuality and all were experienced in a
gendered way. This section explores some of the forms of torture
developed to undermine women.
Physical methods of torture
Accounts of women's experience in detention, recorded by the DPSC
in 1987, include assault and electric shocks on pregnant women;
inadequate medical care leading to miscarriages; teargassing;
solitary confinement; body searches and vaginal examinations;
rape and forced intercourse with other prisoners; foreign objects
including rats being pushed into women's vaginas. Jessie Duarte
and Nomvula Mokonyane speak of incidents were women's fallopian
tubes were flooded with water, sometimes resulting in their inability
to have children.
These forms of cruelty were not simply experienced by women but
also by children. During the States of Emergency girls as young
as fourteen were detained, tortured, beaten and teargassed.
Jean Franco discusses torture in Latin America in the 1960s and
1970s. She argues that although pain has no gender, sexual difference
shaped people's experience of torture. Men were feminized, the
torturers revelled in their "masculinity" and women
were the vehicle for sadistic fantasies. She argues that social
practices which construct gender identity were recreated in an
intensified form. Male bonding rituals which reduce the other
to the status of passive victim ie: casual rituals of cruelty,
were formalized and institutionalized in the death camps. Male
prisoners were forced to live as if they were women - for the
first time they came to understand what it meant to be constantly
aware of their bodies, to be ridiculed and battered.
Women were ashamed to speak of their torture. First person accounts
are often laconic or euphemistic. When recording their experiences
for commissions on human rights they merely stated they were raped
without attempting to describe the event. She shows how pain destroys
language. In South Africa where sexual assault is common knowledge,
"women are afraid to talk about these assaults", according
to people who have worked with detainees.
Although women and men are tortured equally, it is clear from
South African accounts and parallel international experience that
the differing constructions of gender shape their experience and
treatment. Although studies of political violence do not highlight
men's gendered experience of their torture, studies of ordinary
prisoners reveal systematic attacks on their masculinity. An interesting
hypothesis, posed by Inger Agger suggests that sexual torture
of men aims to induce sexual passivity and to abolish political
power and potency, whereas, behind the sexual torture of women
is the activation of sexuality to induce shame and guilt.
Carolyn Nordstrom, argues that sexual assaults attack "the core constructions of identity and security in their most personal and profound sense". The intent is "to break down the fabric of society, and ... thus to break down political will and resistance". One could argue that sexual assaults in the context of political detention/war are institutionalised acts which make public the private.
i Physical assault
Jenny Schreiner talks about how the physical violence she experienced
while being tortured came as a particular shock to her as a woman.
Mostert ... insisted that I stand up. My response was that all
Section 29 said in terms of detention was that they could hold
me until I answered questions, they couldn't even force me to
answer questions. They can just keep me until I answer questions,
and that standing up was not part of Section 29 and I was not
standing up. I could answer questions or not answer questions
sitting down. At which stage he walked around the table and physically
picked me up and stood me up, but stood me up so that he could
slam my back into the wall. Which although, I mean he didn't
shatter my skull or anything, but it's a clear statement from
step one. "I am in control of this, I am bigger than you,
I'm more aggressive than you and I have no respect for you".
And there I think that its also a question of it being a gender
thing. There's a man who is physically picking you up and shoving
you into a wall.
ii Rape and the threat of rape
In an anonymous interview, a woman described her experience in
Some women actually have been raped in detention. And you yourself
whilst you are there you have that fear the whole time that you
can be raped. I had that fear, in particular after I had been
up at the police offices for interrogation and one of the security
police intimated that the best treatment for me would be rape.
Thenjiwe Mtintso also graphically described how the fear of rape
is always present for women detainees. One night, the police came
to take her away from the police station were she had been detained
for the first three months.
They stopped on the Kei bridge and there were about three men
in the car in which I was and about five men in the other car
that was escorting us. And when we got to the Kei bridge they
asked me to get out of the car and they all got out. And I had
not minded being beaten or anything or even died in the process
but rape, just as far as I was concerned, this was it. This was
going to be a gang rape and they were just going to leave me here...I
wouldn't leave the car, so they dragged me out...they beat me
up...I had got a sense then that the others had wanted to rape
but I don't know, I can't say whether they were going to rape
me but that is when I got the fear that I could be raped.
Diana Russell interviewed Elaine Mohamed who said:
The way women experience detention is totally different from
the way men do. I burst into tears when a security policeman said
to me, "I really enjoy interrogating women. I can get things
out of them and do things to them that I can't do to a man."
I was terrified by this statement. I felt horror and pain about
it when I was physically hit by the police, and I think the police
realised this immediately... I was body-searched twice a day every
day...I remember policewomen making me strip in front of men and
people laughing at me.
iii Withholding of medical care
Albertina Sisulu described the near-miscarriage of Winnie Mandela:
And at one time when we were in jail with Mrs Mandela she was
threatening (about to give birth) and they wouldn't let us as
midwives attend to her. It was terrible, she was bleeding and
she could really lose the baby at any moment, until we had to
fight as women, then the door was opened.
Psychological forms of torture
The police developed sophisticated methods of psychological torture
which specifically aimed to undermine women. These methods targeted
the traditional roles and social location of women.
i Attack on women's identity
An anonymous detainee said her detention was different from a
I think detention does affect us in the same way to a certain
extent. But a lot differs in terms of how you actually, in detail
now, how you actually experience detention. To start with the
attitude of the police towards you. They may try many ways to
make you feel that you shouldn't be here. A woman shouldn't be
here. You are here because you are not the right kind of woman,
you are here because you are irresponsible, you are here because
your morals are low. They say all sorts of things to you. You
worry a lot about responsibilities outside prison, your responsibilities.
This last time, I was detained I had a child already and that
was my main source of worry and I felt guilty at times. I wondered
what was right, but then later I would be quite convinced that
I hadn't done anything wrong and in fact what I was doing would
eventually benefit myself, my child and humanity.
