Book review: Women In Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid
By Janet Smith
“One time we refused to move away from the cell and the police called in reinforcements. They came in with Alsatians to force us out. The only thing we could do was strip naked, all of us stripped and then they left us for a while. Otherwise the Alsatians would have attacked and torn our garments. If you were naked, they wouldn’t be able to bite.”
The group of women huddled in Winnie Mandela’s cell, waiting to go to court during the trial of 22 of 1969. Usually all were in solitary confinement, with this brief dystopian solidarity only through security organisation in the Pretoria Central Prison before they were viciously led into police vans.
Related by Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin to author Shanthini Naidoo, the raw scene captured detainees Mandela, Shanthie Naidoo, Rita Ndzanga, Thokozile Mngoma, Martha Dhlamini, Nondwe Mankahla and Joyce herself striking back against their hunters in the only way they could in that moment.
Conditional citizens, they were all ill in the same and different ways as malnutrition clattered their bones. They were injured, mentally anguished, sensorily-deprived, in clothes they had worn for months.
The dogs were not necessarily a more savage enemy than the everyday monsters: the Security Police and the warders.
This is but one chilling shot from inside only one horror trial which, pixelated, bombs us by a blink into the mass assault on black South Africans under apartheid. But it’s also being obliterated by memory.
The idea of South Africa today relied on people’s capacity to forget when those nuclear Sunset Clauses were drawn up in the early 1990s to protect whites.
The intention was to make it seem as if everybody was equal once we’d cast our ballots in 1994. This was a founding myth, which can’t control the shocking intergenerational mental health problems of millions of people and has delivered a government whichrefuses to be accountable.
Naidoo is an accomplished narrator who joins a powerhouse generation of South African writers who’re trying to wake us up.
Corruption is a deplorable chain reaction which has collapsed our economy. It’s also a red herring. The author shows us the rapidly unravelling set-up: if the government deals with the bad guys of the moment, it can keep pushing the screaming terrors of the past back into the filing cabinets, and graves.
This momentous book wants nothing to do with that as it acknowledges that the imminent show trials are far too righteous a distraction from the horror too great to contemplate: what apartheid did – and, yes, that old liberal wave-away, how the supremacists got away with it.
Using oral narrative, research, archives, interviews, analysis and her experience as a journalist, she draws a tight bowstring on the South Africa mirage. That a book about our abraded history is so readable is a remarkable achievement. And that it remains so compassionately focused on women of extraordinary character who were scarred, broken and murdered by a system which is not yet destroyed, is progressive.
White South Africans have shunned black trauma, which is in keeping with how previous white generations behaved. By the 1970s, as Naidoo points out, everyone saw what was going on in this country.
There is not one white South African family in 2020 which can say their ancestors did not, when the world was aware that “white people certainly enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world”. Privilege and its malevolent partner, the refusal to give it up, are what created the nightmare.
Fear, distress and anxiety. Those are the elements of post-traumatic stress syndrome, which affects most South Africans through that intergenerational continuum. Naidoo furnishes the evidence with considerable psychological power.
Having contextualised the access point of the prison, she then hands us the keys to this kind of work: how do writers gather the information, find the people, assemble the compassionate muster and then pursue the truth. This is moving for any reader of non-fiction.
Naidoo sits in the room of history with four surviving women of the trial of 22, getting close to them. Each is distinct, even where their stories of hell in the cells, and their alienation and peripheralisation afterwards, intersect with one another.
Sikhakhane-Rankin was a rising young journalist in Johannesburg of the 1960s, while Shanthie Naidoo’s activism was preordained as she was born into a family striving for liberation.
Ndzanga found politics after she started working at a trade union simply to earn some money. Mankahla was starry-eyed about joining the Defiance Campaign.
And then, before she reaches Mandela’s searing fightback from fragility, Naidoo suddenly throws us into the punch of South Africa’s most reviled torturer, Theunis J “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel. His preferred method of interrogation with men was to make them “stand naked at the edge of a room known as Die Waarheid Kamer (The Truth Room), hands cuffed, with their genitals on the table” before he “hit their genitals hard and repeatedly with a blunt object” until they fainted.
Swanepoel took almost complete credit for the aftermath of the marches in Soweto and around the country in 1976. This was among other atrocities, including pointing pistols at women detainees. Ndzanga, whose damage Naidoo relates with tireless honesty, was dragged into a chamber being hit non-stop with open hands before she was ordered onto a pile of bricks.
She was far from compliant. “Ma Rita”, whose most serious “crime” was that she had created and distributed pamphlets, was then wrenched by her hair into the air and thrown down onto the bricks placed next to a gas pipe where she landed.
This happened again and again as policemen frenzied, “Meid, jy moet praat!” (Girl, you must talk!). It’s important to be reminded as Naidoo carefully does, that Swanepoel died in 1998 unpunished, his state pension and medical dutifully paid every month by the Nelson Mandela administration.
His freedom was repeated in case after case of others under seven successive ANC administrations. Until today, no one has properly settled the moral score of all the trauma this evil caused.
For example, few people seem to know about 24-year-old Umkhonto we Sizwe cadre Phila Portia Ndwandwe “who was tortured and kept naked for 10 days before she was assassinated”.
“Before her death, Ndwandwe.. fashioned underwear for herself out of a scrap of blue plastic in an attempt at some dignity”.
Ndwandwe was bludgeoned before she was shot in the head and buried in an unmarked grave in which her remains were later found with the blue plastic in the same hole.
That the DA and other parties can still argue even over the renaming of streets and institutions in honour of individuals like these, is nauseating. They’re the anarchists seeking to establish new republics, micro-locales, where we live side-by-side but never interact with each other’s histories in case those “others” want to stop our privilege in its path.
Naidoo has produced one of the most important and gripping examinations of the gendered fight of apartheid and its human beings.
It’s no surprise it’s now also been picked up by a publisher in the United States – straight into the headwind of international support for justice at last for these kinds of crimes.
Janet Smith is a former newspaper editor and co-author of Hani: A Life Too Short, The Black Consciousness Reader, The A to Z of South African Politics and The Coming Revolution: Julius Malema and the Fight for Economic Freedom.
This week NB Publishers announced that Just World Books will be releasing Shanthini Naidoo’s book, Women in Solitary, in the North American market next year under the title Women Surviving Apartheid’s Prisons.