Former exile’s dream of her own home dies with her

Nkululeko Sekgoto recently started to write down his memories of his former partner, Ayanda “Christine” Bako.

The pocket-sized green book has the words “International Women’s Day 2017” printed in bold text on its cover and the top of each page is illustrated with women protesting, fists in the air.

“She was loyal to the ANC until the day she died. But she was angry. She never turned her back on the organisation … hoping that it will give her recognition while she was alive. But her wishes never came true,” he writes.

Bako, a freedom fighter with Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the ANC’s military wing, died in January this year after a protracted battle with cancer without seeing her dream come true — a home of her own. She had been in exile for 15 years, a large part of which was spent 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 to raise 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 was honoured with the Order of Ikhamanga in gold “for their cultural contribution to the struggle for liberation in South Africa”.

“She was a really good singer and actress,” Gwangwa says of Bako, 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.”

Her talent was not enough to save her from the harsh realities of being a freedom fighter. Her sister Nontuthuzelo Bako recalls: “You know, she used to tell us stories about her time in exile and how difficult it was. Once, she said, her comrades caught her smoking dagga, so they tied her to a tree and lashed her. For a woman to be treated like that, it must take its toll.”

The Mail & Guardian reported on Christine Bako’s story in a November 2017 report that looked into the effects of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) among former freedom fighters — particularly women.

Speaking to the M&G, Dr Thabo Rangaka, a psychiatrist at Pretoria’s 1 Military Hospital, said most former freedom fighters suffer from CPTSD. The condition was generally worse in women because they “generally come back to experience poverty worse than their male counterparts”.

Substance abuse is one of the condition’s side effects. “What can I do? Drink, you know …” Bako said with a shrug during the previous interview with the M&G.

In his diary, Sekgoto remembers the day he met Bako in a shebeen “in the dirty streets of White City in Soweto”.

“Drinking traditional beer was part of relieving her frustration,” he writes. “People in the neighbourhood would not take her seriously. People tend to have high expectations [of you] when you were in exile. Then, if you have nothing to provide, you will be a piece of trash.”

Nontuthuzelo says that, after the publication of the M&G report, Boko’s “comrades were very angry with her for hanging [out] their dirty linen”.

“They would say, ‘Ah, how can you say such things?’ She was upset with them. Because she was just telling her story, you know?”

Sekgoto adds that “being a comrade is being a friend and [for Bako] that comradeship just wasn’t there.”Some efforts were made to assist her and, after her death, her family.

“She was given a military funeral, which was great,” says Nontuthuzelo. “On the day of the funeral, Kebby Maphatsoe [deputy minister of the department of military veterans] brought us a whole lot of groceries and gave us about R2 000.”

Nontuthuzelo adds that, shortly before her death, Bako was informed that she would finally be given the house she had dreamed of for so long.

Although she was in hospital at the time, Nontuthuzelo says the news “made her very happy”.

But Maphatsoe says the news of Bako being granted a house is untrue.

“She was in the process of getting a house, yes. She was on the list of beneficiaries, but a house had not been given to her yet,” he says.

With his green notebook at his side in the tiny, cramped room he once shared with Bako, Nkululeko sighs.

“It’s not only Christine, this thing. There are so many out there. Really, the government should do something. There are people out there like Christine who are still in the same situation as she was when she died. The very same situation. And it’s tough.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation‘s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian.

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Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa

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