Jenny Schreiner describes how the security police would search
for areas of vulnerability in a detainee and use this to undermine
her by trying to make her feel diminished as a woman:
(There was) ruthless prying into an area of a person's personal
life that they knew was vulnerable...That all the kind of personal
pain of a marriage that doesn't work is brought to the fore and
in a context where they are going to send you back to a police
cell to sit with nothing other than the emotions that they've
scratched open. You're thirty and you're single, therefore there's
something wrong with you as a woman, and that's why you get involved
with politics...They were attacking your identity with their own
particular conception of what a woman is...The bizarre thing is
that I had done a lot of work in DPSC. I'd spent a lot of time
listening to people who had been through detention, preparing
the detention manual, so I knew the methods that they were using...But
although, at the time that they're saying it, you know that and
you can sit there with your arms folded and kind of stare them
back in the face. When you go back into that police cell... you
sit in that cell...your own self image depends on the affirmation
that you get from other people. And that for me was what came
through very strongly, because no matter how much at the time
that they were saying it (and rationally I knew that they were
talking rubbish), you go back into your cell and you sit there
and think, "well"! You know I think back over my life,
my personal relationships are difficult, maybe I am, maybe that's
why this went wrong...You internalise a whole lot of stuff because
there's nobody else to actually say `OK, so your relationships
were difficult, but that doesn't write you off as a person'...But
when you're sitting there, it's not so easy to keep your perspective.
The emotional barrage that one is under, the extent to which you
have access to nobody other than people who are doing everything
to undermine your personality, to undermine everything that they
can see about you that is positive, they will find a way of undermining.
ii Targeting women as mothers
One of the cruellest forms of torture used on women was related
by two of the women we interviewed. Albertina Sisulu describes
how the security police told her that her child was dying, and
then that she had died. They later told her that her husband was
In 63...I was tortured...the police would come, you know twice
or three times a day opening the door and saying "Are you
sitting here, the child is in the intensive care unit with pneumonia
she can die any moment. If you are not prepared to give us the
statement then you won't bury that child". Okey, I will
remain thinking let the child die, if the nation is saved. Doesn't
matter I'm not going to say anything about what is happening.
What my husband did, others are doing. I knew a lot because
I was also now involved in politics. The worst was when they
came, actually came in the morning to say, "We've come to
tell you that your baby has passed away in the night". That
torture is not for one day, three days, but for ninety days of
your detention. You are being tortured by this today and tomorrow...Torture
in jail is in many ways. They may not torture you physically,
but mentally they get to your brains... At one time they said
Walter was in hospital. "Would you like to go and see him?"
I said, "Oh yes!". "Not unless you do what we
want you to do". Sitting there thinking my husband is very
ill. Sitting there thinking my child is dead.
Thenjiwe Mtintso had a similar experience. The police obviously
realised that the best way to weaken women detainees was to make
them believe that their children were dead or dying. This would
play into their worst fears as mothers, and expose their deepest
vulnerabilities. She relates the following testimony:
When I was detained my son was nine months and I left him in
bed...One day they came in with a big photo in the Daily Despatch
that showed a red Volkswagen that had been smashed and I had a
red Volkswagen at that time. They said to me "You see, that
is your car...one of your colleagues was driving your car with
your son inside and we were chasing him and that's what happened
to your car and your son is dead there"... That stayed with
me for the rest of my stay in prison. They would not say "No,
he is not dead". They just continued beating me up, beating
me up... I don't know what it would have done to a man, but that
was one way of getting to a woman.
iii Women as sexual objects
Thenjiwe Mtintso confirms the security police attempts to undermine
her. In her case they accused her of being involved in the struggle
for sexual gratification and undermined her contribution as a
woman engaged in politics. In her second detention, she says:
The police were beating me up, not because they were torturing
me but because I was giving some sexual satisfaction to these
men, Steve Biko, Mapethla Mohapi...all those that were in Black
Consciousness around King Williamstown....
She then describes how the torture changed in the second month
of her detention when they stopped focusing on her as a means
to get information on the male activists and they became angry
with her for not breaking down. She says:
Anger at me... for not fitting the stereotype of this woman who
was going to break down...so they got very angry that I was thinking
that I was a man. It was always "You think you are a man,
you think you are strong, we are going to bring you down, we've
brought down better people than yourself, men, strong men"...This
is where they actually use your womanhood. For instance, they
would let you stand for the whole day and you would not be allowed
to go to a toilet or anything and it gets to a point where you
can't hold on so you will wee-wee standing there. And all of them
will be coming in and out just laughing at this women who just
pees anywhere. Around menstruation - because at some stage you've
just got to menstruate. You are just like this in a cell and there
is nothing and you are going to come in stinking obviously...after
a month of wearing those pants it is hard here and so as you walk
..and stink. That is the humiliation then where your womanhood
is used. "You are useless. These men who sleep with you.
Look at you how you smell."
Caesarina Kona Makhoere, poignantly describes the way in which
apartheid divisions structured prison life - food, clothing and
prison accommodation where qualitatively different for Asian,
coloured and African women. "If you want to find out what
racial discrimination is, just go to any South African prison.
The reality is very hard. Here are three people sharing the same
table. Yet what they eat is divided on racial lines. And you are
expected not to be hurt. Mama Aminah has a "coloured"
diet, while the four of us - Aus Joyce, Aus Esther, Mama Edith
and myself have to eat rubbish food".
The experience of white detainees was also seen to be more privileged.
"Mothers of white detainees speak about their awareness that
they have had a privileged position in their access to family
members and their ability to afford legal help and access to international
pressure". Jenny Schreiner confirms that she felt she was
at an advantage as a white women in detention:
There was a very strong line that ran through the (interrogation),
they weren't questioning me with any seriousness, because my attitude
was that of the group of us that I knew had been detained, being
white and middle class and a woman I was in a far more protected
position than a black woman and two black men, and I decided that
since we all had a fair amount of overlap of knowledge, the best
thing I could do was to shut up.
She notes, however, that her sheltered life may have made it much
harder for her to deal with the torture and the conditions of
detention. She attempted suicide during her detention after having
"cracked" and made a statement:
I think for me as a woman who grew up in a very secure background
in an environment in which violence was just not ever part of
it. My Mother gave my brother a hiding when he insisted for the
fifty-fifth time of playing with her electric sewing machine,
and she burst into tears, I mean that's the extent of violence,
we'd get the occasional spank when we were young. So my experience
of personal violence has been incredibly limited.
Barbara Hogan was at a particular disadvantage as a white woman
during her prison experience. The state had a policy of segregating
prisoners according to race. They also kept the political prisoners
separately from the criminal prisoners. For a long time she was
the only prisoner during her detention and imprisonment. She says:
You lose contact with the outside world, and inside you don't
have a supportive community around you...you know that you can
always lose that community, if you are lucky enough to have one,
as has happened with many women prisoners...you face enormous
social and emotional deprivation under those circumstances. I
think that I always found myself very profoundly affected by the
threat of loss.
