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The South African freedom fighter who wouldn’t betray her comrades and lost her life for it

August 6, 2018
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When delving into the details of a sordid history such as that of apartheid South Africa, we are reminded that the history that is taught and shared is often an abbreviated version of an uglier reality. When people think of the anti-apartheid movement, their minds usually go straight to Nelson Mandela and his comrades, painting a rather masculine picture of a movement that owed much of its efficacy to the women that sacrificed for it. Phila Portia Ndwandwe was one of many fighters who were part of African National Congress’ armed wing Mkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) that have been left out of the anti-apartheid narrative.

This is Phila Ndwandwe. In 1985, Phila was recruited into the ANC. She became an MK fighter. 3 years later, she was…

Posted by Fikile Ngobeni on Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Ndwandwe joined the anti-apartheid movement in 1985 as a MK fighter while she was still a dental therapy at what was then the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. In 1986, the apartheid security police discovered an ‘Area Political Military Committee’ that was working in Kwa-Zulu Natal under the name ‘Operation Butterfly’. Apartheid police initiated a crackdown on the area, arresting 54 fighters on 23 December 1986. Ndwandwe was released on the condition that she would be used as state witness but never testified because she left the country to continue her fight in neighboring Swaziland.

Ndwandwe’s position in Swaziland was compromised by informants, leading to her abduction “from Swaziland by Lieutenant Sam du Preez, Sergeant Lawrence Wasserman, Colonel Andy Taylor, Mr J A Steyn and Mr J A Vorster in October 1988. At the time of her kidnapping, she had a two-month old baby boy, Thabani, who was with his father, Bheki Mabuza, a fellow ANC cadre,” according The Spear of The Nation Military Veterans Association. Ndwandwe was tortured in hopes of being turned into an informant but when her captors realized that she wouldn’t be of use to them, she was bludgeoned, shot in the head and buried in an unmarked grave on a piece of land just 10 kilometers from where her family resided.

Ndwandwe’s is one of many lost fighters but as we “celebrate” Women’s Month in South Africa, the fact that she was abducted while breastfeeding is a symbolic moment for how we remember our freedom fighters, but also, who we remember. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created after the fall of apartheid in order to unearth the truth about the lives silently snuffed out by the apartheid police and it was through the TRC that Phila’s father, Nason Ndwandwe was able to find out the truth about the true whereabouts of his daughter – the family had mentioned that they received anonymous calls saying she was safe but the family did not believe it when she did return with other exiled fighters after Mandela’s release in 1990.

“The Mandela government had appointed the Truth Commission in 1995 to establish the truth about South Africa’s apartheid regime. In 1993 a compromise had been reached by the outgoing white regime and Mandela and the A.N.C. which averted civil war and made the peaceful transition possible: perpetrators of political killings under apartheid would receive amnesty on a case-by-case basis, in return for full disclosure of their activities.” – The New Yorker

The rhetoric around the TRC has been divided, as stated in a 1997 New Yorker article detailing that “many people dislike the trade of amnesty for disclosure–in effect leaving the criminals unpunished–yet most believe that the full truth about the killings under apartheid will never come out without it.” It can be argued whether Ndwnadwe’s killers admitting to blindfolding and shooting her is justice and that still plays into a South Africa that still has issues with racial unrest. On top of the racial tension, the treatment of women in South Africa also bleeds into how they’re depicted or whether they are depicted at all in history. As Women’s Day approaches on the 9th of August, the conversation around South Africa’s resistance history needs to be expanded to include the brave women who fought a racist government and – on many occasions – their own comrades. That however, is a story for another day.

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