Tsogang Basadi: 
Finding women’s voice from South Africa’s political conflict

Written by Judy Seidman and NomaRussia Bonasa

Sebokeng Workshop, 2008 (Nomarussia at right)


Starting in 2007, we held a series of “Art and Memory Workshops” in townships in the East Rand and the Vaal, outside of Johannesburg, to look at people’s experiences of the political violence of the early 1990s.  In these workshops, women participants used art-making to express their memories, experiences and understandings of political violence, in a process that gave public voice to stories that had been silenced and even suppressed.  Outcomes of these workshops affirmed activist and feminist critiques that the South African Truth and Reconciliation process effectively failed women.  The workshops further lead us to believe that we have endured a failure of transitional justice mechanisms to acknowledge and respond to women’s experiences of political violence:  this failure has proved fertile ground for the gender violence that women face today.

Women’s voices

We start with three of the stories told by women that came out this process.  With these stories, we hope to give a sense of the strength and richness that has emerged, out of these faceless ghettos where women’s memories have been shut away.

Our first story is from Catherine M/from Mofokeng Section in Katlehong township in the East Rand.  This is not her real name; she asks that her name is not used in public.

Catherine had several experiences of violence; but for her, 1993 was the worst year.  The situation had been bad for some time. Catherine’s house was on a corner opposite to the open fields (or veldt) around Nyoni Park. During that year, bodies were found in the veldt. Catherine moved her children to her mother’s house in Motloung Section, to protect them.

On 7 July 1993, men attacked Mofokeng section about 8pm. Catherine was inside the house when the attackers came; later, she was told that the attackers came from Kwesine hostel (a local stronghold for male migrant workers, affiliated to the anti-ANC organization Inkatha); and that the group of attackers had been escorted by the police into her area.  These men broke into her house, shot in the leg, beat her, raped her, and robbed her.

Her description:

“On this day it was ordinary until I started hearing footsteps around the house. I ignored them, unaware of anything and I tucked myself peacefully in my bed, They came in; even today, I don’t remember any faces of these people. They came in and beat me hard, they raped me – they meant business.  I begged them not to kill me. I even told them if they stopped hurting me I would let them take all the furniture – but it seems they were going to take that anyway. They took everything from the most important and most expensive sofa, to my hangers, They even took clothes. Then they shot me in the leg.”

On the same night, men attacked other sections of Katlehong including Ramakonopi Section, where Catherine’s brother and his wife were living. She says:

“On this very same day, my sister-in-law and my brother had the same thing happening in their house.  They were painfully beaten by the heartless hooligans, they were beaten with stones and dangerous weapons.  Then they were burnt in their house. It happens that they were half dead even before they were burnt.  Both died.”

Catherine stayed hidden in her house after this assault, afraid to seek even medical help.  After two weeks, she went to the police, who took her to the local hospital, Natalspruit hospital for treatment.

Drawing and text by “Catherine”, Phola Park Workshop 2007

From Busi Mthembu,  from Kanana section in Sebokeng, a township in the Vaal – this is her real name; we asked if she wished it to be used, and she said that she wanted people to know her story:

In 1976 when I was a school child I was beaten by police while we were toyitoying against Afrikaans to be the medium of instruction in the schools.

In 1984 on the 4th of September in the Vaal, there was a boycott and shops were burnt.  I was on my way to look for the children outside in nearby shops in Evaton, when teargas was thrown at me.  The gas damaged my skin and eyes; my ears are deaf even today.

In 1985 we were marching against the raids and killings which were done by police when I was beaten by the police with sjamboks.  I was injured on my right leg, both of my thighs and my buttocks, and my back.

At the end of 1985 I had to go to Sharpeville to hide myself, because police were searching for me.

I came back in 1990 to Evaton, by Eaton side.  I nearly died then, because I was not known by the comrades there:  they thought I was a spy.  I was helped by comrade Commander Titi Dlamini, when I was about to be killed and burnt with petrol bombs.  He recognized me and my family as freedom fighters, and stopped them from attacking me.

Again on 22 September 1990 I was targeted and beaten by the soldiers:  the South African Defence Force, in my shack at Eaton Side in front of my children.  My properties were broken.  They accused me of knowing comrade Vusi, and of knowing about the comrade’s guns.  They took me to Flora Gardens police station near Vanderbijl park, and blind-folded me in order that I not recognize the place.  In that place, they took off the cloth and beat me, and asked me to give them information; if not, they promised to kill me. I refused to give them information:  I took the option that I would die for the ANC – I would not sell out or spy on other comrades.  I kept on saying that I did not have any information.