The majority of the victims of repression in the 1970s and 1980s
were young, black and came from working class backgrounds. The
financial burden of detention was very severe especially in communities
such as the Eastern Cape, where wives of detainees not only lost
income due to their husbands detention but were unable to find
work for themselves due to the high levels of unemployment. Middleton
et al found that visitors to jailed detainees felt guilty if they
could not afford to take food or clothes to the detainee. "Some
did not visit their loved ones because they had nothing to take
The interview with Albertina Sisulu, Amina Cachalia and Sheila
Weinberg highlighted the different responses each woman received
from her (racially separate) community. Sheila Weinberg found
the white community very hostile to her family's involvement which
made them feel isolated and unable to trust other people. Amina
Cachalia and Albertina Sisulu were able to rely on members of
their community to warn them when the police were coming and to
assist in looking after the children. Jessie Duarte spoke of women
from the Indian and coloured communities who were ostracised by
their families for becoming involved in resistance politics. And
of course, Lydia Kompe's whole life story, (set out above) shows
how race has permeated every aspect of people's experience in
this country, even going to the toilet.
It is important to note that the perpetration of violence is not
the preserve of men alone. Institutionalised violence was perpetrated
by women in their capacity as officers of the state. There have
been press reports of women in hostels organising sex slavery
and women central to the necklacing of informers. Witch-burning
has included women as much as men. A full understanding of the
multi-faceted and cross-gendered nature of political violence
in South Africa requires an exploration of these issues.
Many feminist theorists have attempted to explain why women sometimes
collude in their own oppression and are even complicit in the
oppression of other women. We do not attempt to outline these
debates here but, through the words of some women, we will try
to shed some light on this complex issue in this section.
Jessie Duarte offers the following analysis :
In looking at the women who became involved by becoming spies,
etc. of the system it is quite clear that they may have a legitimate
argument that they were politically or economically unable to
resist that. Politically they did not need to get involved but
economically they were not able to resist the kind of money they
were receiving especially in an era where black women were not
being employed by the system in other ways. Yet the system was
ready to employ them as political spies in the community.
Nomvula Mokonyane says:
The role of women who were perpetrators who were not in State
structures which Jesse has mentioned also need to be looked at.
Particularly the women who were used as spies to infiltrate units
and who were even used in the ANC camps to inflict pain on men
... Women may have been used to serve a particular interest. Some
may have done it for economic reasons. Others were actually forced
to do it...
Mokonyane speaks also of the devastating effects of fear and uncertainty
on family life. She suggests a conscious strategy of destroying
families of opponents by the state:
The worst kind of female perpetrator is where you find wives
acting against their husbands - inflicting pain on their husbands,
partners, sisters, brothers, friends or even their own children.
There are such examples in this country. This occurs because of
fear, uncertainty or because of survival. Many families have broken
up because of this. In many instances the State has actually used
what has been perceived as the sexual weakness of women in such
cases as where the man has been taken into detention and they
bring another man to have a relationship with that woman while
that man is detained. The relationship is exposed and the whole
fabric of that family is undone. The children are affected and
there is divorce. At the end of the day those women cannot be
seen as victims because people will just see them as corrupt women
who were just doing these things because their husbands were not
there and fail to see what actually led to the situation and pardon
them and allow them to speak so that they can understand themselves
why that other man made those advances, because I think they would
be interested to know why it happened and who actually made it
to happen like that.
However, Mokonyane finds some acts of complicity inexplicable.
The torture of women by women was one example:
When it comes to the state machinery, though I can understand
why it may have been for economic reasons, when it comes to some
women's actions against other women it makes you wonder that you
could actually find a woman pumping water into another woman's
fallopian tubes or attaching electric shocks to another woman's
nipples. The woman may be perpetrating these acts for survival
reasons but the infliction of pain and the manner in which that
pain is being inflicted this woman knows exactly what the effects
of that pain will be on that other woman. It is hard to know if
you will be able to reconcile with that woman perpetrator. It
may be easy to pardon some women but not some other women such
as these. In many instances women tend to be much more harsh and
insensitive than men. For example women [prison warders] may see
a women giving birth in a single cell and not intervene until
or at all if a man intervenes. A woman [warder] may not help a
diabetic detainee who has collapsed in her cell and help only
arrives from a man. The treatment you may get from a female prison
warder, who may even be younger than your own children, will be
totally different than the treatment you get when Goldstone or
the Johannesburg magistrate comes. This may be related to the
ego or attitude of the woman warder because the prisoner is also
Barbara Hogan describes the transformation of a prison wardress
who started off as a "sweet little thing":
"For the first three days her eyes would be standing out
and be red because she'd been crying every night at having to
lock people into cells...And in six months that little same wardress
would be demanding to see sanitary towels soiled before she'd
issue another sanitary towel...If you take a prisoner's side...you
lose all your esteem...you are socially ostracised, and you don't
Women who were spies, informers, warders and even torturers were
all strands in the complex web of our past. Many of these women
were forced to act as they did out of economic pressure, from
fear, by being tricked or threatened and because they were brought
up in a society which told them cruelty was a necessary response.
Some of these reasons do not adequately explain the degrees of
cruelty that certain women perpetrated, particularly against other
women. Arguably, their own anger regarding their own position
in society was misdirected at other women who seemed to so completely
defy convention and move from the private into the public realm.
The resulting confusion, within a violent political context may
have allowed anger and pain to be transferred onto others through
cruelty. Understanding that women were capable of perpetrating
violence enables us to see that women are not monolithic in their
outlook as a group and are not bearers of certain essential qualities
such as kindness and compassion. Women, like men, are divided
by race, class and ideology. Many women supported apartheid and
were fundamentally convinced through their experience of the society,
that racism and violence were necessary mechanisms to ensure order,
stability and to maintain a particular way of life.
The history of women's experience of state violence set out above
looks mainly at state political violence such as detention, imprisonment
and assassination. There are a number of other sites of political
violence that are not adequately covered by this history. These
correctly fall within the ambit of the TRC and in order to fully
understand our past we need to further examine these sites.
The political violence of the 1980s had a wide ranging impact
on all South African's lives. In particular, the residents of
black townships were controlled by the army and police. Within
this context of heightened violence and fear, tensions developed
between township residents. These tensions related to accusations,
often by young against old, of collaboration and failure to stand
up to the oppressors. Terrible methods of punishing supposed informers
developed, such as the infamous "necklace". Many women
were victims of these forms of violence. Political and sexual
conflict may have been played out in some of these cases where
women, the subject of sexual competition between men, became the
target of political violence. Evidence which came to light during
a political trial in the Eastern Cape indicated that a woman,
whose boyfriend was a "comrade", had been seen being
given a fanta and a dress by a policeman. She was labelled an
informer and killed.
