Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin (Nomafa) was born at the Bridgeman Memorial Maternity Hospital in Johannesburg. Her parents lived in Orlando West, Soweto where she grew up as a child. Her father was a lecturer in African languages at the University of the Witwatersrand who concentrated on writing; he also wrote a Zulu-English dictionary.

Her parents' home was in the Mandela, Sisulu and Tutu area known in Soweto as the Triangle. As a child, she grew up playing with the Mandela and the Walter Sisulu children. At the time, Mandela was married to Evelyn, his first wife.

Joyce attended Holy Cross Primary School, the school that was run by Father Trevor Huddleston of the Anglican Church. In 1954 Bantu Education was introduced. The African National Congress (ANC) called a boycott; as a result the school was closed. A school was started at the Sisulu home, which she attended. Joyce’s involvement in the boycott was her initiation into the politics.

The relationship between her parents ended and her father took the children, to stay with his father at Clermont in Durban. Joyce’s grandfather, the Reverend Absolom Mbulawa Sikhakhane, was the chaplain of the ANC in Natal as well as the chairperson of the Clermont branch of the ANC. 

In Clermont, Joyce was part of a group of young people who organised the Pioneer Group of the ANC. She went to boarding school at Inanda Seminary, where she was involved in student resistance politics. ANC stalwarts Barbara Masekela (a democratic South Africa’s Ambassador to France), was the head girl at the school, and Mrs Edith Yengwa, the wife of MB Yengwa, a provincial ANC executive member, taught them isiZulu. This was in the early 1960s, during the first State of Emergency. Her grandfather was arrested under the Ninety-day detention law and so was her teacher Mrs Yengwa.

Joyce and others organised students into the African Students Association (ASA). They would skip school over the weekends to attend political meetings in Durban. As the head girl, Barbara Masakela used to give them cover. The ASA was formed in the late 1960s with the aim of mobilising the student population in South Africa to resist apartheid education. As a consequence of this, many students who were active in politics refused to enrol at the Bantu colleges that were being created at the time. Joyce also refused to enrol at any of these colleges.

Ultimately her parents divorced and her mother won custody of the children, which meant that they had to go back to Johannesburg. Joyce enrolled at Orlando High School, where for the first time she was introduced to the politics of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). The student population was actively involved in PAC politics. Thami Mazwai and Joe Tlholoe, PAC members, were her in her class as was Eddie Funde, an ANC member.

At her mother’s suggestion she went to the social work office in Fox Street where she was referred to Winnie Mandela, who Joyce did not know at the time.  Winnie interviewed her, then visited her father and managed to convince him that she should be sent back to boarding school. Joyce stopped going to Orlando High mid-term because she didn't like the school. The following year she enrolled at Inanda.

She matriculated in 1963. In 1962, at a secret meeting in Durban, addressed by Ernest Gallo, one of the leaders of the African Student Association (ASA), and Thabo Mbeki, Joyce’s interest in politics was heightened. In her final year at school, she won a national essay competition. Her English teacher encouraged her to pursue journalism. Since she refused to attend apartheid tribal colleges, Joyce wrote to theWorld newspaper for a job. They took her on for six months as a cub reporter.

She started working at the World newspaper in December 1963, during the Rivonia Trial, which the paper didn't cover adequately. Joyce wrote many articles on the social effects of apartheid. Although the World had a black editor, M. T. Moerane, the paper was suffused with the politics of Moral Rearmament, a Christian movement from the United States that was rabidly anti-communist.

Moerane, in particular, didn't want politics or anything attacking apartheid to be published in the newspaper. Joe Tlholoe and Thami Mazwai, former classmates at Orlando High School, were now working as journalists at the newspaper. Joe Tlholoe and another guy called Moffat Zungu were detained whilst working at the paper.

At the end of the Rivonia Trial, the leadership was sent to Robben Island, when Joyce wrote Window on Soweto.  She could predict June 1976, because people were very angry. The police were running rough-shod in the townships and the population seemed cowered somewhat.  There was a dearth of overt political activity. On the surface it appeared as if they had wiped out the ANC.