That resistance made them so angry that they grouped themselves and agreed that they must do something to me that I must and will not forget for the rest of my life, if I survived.  They raped me on that open veldt, all of them.  That incident of that day served their purpose, as I am still disabled today.  They took me in that bloodshed as I could not stand up and threw me next to Zone 7 stadium.  I was found by comrades who were patrolling.  The comrades took me to my shack and treated me there together with Sister Nelly.  Later, in hospital I received a serious operation, and went to several doctors for treatment.  But I still have problems of bleeding and heart pain problems.

I will appreciate if our democratic government can help me with reparations. I am unemployed.   I am unable to get proper medication.  I am unable to further my children’s education.  I am unable to get a proper house.  I still live with poverty and need proper counselling.

And this story was told to NomaRussia, as Khulumani East Rand community organiser in July 2010.  This woman said she decided to come to Khulumani after she heard about the workshops we had been holding; she wanted to tell her story. 

This woman was raped in 1992, when she was 7 or 8 months pregnant.  She lived in Denusa, by Phola Park.  She was raped by white soldiers, who came at night and attacked her in her home.  This was part of a bigger attack on Denusa as a whole.  After the rape, she ran to hide in Eden Park hall with several other women. In the hall, she got labour pains, and they took her to Natalspruit hospital, bringing her in an ambulance going around the back ways to avoid the violence that was happening in Denusa.  At Natalspruit, she gave birth to the baby: the baby was born alive although premature.  She was discharged with the baby. 

As she walked out of Natalspruit hospital, a mob of men from Inkatha were there; they came and grabbed the newborn child.  They saw it was a boy.  They said it was “another person who is going to be Mandela”.  They bashed the child’s head, and tore the body apart.  The woman was beaten and left there.  Later, the hospital guards took her back inside to treat her injuries.  But during the attack, the hospital security just ran away.  She never did know what happened to the parts of her child’s body.

When she was released from hospital after this, she went back to Denusa. She found out what happened to her sister and another woman who had fled with her to Edan Hall.  Her sister had gone back to their shack to see if it had been destroyed, if there was anything left that they could save.  She was shot dead.  Her body was taken to Germiston mortuary; then, taken by the “Holomisa busses” to the Transkei for burial. 

The third woman with them was also raped by the soldiers.  Today, she is also HIV positive, and her son is positive too.

Drawing by woman participants, Evaton, Vaal 2008


Background to the art and memory workshops:

Three years ago, we began a series of workshops in the townships of the East Rand and the Vaal  -- in the area of Thokosa and Phola Park in Katorus; in Evaton and Sharpeville/Boipatong in the Vaal; and from a township near Katlehong called Zonkesizwe.  These workshops were organized by the South African History Archive, an NGO archive that collects history from South Africa’s liberation struggle; at the request and with involvement of Khulumani Support Group, an activist organization that was originally formed to assist people to give evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Since the TRC officially completed its work and closed its doors, Khulumani has continued to mobilize around the aftermath of the political violence, to recognize, repair and redress the gaps left by South Africa’s transitional justice process. 

In these “art and memory workshops”, we aimed to engage groups of Khulumani members to make drawings and painting that would allow them to recall, and commemorate experiences which people claimed had been ignored -- or, perhaps we can more accurately say, had been suppressed -- in the conflict that consumed the East Rand and the Vaal during the 1990s.  Our stated purpose in these workshops was: to use art-making to engage with, collect, and bring to light unwritten and unrecorded events and perspectives, and to explore how these have structured our country today. 

Art-making as memory, voice, and mobilisation

In conceptualizing these workshops, we constructed a process of art-making that deliberately built upon concepts and practices developed by community arts groups engaged in, and organising around, the liberation struggle in South Africa in the 1980s. 

During the 1980s, activists used the creative arts – poetry, music, dance, theatre, and the visual arts – to enable black communities, historically so silenced, to explore and give voice to their experiences; to feed into grassroots mobilization. This approach to art-making was articulated explicitly during the  “Culture and Resistance” conference held under the auspices of Medu Art Ensemble in 1982 in Gaborone, Botswana, under the banner “Culture is a weapon of struggle”.  It draws upon an understanding of the role of creativity and art-making rooted in Africa’s past.  To quote artist Thami Mnyele, in the Gaborone conference: “We know songs and artwork which were created respectively for a particular event or action –- harvest song, dancing mask, praise singing.  A musician would play his instrument for inspiration or relaxation, just as he would harvest his crops when they were ripe  -- or take up arms if his wellbeing was threatened….”1 This formed the entry to using cultural production as an expression of community perceptions and needs, and as a foundation for mobilization.