One of the campaigns of the 1980s was the consumer boycott of
white-owned shops -many women were victims of violence by "the
comrade's" for failing to heed the boycott. Viewed through
a gender lens, women who had to meet the household's needs on
a tiny budget and who needed to shop at the cheaper white-owned
shops in town, would have found the boycott particularly difficult
Pule Zwane has conducted a fascinating and chilling study linking
rape in the townships to the decline of political organisation,
coupled with unemployment and other factors. A group of youth
in Sebokeng actually formed a group called South African Rapist
Association (S.A.R.A.). One of the members of the group explained
why he had participated in forming the group:
"I was a comrade before joining this organisation. I joined it because we were no longer given political tasks. Most of the tasks were given to senior people. I felt that we have been used by these senior comrades because I do not understand why they dumped us like this. Myself and a group of six guys decided to form our own organisation that will keep these senior comrades busy all the time. That is why we formed S.A.R.A. We rape women who need to be disciplined (those women who behave like snobs), they just do not want to talk to most people, they think they know better than most of us and when we struggle, they simply do not want to join us."
The conflict in Natal has grown out of the ethno-national politics
engendered by apartheid. The specific context of the conflict
is a complex one, involving a range of issues related to specific
localities and struggles. In rural areas, the threat of removals
by the state during the 1980s had led to pockets of organised
opposition facilitated by the Association for Rural Advancement,
an organisation initiated by former members of the Liberal Party,
and supported by a range of progressive lawyers and individuals.
In informal settlements, such as Inanda and Umbumbulu, struggles
surfaced around access to resources for survival. In Natal townships,
incorporation into Kwa Zulu became a major issue of conflict with
the state, as did the issue of KwaZulu control over education,
teachers and schools. This was the context of the emergence of
a variety of civic, youth and women's organisations which formed
the United Democratic Front in Natal's urban townships. Inkatha
saw this coalition of organisations as a direct threat to its
hegemony in the region, particularly as a potential ally of the
banned African National Congress. In many areas, people known
to belong to the UDF were attacked, their homes burned, many were
killed, and survivors became refugees. More than a million people
fled their homes in the ensuing decade. The violence has been
particularly brutal and sadistic, with considerable evidence of
collusion between the South African security establishment, Inkatha,
and armed vigilantes known as Amabutho. Evidence for the existence
of the infamous A-Team in Durban townships has been heard by the
TRC. Evidence suggests that these groups have punished women by
means of gang rape. Jenny Irish, coordinator of the Network of
Independent Monitors (NIM), has shown that during the early 1990s,
the victims of attacks by groups of armed men have often been
women, children and the elderly:
Often the women may be sexually brutalised before being killed.
If men are at home at the time of the attack they are often forced
to stand by and watch the attackers brutalize and kill the women
and children in the house before they themselves are killed.
In the refugee centres on the South Coast of Natal, sexual harassment
appears to have been prevalent:
the women have no privacy and often become targets for sexual
abuse and assault. In one refugee camp on the South coast at least
three women were forced to flee the camp after being raped by
men in the camp. Confidential discussions with other women in
the camp revealed a chain of sexual harassment.
This experience corresponds to classic accounts of the second
world war and more latterly the war in Bosnia. Again, this highly
complex war in Kwa-Zulu/Natal and its gendered consequences require
further exploration and examination.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s townships on the Reef were
torn apart by large-scale violent conflicts, described at the
time as being perpetrated by a "third force". Evidence
has since come to light that much of this violence was state sponsored
in an effort to disorganise resistance and demoralise communities.
Many of the victims of the "third force" war were the
poorest communities living in informal settlements. In our society
where race, class and gender have combined with the result that
women are the poorest and most disempowered, women have often
suffered most extremely from this type of violence. Women predominate
in informal settlements. They are particularly vulnerable to violence
because they often work from home or near the home, on the streets
as hawkers etc. Their relationship to the public space is linked
to their proximity to their homes and their location within the
community. The disruption of the home has particularly severe
effects on women because it removes their centre of security,
their place of work and their networks in the surrounding community.
The perception that men are the main victims of violence is reflected
in assistance provided after the Boipatong Massacres. Jessie Duarte
notes that in:
the Boipatong Massacre of June 1992, there were 128 people who
died in that massacre and 73 people who were eventually accused
of having perpetrated that massacre. Of the 128 victims about
48 were men and the balance (80) were women. What was an interesting
connection point that we made was that it was only the families
of the men who were ultimately provided with legal assistance.
The single women who died in that incident were completely ignored.
They were totally and absolutely ignored as if they had nothing
to contribute to society so they didn't need to be given any kind
of legal support.
Many families became refugees in their own country as they were
forced out of their homes during the hostel/township wars. The
confiscation of homes and the disruption of families was most
often a burden borne by women in these communities. A woman described
how this occurred:
We left our home two weeks ago. Four men from the hostel questioned
me about my tribe. I replied that I am a Sotho. Then I was told
to consider leaving. They said Mgadi section is only for Zulus.
They said that our section is now Ulundi section...the following
day ...I then phoned my husband to inform him that we have left
the area...On Sunday we went to check the house under escort by
the Katlehong police. We took our property and left some of our
Evidence has also come to light that women from local townships
on the Reef have been abducted by men who have occupied the hostels.
Abducted women have been kept for days in the hostels and repeatedly
sexually abused. A feature of their abduction has been the performance
of peculiar rituals, such as drinking blood. On the basis of an
understanding of some of the symbolism attached to the historical
role of abduction, one can suggest what significance these actions
have in the present.
Historically, abduction was associated with a ritualised and thus
symbolic exchange of women between different clans in marriage.
The right of men to control women is asserted in this socially
sanctioned action. This was accompanied by the exchange of lobolo,
bride-wealth, which in effect symbolised the reproductive significance
of women. In the current conflict, these actions by hostel dwellers
are a travesty of this early tradition, but clearly resonate with
it. One might argue that this is part of a strategy to demoralise
those engaged in the local political contest. The violation of
township women humiliates not only the women, but crucially also
implicates the men who symbolically have control, and are thus
responsible for the protection of those women.
Jessie Duarte describes the "third force" violence as
indirect repression. She argued that there was:
An absolute determined attempt to undermine an entire commmunity's
existence because it was seen to be a community that was very
firm in its opposition to apartheid. The whole purpose of undermining
the East Rand, and Katorus in particular, was to bring down the
community's morale to such an extent that today you have a youth
cadre in that community with a very poor morale base and actually
no real instinct for human survival except as to see themselves
as beneficiaries of the State because 'they deserve to get what
was taken away from them.'
