Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin’s experiences in Nylstroom and Pretoria Central Prisons as a female political activist who was detained for her work in the underground ANC during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle reveal the excessively brutal and inhumane treatment of Africans by the South African Nationalist government. Sikhakhane-Rankin made great contributions to the movement against the unfair treatment of black Africans in South Africa through her career as a journalist, her work in the underground operations of the ANC, and her time spent in deadly South African prisons.
Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin grew up with the Mandela and Sisulu children in Soweto. Growing up there, she was greatly influenced by the African National Congress (ANC) from an early age. She was a child when the ANC called the boycott for schools in protest of the Bantu Education Act in 1953. Sikhakhane-Rankin’s grandfather’s involvement in the ANC was a great influence in the start of her political activism career. Sikhakhane-Rankin’s grandfather was the chaplain of the ANC in Natal and the chairperson of the Clermont branch of the ANC. When Sikhakhane-Rankin lived with her grandfather, she became involved with underground ANC activities by delivering messages to her grandfather’s ANC comrades for him. She was part of a group of young people who organized the Pioneer Group of the ANC. While attending boarding school at Inanda Seminary, she became heavily involved in student resistance politics. There Sikhakhane-Rankin’s teacher taught her and her classmates about the ANC and they attended ANC meetings in Durban instead of going to school on weekends. The ANC was officially banned in April of 1960. In the early 1960s, Sikhakhane-Rankin and others organized students into the African Students Association (ASA) which aimed to mobilize the student population in South Africa to resist apartheid education. During the short time she attended Orlando High School, she was introduced to the politics of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in which many students were very involved. In resistance to apartheid education, she refused to enroll at bantu colleges.
Sikhakhane-Rankin began working at the World newspaper in 1963 where she wrote many articles on the social effects of apartheid. The World did not want anything attacking apartheid to be published in the newspaper, but Sikhakhane-Rankin and a handful of other journalists ignored that edict. She often wrote articles that highlighted injustice such as an article about a woman, Mrs. Mpofu, who had many children and whose husband was imprisoned on Robben Island. While working at the World, Sikhakhane-Rankin continued to be active in the freedom movement because as a journalist, she was able to move about without creating a lot of suspicion. She helped other political activists including Winnie Mandela and Rita Ndzanga by passing messages between banned people, setting up meetings, and collecting money that would be passed on to families of political prisoners. She organized cells of young people. Sikhakhane-Rankin then became the first black woman to be employed as a journalist on the Rand Daily Mail. There she wrote articles about the effects of apartheid, most notably forced removals, on the general African population. She visited the rural, poverty-stricken Bantustans to cover forced removals and witnessed painful sights. She helped to form the Justice and Peace Commission to help get medical services for the people in the homelands. On weekends, Sikhakhane-Rankin worked with doctors in these areas.
On May 12, 1969, Sikhakhane-Rankin was arrested under the Terrorism Act and detained at Pretoria Central Prison. She was transferred to Nylstroom Prison then back to Pretoria Central Prison for the trial. On December 1, 1969, the trial took place at the Old Synagogue in Pretoria. Twenty-two men and women were charged on 21 charges under the Suppression of Communism Act. Among the accused were Shanti Naidoo and Winnie Mandela with whom Sikhakhane-Rankin had worked closely with in the ANC underground. Most of the charges had to do with activities with the ANC which was declared an unlawful organization in 1960. The witnesses that testified in the trial, Shanthie Naidoo and Nondwe Mankahla, went on the stand and refused to give evidence against the accused. Because of this, the case was quickly dismissed, and the accused were re-detained. 
On June 18, 1970, the twenty-two men and women were taken back to court for a re-trial. This time, the state linked them to Benjamin Ramotse in an international ANC conspiracy. The indictment was changed from the Suppression of Communism Act to the Terrorism Act. Their lawyers applied for a separation of trials because none of the accused had been connected to Ramotse and the application succeeded. Then they were granted discharge on the grounds that they could not be tried twice on the same charges.
When Sikhakhane-Rankin was first detained on May 12, 1969, she was unexpectedly arrested at two a.m. and was taken to Pretoria Central Prison. She was forced to leave her three-year-old son behind with her mother. Sikhakhane-Rankin was taken to a narrow empty solitary confinement cell on death row in the isolation wing. There was a steel outer door and a barred inner door locking her inside. All that the cell contained was a damp mat and three damp blankets that smelled of urine. There was a small hole covered with mesh for ventilation and with it being winter, the cell was very cold. She was given a bucket for waste and a bucket of water to wash herself and her clothes. She received three meager plates of food every day. Sikhakhane-Rankin did not know who else of her comrades had also been detained and the other prisoners were not allowed to see that she was there. She was not told what crimes she was being charged for or how long she would likely be detained. It was also common knowledge that many political activists mysteriously died in detention. All of these things created feelings of great uncertainty and fear in Sikhakhane-Rankin.