In conceptualizing the art and memory workshops, we also drew upon more recent art-making projects in South Africa: notably, the Long Lives project for people living within the HIV and AIDS epidemic, first explored in Khayalitsha in Cape Town; upon drawings done by women ex-political prisoners at the old Johannesburg Fort museum, at Constitution Hill; upon art-making done with migrants and refugees in Johannesburg coming from conflict areas in Africa (including survivors from Rwanda, DRC, and Zimbabwe).  We also work with art-making processes used by women’s groups to explore gender-based violence that South African women experience today, as part of their daily bread.

Participants for the Khulumani Art and Memory workshops were self-chosen, joining the workshop in response to requests made at Khulumani membership meetings in the area.  This meant that participants arrived primed to raise issues of political violence that they felt needed to be expressed and explored.  Also, they knew each other well, as neighbours and friends, laying the foundations for trust and confidence needed in the process.

The workshops were designed not to pre-empt or direct participant’s input.  Rather, we encouraged participants to decide what they wanted to draw, and, based on that, what they wanted to tell publicly about that drawing.

Thus, we began by asking participants to draw images of their own experiences, the “pictures in their minds” that they wished to commemorate.  This was emphatically not an “art therapy” approach, to using drawing to connect with trauma so buried that it could not articulate.  In art therapy, the picture remains private, between the individual and the counsellor.  In our workshops, we above all, wanted participants to communicate about what had happened to them, and what they understood about that – to find a voice for these.

In these workshops, none of the participants had previous experience of drawing processes.  This did not seem to hinder their enthusiasm about drawing, or their willingness to picture even complex and painful images.  One of the common responses we get in these workshops:  I did not know how to draw, I felt like a child discovering I could make something exciting.

We then asked each person to talk about the images they had produced to the people in the workshop. This moment is critical and uncertain:  each participant must know that they have a choice and indeed right to talk or not to talk about their own experiences to the group; they must choose what they wish to make public or what should remain private.  We asked people to talk in whatever language they felt comfortable in (with translation for those of us who were not competent in languages other than English). 

As a last step, participants were asked to draw about, and discuss as a group, what they see as “the way forward”, from the issues that came up in their first drawings.

The scope of the images and stories that emerged from this process proved far beyond our initial expectations.  After the first day, we decided to bring in an experienced oral interviewer from the South African History Archives, to talk through and record each person’s story separately, so that detail was not lost.

During the workshops and afterwards, participants contrasted what happened in the workshops with what they called the “failed TRC”.  The workshops gave space to revisit their own trauma and the communities’ trauma during political violence.  It also led people to question South Africa’s institutionalized experience of recording the truth.  They asked, in effect, how at the end of so much digging for the truth in the TRC, so many of people found themselves still bleeding from open wounds.  The workshops – inevitably and also deliberately, in their structure – ended with looking at the measures they now would like to see, to heal, redress and commemorate.

Accessing women’s stories in the Art & Memory Workshops

The first workshop was not planned to look at “gender violence” and women’s stories.  But from that first day we realised that women’s experiences formed the vast majority of untold stories. Women constituted over three quarters of participants in the first three workshops; in the final one (on Zonkesizwe) only women were present.

By the end of the first workshop in Katorus, we as facilitators knew that the women’s stories we were hearing, so often for the first time, must not be called “hidden stories’, but rather suppressed and silenced stories.   These workshops made just a small arena for women to talk of their own experiences: they responded with a loud and determined demand that the experiences they endured must become part of our back story, and must inform our solutions.

“The TRC failed us as women”

Let us look here at how the art and memory workshops reinforce, give body and understanding to phrase so many of our of participants repeated: “the TRC failed us as women”.

As a point of departure: every account by women in the workshops confirmed that rape had been used wholesale against communities in the East Rand and the Vaal.  This happened in attacks by soldiers and police, by the 32 Battalion attacks in Phola Park, by hostel dwellers organized into “impis”, and at times abducting women into the hostels as “sex slaves.”  One woman describes hearing women in her neighbourhood screaming, then the men came in and raped her, left one man with her, as the group went on to attack and rape her neighbours.  From the stories women recounted, this wide-spread rape was admitted by some elements of those in power at the time: women who were raped during these attacks received once-off payouts of R15 000, on the condition that they would not lay charges of rape against government soldiers or policemen.2

Following statements by women in our workshops that they had received, or knew of women who received, these payouts, Khulumani has begun to gather more information on what precisely happened.  At the moment we are not clear what government sector made the payouts, or what criteria was used for determining that a woman should receive the payout. 

The TRC and rape


We do know that this state-sponsored gender violence in the East Rand did not feature significantly in TRC reports: it was not on their agenda. Participants in the Khulumani workshops saw several reasons for this failure.

First, the TRC did not have a category for gender violence against women: this was subsumed under “serious ill-treatment” (a category that included, for instance, solitary confinement).