She suggests that the hostel system has created the conditions
for the brutality with which hostel dwellers have engaged in township
The long term effects of the Katorus experience may be something
which we all want to put our minds to. Similarly the long-term
effects of hostel dwelling and the absolute repression of being
forced to live as a single man or a single woman in a hostel situation...
The fact of the matter is that the political repression of the
kind that locked a male of twenty years old behind a fence at
nine o'clock at night and later on went on to recruit that same
young man to become a killing machine is something that we need
Where did this originate from and which of the apartheid sociologists understood that triggering that mechanism in that way would provide the best killers that our society has ever known? The most ruthless kind of killers came out of the recruitment of young men out of hostels throughout the country, not just the East Rand. I think we are going to miss out on a lot of the essence of finding out what made the system as cruel as it was if we concentrate on the individual victims only and not look at the collective victimisation of whole communities.
In Mozambique, considerable evidence has emerged from research
and counselling carried out in refugee camps in South Africa,
of women being raped before their husbands and of sons being forced
to rape their own mothers, amongst a range of horrifying forms
of abuse. Both women and children appear to have been abducted
to RENAMO camps, where children were taught how to kill. First
they were taught how to kill animals, then people, and sometimes
they were forced to kill their own parents. Those young boys
were also taught to rape. The women who were abducted to RENAMO
camps were made into cooks, carriers of arms, and were used as
The Mozambiquean legal unit has called for the TRC to extend its
scope beyond South Africa's borders.
RENAMO was a South African surrogate but even more direct evidence of culpability of South Africa's security forces exists in Namibia of abuses against SWAPO and other Namibian women. There is a large body of evidence in this regard which must be gathered and further examined. The SADFs strategy, if there was one, regarding rape of enemy women must be researched. The notorious Koevoet Unit and other military personnel, including 32 Battalion have committed many reported rapes within a broader campaign of terror to subdue the Namibian people, particularly in the North of the country.
The Commission is obliged by the Act to deal with all gross
human rights violations "emanating from the conflicts of
the past". The Act requires even-handedness in the Commission's
treatment of apartheid crimes and criminal acts committed within
the liberation movement's camps. Dullah Omar recently said "Those
who committed apartheid crimes were participating in crimes against
humanity. There are cases where members of liberation movements
committed human rights violations, but not one instance in which
liberation movements participated in crimes against humanity."
We would agree with this statement in relation to the apportioning
of blame as a way in which moral judgments can be written into
the history that emerges from the TRC. Within this moral framework,
however, there is a need to expose and examine the abuses which
occurred in the camps. They are also a part of our history.
We would submit that apartheid was a coordinated system within
which horrifying abuses were legally sanctioned. Abuses in the
camps must be understood both in terms of individual criminal
acts and within the context of the conditions of the camps and
the nature of the war being fought. Where women were abused in
the camps, this needs to be acknowledged and condemned by those
involved. If South Africa is to become a truly democratic society
with a human rights culture, the message needs to be clearly conveyed
that the oppression of women, including sexual abuse and harassment
are unacceptable wherever they occur.
We were unsuccessful in our attempts to speak to women about their
experiences in the camps. In an interview with Caesarina Kona
Makhoere she expressed an unwillingness to speak about the camps
but intimated that her experience had been terrible. She said
"At least in prison I knew I was in the enemy camp".
We interviewed Thenjiwe Mtintso, a senior member of the ANC's
army about her experiences. She said she had no personal experience
of sexual abuse in the camps and explains that this may have been
because "I had already been in the front command structures
so I didn't come fresh from home into the camps. And secondly,
I had the advantage of a better understanding of gender and how
it plays itself out". She was aware of allegations of rape
in the camps and says that women are reluctant to talk about their
experiences for two reasons. Firstly, on a personal level, they
are not easily able to talk about rape. Secondly, on an organisational
level, they do not wish to have their experiences used politically
in the TRC where apartheid is equated morally with the ANCs actions.
Some of these women have chosen to participate in an organisational
submission being prepared by the ANC rather than come forward
individually but it is as yet unknown whether the submission will
cover acts such as rape.
Mtintso provided some insight into the circumstances which existed
in the camps which may have led to sexual abuse or rape.
"I think that on the one hand, just like in any society
where you have the power relations between men and women, with
the men having the power, and where you have rape in society,
I don't think that it was something...peculiar to that kind of
society in the camps...(It) is to do with gender relations. There
is something about being in a camp situation, about sometimes
people feeling the hopelessness of the whole thing and about the
frustrations of being in a forest perpetually and not seeing your
way ever of getting out. There was always hope, of course, but
there was always that bleakness some days and that frustration.
She argues that the men's experiences before reaching the camps
shaped their aggression and attitudes towards women:
And there was also an element in my own view of some of the comrades
who, I would say, were dented somehow in terms of their experiences
inside the country and everything and you would then say that
psychologically they are people that would have needed attention,
therapy or whatever. However, that opportunity was not there.
So they find themselves in the camp. And that then manifests itself
in aggression. For some of them the aggressive behaviour you could
actually look at as frustration on the one hand, but the experiences,
on the other, which some of them had gone through. and this leaves
this dented individual in terms of their psychological make-up,
in terms of their view of life. In that context then they hate
She also suggests that women's success challenged men's sense of themselves and their male identity:
I have looked at comrades who just get so angry and frustrated
because women performed better than they did. And I can imagine
that anger translating itself in one or another way. The man could
easily want to prove his manhood, his masculinity in terms of
"I am still a powerful individual" and that could, I'm
not saying it did, that could result in rape. And most of the
people that were in the camps are people that had gone through
the hands of the police and I would then argue that in one way
or another this affected them. Even those that had not gone through
the hands of the police, the comrades had left their homes very
young and therefore they missed out on the proper developmental
stages as well as parental guidance in terms of their relations
with individuals, particularly with women.
Mtintso sees parallels between the anger of the security police
and some of the men in the camps towards independent and strong
And looking at some of their behaviours, their anger with women
performing better, I remember the anger of the security police
with me not breaking down. Their anger was more than the anger
that they expected or they showed to males. When you are a women
they expected you to break down quickly. And when you don't break
down quickly they really get so angry with you because you are
beginning to break down their beliefs that women are weak and
so on. And on the other hand you will then also find the reason
as to why you were there, why you were detained, why you were
going around with these men is because you were sleeping with
all these people. In my case, from the university days when I
started getting detained there was always this consistency of
"I am a bitch and that is why I get detained with these men
because in 1973 there were about two women and about forty men
and from then on I kept on being the only woman.
