New Books | Women in Solitary

Shanthini Naidoo tells the story of jailed activists and those around them – how each person coped with the brutality of detention and exile to find their own versions of freedom.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Women in Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid (Tafelberg, 2020) by Shanthini Naidoo. 

The effect on Oliver Nkosinathi Rankin, Joyce’s son, who was 54 at the time of writing, was profound. From his home in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, he shares with me that this is one of the first times he has been interviewed about his experience in relation to his mother.

As an adult in his 20s he attended Joyce’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing. “I remember I cried for days after the hearing because of what she had gone through. After that I employed the coping mechanism which I have used most of my life, I now realise: forgetting about it and not thinking about it. I left it to my parents, hoping that one day they would sit down and explain. I think they both found it hard, and to this day that has not happened. Most of the things that mum went through I learned through other people or from what I have read. Not from her. It has affected me.”

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The thoughts seem to spill out of his mind. His story is one that is inextricably tied to South Africa, even though he was moved around the world by his parents in their commitment to the liberation of the country at the bottom of the African continent.

“When I was in South Africa during 2017, I attended a life coaching course and what emanated from this was that I had never dealt with the unique way I grew up,” he tells me. “I have always trusted the decisions I have made because I became self-reliant at an early age and therefore any decisions I made only impacted on me; whether right or wrong. Then I got married at 22 and was a dad at 23. This was the first time I became responsible for others. I have to say now, in retrospect, I thought I managed it reasonably, because my family was supported really well. However, I did frequently have bouts of anxiety and depression arising from not knowing why my mother had chosen to ‘abandon’ me at that young age. She was in her early 20s when she was deeply involved with the ANC. To this day I have never blamed her for it. She had to do what she had to do.”

However, as a seven year old, he was left with his grandmother until Joyce could bring the children together again. He was 11 when he was uplifted from his home in Soweto to move to Dundee in Scotland, then uprooted again once he had settled there, to Mozambique, then to Swaziland, Zimbabwe and finally South Africa. His life has been a series of journeys.

He only vaguely remembers the journey to the UK in 1977. “I didn’t know what was happening. At the time living in Soweto, the matriarch was my grandmother, Amelia. It was during the uprisings, and she protected me from things that were going on. I wasn’t aware at all that my mother had gone into exile.

“I remember the day when we were in Jan Smuts Airport, boarding the plane to go to the UK. I remember us boarding the plane with Nana [his sister Nomzamo], two other people whom I don’t remember clearly, and my grandmother. I later learned the story of how we could go over. Mum and dad were able to get politicians in London, Labour Party minister Robin Cook, in particular, who were able to get us over by putting political pressure on the South African government. We didn’t have passports and hadn’t been out of the country.

“I don’t know if it was exciting, but as an 11 year old out of Johannesburg who had never travelled overseas, it was a milestone. I remember the flight, and landing in Heathrow, mostly because of the change in temperature. I must have fallen asleep because I remember waking up when we were landing, and feeling the cold. When the plane was descending, I remember us going through the clouds and then being met at the airport by mum and dad and my other siblings.”

He describes himself as a reserved person. “As a boy, I was not very emotional. I remember being happy to see mum but I didn’t have a sense of a time since I’d last seen her … of missing her. It was more a feeling of recognition: Oh, there’s mum. Growing up in Soweto, I hardly saw her anyway. She was a young mother and working, and very involved in her political work. In terms of being a motherly presence, she wasn’t there, which is not a criticism, it is just how it was. We always had the support of my grandmother.”

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At first they stayed with friends in London’s Muswell Hill. “It wasn’t such an adjustment for me, surprisingly, but I know that suddenly there were many more white people,” he laughs. “But it didn’t register much, and I know some of our ANC kids who actually were traumatised by the place because it was so different. It wasn’t like that for me. I realise, now, that it was part of my coping mechanism, to register and then disregard sudden changes like that.”

The family travelled to Scotland which would become their new home. “When I saw Vikela for the first time, we were close in age and there was an immediate acceptance, I didn’t question it. We were in Edinburgh to meet the new extended family. My dad’s parents and uncles and aunts added a lot to our lives. It was really good. And then we moved to Dundee, that is where we were based. And that’s where I started school properly.”

Nkosinathi says his schooling was interrupted by South Africa’s instability. “To be truthful, I didn’t really go to school before moving to the UK. I know we tried. There was a specific date, June 16, 1976, when I was 10 years old. That was my first day in Soweto. Of course, half an hour later we were told to get out of class – and I never went back.” He gives a wry laugh as he recounts this, then continues: “So, I hadn’t gone to school until we moved to Scotland in 1977. I can’t explain how I caught up. I could read. I knew how to write, and do maths. I don’t have any clear recall of how that came to be. The only thing I can think of is that my grandmother taught me.”

