During her years underground, Thandi Modise bore no resemblance to the guerrilla of government propaganda – a sinister, camouflage-clad figure in combat uniform, lurking under cover with an AK-47 assault rifle at the ready. From January 1978, when she entered South Africa from Swaziland on a false passport, to October 1979, when she was arrested, the bespectacled ANC fighter went about her business looking as ordinary as possible. She usually wore a two-piece suit or colourful slacks and carried a handbag from which a pair of knitting needles protruded.
She formed part of the hustle and bustle at a busy police station. She was a passerby outside an SADF building. She was among hundreds of women shoppers in a city centre chain store. Outside the Krugersdorp power station, she gazed with curiosity at electric pylons and crisscrossing wires. She was one of the women who chatted with labourers tending gardens at government buildings, often inquiring about a job.
But in all these places, she was carrying out assignments for Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the military wing of the African National Congress), reconnoitring potential targets. After her arrest, Modise went on trial in the Johannesburg Regional Court and later in Kempton Park, where she was convicted under the Terrorism Act. She was originally charged with undergoing military training, recruiting for MK, possession of arms and explosives, and arson at two stores – OK Bazaars and Edgars in Johannesburg. She was acquitted on the recruiting charge.
Sentenced to a total of 16 years' imprisonment, eight of which ran concurrently, she was released. last November, just 24 hours short of her full eight years. She spoke freely to the Weekly Mail about the extraordinary life she led after she fled the country at the height of the 1976 student uprisings. Modise, the youngest of six children, was born on Christmas Day 30 years ago in the Vryburg township of Huhudi in the Northern Cape. At the time of her birth, her father, Frans Modise, was an ANC activist. The organisation was banned a year later.
Thandi recalls her father was an orator who spoke regularly on public platforms of the ANC. A stoker on the railways, he was among the first blacks earmarked for advancement as a driver. His chances, however, were thwarted by his commitment to politics. Although as a child she liked to copy her father, she said her scanty knowledge of her father's activities had no direct bearing on her eventual decision to undergo military training.
In December 1974, Modise discovered that she was pregnant. The child – a daughter called Boingotlo – was born prematurely in early 1975, and given over to the care of Thandi's mother. In March she returned to the classroom, and her schooling continued until mid-1976, when she and thousands of other South African students left school never to return. It was not the contentious issue of Afrikaans imposed in 1976 as a medium of instruction in black schools that sparked her resistance to apartheid.
Afrikaans, she said, was no problem in the Northern Cape among black children, who interacted freely with Afrikaans-speaking coloured pupils. It was "unprovoked police harassment" on school premises that angered children, she said, resulting in the closure of her school, Barolong High School. The school, known as a hotbed of political activity, was later re-operied- but when she returned to class she found it had been set on fire. Modise claims she was harassed by the security forces, who detained her and other students on suspicion of arson. She was never charged.
With police allegedly refusing to heed students'
peaceful demonstrations against the presence of
security forces, she said, pupils became more
militant. Violence escalated, and many pupils
took put when a policeman was set alight. "I
saw him being burnt alive," she said.
"It was the incessant resistance of the oppressed
masses that gave me the courage to resist
apartheid violence, " she said.
The students' revolt coincided with the build-up
to Bophuthatswana's "independence". Anger
over the possible incorporation of her community
into the "homeland" also contributed to her decision
to flee the country.
The last straw, she said, was the day she alleges
she was shot at by police. The bullets missed
her, but she wanted to shoot back- and had no
"My belief that my parents would not mind my decision to leave the country stenghthened my courage,” she added…