So, I can see that the anger of men in the camps with a woman
who performs better and the anger of the security police who performs
better in terms of resistance than the men, because that then
destroys the stereotypes. And it then means for me, in terms of
the treatment that you get as a woman probably is double-barrelled
in that you get worse treatment from the boers because they don't
want you to behave in that manner and you still get worse treatment
from your own comrades because they don't expect you to perform
better. It's a can't -win situation.
Mtintso suggests that the lack of support structures in the camps
may have prevented some of these "dented" people from
One was relating this with one of the comrades that I have known
who had raped, subsequently committed suicide and to me I had
always looked at him, I mean knowing him in the camps and felt
that, you know, this is one person you want to sit down with and
go beyond what the commissars were doing and so on. That support
system that says "talk about it". "What is really
eating you up?" But he had been tortured a lot and then he
raped, I heard. He was tortured inside the country, left the country,
joined MK and remained in the camps very sort of reserved and
unhappy. I knew him and subsequently I heard that he had raped
somebody, which he denied, and a few months later he committed
suicide. So really I was just looking at that relationship of
what could have caused this.
Mtintso also talks about the rapes and sexual abuse that occurred
in the underground structures of the liberation movement. She
says the men knew that women would not want to talk about having
been raped. One of her comrades said to her:
"You know, it's going to get to the point that I am going
to rape you. And it's going to be very easy to rape you ... and
I know that there is no way that you are going to stand in front
of all these people and say I raped you".
The prevailing sexism in society coupled with the extreme conditions
of the underground lifestyle resulted in men at times taking advantage
of women. Nomvula Mokonyane refers to:
The situation where women had to shun or take off the pride and
the integrity that they had by sharing rooms or bathrooms with
groups of young men and losing all privacy as a young woman. These
women had to live as if everything was normal while actually knowing
at the end of the day that this actually diminished your integrity
and pride as an individual".
Mtintso describes how "comrades who were contacts inside
the country would come outside to report...these experiences.
They would put up a comrade in a particular place and comrades
would sleep with them. And that's rape. That for me is rape."
We have not attempted to research the male gendered constructions
developed within the liberation armies and the methods used to
ensure conformity and compliance. An understanding of these issues
may shed light on some of the incidents committed in the camps.
Part of the explanation for what occurred in the camps highlights
the link between sexual abuse and domestic violence, in that all
these forms of abuse flow from the way society condones, and even
supports, discrimination and disadvantage of women in our society.
When issues of sexual abuse surface, such as the publicising of
abuse by her partner by Thandi Modise, a former MK soldier, they
are often censored. The issue of censorship also came up in Zimbabwe
where a film, entitled "Flame", highlighting abuse of
women guerillas was censored.
There is currently a debate going on in Namibia about SWAPO torture
of supposed "informers" during the liberation struggle.
The government have attacked those who are raising the issues
as divisive and disloyal opponents who are trying to raise something
which should be best left in the past. There is also a veil of
silence in South Africa regarding some of the experiences within
the ANC. We need to be cognisant of the psychological literature
that indicates the difficulties many people face in talking about
sexual abuse. But we also need to consider the important goal
of highlighting the abuse of women so that change can begin to
occur in this regard. The only way to do this properly is to explore
these issues openly - we do have to lift the veil of silence.
What is a political offence ?
Section 20 of the Act allows for the granting of amnesty where
an act is "associated with a political objective committed
in the course of the conflicts of the past". While apartheid
violence against women needs to be understood as part of a political
response to resistance, there is a concern that many perpetrators,
such as policemen who raped women, should not be allowed to fall
within the amnesty net. Jessie Duarte says:
It is going to be very prudent for a number of perpetrators to
argue that being accused of rape is simply a matter of whether
that person can prove it or not. Whether rape is considered a
political act with political motivations is going to be incredibly
There is a concern that in granting rapists amnesty, this might
suggest a tolerance for the oppression of women in society, an
acknowledgment that in certain conditions, rape will not be punished.
This is not uncontroversial. Can one divide an act such as rape
into political and criminal components? Some would argue that
a torturer may rape a woman both in order to violate an enemy
and in order to take out his personal anger against women. Can
these motives be separated?
Jacklyn Cock refers to the rapes in the war in South Africa. She
cites a sworn statement made by a 70 year old woman in Cradock.
The woman describes how she was walking in the street and some
white soldiers stopped her and lifted her into the military vehicle.
After a short distance the vehicle stopped and they pushed her
out. Two soldiers then raped her violently. She says "The
two soldiers were very young. The one held my arms while the other
lifted my dress and removed my slip and panties. I said,"What
are you doing, children ?" The one replied, "Ons gaan
jou naai. As jy nie wil, gaan ons jou doodmaak."
This incident suggests that rape may have been a sanctioned activity
by the SADF. If not a conscious strategy, the SADFs role in using
violence and rape was to terrorise, intimidate and punish.
Carolyn Nordstrom suggests that rape is a dirty war tactic often
a public display intended to "break down the fabric of society".
She says "It is an attack directed equally against personal
identity and cultural integrity". In this interpretation
rape can "be understood as an abuse which targets women for
political and strategic reasons". Rape is a war crime in
terms of the Geneva Convention whether or not it occurs on a large
scale or is associated with a coherent policy. It also applies
to individual rapes used as "torture or cruel and inhuman
Section 20(3) of the Act enables the Amnesty Committee to assess
whether a particular act was associated with a political objective.
It is submitted that the process of examining a rapist's act by
the Committee will allow the political nature of rape to be highlighted,
whether or not amnesty is granted. It is further suggested that
in most cases, such acts will not be able to fall within the criteria
of a political act as defined by the Act. Much of the testimony
from women who suffered rights violations suggests that the threat
of rape, sexual assault and rape were committed "out of personal
malice, ill-will or spite, directed against the victim" in
addition to the political motives or orders from a superior that
may have existed. Our interpretation of the Act is that where
section 20(3)(ii) applies, the perpetrator will not receive amnesty
even if that person's act also meets the criteria set out in section
20(3)(a)-(f). Given the difficulty of separating the political
and the personal motive in sexual abuse, few perpetrators are
likely to be granted amnesty. Nevertheless, the Commission as
a whole needs to focus public attention on the use of sexual abuse
within the political conflicts of the past in all aspects of its
The major difficulty however, which may render much of the above
irrelevant, is the unlikely possiblity that rapists or rape victims
will come forward to the Commission. In conducting this research
we found it very difficult to get women to talk about their experiences
of rape. In all the already recorded testimonies, we could find
no personal account of rape. Yet many of the people we interviewed
knew of women who had been raped. Jessie Duarte says:
I think I can speak fairly comfortably about a number of women
who were in fact raped in prison cells while in detention or in
the van that was taking them to detention. The women struggled
with trauma after these rapes. Furthermore there are many other
implications which I would like to spell out. Firstly, women could
not say they were raped in the eighties because from the position
of the people they worked with that was considered a weakness.