His grandmother returned to South Africa where, in the 1980s, she passed away. “We were overseas when my grandmother died,” Nkosinathi says. “In fact, I haven’t visited her grave.”

He remembers being enrolled in school and that he was the first black person to attend the primary school in Dundee. “The school was called Blackness Primary, ironically,” he says. “I was put in a class with kids my same age, and mostly, I fitted in. Again with my coping mechanism, I didn’t realise I was the only black person in a school of white children.”

He does recall one incident around the American television series Roots, which is about a Gambian slave’s journey into America. “There was a boy called Frankie who had watched this show and was very fascinated with the main character, Kunta Kinte, and how he looked like me. And of course, Frankie would call me Kunta Kinte,” he says with slight chagrin. “I didn’t know, but people around me made me realise it was a racist term. I don’t think Frankie knew either, and we actually became really good friends after we worked that out.”

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Life progressed steadily … but it wasn’t going to remain still for long. “I got promoted a year forward,’ Nkosinathi says, “and moved to high school. Then, in my first year in high school, mum and dad suddenly threw a bombshell – we were moving to Mozambique!” He laughs. “We packed up quite quickly. They were obviously planning it, but for us kids it was sudden. We ended up in Maputo, and that wasn’t a very nice experience for me. We had no worries in Scotland. We could get everything we needed. Our friends were there, and we had shops and cinemas. Well, we arrived at the airport and as soon as I got off the plane I got a nosebleed – because it was so hot.”

Memories that come back include living in a substandard hotel “in the middle of nowhere” where his father contracted a furious bout of food poisoning. “That prompted my mother to take us four children straight to the housing department. She said, ‘We are not leaving until you find us a place to stay’ and basically barricaded ourselves at the ministry. That night they found us a place to go to … a house barely furnished and not nice at all. I had gone up the stairs to the bathroom. The water from the tap was brown, and the pipes made a huge banging noise.”

After a few weeks, the family eventually settled in a proper house close to the beach. The children were enrolled in the international school with children of diplomats and foreign workers like his father. “There were friends from the UK, Holland and China etcetera.”

But once again he was jarred from his idyll. “Suddenly I was told that I, only I, would be moved to Swaziland to attend boarding school.”

The teenager was not thrilled at the idea, but accepted the change with his father’s encouragement. “Everything for me wasn’t permanent. Dad just said, ‘Let’s pack,’ one weekend. So Maputo to Manzini happened really quickly. I only found out much, much later, and maybe I should have known, that the choice of Mozambique was because they [his parents] were very much involved in the ANC movement, which was quite active in Swaziland too. I lived in a flat alone with a helper, and went to school. There I became good friends with Helena Dolny [who would later be married to ANC leader Joe Slovo]. I spent a lot of time with Auntie Ruth [First], and we sometimes saw Auntie Shanthie, and Uncle Joe. But I didn’t know them as part of the movement. They were our friends and family.”

A random thought comes to him while thinking about his high school days. “There were South African prisoners in Swaziland, and the police station cells were on my school route. In fact my uncle was once imprisoned there for a while and he could see me from the road. I would try and walk past at the same time all the time, to create a routine so that we could greet each other.”

He went to a Catholic school, Salesian High School. “There I was, this young guy with a Scottish accent, I might have been 14, and I got put in a class which they said was on my level. But the class was with 19, 20 and 21 year olds. They were scary big guys with beards and deep voices,” he says. “Of course, that meant I grew up very quickly.”

He also experienced the direct effects of the armed struggle building up across the border from his home country. “I was back in Mozambique during the school holidays, and we heard that the area I stayed in in Swaziland was bombed. A lot of cadres died in the attack.”

He later discovered another reason that the family needed a connection between the two countries. “When dad used to take me from Swaziland and Mozambique, his car would disappear on the weekends and would come back before we needed to leave. By total fluke, I had gone to Helena’s house and saw my dad’s car in the garage with all the door panels out. I didn’t think much of it but I later found out it was for the smuggling of arms between the two countries. We were taking guns and live ammunition over the border between my school trips.” He laughs incredulously, then shares a particular memory, a trip back to Mozambique they made at night. “We had crossed the border and were on a long patch of gravel road. I was asleep, but woke up when Dad put the brakes on. I thought it was a broken down bus, but there was a huge rhinoceros in the road. It turned and looked at the car, and then walked away. Thank God we didn’t hit it, because we would have been smithereens!” It was a “huge, huge risk” that his parents took with their son in the vehicle. “But there is no way I could criticise them. That was what they needed to do at the time.”