Sikhakhane-Rankin’s interrogators were looking for confirmation about certain things they had reason to believe she participated in. They also wanted information about the ANC’s underground communication network. Under the Terrorism Act, a detainee could be held until a statement that is satisfactory to the Commissioner of Police is given. So until Sikhakhane-Rankin gave a statement that supported the state’s case, the police commissioner would not release her. To try to make prisoners give up valuable information and help the state’s case, the interrogators used torture, manipulation, and deceit. The policemen would physically, mentally, and emotionally wear down subjects in a multitude of ways. Solitary confinement was only the first step in the torture process for them. Throughout the interrogations, Sikhakhane-Rankin was forced by officers to stand up all day and night in the interrogation room without food or water. In the room there were bricks that some prisoners were forced to stand on during interrogations as another means of torture. Fifteen to twenty policemen came in and out of the room to question Sikhakhane-Rankin and they seemed to be purposefully confusing her. The policemen already knew intimate details about Sikhakhane-Rankin’s personal life and her career with the ANC. It was apparent to Sikhakhane-Rankin by the information the officers knew about her that they had done research and planned how they were going to target her. The information had been gathered through the state’s network of informers and through torturous extraction from other detainees who were involved in ANC underground operations. The policemen wanted Sikhakhane-Rankin to be a state witness in the trial and give evidence against the other accused. In attempts to persuade and incentivize Sikhakhane-Rankin to act against her comrades and the cause, the policemen tried to offer her a better life. They tried to make her feel as though they were not against her or Africans, but against communism. They offered to give her a new identity and a job outside of the country. If Sikhakhane-Rankin agreed to give evidence, she would be free to join her white fiancé outside of the country, somewhere where apartheid laws did not make it illegal for them to be together. She was also told that the other accused had given evidence and were willing to work for the state. The policemen tried to use her own personal information against her and attempted to paint an irresistibly pretty picture of what could be if she just gave them what they wanted. At one point, the officers even brought in a three-year-old toddler the same age as her son to strike her emotionally. Through the long and harrowing interrogations, Sikhakhane-Rankin relentlessly remained undeterred and refused to give in to their manipulation.
After a few weeks of being imprisoned at Pretoria Central Prison, Sikhakhane-Rankin was transferred to Nylstroom Prison. Nylstroom was a women’s prison located in the Transvaal, north of Johannesburg. Some political prisoners there were not able to communicate with their families for years. The living conditions at Nylstroom were a slight improvement from Pretoria Central. Sikhakhane-Rankin’s cell there was bigger than the one she was kept in at Pretoria. Her cell had a bed with a mattress, starched sheets, a window, a table, and a chair. She was still not allowed to talk to anyone and spent every day alone in her cell. She could not communicate with her young son, her fiancé, or anyone else. She had no idea what was going on in the outside world and she lived every day in agonizing oblivion. She was given books to read mainly of the crime and thriller genres. She was once given a book to read that she suspected was intended to encourage her to try to escape, which would have been nearly impossible and would have quickly led to her death. Sikhakhane-Rankin of course was not fooled by this, but there were still times when the loneliness and depression of imprisonment engulfed her and she longed for a way out. Though it was not truly an option to her, even the thought of suicide crossed her mind at times in the unbearable solitude and uncertainty. Sometimes Sikhakhane-Rankin would play a game with herself that she called the “blindman” game in which she would close her eyes and pretend she was incapable of seeing the cell around her. Sikhakhane-Rankin was not given opportunities to get proper exercise, but whenever she was allowed 30 minutes to jump around by herself in an isolated yard, she did not have the strength nor the motivation to do anything. Instead she would sit and watch the red ants that crawled around the ground. It was one of the very few things that brought her any joy while she was in confinement.
After a countless number of weeks, Sikhakhane-Rankin was taken back to Pretoria Central Prison. It had been seven months since Sikhakhane-Rankin was detained at her home and put in solitary confinement. She was placed back in the same cell she occupied before. She noticed that the name of her comrade and friend, Shanthie Naidoo, was written on the wall confirming that she had been detained as well. That afternoon, Sikhakhane-Rankin and four other women were taken out of their cells. The four women were Winne Mandela, Rita Ndzanga, Martha Dhlamini, and Thokozile Mngoma. It was a joyous moment when the women saw one another and were able to hug each other tightly. Shanthie Naidoo was in interrogation at the time, still being persuaded by officers to give evidence against the other accused. The next day the group of women went to court and were once again detained for another four months.