If women said that they were raped they were regarded as having
sold out to the system in one way or another. Quite frankly speaking
the most vicious people were women themselves. When women who
were raped came and told other women about their rapes, those
women were quite vicious about those particular incidents having
happened. The consequences of these rapes were the same for these
women as criminal rapes. A political rape has no different consequences.
It has exactly the same reason behind it - a violent act against
a woman...In fact the women were being punished as women.
Mandisa Monakali of the Ilitha Labantu Centre, dealing with female
abuse victims, was reported as saying "the wives and widows
of political prisoners are walking around with wounds. But nobody
wants to talk about them." Women do not speak about rape
out of shame, for fear of loss of status, because they do not
want to relive the pain, and because they are often unwilling
to subject themselves to cross-examination by the accused person's
defence lawyer. Jessie Duarte says:
We also need to consider the women who are going to come before
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and talk about these experiences.
What about the loss of pride that they will experience at the
time when they talk about it? How are we going to deal with that
issue? The incident may have happened ten years earlier and the
woman may have dealt with the trauma by herself without ever having
lost that loss of pride. Now that woman is being asked to recreate
that loss of pride. Furthermore the woman knows that in coming
forward to say so-and-so raped me that she may not necessarily
see justice being done. All that these women will do is to add
to the historical understandings of levels of repression. I think
this is fine and many women will be happy to do this. But there
has to be consideration for the other side - for the emotional
trauma that women have gone through. Some of these women are now
in high-powered positions - in government or as executives. How
will it impact on them now in the positions that they hold given
the gender bias that people have about sexually abused women and
the concept that women always ask for it anyway?
In a sense, we are asking women to come forward and say those things. So we need a support mechanism for these women. One of the thirty-nine non-negotiables in the Constitution is the right to privacy but for those women who come forward and tell their stories to the Commission, this privacy is forever violated. I wonder how those women are going to be able to deal with their own environment having elected to violate her privacy in a very public way?... The Commission is actually asking people to open the empty cupboard and expose that there are no groceries in the cupboard and then they have to live with that.
The Act gives the Commission some powers to limit cross-examination,
powers to investigate matters, to hold in camera hearings and
to keep the identity of witnesses out of any reports. We make
a number of suggestions below as to how the Commission can make
use of the Act in order to address these problems in dealing with
cases such as those mentioned above.
The Act requires that victims make application for reparation
to the TRC. The Commission obviously requires knowledge of those
who have suffered gross human rights violations before it is able
to assist them. Nevertheless, the Commission needs to be mindful
of the fact that many victims will find it extremely difficult
to approach the TRC for help. As has been argued above, women
who have themselves suffered violations and in particular, those
who have suffered sexual abuse, find it very difficult to speak
openly about their experiences. Women tend to define their suffering
in relation to other people such as their husbands and children
and are reluctant to make public their own experiences of abuse
which society often sees as belonging in the private realm.
The other aspect of women as indirect victims, discussed above,
must be considered. A number of women who have already approached
the TRC have explained that losing a husband or child is the loss
of a potential breadwinner in addition to the loss of social status
and the obvious emotional pain and loss. Women, like June Mlangeni,
lost their jobs because of the imprisonment of their husbands.
Children's schooling had to be stopped, electricity was cut off
and furniture and property was repossessed.
The reparation and rehabilitation process should not simply be
available for those who want it. Despite the possibly limited
resources available for reparation and despite the already huge
workload facing the Commission, the TRC should not shie away from
actively encouraging people to come forward to claim reparation.
The Truth and Reconciliation process needs to be one aimed at
healing the whole society. This places a positive obligation on
the Commission to begin this process as comprehensively as possible
by seeking out those who are in need of help.
In formulating a reparations and rehabilitation policy the Commission
needs to consider whether women have specific needs and interests.
It needs to take cognisance of the requests that people have made
in their evidence to the Commission. But the modesty of some of
the requests should not deter the Commission from carefully considering
an appropriate reparations policy.
There are a wide range of opinions as to how best to rehabilitate
and make reparations. Some have suggested that people should receive
actuarially quantified monetary compensation as they would in
a civil damages claim, particularly as amnesty denies them their
right to pursue civil actions against the perpetrators. The arguments
against this position vary from the practical (there is not enough
money), to the principled (people cannot be compensated financially
for their suffering). All of these arguments need to be carefully
considered and any assertions such as, "there is no money"
need to be backed up by factual evidence and research. The policy
also needs to be considered in light of the definition of "gross
human rights violations" which we have suggested should be
read extremely widely. Finally, the impact of reparations must
be looked at not simply from the vantage point of the individual
but also from that of the community of which that person is a
It must also be noted that the quantification of civil damages
claims by the courts have been criticised by gender analysts all
over the world for allowing gender bias to limit the size of the
awards that women get. Calculation of quantum often ignores the
unpaid labour of women and the other caring functions women fulfil,
such as looking after the disabled. The calculation also looks
at the individual's potential life chances in determining the
loss of quality and expectation of life. This also needs to be
studied for gender bias as the calculation is premised on a society
which affords women little opportunity to improve their life chances
We believe that the TRC process is not just aimed at healing one generation's pain. It is also aimed at setting in place the framework for the building of a human rights culture to be treasured by future generations. Part of the reparation and rehabilitation process is the public acknowledgment of our history and a commitment to a better future. We would stress the need for creative public education which not only highlights the truth of our past but also locates gender as a central aspect of the analysis of our past.
1. We suggest that the TRC actively rejects a gender-neutral approach
towards its analysis of evidence and in all other aspects of its
brief. This means that gender must be incorporated into the TRCs
policy framework, for without this framework, gender issues, and
women's voices in particular, will not be heard and accurately
Human Rights Violations
2. The process of taking statements requires asking the right
questions so as to properly enable people to reflect their real
experience. Gender issues come into play here. In much of the
torture literature, the writers point to the reluctance of many
people to revisit the full horror of their experiences. There
is a particular difficulty associated with discussing sexual abuse,
both because of general social and cultural taboos and because
of the added pain that reliving such abuse causes. Some of the
literature observes that women often describe sexual torture in
vague and general terms. Questionnaires should be carefully reconsidered
and further briefing of statement-takers may need to take place.
3. The Commissioners should consider how to question victims sensitively
and should be aware that it may not always assist the victim to
explore the abuse in graphic detail. At the same time, however,
the Commission should not avoid "embarrassing" subjects
like sexual abuse as this reinforces the way our society often
hides such abuse and relegates it to the "private" realm.