NomaRussia Bonase summarized the reactions of women she talked to about the TRC hearings:
“Those who went inside to testify to the TRC were improperly prepared.  They were told what to say to the TRC.  Statement takers asked specific questions from a list; the “victim” would respond to those questions.  In the list, rape and gender violence was not a question.  If a women said it had happened to her, the interviewer often did not record it.”

Most often, NomaRussia commented:

“TRC investigators and statement-takers did not explain to women that these events could be considered part of their testimony, so the women never spoke to the TRC.  These stories never entered the TRC records.”3

The story that women in the Khulumani workshops tell of the TRC evidence gathering on rape gets worse.  They recall that when a woman did demand that their experience of rape be counted as an act of political violence, TRC statement-takers told her that they would only include it if she reported the complaint to the police.  During the 90s violence in the Rand, most women who were raped did not dare to go to the police or even the hospital: the police were seen as the perpetrators; many people believed that some doctors in Natalspruit hospital turned injured residents over to the police.  But, when the TRC statement-taker required a police report, three or four years after the event, a few women did go to the police station to file a statement.  They were laughed out of the station: “You have had sex before the soldiers were there, and you have had sex since, and only now you say you were raped?  Go home.”

Feminists and activists have repeatedly questioned the role of the TRC in failing to address rape.  Sheila Mentjies, in her submission to the TRC “special hearings on woman” in 1997 stated:

 “Of nearly 9000 cases of violations (reported in the TRC commission to date) only about nine have claimed they have been raped. Yet, in our research we came across many cases of violations which could be described as rape or where women knew of others who had been raped.”4

Fiona Ross further researched the TRC records that were “coded” to indicate sexual abuse:
“Of the 446 statements that were coded as involving sexual abuse, 398 specified the sex of the victim. Of these 158, or 40 per cent, were women. Rape was explicitly mentioned in over 140 cases.5

However, even where evidence of rape was put before the TRC, they did not act on it.  Early in the process, TRC commissioners adopted an assumption that most perpetrators of rape acted from personal motives rather than political ones. 6  The Meintjies and Goldblatt submission on gender to the TRC in 1996 states;

“.Section 20(3) of the Act enables the Amnesty Committee to assess whether a particular act was associated with a political objective…”[for rape and gender violence]”… in most cases, such acts will not be able to fall within the criteria of a political act as defined by the Act. Much of the testimony from women who suffered rights violations suggests that the threat of rape, sexual assault and rape were committed "out of personal malice, ill-will or spite, directed against the victim" in addition to the political motives or orders from a superior that may have existed. Our interpretation of the Act is that where section 20(3)(ii) applies, the perpetrator will not receive amnesty even if that person's act also meets the criteria set out in section 20(3)(a)-(f). Given the difficulty of separating the political and the personal motive in sexual abuse, few perpetrators are likely to be granted amnesty.”7

TRC investigator Piers Pigou suggests that this TRC decision not to give amnesty for perpetrators of rape had a further (unforeseen) result, that no perpetrators confessed in their statements to the TRC the admission that they had raped. Thus, even where victims reported rape, and that rape was coded into the report, the TRC could not act further upon it. 8

Apartheid and gender oppression
Women’s stories from the Khulumani workshops also give body to another argument raised by feminists about the TRC’s failing women: that apartheid, as a system, violated human rights around gender as well as race. The TRC process did recognize, but did not address within its mandate, apartheid’s systematic and institutionalized violation of women’s human rights.  The commission itself commented:

“The Commission’s relative neglect of the effects of the ‘ordinary’ workings of apartheid has a gender bias, as well as a racial one. A large number of statistics can be produced to substantiate the fact that women were subject to more restrictions and suffered more in economic terms than did men during the apartheid years. The most direct measure of disadvantage is poverty, and there is a clear link between the distribution of poverty and apartheid policies. Black women, in particular, are disadvantaged, and black women living in former home- land areas remain the most disadvantaged of all. It is also true that this type of abuse affected a far larger number of people, and usually with much longer- term consequences, than the types of violations on which the Commission was mandated to focus its attention. 9

Every woman in our workshops reported entrenched personal memories of the on-going violations in the name of apartheid.  One woman recounted having her home bulldozed around her in shack removals in Thokoza in 1986: she was pregnant and lost the child.  Others described male partners who went to the mines, came back with TB and HIV, unable to work or contribute to the family, expecting care.  A woman from Mayerton spoke about her mother who had brewed illegal beer (a common survival strategy for women “illegally” in urban areas)  -- when she was eight years old came home from school to find no one at home, and spent two days outside the house before hearing from neighbours that her mother had been arrested and deported to Lesotho.

