Christopher Merret
2 minute read
19 Apr 2021

Book Review | Testimony to their courage

Christopher Merret

The apartheid era was punctuated by prosecutions that attempted to criminalise opposition political activity.

TITLE: Women in Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid

AUTHOR: Shanthini Naidoo

PUBLISHER: Tafelberg

REVIEWER: Christopher Merrett

The apartheid era was punctuated by prosecutions that attempted to criminalise opposition political activity.

One, the trial of Ndou and 21 others, took place in Pretoria from late 1969.

Shanthini Naidoo’s book centres on interviews with four of the women involved in this trial shortly after the funeral in April 2018 of Winnie Madikizela Mandela, the most prominent of those prosecuted.

The charges involved keeping the underground ANC operational in the late 1960s.

The prosecution gave up in February 1970 after Shanthie Naidoo and Nondwe Mankahla refused to give evidence for the state.

All those discharged were re-detained until late 1970. So were the recalcitrant witnesses at the end of their sentences.

A habeas corpus application predictably failed: the courts had no jurisdiction under the Terrorism Act. Such was the sheer evil of apartheid’s police state.

Activists literally disappeared into limbo where they suffered the psychological torture of solitary confinement and sleep deprivation.

READ | Women undercover: The five apartheid spies who inspired Thebe Magugu’s ‘Counter Intelligence’

Assault was routine and standing on bricks for hours is mentioned by these interviewees.

The mind games imposed on women often featured their children.

Warders persecuted detainees by deliberate inattention to chronic medication, there was a general lack of hygiene, detainees used the same clothes for weeks on end, and the food was often putrid.

But it is clear from these accounts that solitude was the worst aspect and there were many thoughts of, even attempts at, suicide.

Police special branch already had what they needed, but confirmation was required as legal evidence.

The ability of detainees to refuse to testify once they got to court was a powerful weapon, although used at considerable cost, including re-acquaintance with police torturers.

Such were the foot soldiers of the anti-apartheid struggle and their history is testimony to remarkable, disciplined commitment at great cost.

Life after detention for the four former detainees is examined at length and includes revealing interviews with children and grandchildren that cover trans-generational trauma.

There is also a long critique of the TRC concluding that forgiveness must be matched by genuine remorse.

A weakness of this book is limited historical context. It is implied that the 1969 to 1970 trial was a key event, but there is little evidence it was any more significant than many others.

However, the author has made a significant contribution by recording the fading memories of courageous women now well advanced in years.