The TRC should invite psychologists who have worked with abused
women to brief them on how to speak to victims.
4. Women who have approached the TRC in the case of another victim,
their husband or son or father, should also be encouraged to speak
of their own experience of harassment, detention etc. where this
occurred. While the Act may require the Human Rights Violations
Committee to determine that a person is a victim for the purposes
of reparation and rehabilitation, the Act does not prevent the
Commission from asking people about their own experiences.
5. The Commission should encourage women who have been raped or
sexually assaulted within the context of the past conflicts to
come forward to speak about their experiences. This public encouragement
will in itself help our society to understand how abuse of women
formed part of a political struggle and that such abuses are considered
gross human rights violations. This can be done both through statements
to the press and through NGOs and community organisations such
as COSATU and the Rural Women's Movement.
6. The Commission should publicise section 38 of the Act which
binds all members and employees of the TRC to the preservation
of confidentiality. Women need to know that they can come forward
without other people knowing about it, and can give their statement
to a person in safe and private conditions. They should be informed
that they do not have to repeat their statement in front of the
whole Commission in public and under the glare of television cameras.
7. Women should be able to request that their statements be taken
by women and they be allowed to further elaborate on their statements
in closed hearings, possibly only to women Commissioners. This
may make it much easier for women to speak openly about their
experiences as cultural and social pressures often prevent women
from discussing sexual matters in front of men.
8. During the course of our research it has become clear that
women will often relate other women's experiences told to them
by the woman who is unable to speak more openly of the experience
herself. We suggest that the Commission should arrange for group
hearings where women in particular communities are invited to
come forward. These could be arranged in conjunction with women's
organisations and counselling centres that have been working with
these communities. They could be attended by women commissioners
only, if necessary, and psychologists or social workers could
assist in the conducting of the hearing.
9. Similar hearings could be held for men who suffered sexual
abuse during torture and who may also benefit from a single-gender
forum. Men should be encouraged to come forward to speak about
their wives, mothers, daughters and sisters who were victims of
10. The Act does not address the issue of expert evidence. While
the short time available to the Commission is a real concern,
expert testimony may be particularly useful in providing insights
into some of the matters which emerge from the submissions. This
needs to be considered, particularly in light of the fact that
victims of sexual violence often do not talk about their experiences
11. The TRC should call a meeting with the press to encourage
them to give prominence to women's experiences and some of the
gender issues raised in this submission. The TRC should use other
media opportunities such as radio and television interviews to
highlight gender in the TRC process.
Amnesty (these points apply equally to the Human Rights Violations
12. The Commission needs to consider some of the legal issues
which face it as a quasi-judicial body. There is considerable
foreign research examining judicial bias towards women. This relates
to judicial attitudes towards credibility of women witnesses and
the way the probability of their evidence is viewed. It also relates
to judicial ignorance of the social context of women's experiences,
proven male identification with witnesses and accused persons
and stereotyping of women's position. Gendered assumptions creep
into judicial fora and the Commission needs to consider how they
should be handled. A number of NGOs are currently doing work on
judicial training and could be approached for assistance in this
13. The Commission should require that cross-examination of victims
be conducted sensitively and without causing further harm to the
witness. The principles as set out in section 11 of the Act should
inform the Commission's approach regarding its requirements for
14. The reparations policy must be carefully considered with due
regard to a gendered understanding of past abuses and the impact
of such abuses. Women must be encouraged to come forward and must
be asked about their needs. The policy must be forward-looking
in its approach and must provide for the building of a human rights
culture where all forms of discrimination and abuses against women
are unacceptable. Women's organisations and other NGOs should
be involved in the formulation of the reparations policy.
15. If some of the reparations are quantified according to the
approach used in civil damages claims, research must be conducted
into the way in which gender bias tilts this standard away from
rewarding women fully for their loss.
16. The TRC should assist women by directing them towards existing
programmes and resources in communities aimed at providing assistance
of all kinds e.g. pensions, housing, education and counselling.
17. A memorial list of the women who were killed and the circumstances
of these deaths should be considered. This could be just one of
the aspects of a process of preserving our collective memory of
18. A Peace Institute should be established, which houses a museum
and research facilities. It should ensure that gender is an integrated
focus of all projects undertaken there.
19. The Act requires the Commission to "initiate, coordinate
and facilitate" inquiries and the gathering of information
regarding all matters relating to rights violations. We propose
that a specific research project be conducted looking at the role
of gender in past abuses.
20. The Commission should ensure that a gender analysis to develop
a framework and to periodize our history is used in the writing
of the final report and that due weight is given to the differing
experiences of men and women in recording our country's history.
Further research should be conducted into many of the areas mentioned
in this submission.
21. The TRC should carefully consider the proposals it makes as to how the report should be used to educate future generations.
This submission highlights many facets to the pain and suffering
that violence in South Africa caused to women and men in particular
ways. It also focuses on the violence and inequality which are
an ongoing part of women's lives in this country. These abuses
are still occurring although within an altered political context.
By raising these issues within the TRC process we cannot simply
put them behind us and assume that abuse of women has been neatly
dealt with in our past and reconciliation has occurred. Examining
the conditions which allow women to be harmed and violated should
focus all our attentions on the need to eradicate this ongoing
abuse. If the TRC is to leave a valuable legacy it must lift the
veil of silence hanging over the suffering of women and must incorporate
the struggle to end this suffering in the struggle for human rights
in our country.
While violence and cruelty are depressing and difficult topics
to engage with we should not reduce our subjects to the status
of victim alone. We must also celebrate the bravery of South African
women and take note that the aim of this enquiry and research
is a positive one ie: to highlight the need for the protection
of fundamental human rights so as to work towards our vision of
a transformed society.
We conclude with an untitled poem by Dorothy Mfaco, sent to Jenny
Schreiner in prison. The poet celebrates the courage and the vision
of women, a sentiment which we endorse:
"There is a world where people walk alone
And have around them men with hearts of stone
Who would not spare one second of their day
Or spend their breath just to say your pain is mine
That world is not ours.
We will build a new one
Where we wake in comfort and ease
And strive together to create a world of love and peace"
LIST OF INTERVIEW INFORMANTS
1. ALBERTINA SISULU, MP
2. AMINA CACHALIA
3. SHEILA WEINBERG, GAUTENG MPL
4. THENJIWE MTINTSO, MP
5. JENNIFER SCHREINER, MP
6. CAESARINA KONA MAKHOERE
7. LYDIA KOMPE, MP
8. SUSAN CONJWA
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