All of the women in our workshops knew that these gendered apartheid violations held grim consequences today, in the post-apartheid era.  They know through own experience that black women in South Africa as a group remain mired down in poverty, without resources, without economic security, with no way out.

Women are primary actors not secondary victims

The Khulumani workshops reaffirmed the feminist critique of the TRC, that women’s voices, as actors and activists in their own right, were too often excluded from the TRC. Women commonly appeared as apolitical wives, sisters, mothers, or daughters to the male activist. One woman in the Katorus workshop said:

“We need to respect that we were still in the fight for liberation, still on that long walk.  When we fought there, it was to defend our families, to defend our lives, to defend our gains.” 

Feminists have argued that women’s experiences of political violence were different because of their gender – but these experiences were no less an integral part of the struggle.

The gendered nature of women’s activism reflected attitudes in the broader society, including the liberation movements.  In the introduction to a paper describing their groundbreaking submission on gender in the TRC, Sheila Meintjies and Ruth Goldblatt observe:

“In South Africa political violence during the apartheid era was often seen as the expression of the collective political action of men confronting an authoritarian regime or asserting the political power of social movements. Where women were recognised as participants, their role was often conceived as merely a supportive one."10

Thus Sheila Mentjies and Ruth Goldblatt alerted the TRC to gender bias in that:

“over half of those who spoke (to the commission) were women, but that the roles and capacities in which women and men spoke differed. They saw that, while the overwhelming majority of women spoke as relatives and dependants of those (mainly males) who had directly suffered human rights violations, most of the men spoke as direct victims. … this pattern persisted over the full period of the hearings.”11

Researcher Fiona Ross analysed 204 testimonies presented during the first five weeks of Commission hearings. Her results stated

‘close on six of every ten deponents were women, but that over three-quarters of the women’s testimonies and 88 per cent of the men’s testimonies were about abuses to men. Only 17 per cent of the women’s testimonies and 5 per cent of the men’s were about abuses to women, with the remainder about abuses to women and men. Ross found that 25 per cent of all cases involved women speaking about their sons, 11 per cent were women speaking about their spouses and 8 per cent were women speaking about their brothers. Only 4 per cent of the cases involved men speaking about sons, and 0 per cent of the cases involved men speaking about either spouses or sisters.”12

Pumla Gobada-Madikizela later wrote:
“More than half of the statements received by the commission were made by women, with black women accounting for approximately 60% of these statements.  In general, men appearing before the TRC spoke directly about their own experiences of pain and spoke of it in straightforward terms as human rights violations.  Women for the most part, addressed the suffering of others, usually sons and husbands, and were more circumspect in speaking about their own experiences of human rights abuses than men."13


The commission did make an effort to become more open to women’s experiences.  But perhaps this response is best represented by the Commissions own report:

“The Commission also attempted to amend its procedures in ways that would encourage women to speak. By April 1997, the form used by the Commission to record statements had been refined (Version 5) and included the following cautionary note:

IMPORTANT: Some women testify about violations of human rights that happened to family members or friends, but they have also suffered abuses. Don’t forget to tell us what happened to you yourself if you were the victim of a gross human rights abuse.”14

In 1997 the TRC took steps to address shortfalls in how they dealt with women’s stories. The commission held a week of hearings specifically directed towards women’s experiences, and particularly focused on gendered violence against women. However, these hearings did not revisit the larger arena of issues facing women that never made it into the hearing.  Thus, in Johannesburg, the Special Hearing for Women heard evidence from 17 people (two of whom were men).

Yet a decade later in the Khulumani workshops, women still perceived that TRC processes did not view women as actors in the violence, but only as victims.  No women were cited as perpetrators of human rights violations, from any side; women warders and police officers were not asked to apply for amnesty, even where women prisoners did recite violations against them by women.

In collecting statements for the TRC,

“women were asked who died – their husband or son – and what his political affiliation was, which organization he was with. If your husband or son was killed, you must answer questions about the man’s political connections.  You were not asked about your own political involvement.  Women were not asked what organization they themselves belonged to, or what they had done politically, or their actions within the struggle.  They were not even asked what had happened to them except as it happened to their families. ”15

Women in Khulumani’s workshops affirm that women acted from political motives, and with defiance – while accepting that society gave them different spaces for this action.  Most women in black communities were not expected to resist with arms (with the exception of those few trained with the liberation movements).  Yet, our workshop participants insisted, during conflict women put their lives on the line to defend their families, their community, and their beliefs. 

A woman hid an activist son or husband in a trunk when the soldiers came, then stood there denying that she knew where the man was: the woman was shot dead for this.

An elderly women in the Zonkesizwe workshop spoke of three sons killed by police and two others tortured and left permanently maimed.  She herself was targeted in a shooting, and her house attacked.  When asked why this happened to her, she said:  “I helped my sons mobilise COSAS in Katlehong, and they used my house for meetings.”  She did not expect to be recognized, and did not seek redress, as an “activist”, but only as a mother.


 Women are “too vulnerable to open up” on trauma

Another area where the Khulumani workshops may shed light on the “silence” around women’s experiences lies around the oft-made claim that violations against women are too traumatic and too personal for women to tell.  Even the feminist critiques demanding that women’s voices be heard within the TRC said that the women would be unable to openly proclaim their experiences and defend their own actions.  Thus Mientjies and Goldblatt comment that:

“… women who have themselves suffered violations and in particular, those who have suffered sexual abuse, find it very difficult to speak openly about their experiences. Women tend to define their suffering in relation to other people such as their husbands and children and are reluctant to make public their own experiences of abuse which society often sees as belonging in the private realm."16

Emphasizing the trauma of disclosing “suffered violations”, and the demand for privacy and confidentiality as protection for people portrayed as “victims”, can add to the already high barriers to women putting their voices on the record. 

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela quotes psychologist Ms Nomfundo Walaza, questioning whether women are strengthened or weakened by disclosure:

“We talk very glibly about the fact that we can show our weaknesses in a way that will render us much more strong later on. Some women are sceptical that the process will uncover the wounds that are healing and render them even more vulnerable that they started off with… 17

In our workshops, we became increasing convinced that the sharing the pain can become a point of strength, if this is done in the correct circumstance. Women were adamant that they would tell their stories; and afterwards, each said they felt stronger, affirmed, by the telling.

But these women are also aware that this “openness” cannot occur in an unsupportive and hostile environment.  They would not talk about gendered trauma if they felt the audience sat in judgment on a patriarchal seat; or that their story would confirm that they are helpless and hopeless victims. Where a process encourages a person to open their pain to the community, the process must be prepared to give support and encouragement.  That support must go beyond individual sympathy.  Women are aware that “opening up” in a wrong context may leave the woman subject to further “victimization”, even within their own community and family.  A story told of rape as part of political violence too often ends in a breakdown of the marriage as a result of the rape.  The man feels he could not do his duty to protect her; she does not want sex with anyone; the man accuses the woman of “asking for it”.

The silencing and blame that surrounds the HIV epidemic must also be given special attention here, as adding to the suppression of women’s stories. Today, we are aware that HIV spreads far more rapidly in the presence of blood, and violence; and through rape.  Studies suggest that five years after 32 Battalion soldiers committed wide-scale rape in Phola, many of those soldiers showed infection with HIV (by 2000, some studies indicated 60 – 90% of 32 battalion soldiers had the virus).  But, very few women who were raped in Phola Park in 1992 went to the hospital or the police; we have no record that any woman was tested for HIV after the rapes.  Women tell us:  “I survived, I was still alive; I was not going to risk my survival reporting to police about what they did to me.” A decade later, when many of these women find they are HIV positive, we are expected to look at the woman’s supposed immoral behaviour, or their husband’s behaviour, to explain the infection.

(Un)counted bodies

Drawing by Zonkesizwe workshop participant, East Rand, 2009

The TRC focused on those directly involved in violence, rather than on those it defined as “caught in the middle” – people who today we call “collateral damage”.  Women and children, in that commonly promoted view, were always “caught in the middle”; they were not political activists.  There was little effort to find redress for those who were damaged “in passing”, to deal with after effects such people lived with -- mental trauma, physically unhealthy conditions such as HIV, or the inability to find or engage in paid employment.

The TRC reports that their records show only one out of six killed in the anti-apartheid struggle were women.  We have no conclusive evidence about the actual numbers of women who died.  Yet in the workshops we held story after story tell of people, often women, killed in violence in the townships, and buried by their families or in pauper’s graves or even in mass graves – not recognized as political killings.

 “They sent her body back home to the Transkei on the Holomisa busses”, one women told us, describing her sister killed during the security forces’ rampage of rape and murder in Phola Park.18

Towards redress: the (un)accountable perpetrators

A memory process dealing with traumatic experience must provide support and compassion:  it must also provide a way forward. 

