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Armed struggle and gender in the ANC’s past and present

21st November 2016

By: Raymond Suttner

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Among the many controversial features of the liberation struggle waged by the ANC, the place of women in Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) has been one of the most disputed and controversial among scholars, critics as well as many ex-combatants.

According to Jacklyn Cock, by 1989 women comprised approximately 20 per cent of MK. (Colonels and Cadres: War and Gender in South Africa, Oxford, 1991, p. 162). The place of women within armed struggle is controversial for reasons separate from the efficacy or desirability of armed struggle per se, itself a longstanding debate.

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It is often alleged that women were subjected to extensive abuse and that this experience was so widespread as to constitute the dominant factor in women’s entry into MK, that they were allowed to be part of MK to service the sexual needs of officers.

Armed struggle and gender is one of the topics that will be examined in panels and papers at the University of the Witwatersrand conference on armed struggle in Southern Africa, 23-25 November. (See programme: http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/draft-programme-politics-armed-struggle-southern-africa)

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The question is generally phrased as a problem of women’s involvement, participation and experience of abuse (and factors countering abuse). But this can only be understood as gendered relationships, that is, the playing out of the place of women and men within specific institutions bearing predominantly patriarchal cultures and a range of institutional practices.

In other words, the place of women cannot be separated from how masculinity was acted out within the ANC as a political organisation, and within MK as a specific type of army.

Historically and in the present, throughout the world, most political organisations and armies have been predominantly masculine and patriarchal in character. In some cases this has been mitigated, combatted or offset by other values and practices, although most of these institutions remain predominantly composed of men, and in most cases originated as, or remain purely almost entirely male.

Insofar as MK is celebrated and regarded as heroic by many, how it related to gender questions and what its legacies are has considerable bearing on what is drawn on in developing an emancipatory project in South Africa today. Whatever scholars may think, the valour attached to MK resonated with many people, who often attributed a much greater military capacity to it than this army in fact achieved.

While many ANC, SACP and COSATU leaders initially depicted the rise of Jacob Zuma as emancipatory, he sought to attach imagery associated with what can be called “warrior masculinity” to his self-representation. It was already then known that he was the bearer of violent masculinity. Promotion of Zuma’s candidacy marked that project as a very ambiguous notion of emancipation, if it represented that at all.

When speaking of his representing violent masculinities, this is not purely because of his treatment of Fezeka Kuzwayo (“Khwezi”), whether or not the court decision on the alleged rape was valid. His overall representation has been militaristic with a high tolerance of the use of violence against political opponents. He also deploys patriarchal and militaristic discourse as in the song, Umshini Wam’, which means “bring my machine gun”.

While the flawed character of Zuma as a leader has become clearer in recent times, few of those who call for his resignation foreground or even mention his conduct and discourse on gender issues. When one speaks of the warrior tradition, one needs to stress that it has multiple versions in history, and the warped conduct of Zuma cannot be treated as the only signifier of that legacy.

We need to contextualise Zuma as deriving from a variable experience in resistance history. It was sometimes gender-sensitive, or where gender abuse was both tolerated to a greater or lesser extent (there are no statistics so we cannot say how extensive the phenomenon was). It was also combatted by some individuals (again, while we have evidence related to some, we cannot quantify the extent of such actions and sentiments). We do, however, have official ANC stances from the 1980s, which manifest a much greater commitment to gender equality than in the early years of illegality.

The context of women in MK

The overall tendency of political organisations is to be patriarchal, insofar as politics operates in the public sphere, and women, according to norms of gender inequality, are not supposed to be present there. Instead, they are meant to be confined to the home, preparing for the return of the husband or male partner from work, or from one or other public or even heroic activity.

Women, according to these norms, do not belong in politics or in armies. That is why the first South African democratic parliament, inherited from the apartheid era, had very limited toilet facilities for women, and Frene Ginwala, the first Speaker, and a woman, found a urinal in her office.

The history of the ANC bears out this notion that politics was primarily a male affair, but as with most other gender questions, not in an uncontested way. Women were not formally admitted to ANC membership until 1943. But there appears to have been a substantial disjuncture between the rules and practice, with women taking part in ANC campaigns and being included in branch membership lists. In Vredenburg, in the Northern Cape in 1925, for example, seven of 37 members were women, (Peter Limb, The ANC’s early years, UNISA Press, 2010, p. 241).

With regard to armies, apart from specifically women’s armies in history, most have been trained and seen as emblematic of masculine valour and sites of masculine heroism.

South African folklore on resistance history, recited nightly on the ANC’s Radio Freedom during the struggle, celebrated in words and song the feats of Makhanda, Sekhukhune, Shaka, Bambatha and others, while neglecting female warriors who include MaNthatisi and probably many lesser-known female fighters.

What happened to women when they were in military camps? While there are accounts of abuse of women in MK, the evidence is complex. Not every person experienced unwanted attention or abuse; in fact, some women had men under their command. In addition, some women were able to call on the support of sections of the leadership, notably Chris Hani, in support of their right to pursue their role as soldiers without experiencing abuse.

Some women complained of the older commanders and soldiers taking advantage of their hierarchical position to demand sexual favours from or form relationships with the younger recruits. Hani introduced a new rule that no older soldier could develop a relationship or have sex with a younger person until she had had time to settle in.

