As with so many freedom fighters who returned to South Africa after years in exile, Ayanda “Christine” Bako was not prepared for the hard times that befell her when she came home.
“She has suffered a lot … a lot,” says her sister, Nontuthuzelo Bako.
After spending 15 years with Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the ANC’s military wing, she walked and hitchhiked back to South Africa from Lusaka. “They just left people there,” Christine says.
When Christine arrived back in Johannesburg, she was greeted with the news that her father had died mere weeks before her return.
“She came back in March 1991, shortly after we buried my father. He died in February that year. She didn’t know my father had died. Yhu, it was hard for her. It really hit her. The trauma … She used to cry at night. And just randomly scream. She was wild, you know. She was very wild,” says Nontuthuzelo.
Dr Thabo Rangaka is a psychiatrist at 1 Military Hospital in Thaba Tshwane, Pretoria. He says most former freedom fighters suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).
“CPTSD is particularly found among those who had previously been in combat situations where they witnessed or experienced things such as torture or rape, for example. If untreated, it manifests in their family life and affects their loved ones. Nightmares and explosive tempers are typical symptoms. Divorce is therefore common,” says Rangaka.
Times were also tough financially. “Sometimes no food,” Christine says. In an attempt to earn money, she started doing her neighbours’ washing and ironing. Her payment, however, came largely in the form of alcohol.
Although not all former freedom fighters have fallen on hard times, Rangaka says that “about 90%” suffer from CPTSD. “They have it, no matter the success levels they have reached.”
He adds, however, that depression — one of the symptoms of CPTSD — is exacerbated by poverty, unemployment and homelessness, as well as by “a common feeling of having no hope for one’s children and their progress in the new South Africa”.
According to the website of the Centre for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, the condition “can be debilitating”. “Those who suffer from CPTSD may be at greater risk of substance abuse,” it notes.
“What can I do? Drink, you know,” Christine shrugs, as we speak in a tiny room at the back of her late parents’ house in Mofolo, Soweto.
Crammed with all her possessions — a worn two-seater couch, a TV set with shoddy reception, a double bed, a two-plate stove — the room is a world away from her days touring the globe as part of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble.
Made up largely of MK cadres based in Angola, the ensemble was established in the late 1970s. It toured the world raising funds for the then-banned ANC and, according to Jonas Gwangwa, its musical and stage director, “told the story of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid”.
Noted for being “one of the ANC’s greatest achievements in the realm of arts and culture”, the ensemble members were honoured with the Order of Ikhamanga in gold “for their cultural contribution to the struggle for liberation in South Africa and for spreading the message all over the world about South Africa’s rich and diverse cultural heritage”.
“She was a really good singer and actress,” Gwangwa says of Christine, adding: “You know, all our shows were packed, so a lot of money was raised for the ANC. Millions. We weren’t paid, so all that money went to the ANC.”
Gwangwa recalls the ensemble touring to “at least 45 to 50 countries”, yet Christine is hard-pressed to recall just one of these. Her partial memory loss is the result of a brutal attack a few years ago.
The attack also affected her speech severely. The woman who, her sister says, could at one stage “speak 27 languages” today speaks in sentences riddled with missing words. Nowadays her words come out “kancane-kancane [small-small]”.
Christine was severely beaten after a night out in Alexandra and her attackers, thinking she was dead, dumped her in the Jukskei River.
“I don’t know whether these guys wanted to rape her — or whether they did rape her — but eventually they threw her in that river. They thought she had died,” said Nontuthuzelo.
A passer-by, who was on his way to work the next morning, saw her in the river, took her out and to a nearby clinic. She was in that river all night.
“She was a mess. Even the clothes she had on, they were dirty and bloody and torn,” said Nontuthuzelo.
During her stay at Baragwanath Hospital Christine was diagnosed with cancer, and also suffered a mild stroke. After being transferred to 1 Military Hospital — thanks to military veterans’ nonprofit Pan African Genesis — her speech slowly started returning.
Now finally drawing a pension (“at least”, Christine shrugs, smiling), things are a bit less dire but all she says — is able to say — is: “I don’t get. I don’t get. Not enough.”
She is adamant that she no longer has to do her neighbours’ washing to earn a few extra rands, but her neighbour, Matsepo Sediela, says: “She does sometimes do washing for people here. Not as often as before, but occasionally.”
Nontuthuzelo introduces a young man who had entered the room. “This is Sifiso, my son. Christine does everything for him. Buys him clothes and looks after him … with that small pension of hers.”
Sediela adds that, because many former MK soldiers often fall on hard times after returning home, “people see them as a laughing stock. Some people don’t even want to tell other people here that they were in MK because of where they are now.”
According to Rangaka, CPTSD is worse for women — having been an extreme minority in the very male-dominated environment in exile during the struggle. “These are environments in which there was little, if any, security; environments in which they are considered to be soldiers — so ‘equal’ to their male counterparts — but still women, so they faced the threat of sexual violence or experienced it.”
Rangaka adds that women freedom fighters returning to poverty-stricken environments “generally come back to experience poverty worse than their male counterparts”.
Sediela’s daughter, Ayanda, takes care of Christine. And it is Ayanda Christine says she will take with her to the home she hopes the government will one day give her.
“Not happy here. Not happy,” says Christine.
Sediela says: “I hope they can find her a house. That is all she wants. But” — another long pause — “it seems as if they have forgotten about her. You know, she doesn’t like to talk about her pain. She wants to appear as a strong person, but she’s not. She’s not.”
Back in the tiny room, Christine looks around at its cramped conditions and sighs: “Eish, mara …”
Laughing in response, Sediela — who knows how far Christine has come — says, simply: “Hawu, ustrong, wena … ustrong.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian