Parliament has a new speaker — Thandi Modise. In welcoming her to the role, politicians spoke about her time as an ANC guerrilla and her years in prison, saying that this experience would prepare her for the job.
But a 1989 profile of Modise, by Mail & Guardian reporter Thami Mkhwanazi, gives a rare insight into the strength of this former fighter.
In 1975 she gave birth to a daughter, before returning to school. In mid-1976 she left school as school protests against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction boiled across the whole country. The imposition of Afrikaans was not the main problem for her and her peers — the language was spoken by black children across the Northern Cape. Their anger was rather at “unprovoked police harassment” on school premises, which resulted in her school being closed. She returned to class to find that it had been set on fire.
Protesters responded to the police violence.
“It was the incessant resistance of the oppressed masses that gave me the courage to resist apartheid violence,” Modise said.
She was shot at by the police. The bullets missed. She wanted to shoot back, but had no weapon.
After this, Modise decided to flee the country with a group of nine other schoolchildren. The group walked north and crossed into Botswana. “We had one aim — military training.”
Two of the girls in her group would later turn state’s evidence and testify against her in a trial that led to her spending eight years in prison.
In Botswana, ANC officials offered students the choice of going to school or military training. The latter option was discouraged for the girls. Modise chose military training, before being flown to Tanzania and then Angola for the training. There, women made up just 30 of the 500 trainees.
Each day involved training, physical exercise and drills with weapons. Modise’s favourite was the Israeli-made Uzi — a small machine gun. A library at the ANC training camp meant people read Marx, Lenin and Engels, as well as ANC publications such as Sechaba and Voice of Women.
An avid fan of jazz and classical music, Modise sang soprano in a choir, which ANC president Oliver Tambo joined when he visited the camp. “My choir welcomed him by singing his favourite song, Vukani Mawethu (arise, our people).”
For the monthly parties at the training camp, Modise wore a “soft cream two-piece suit made in Paris”.
She was also occasionally invited to dinner in Luanda, at the homes of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) commander-in-chief Joe Modise and his adviser, Joe Slovo.
On one bus trip to Luanda, her bus was ambushed by Unita fighters. She grabbed an AK-47 and jumped out of the window. “I don’t remember how I landed … I fired rapidly in the direction of [Unita leader Jonas] Savimbi’s men as I fell.”
During her time in ANC camps and capital cities around the continent, South African agents would take pictures of her for their “terror album”.
In January 1978, a few days after her 19th birthday, she entered South Africa from then Swaziland on a false passport. For the next year, she spent her time scouting police stations, electric pylons and government buildings for MK. She usually wore a two-piece suit, or colourful slacks, and carried a handbag with knitting needles protruding. Talking to people meant constantly remembering not to call people “comrade” — the common greeting in ANC training camps.
To reconnoitre police stations, she would go inside and complain about an unfaithful husband — knowing that the police wouldn’t investigate this type of complaint. “On one occasion, a group of policemen in the charge office laughed at me and advised me to marry a policeman.”
This would be unlikely, because Modise had trouble understanding her suitors, especially when they declared their love. In training camps, people got married “to deepen the spirit of comradeship in the interests of the revolution”. The end goal was tied to that revolution. “The purpose of having children was to build a post-apartheid nation.”
Her luck ran out and she was arrested in October 1979. She was interrogated for five months. At one point, policemen took her to a small hill, where they told her to dig a hole to look for her arms cache, before assaulting her. She was pregnant throughout this time, giving birth to a second daughter in February 1980.
The court sentenced her to 16 years imprisonment, with two eight-year sentences running concurrently. Modise was released 24 hours early.
Now she is the speaker of South Africa’s sixth democratically elected Parliament.