And the fast-track growing up was thrilling for a young man. “I was pretty independent while I was in Swaziland. I swear, I grew up from a child to adolescence as soon as I got there. I didn’t have my mum and dad there, so Swaziland opened my eyes as a teenager. I learned to smoke, I had a motorbike and could drive myself. I had older friends so that’s also where I first got drunk, and had a girlfriend,” he says.

“Although there were no parents to say don’t do this or that, I also knew to push boundaries without going off the rails. I enjoyed the independence. I passed my exams and kept my feet on the ground.”

And then … they moved again. 

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“We spent a few years together as a family in Zimbabwe, straight after [that country’s] independence. That was another transition. Vik and I were some of the first students of colour at Milton High School, Bulawayo, with children who had grown up in segregation under a racist government. It was the first time we experienced overt racism. But we were old enough to defend ourselves. We could confront people and deal with them – and actually, they listened and understood. Things changed. So much so that I became the first black rugby vice-captain for the second rugby team and Vik was squash captain. Then I was made a prefect, and head of house as it was a boarding school.”

Zimbabwe was another operation for the movement. His parents’ work intensified. “We lived in Bulawayo and people would come to the house if they were travelling to other parts of the world. I remember Jacob Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa and others. I knew how important their work was at that time, being a bit older. The house in Bulawayo became a transition hub for cadres.”

Another flashback from Zimbabwe was a detention of sorts. “We were all sleeping and the house was raided by Zimbabwean armed forces. We were put into a jail, a prison camp of some kind. I just remember my mother being very upset because there were people who thought we were collaborators with the apartheid state.”

When, on a different occasion, I talk to Nkosinathi’s brother Vikela, he fills in some of the gaps in the storyline here. “We lived next door to what they called the Green House, where many of the ANC exiles congregated. I was 12, and at that point I began to understand that mum was involved in the military side of the ANC,” he says, “the culmination of this when we all got arrested as a family. That was heart-wrenching and probably the first time I got involved in the context of being affected by our parents’ work. The house was raided, the police came in and rounded us all up, threw us in the back of a police truck early one morning. They took us to one of those prison camps, where they separated us. Mum and Nana, and dad and the boys. They really mistreated and mishandled dad. We spent a day in that illustrious prison camp before they released us.”

After school in Zimbabwe, Nkosinathi moved back to Dundee, followed by Vikela. Nkosinathi wanted to work in hospitality management. His girlfriend at the time, Louise, fell pregnant before he could complete his degree. “We decided unilaterally that there was no way I could support them while studying.” The pair moved to London where he worked in the hospitality industry, working in middle management for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

Then, around the 1990s, South Africa began to change.

“Mum and dad were still in Africa. I had a feeling that I did want to go back, just to go and help with the rebuilding of the country. I left London with Louise – by then we had three kids – and we stayed with mum and dad in Pretoria.” Unfortunately, he struggled to find work and was forced to return to London after months of trying to establish a business. “I was gutted because I had given up something I’d worked really hard for in London. Then I had to leave Louise and the kids with my parents, which really wasn’t the ideal thing to do, especially because her family was not keen on her being all the way in Africa.”

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He tried once more to return to South Africa in 2017 at his mother’s persuasion that the economy was improving. “After my dad passed away, I came back to the country a couple of years ago to look after mum. She wasn’t in a good space physically and, again, I spent months trying to set up a business. But I found the processes very slow and the red tape was overwhelming. People were quick to promise and not deliver. It really annoyed me that South Africa had let me down in that sense. Sadly, I made the same mistake twice.” Although he laughs at this, he admits the unsettling also took a toll on this marriage. 

C’est la vie, lesson learned,” he says, “but the backwards and forwards may have put a strain on Louise and my relationship.” They later divorced.

He says, in short, it meant that the impact on his life was indelibly linked to changes in South Africa and his parents’ role in it. “Yes, there was a lot going on. It did have an effect on me, but I haven’t dealt with it, even at 54 years old, if I could put it that way. I realised that there are things I need to understand and try to remember so they make sense to me. There are questions, and answers I still need to get, to work out what the thinking was.

“My mental position … is not what I would call healthy. I cope with it by not being confrontational and hiding my head in the sand.”

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