The deafening silence on rape in MK camps lingers

For years, women freedom fighters from camps operated by the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), have remained silent about the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of men they called comrades.

Some of these atrocities came to light at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In one confession, former MK commander and defence minister Joe Modise said that sexual abuse in MK camps was a “very serious problem” — but maintained that leaders had acted on such abuses.

“Some of the camp commanders took advantage of their positions and started asking or pressuring some of the young ladies to do them favours,” Modise said. “I think it is understood what type of favours I am talking about. Some commanders had been removed for this. So it was a problem that was addressed by the movement and its armed personnel.”

Modise tried to explain this by saying that men in the camps struggled to find women they could pursue.

“It is the kind of problem that manifests itself in places such as camps, very far from home, isolated, in hostile areas, and the difficulty of young men going out into the towns to go and look for young ladies was rather limited, because there were ambushes also on the way.”

A similar remark was made by former MK commissar Andrew Masondo, who testified at the TRC about violations against women in the Quatro MK camp in Angola, where ill-disciplined MK members were sent to be corrected. But Masondo was criticised for his comments on sexual violence during his testimony.

“In Angola there are at one time 22 women in a group of more than 1 000 people. There was an allegation that commanders were misusing women. The law of supply and demand must have created some problems,” he said.

When Thabo Mbeki, who was deputy president at the time, presented the ANC’s report to the TRC he also said that those in MK accused of “gender-specific violence” were punished. He did not, however, specify what the offences were or what punishment was meted out.

MK and ANC leaders, including Chris Hani, visited MK camps after allegations of sexual assault began to emerge. In her own testimony, Gertrude Shope, a former ANC Women’s League leader, said that members of the league would visit the camps to assist women.

But Teddy Williams, an MK commander who was trained in the Soviet Union, told the TRC that he was punished when he tried to speak out about sexual violence in the Quatro camp. Williams said that section commanders used to call women and “do what they wished to them”. Those who objected were secretly targeted.

Despite these admissions, women were still reluctant to testify at the TRC. When current ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte came before the TRC, she said that women were silenced by the liberation movement itself during the anti-apartheid struggle and that other women activists were complicit.

“If women said that they were raped, they were regarded as having sold out to the system in one way or another,” Duarte said.

But there were some brave women who spoke about their trauma for the first time at the TRC.

Lita Mazibuko, an MK member who organised safe routes for comrades over the South African border into Swaziland, recounted three occasions when she was raped.

During one operation, a comrade had died crossing the border and the movement suspected she was a spy. Mazibuko was eventually cleared, but she suffered brutally. She spoke of a man named Mashego who raped her in Swaziland and also told the TRC about another horrific rape.

“And there was another one by the name of Tebogo, who was also very young. He raped me and he also cut my genitals. He cut through my genitals and they were cut open and he put me in a certain room and he tied my hands, my legs, they were apart. He also tied my neck and he would also pour Dettol over my genitals,” Mazibuko said. “The pain that I experienced, I have never spoken about this. I have never even told my children about this. It is the very first time that I speak about this.”

ANC members allegedly attempted to silence her. She said that, two weeks before her testimony, Mathews Phosa — who was Mpumalanga premier at the time — told her he “has a right to protect” the ANC.

Mazibuko’s harrowing testimony could not defeat the silence that hung over the TRC from women who could not speak about the violence they faced. Higher Education Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize was a TRC commissioner. She listened to the testimonies and commented that the “submissions had fail[ed] women” because the silence remained deafening.

During the TRC hearings, members of the Pan Africanist Congress’s armed wing, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (Apla), maintained that rape was never condoned. They said that, if any member was found to be guilty, then the TRC should not hesitate to deny them amnesty.

“Rape is not accommodated and was never accommodated and I think we are among the few liberation movements in the world that never experienced that in our camps,” one Apla delegate testified.

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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