The matron of the military

THE ANGELLA JOHNSON INTERVIEW

IT is hard to imagine Major-General Refiloe Phelile Florence Sedibe (aka Jackie Sedibe and wife of Defence Minister Joe Modise) barking orders to stiff young soldiers. The country’s highest-ranking woman in the military is a shy, softly spoken, grey- haired matron, who looks like she should be at home baking cookies with her grandchildren.

Instead, Sedibe is about to embark on a new phase of her army career as chief director of equal opportunities in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). It is a job which she insists, in response to criticism from opposition politicians, was gained on merit “because I do my job very well, and not because of who I am”.

But being the wife of a senior Cabinet minister and counting both President Nelson Mandela and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki as dining companions can do a lot to boost a girl’s status.
Still, let us not talk of gravy train.

“I don’t know what is meant by that expression,” she says with genuine amusement. “If there is a gravy train, I’ve certainly never got on it.” When they returned from exile, she and Modise were both employed by the African National Congress, while other former Um-khonto weSizwe (MK) soldiers struggled to earn a living. Now they’re both earning huge government salaries.

“I’ve always lived an independent life. I won’t give up my career just to appease public opinion. It’s like asking why Winnie Mandela didn’t just settle down to be the president’s wife. Because she has her own public persona and did not want to lose it. Anyway, I’ve been a professional for 30 years without pay.”

It is her second day in the new job and she is wearing a visitor’s identity badge on her lapel. “Oh, this,” she said when I pointed it out. “I’m getting my own later this evening, but I’m still trying to find my way from the reception to my office. I don’t even know what my phone number is.”

Sedibe is in the process of moving from central Pretoria to her new home in the shiny glass structure on the outskirts - known affectionately as Battlestar Galactica - which the SANDF shares with Armscor and the minister of defence.

Her office, with empty picture hooks on the walls and devoid of all personal effects - “I’m still waiting for the boxes to be delivered” - is three floors and one wing away from Modise’s. But she says their schedules prevent cosy rides together to and from work.

Sedibe was not keen to do this interview, and her nervousness showed. Many of my questions were either sidestepped by rhetoric or blocked by a tired “you are asking me all these questions about things in the past. I want to move forward.”

But the past has a remarkable way of popping up when you least want it. At the same time that the general was reluctantly sharing tales of her military exploits against “an oppressive and inhumane” apartheid regime, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hearing allegations that a man identified as her brother, Glory Sedibe (once a senior MK soldier), had been a spy for the same regime.

“He was not a blood brother. They have got it wrong and are trying to pull my husband’s name into it,” she later explained. “He was a cousin, and anyway I did not know him very well, but we all knew that he had been turned into an askari. It’s sad, but nothing for us to be ashamed of.”

Glory Sedibe was abducted from a Swaziland jail by Vlakplaas operatives in 1986 and forced to betray his MK comrades, some of whom were killed while crossing the border from Swaziland to South Africa. She could easily have been a victim.

One of the first women to join MK, as an idealistic 17 year old in 1964, Sedibe was active as a signals operator specialising in clandestine radio communications. Her responsibility included linking MK operatives in the frontline states and South Africa. “I did not take part in actual combat, but was never far from it,often not realising the dangers until having crossed over borders. But really, I don’t want to rehash the past.”

Born 52 years ago at White River in Mpumalanga, Sedibe’s mother was a domestic worker and her father (whose surname was Mdluli) worked in Johannesburg. “But that is a private matter. I don’t want to talk about.” They parted when she was about six years old and she went to live with a maternal uncle, Ben Sedibe, in Barberton. An ANC activist, and “the man who made me what I am today,” he became her role model. She took his name.

It was not long before she was politically involved. “At eight I was distributing ANC leaflets or carrying messages.” Soon after her 17th birthday it was decided the time had come for her to become a fully-fledged guerrilla.

She joined MK and was sent to the then Soviet Union for training at the Odessa Infantry Academy, where her aptitude for signals led to her being fast-tracked for advanced training in Moscow. She was one of three women chosen. The Soviet Union was like a fairyland after the oppression of South Africa. “I had a great time. The people were friendly and supportive of our cause.” But again she was scant on detail.

A stint in Tanzania followed the year-long training programme, one of her first jobs being the Wankie Operation against Rhodesia in 1967/68. It is 45 minutes into the interview and she wants to leave for another appointment. I beg for more time. She offers another half-hour, but clams up almost immediately when asked about how she met Modise.

“Well, really I can’t remember.” It is a touchy subject. “We worked together and became friendly, but I can’t remember where or when.” When pressed, she admits theirs is a traditional marriage. “We asked for permission to live together and he paid lobola, but please don’t mention that, I really would prefer to keep my personal life private.” The couple became parents late in life and have two daughters: Boipuso and Lesedi (aged 11 and 9).

For the same reason she refuses to talk about her relationship with her biological father, whom she met once as an adult while living in Swaziland. “He was passing through on his way to Switzerland, where he had lived for many years, and we were introduced. It’s a very painful subject, and that’s all I want to say.”

Sedibe was among the first group of former MK members to be integrated into the military in 1994, and has served in the office of the inspector general, concentrating primarily on the interests of women in the SANDF.

Again she was fast-tracked and zoomed up the ranks, but really that has nothing to do with her husband. “I feel very proud to be the first black woman general,” she says, “in the sense that we are beginning to be taken as people who can produce and are capable of bringing about change.’’

When asked about the racial tension among the different forces, she slips into “Mrs Modise” and begins to spout the party line. “It is difficult to change prejudices overnight. But I was involved in the integration process and on the whole things have gone quite well.”

She says her role is to make sure transition continues smoothly. “Our aim is a smaller, efficient and integrated SANDF, to ensure our sovereignty.” It sounded like pillow-talk to me, but there was no time for more questions as my 75 minutes were up.

Client Media Releases

NWU delivers PhD graduates from every corner of Africa
UKZN hosts discussion on gender-based violence
MiX Telematics reports strong fiscal 2019 results