NomaRussia Bonase summed up the TRC process from Khulumani’s perspective: 

“The TRC looked at what it called political issues from a white view, and from a male view.  It was trying to calm the situation, put peace and reconciliation in place; to accommodate the perpetrators ultimately, to gain reconciliation.”19

This should be placed into the dialogue about the success of amnesty deals in addressing the problems of transitional justice.   In an essay written in 2008, W. Isaak looks at the peaking rates of gender violence today.  She asks:

“how the ‘amnesty deal’ as a political compromise impacted on women who experienced gender violence during apartheid. What seems obvious is that political compromises are hostile and antagonistic to holding human rights violators accountable. Whereas they are intended to end the political conflict, there are certain forms of violence that may be exacerbated by the nature of the deal or compromise and in the case of South Africa, this relates to gender violence.”20

She argues that there are “various forms of violence and gross violations of human rights for which perpetrators are held (un)accountable at the end of the conflict” – gender violence is perhaps the most outstanding of these.21


Coming out of the Art and Memory Workshops:  Issues arising

Speaking to images, Zonkesizwe workshop, 2009


The art and memory workshops taught us valuable lessons beyond placing into our archives those voices that state: “this happened to us as women, this is what we did, this is how we survived”.

1. Look at human rights violations, political violence, and conflict through a gendered perspective. 
We need to collect and analyse basic information by gender, and from a gendered perspective.

Today we have no real concept of how many woman were raped as an act of the political violence; and how that fits into women’s lives today.  NomaRussia Bonase, for Khulumani, has begun to compile a list of women who were raped by soldiers during this time, in the 1990-1994 East Rand violence. Each of these comes with unresolved trauma:  a woman cannot have children as a result of the rape; a woman has problems with her husband who is unemployed and is still traumatized today from the attacks; another woman and her child have HIV, possibly a result of the rape.

There are no statistics, or even estimates, of how many people who were infected by HIV as a result of rape during the attacks. 

There are not even reliable estimates of how many women were killed as part of the political violence, especially in the 1990s.  We can possibly get a better estimate by counting reports in the Khulumani files of men and women missing and dead -- Khulumani now has over 60 000 reports from survivors and victims. (This compares to some 20 000 cases recorded by the TRC).  Khulumani reports are not limited by TRC assumptions that may have led to undercounting women’s deaths.

2.  Express ourselves; remember our trauma and our strength. 
We need to re-address the assumption that women do not want to, or cannot, be open about their own traumatic experiences. Rather than surrounding women with higher walls in the name of protecting them from their own pain, we need to search for mechanisms that ensure woman can recount their experiences in an environment of trust and support, as part of a process of bringing these realities into the public domains.

Our workshop results tell us that women DO want a space and a context where they can address what has happened to them – they want to put it into public debate, but from a positive perspective; in a way that reaches towards recognizing their own strengths, and finding their own solutions.

3. Mobilising women around women’s issues.
In the process of organizing workshops, we debated at length the advantages, and disadvantages, of holding workshops for women alone, without men present. 

A number of positives come from “women only” workshops.  Women often are more willing to express themselves in “women only” circumstances, especially where men participants may not have fully thought through their own patriarchal preconceptions.  Where women have been told all their lives that their issues and ideas are not important or relevant, having a man present who subtly or unsubtly repeats this will close down the discussion. ... We often find men are not willing just to listen, and to hear about, women’s perspectives and understandings, or experiences.  We do not need to have a man stand up in a workshop by women and for women, saying that “a man’s role is to lead and protect women who have survived these horrors”.  In many cultures, women are taught to that men and women should never openly discuss sex (including sexual organs, acts, violations, feelings…).

At the same time, having men who are supportive and encouraging women’s expression as part of the process can become very empowering to the women. 

A tentative answer to this debate may be: having men in the collective is fine, but they must be the right men, and already educated, aware, and perceptive about the problems women face.  You may have to decide if you want to spend workshop time educating the men that are not already supportive; and dealing with fall-out if they attempt to assert what they see as their own established power and status over a group of women.

4. Perpetuators of gender violence remain in positions of power over women.
Political compromises which historically failed to address violence against women leave women today vulnerable and victimized.  Isaak writes:

We need to ascertain how political compromises impacted on women who engaged with the transitional mechanism; what a transformed society entails for all women living daily with the reality and fear of violence and for women who continue to not only be marginalised but also sexually violated simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.  As will be evidenced by this work, this transformative agenda of the Truth Commission remains a point of serious contention in numerous fora.22           

For perpetrators of gender violence during the political struggle:  Their crimes have never been recognized, much less dealt with.  Many perpetrators of gender violence continue in formal roles in which they can and do use force against women on a regular basis – notably, in the police and at times the military.  The distance from using force to “correct” behaviour in women that they deal with, and gender violence, is not so very far. 

“People are traumatized– if they see the police, white people, they say they are still the agents of apartheid; these are still the same. They still have the same corruption they had before. If you are raped, they laugh at you. They call other ones, (saying) ‘see, this one comes with a story of rape, of someone who was shot’’23.