Hani, among others, fought hard to ensure that abuse was curbed and the ANC’s gender consciousness developed into a stronger factor in the 1980s, reinforcing more gender-sensitive practices. (See Raymond Suttner, The ANC Underground, Jacana Media and Lynne Rienner, 2008, 2009 pp. 126-128, interview Dipuo Mvelase). That is not to say that abuse disappeared, but there is no doubt that there were counteracting factors.

It is alleged, in addition, that women were decorative, that they were not allowed to participate in real fighting, “merely” performing logistical tasks. Indeed, former Commander Dipuo Mvelase records that at one stage women, despite having the same training as men were not deployed to perform dangerous tasks, infiltration into the country and fighting. Again, Hani was crucial in ensuring that women, like men, were sent into the country as fighters. (Suttner, ANC Underground, p.126).

Undoubtedly there remained an imbalance and some women remained victims of the prejudice against their participation, but there was a strong counter-factor, and as is well known that women fighters did infiltrate, like Dipuo Mvelase and Totsie Memela-Khambule. Some of these were captured, like Phumla Williams (Tshabalala), Thandi Modise, Marion Sparg, Lumka Yengeni and Shirley Gunn, or murdered, like Nokuthula Simelane. Others did not leave the country but performed MK activities of various kinds inside the country, in both urban and rural areas, often without formal connections, but following what was advised in ANC pamphlets and broadcasts.

But one needs to problematise what it means to engage in dangerous military activity and whether it is correct to see those who performed logistical work as undertaking less dangerous tasks. In reality, much logistical work was more dangerous than the military activity that followed because the person charged with checking and preparing the path that the soldiers would later follow had to encounter the unexplored perils of the points of entry before the others and possibly meet with enemy fire and capture. Totsie Memela has described the lonely, dangerous preparations entailed in such work, often in isolated parts of the country inhabited by white commandoes. (Interview in Suttner, ANC Underground, pp. 124-5.)

In considering the gender legacies of MK and other armies, we need to consider also the wider impact of notions of heroism, and qualities that are admired as representing how a person who is a soldier should act. In many respects this also replicates gendered expectations of men being rational and tough and never displaying emotions, nor gentleness.

We have in the example of one of the most famous MK martyrs, Vuyisile Mini, who was the first MK leader to be hanged, in 1964, an example of another version of masculinity that complicates these qualities said to attach to men. Mini was a trade union leader, Communist and composer of revolutionary songs, including the famous Nantsii Indodemnyama Verwoerd/Vorster Basopha nantsii Indodemnyama! (Watch out Verwoerd/Vorster! Look out, here comes the black man! recorded inter alia by Miriam Makeba https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYwgmOxhUvk). Mini is said to have walked his last steps to the gallows singing some of the many songs he had composed.

An early MK soldier, Sobizana Mngqikana, as a member of the Border Regional Command Secretariat, was instructed, after MK was formed in 1961, to write to comrades in Port Elizabeth demanding a reportback on the conference the ANC had held in Lobatse in 1962. In some ways this mode of operating was a hangover from the earlier period of constitutionalism, with its normal forms of accountability, not adapting adequately to conditions demanded by illegality. Mngqikana reports:

In response to our demand a delegation comprising Vuyisile Mini and [Caleb] Mayekiso came to East London. The meeting lasted from 8pm to 5am the following day. The four-room house was discreetly guarded and secured by MK cadres. Before we could delve into the main part of the meeting, Mini, in tears, expressed dismay at the uncomradely letter we had written. “Did we know the implications of the resort to armed struggle?” he asked. “Did we appreciate that blood is going to flow and that lives are going to be lost?” At some stage he couldn’t continue as tears rolled down his cheeks. Mayekiso, I remember, mildly reproached him: “Vuyisile, Vuyisile, stop this, stop this!” After a while he cooled down and proceeded to give a report of the Lobatse conference and the expectations that the leadership had of us. (Interview in Suttner, ANC Underground, page 122).

Here a revolutionary hero did not behave according to conventional notions of manhood, where men are not supposed to shed tears, that being the role of wives and widows. In this case, Mini provided MK soldiers and members of the ANC with a model of manhood that disrupted conventional military expectations of what manhood entailed.

MK, like most armies, was not set up with questions of gender in the forefront, but over time its practices became less patriarchal. While there were abuses and other practices antagonistic to gender equality, there were counter-forces, represented by particular men and assertive women, as well as changed policies and regulations. Clearly not all of these gains have remained part of the practices of ex-combatants. Nevertheless, this history remains relevant today insofar as it enables us to draw, albeit unevenly, on resources and experiences that can be used to combat the hyperpatriarchy and violent masculinities that remain prevalent.


Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst.  He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. This article builds on a chapter on gender in his book The ANC Underground, published by Jacana Media and Lynne Rienner in 2008.  He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

Suttner will be a panellist in the Wits armed struggle conference “Public Dialogue” on Thursday 24 November: “Fighting on Two Fronts: Experience and Practice of Gender Struggle within the Armed Struggle in Southern Africa” at 18:00 – 19:30 in the Dorothy Suskind Auditorium, John Moffat Building, together with MK soldiers Thenjiwe Mthintso and Makhosazana Xaba. The chair is Ms Judy Seidman.

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