The last four months of Sikhakhane-Rankin’s detainment were no better than the previous months. Sikhakhane-Rankin occupied her original confinement cell at Pretoria Central for the entirety of that time. She still had no contact with the other prisoners and had even fewer opportunities to exercise outside of her cell. Her cell remained uncleaned and virtually empty. The feeling of overwhelming loneliness persisted and this time there were no ants to preoccupy her mind. Some nights she would hear screams coming from other prisoners, dogs barking, and guards running towards the screaming, the sounds of prisoners being whipped, and more terrorful screams. All day and night, there was the constant sound of babies crying. Some women prisoners had small babies and Sikhakhane-Rankin suspected that babies were left alone in cells crying while their mothers went to work. When condemned prisoners were going to be hanged, she would hear singing coming from the men’s section early in the morning. After the retrial took place, Sikhakhane-Rankin was finally released from prison on September 14, 1970.
Life After Detention
After their release from prison, Sikhakhane-Rankin and the 21 other detainees received banning orders and were subjected to strict police surveillance. Sikhakhane-Rankin and fellow detainee and colleague at the Rand Daily Mail, Peter Magubane, received orders which barred them from all African areas and townships except those where they lived. They were also prohibited from newspaper offices, factories, educational institutions and social and political gatherings. They were expected to report weekly to the police too. Soon after Magubane was detained for a third time under the Terrorism Act because of his anti-apartheid photography. Sikhakhane-Rankin went back to her mother’s home in Soweto. Because the likelihood of Sikhakhane-Rankin being able to flee the country successfully were slim to none, she released her fiancé Kenneth Rankin, who was waiting for her in Zambia, from his obligation to her.
Looking for employment was a miserable and disappointing task for Sikhakhane-Rankin and other Africans in Soweto. Good jobs for skilled people like Sikhakhane-Rankin were reserved for whites and coloureds only, and she was faced only with low paying, harsh manual labor jobs. Sikhakhane-Rankin could no longer go back to her career as a journalist that she loved, nor could she even find an acceptable desk job. Time and time again, Sikhakhane-Rankin was refused jobs simply because of her race. Sometimes, mundane tasks at home would remind Sikhakhane-Rankin of the difficult days in Pretoria Central Prison. In some ways, Sikhakhane-Rankin felt her limited life as a banned black African woman did not seem much better than her life in prison.
Sikhakhane-Rankin and other ANC activists were sought out by SASO, the South African Students Organization which was founded in 1969 by Steve Biko. Sikhakhane-Rankin went to Durban underground to meet with Steve Biko, an activist who is widely regarded as the father of Black Consciousness in South Africa, and other SASO members. There they discussed the strategy of SASO and mobilizing African people in the movement. Sikhakhane-Rankin also formed women cells in Soweto with Nkosazana Dlamini, Mamphela Ramphele, Bridgette Mabandla, and Thapelo Kubheka.
In 1972, the government made new threats of taking even firmer action against political agitators. The ANC felt that Sikhakhane-Rankin was too vulnerable of being arrested by staying in South Africa and that she would be more useful outside of the country. Sikhakhane-Rankin made the difficult decision to flee the country and temporarily leave her two young children behind. In July 1973, Sikhakhane-Rankin fled the country in a carefully planned escape and joined the national liberation movement in exile. She travelled to Swaziland hidden in the compartment of a truck, rode overnight to Maputo, Mozambique disguised, and flew to Berlin using an alibi.  She ended up reconnecting with her former fiancé Kenneth in Zambia and the two got married. They did not return to South Africa until the early 1990s.
In a 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission women’s hearing, Sikhakhane-Rankin said that she often finds herself reliving the horror-filled days of isolation and mental anguish that the apartheid state inflicted onto her in prison. At times, she cannot stop the memories of total despair and misery from taking over her even after so many years. Sikhakhane-Rankin knows that many other South Africans share similar haunting memories that constantly plague their minds. The trauma produced by apartheid incarceration is something that will always remain in its victims.
Sikhakhane-Rankin’s detention in South African prisons helped raise consciousness against the unfair apartheid government and brought momentum to the movement. The suffering she endured through the apartheid state’s use of torturous tactics was an experience that highlighted the cruel, evil actions of the South African Nationalist government. Sikhakhane-Rankin’s experiences during apartheid are some that many South Africans shared, and the impact can still be seen today.
This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project
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