The sharp edge of the knife: women and the TRC

by Robyn Leslie 

"[The TRC provided] an opportunity for women to say what happened to them. Because the kind of suffering…the kind of sexual abuse, people being threatened with rape. Some of them were raped, women being threatened that they would kill their unborn babies. Those kinds of things [are] very, very hard to deal with. And I think that that public process, however difficult it was, because it wasn't an easy decision for many of those women to come forward, was a very important decision in terms of people accepting that for our women it was very hard to be active in the struggle…" - TRC Oral History Project interview: Ruth Lewin, 14 September 2004.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had complex engagements with questions of gender, and the experiences of women – both during the liberation struggle, and at the TRC itself. While decisions of TRC policy and operations curtailed its ability to interrogate gender and apartheid, issues of women-specific torture, abuse and violence did find voice and space. Sheila Masote had this to say, at her statement to the TRC’s Special Hearing on Women on 28 July 1997:

"…The problem that I have always suffered…is that I don't seem to be having an identity like belonging to me. I'm always either Zef's daughter, Mathopeng's daughter or Mike Masote's wife. Or no, Masote's mother and Zef Masote's mother. But no, I feel I am me. And this is why I am here."

However, critiques of how the TRC handled women-specific issues abound. In terms of the TRC's policies and frameworks, it was clear that gender-specific considerations had not been taken into account. The TRC"s "gender-blind” approach to dealing with the past implied that no distinction would be made between men and women’s experiences, despite the fact the women and men experienced apartheid differently, and thus faced different challenges in interacting with the TRC.

For example, Khulumani Support Group highlighted the fact that rape and sexual violence was subsumed under the category of “serious ill-treatment”, and not considered a category itself by the TRC. Compounded with this, was the fact that rape was not explicitly defined as a political act by the TRC’s definitions, and was therefore excluded from crimes for which amnesty could be sought. Perpetrators intending to come forward to testify would be liable for prosecution, resulting in very few admissions of rape from perpetrators.

Of particular concern, on the TRC’s operations front, was that the TRC’s public platform, alongside cultural and personal obstacles, made the reportage of rape and sexual violence committed against women during apartheid, difficult to investigate. Dr Sheila Meintjies raised this point, at the Special Hearing for Women on 28 July 1997. Speaking on behalf of a group named Gender and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Dr Meintjies explained: 

: "… the issue of sexual violence…was one which women found and still find very difficult to speak out about or even to admit that it happened. Indeed, we know that very few women have, in fact, come forward to recount their experience of sexual abuse in the context of political violence. Of nearly 9000 cases of violations only about nine have claimed they have been raped." 

Meintjies went on to explain some of the gender-specific torture tactics that women were subjected to in detention, that included the denial of medical attention to pregnant women who had been detained; the psychological humiliations of being forced to strip naked in front of men (and the consequent threat of rape); and being told family-specific lies that included being informed that their children were ill or dead – a tactic that was used on Mama Sisulu.
"There's a saying in South Africa that women hold the sharp end of the knife. 'Manwana otshwara tipa kabogaleng’"

The recently-released, previously confidential Section 29 records of the TRC also investigated torture committed against women, albeit in different ways. Greta Apelgren, who later changed her name to Zahrah Narkedien, was detained and tortured by the police for her role as get-away driver for the Magoo Bar Bomb incident in 1986. She recounted some of her suffering during her Section 29 inquiry. She detailed being assaulted with a clothes brush, being made to do humiliating physical exercises in front of male officers, and ultimately, threatening her family's safety. She explains how this made her feel:

"…then they threatened to go to my family and harass them and murder them. And at that time, you know, your whole reasoning shrinks. You don't think, "Ag, they're now just threatening." You start to believe it." 

Others were more reluctant to use the TRC as a place to discuss their hurt and suffering, and were concerned about how the TRC process would unfold. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was detained numerous times by the police, and subjected to ongoing harassment, throughout the apartheid years. However, in her Section 29 inquiry, when questioned regarding her torture at the hands of the apartheid state, she had this to say: "…perhaps before I went through what I have gone through before this Truth Commission, from what I see in the media, I may have thought this was the platform for me to ventilate those issues. However, from what I have seen in the media I do not think this is the forum through which I would like to ventilate that aspect of my life."

Another difficult gender issue facing the TRC, was the fact that many women came to testify about the men in their lives – husbands, sons, relatives – who had been the direct victims of murder, torture or disappearance. The role of reportage fell to women, and arguably gave the impression that women were mere passive bystanders to the horrors of the past. An attempt by the TRC to remedy this, was the creation of a Special Hearing for women, where individuals were invited to testify.

This was one way for women to tell their own stories of suffering – stories such as Nozibonelo Maria Mxathule's clash with police in March 1986. A member of the ANC Youth League, Mxathule was on her way back from a funeral for comrades who had been killed by the police, when she was part of a group of young people forcibly detained by police officers. Taken to an undisclosed location, she and her fellow detainees were then tortured by the police:They ordered us to strip naked. They were in a line, a row. They told us to face the wall. We stripped naked, all of us, against the wall, boys and girls the same. They assaulted us...They threw us out on the grass and poured water on us and left us there. At about six o' clock to seven in the morning they woke us up and ordered us to leave. We could not, it was difficult. Some of us were taken by caspirs and some had already passed away. We were lying on the lawn. Some of us were taken to the mortuaries.”

The catharsis of statement-making, however, was not the only reason women came forward to the TRC. Those who had been left as the sole breadwinners for their families had very practical concerns about how the TRC was going to help them not only testify at the TRC – but assist them afterwards. They remained skeptical about the TRC process. In her TRC Oral History Project interview, Ruth Lewin explains:

"I remember when our logistics officers went out [to the Northern Cape] and there were a couple of mothers who said, what are we going to get out of this? They were very, very cynical about giving their testimony and making statements. And at the end of it all they agreed and said that all that they really want is for their children…because their husbands were killed…to have an education".

November 2014 saw the South African government promulgate regulations that would provide education assistance to victims of apartheid - eleven years after the TRC handed over its final report in 2003. Deemed insufficient and exclusive, limiting access to assistance to those with a TRC victim registration number, these regulations have a long way to go before they could fulfill the hopes of those women interviewed in the Northern Cape – and all other victims of apartheid.

"But beyond remembering the challenge now facing the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee will be to meet the expectations of the thousands who have come to them asking for help"
Women formed an integral part of the struggle against apartheid - as combatants, advocates, witnesses and organisers. 

They experienced particular kinds of pain, humiliation and abuse in detention, and continue to carry the weight of family responsibility as their partners, relatives and children were murdered and disappeared. This August, we honour and respect the role women played in both securing South Africa's freedom, and testifying to her brutal past.

The Right to Truth Project is part of the South African History Archive's long-standing work on the unfinished business of the TRC.

This is the third of a series of multimedia articles discussing the newly released Section 29 materials, which are available on the SAHAwebsite.

SAHA, in collaboration with the SABC, has also collated a wide range of TRC documents as well as the television production Truth Commission: Special Report.

Robyn Leslie is a Researcher at the Right to Truth Project; South African History Archive (SAHA).