The apartheid regime brought up so many wounds too many people of South Africa. Many challenges transpired in that period of struggle, some heroes and heroines were celebrated but others were forgotten, their story went by the wind. Through being tortured and being treated lesser, many are still living with their wounds and some have used their wounds to tell a story and help others to go through it.
PALESA TSHABALA, born in Soweto on the 29 December 1964 was one of the women who was arrested at a very young age as one of a political prisoners. She was only 12 years when she was taken to No. 4 women’s jail at the Constitution Hill on the 18th of June 1976, two days later after the Soweto riots where young people risked their lives and sacrificed their future to voice out their struggles against apartheid.
Introduced by her mother to the underground struggle movement at a very young age, PALESA used to accompany her to all the political meetings. Being a child at that time, she remembers her being sent from one point to other as a source of information between the comrades. During this time she got to meet many of the struggle heroes, some of them even stayed in their house when they were in hiding and some were helped to go to exile.
She knew the risks that the comrades were taking to destabilise the regime and could relate with the passion, which was their driving force. The same passion flowed through the veins of younger freedom fighters who inspired us at school and at youth meetings.
When she attended the meetings, it became increasingly evident that her place was with the comrades fighting against apartheid. “We were all tired of experiencing the injustices of apartheid. It felt so unfair that we blacks had to be treated differently from the whites. Everything around us seemed to remind us that we were no more than second class citizens who were suffocating. We had to fight and stand our ground, and it didn’t matter how old we were, what we knew is it was time for change”
At youth meetings the discussions began to focus on how to fight back the oppression. Since most of the elders had been too scared to act and would rather go and drink in shebeens, we decided to sacrifice their future so the struggle could become more effective. The meetings were kept secret because we needed to be careful of the informants; the spies were not easy to identify. They infiltrated our meeting to gain information for the police about our whereabouts, our activities and who the main troublemakers were.
“The police had me on their list of ‘troublemakers’ and on 18 June 1976 they went on a children hunt looking for the youth who had participated in the Soweto riots two days before. An informant gave them my name and pointed out my house. It was a nightmare, my family and I had just finished dinner when we heard police cars screeching to stop outside our gate – I knew they had come to get me so I ran into the bedroom and hid under the bed. A white police officer grabbed me by the feet and pulled me out.
There was a lot of commotion. Not just in our house but in the neighbouring houses as well. That’s when I realised that other children were also getting arrested. When they were dragging me out of the house, I screamed and screamed. My family was also screaming and begging the police not to hurt me, but they didn’t listen. They forcefully took me into the van.
The vehicle drove away from our homes and took us to Orlando Police Station where we were kept for the night. The next morning they put me into a white car, telling me that they were taking me to lunch but instead they took me to “Number 4” – the women’s jail.
Prison was hell. We were constantly humiliated and made to live in unhygienic conditions. I had never seen so much filth as I did in that prison; the mattresses and blankets were dirty and there were lice everywhere but we only allowed to wash once a month. The wardens made sure we lived in filth and deprivation. Although my family was not wealthy, our home was at least comfortable and clean. The prison stood dark in contrast. I will never forget the horrible sensation of having hundreds of lice crawling over my body each night as I attempted to sleep.
The rations were scarce. They would divide a single match into four pieces for four people to share. Our meals consisted of parboiled, dry maize with pigs ears that still had hair on them. Today i can’t stand the sight of porridge, I also can’t eat pork – it makes me want to vomit. After 40 years, I recently managed for the first time to enjoy maize.
What brings back the tears when I think of prison, today, is the humiliation that all the women faced when they had to endure the beatings and body searches in front of younger kids like me. The prison had an open courtyard that was not very high and any person living or working in the high-rises around the prison could see everything that was happening in the courtyard.
Twenty women were made to bath at the same time in large, single, metal bath tubs, which had been filled with cold water. The prisoners had to bath, right there, in full view of the outside world. On Sundays there would be what wardens called the Thwasa dance where the women were lined up naked in the courtyard. They were asked to bend over and open their buttocks and the wardens would search their vaginas for hidden objects. It was excruciating hearing the screaming and attempting to move away from prodding fingers.
No one including my mother was allowed to visit me while I was in prison.
She desperately wanted a better future for me. After prison I went to a boarding school in Rustenburg but was expelled when the matron found out that I was an activist and I went back to Soweto. But things had changed, the schools had closed down and a lot of my comrades had disappeared. It was hard and the community was divided. It was hard for them to come to terms with what had happened during and after the 16 June riots.
Not going to school meant that I had nothing to do, so I reconnected with Kgadi a young girl who was also arrested at the same time as me. We shared a mutual fear about no longer having a future and how our lives would end up, we decided it would be better to join Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) than do nothing with our lives.
We had heard that our comrade, Chris Hani, was living in Lesotho at the time so we wanted to go to Maseru to see him, to become part of the MKs. Without any money we travelled to Maseru hiding under the seats in a bus. Eventually when we met comrade Chris Hani and he told us we were too young to join the MKs and took us to Saint Francis Roman Catholic School in Qachansnek where we were enrolled to study.
In 1989 when the winds of a new era began to blow and there rumours about Nelson Mandela’s pending release, the comrades wanted us to go back to Johannesburg. I had barely been back in Soweto for a week when a policeman came to our house again – as with the first time they took me to Orlando police station and then to “Number 4”.
I was given a newspaper. This time it said “Still Arrested for Terrorism Act”. I could not believe I was going to be incarcerated again in that hell-hole. The memories I had begun to bury, resurfaced like ghosts; reminding me that I had never left the chamber of horrors.
Today I’m a 53-year-old and I remember these events like yesterday. 1994 marked the end of an oppressors’ regime and the beginning of our democracy but the euphoria of a new era did little to ease the trauma and anxiety that grips whenever I think back on my time spent in prison.
In 2004, one of the municipal Councillors invited us to an event at No. 4 where we were asked to share our stories. I was told that a group of ex-political prisoners would be meeting me for the first time since the end of apartheid but I refused to go back there.
The women’s jail, after so many years, was very difficult. It is easy to forgive but you cannot forget. Horrible memories come flooding back into my mind, gripping me with fear – I
A fear I can’t explain. I get very scared thinking they would lock me up again in those merciless cells.
Today, I thank God because I’m a living testament of a very painful history. I still carry deep wounds that are difficult to heal but I hope that sharing my story will help and offload some of the painful burdens I have been carrying all my life. By sharing my story, I also hope to bring awareness to the younger generations, reminding them that the freedom they are experiencing today, came at a cost. It cost us our lives to obtain it, so it is important for me to see them hold on to that freedom, like it is the most precious thing they could ever have. Seeing them appreciate the freedom would make the sacrifices that my generation made, worthwhile.”
Palesa has now partnered with Khulisa Social Solutions in a storytelling programme which is part of the organisation’s broader intervention in terms of the development of resilience based on Khulisa’s Dare to Dream programme that focuses on positive adjustment to adversity and is based on Michael Ungar’s social ecology of resilience theory.