Issacks suggest that we must acknowledge:

“ that transitional mechanisms do not address inter alia structural and systemic gender inequality… in some cases there is not only an omission, but also through this and other actions, mechanisms such as the Truth Commission in South Africa may entrench various forms of inequality and hegemonies by reproducing problematic gender stereotypes.24   

We hear stories of South African police today who regularly “arrest” sex workers on weekend nights, rape them, and then abandon them in highly dangerous, deserted neighbourhoods far from any public transport.  This is a pattern we often hear happened to women activists in the last 80s and early 90s.  No one has established if it is the same individuals who persist in behaviour that they got away with in the past.

Ditto for other men who rape and abuse wives and girlfriends.  How many men have a history of perpetrating gender violence in conditions of conflict, and now take it as on some level “acceptable” social behaviour.

In this context: we note with concern that having a president who was found not guilty of rape in the courts may serve to reinforce attitudes that men who have power can demand and get sex without fear of consequences.  Women in our workshops tell of a police station commander in the East Rand who has been charged with  sexual harassment of a women constable; his male colleagues have nicknamed him, with approval, “Msholozi”  (the president’s family name).

For those women who survived gender violence during conflict: they, and all women, need to know that society does not condone this.  A relevant story that emerged after the Katlehong workshops is told by a woman who was raped by the 32 Battalion in 1992, in front of her eight year old daughter.  The woman fled Phola Park the next day, with the child, to the Eastern Cape; her marriage collapsed.  She never discussed the trauma with anyone; not at all with the child.  But when the child turned 15, in the Eastern Cape, the daughter was gang-raped at gunpoint.  She could not talk about her experiences, although her mother believes she knew who the men were.  A month later two men came back to the house, while she was not there, asking for the girl --the men went and raped the neighbouring woman.  Again, no steps were taken.  The 15 year old daughter took poison and killed herself.  The mother says now she must tell this story, because she feels the silence contributed to the child’s despair.

5.  Above all:  we need to look at memories of trauma and gender violence in the context of women’s struggle and of mobilization. 
Calling on women to forgive and forget only gives a nod to women as victims.  We need to look at our strengths as well:  to recall, so that we can repair, redress, go forward.    

The Art and Memory workshops occurred within the context of Khulumani as an activist organization.  NomaRussia summarises this lesson:

“In these workshops, we as women become active citizens, to shape our own lives and our own world; to change the laws, and make the country work for our children and future generations.”



1. Thami Mnyele, quoted in J Seidman

2. Art and Memory workshop transcripts, Katlehong, 2007 (JS papers)

3. comment by Noma-Russia on interviews for Khulumani with survivors, 2 August 2010

4. Sheila Mentjies, submission to the TRC, 1997, http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/special/women/meintjie.htm

5. Op. Cit, Fiona Ross, cited in Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, Vol 4, Special Hearings on Women, p.299

6. After 1993, studies of gender violence in Rwanda and Croatian have widely refuted this approach.  However, when the SA TRC began, it remained a widespread perception.

7.Sheila Meintjies and Ruth Goldblatt, Gender and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, A submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, May 1996, http://www.justice.gov.za/trc//hrvtrans/submit/gender.htm

Political violence and gender: a neglected relation in South Africa's struggle for democracy, 1998, http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/title~content=t713442999

8. Piers Pigou, personal communication to JS, Khulumani workshop March 2007.

9, Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, Vol 4, Special Hearings on Women,

10. Meintjies p.1 1998

11.Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, Vol 4, Special Hearings on Women, p.///

12. Ibid, page 291 citing Ross, FC (1996),‘Speech and Silence: Women’s Testimony in the First Five Weeks of Public Hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’, p 22.

13. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Women’s Contributions to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2005 paper page. Vii, http://www.huntalternatives.org/pages/8081_women_s_contributions_to_south_africa_s_truth_and_reconciliation_commission.cfm

14. Op cit, Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, Vol 4, Special Hearings on Women, p.299

15. NomaRussia, Bonasa, personal communication, August 2010

16. Sheila Meintjies and Ruth Goldblatt, Gender and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, A submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, May 1996, http://www.justice.gov.za/trc//hrvtrans/submit/gender.htm

17.Op cit., Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, Vol 4, Special Hearings on Women, p.299

18.NomaRussia, Bonasa, personal communication, August 2010

19. ibid, NomaRussia, Bonasa

20. Wendy Isaack - University of Ulster "Deferred and disremembered? Sexual Violence against women in ‘post-conflict’ South Africa”, www.nihrc.org/.../W_Isaack_dissertation_2006_Essay_Prize_Winner.pdf

21. Op cit., Isaak

22. Ibid,  Isaak p14

23.NomaRussia Bonasa, personal communication, August 2010

24. Op cit, Isaak p13