As a journalist and being free to move about without attracting too much suspicion, Joyce was sought out by political activists who knew her. She then became active, passing messages from one banned person to another, such as Albertina Sisulu and Helen Joseph, and setting up meetings. Joyce would clandestinely meet Shanti Naidoo and other political activists at the toilets in Westgate Station or Faraday Station.  She was also involved in collecting money from the Anglican Church. At the time, the Reverend Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, Dean of St Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg, received monies to be passed on to families of political prisoners. At the same time she was also writing articles highlighting injustice.

Joyce met Winnie Mandela again through Rita Ndzanga. They had a secret cell structure. She was given the task to organise young people. Joyce established cells of young people, who were then addressed by people like Rita, Tata Elliot ShabanguTata Mvemve and Tata Samson Ndou. In one of the cells that she had organised was Snuki Zikalala, later of South African Broadcasting Corporation fame.

At the time Winnie Mandela was introduced to a man called Skosana, who had a car. He was the person who would ferry Joyce around when she needed transport for her political activity. It turned out later that Skosana was a police informer and every one of the people he met were detained, including Snuki Zikalala and Wally Serote, the poet and author.

At the World, she had enough of the pacifist Moral Rearmament philosophy that she applied for a job at the Rand Daily Mail. Raymond Louw, the renowned journalist, placed her on a full-time contract. She was the first black woman to be employed as a journalist on the Rand Daily Mail. Here she worked with veteran journalists Benjamin Pogrund, who was very much pro-PAC and virulently anti-communist, Allister Sparks, and Anthony Holiday. She worked from a separate office, which was called the township office, because the newsroom wasn't mixed. Being the only black woman journalist, she was given a whole floor of toilets that she shared with another woman journalist, Jill Chisholm, who later left South Africa to work for ITN in the UK.

In 1968, whilst working at the Rand Daily Mail, she became interested in writing articles which highlighted the effects of apartheid on the general African population. The issue of forced removals was a thorny one. African people were being removed from their ancestral homes and dumped in barren areas like Limehill. Joyce visited these areas. She witnessed a woman giving birth in the open veld in Limehill. She approached a friend, Ian Thompson, who was a Presbyterian priest, Cosmas Desmond (also a priest), Beyers Naude (founder of the non-racial ecumenical Christian Institute) and others, and related what she saw. Joyce urged them to organise doctors who could offer medical services to these people. They formed the Justice and Peace Commission that was a nucleus of priests against apartheid. They organised a kombi and found doctors that were willing to work in these areas.

This led Cosmas Desmond to write The Discarded People. Her now husband wrote the medical report in that book. He was not credited for it, on purpose, because at that time Joyce was planning to go and join him outside.

From Justice and Peace came the South African Council of Churches. At that time Joyce was engaged to an African doctor. When she spoke to him about this he wasn't interested and she threw the engagement ring in his face. Over weekends Joyce would join doctors, recruited from Baragwanath and other hospitals who all happened to be white, to go and work in these poverty stricken areas. That was how she met her current husband, Ken, who had come from Scotland to train in surgery. He was appalled by apartheid. He left South Africa and hoped she would join him. Two weeks thereafter, in the early hours of the morning Joyce was arrested under the Terrorism Act and detained at Pretoria Central Prison.

At the prison she was forced to strip naked and searched. They then took her to the condemned cells, where women prisoners who were going to the gallows were held. The next day she was taken to a different cell. She then learnt that Shanti Naidoo and Winnie Mandela were also being detained. Altogether, twenty-two women were detained.

After three days she was interrogated by Johan Coetzee, Van Wyk, and Swanepoel, notorious Security Branch policemen. It was clear that the police knew everything about her, so there would have been little point in denying what they already knew. For instance, the police had already done her psychological profile. They knew everything about her boyfriends, her lifestyle and other matters related to her.

The police offered to release her if she turned state witness. They would change her identify. Joyce refused. They then transferred her from Pretoria Central to Nylstroom Prison. From here she was taken to Pretoria to be tried. 

She was tortured during her 18-month long detention, charged, in what came to be known as the “Trial of the 22” and acquitted, they were discharged and then re-detained. Their lawyers, George Bizos, Sydney Kentridge, and Joel Carlson, fought hard to get them free. 

Journalists and international organisations and students at the University of the Witwatersrand, protested their incarceration, demanding their release. The students were beaten up. It created a crisis for the apartheid regime because for the first time they beat up white students.

Joyce also used to organise cells among white students such as Jeanette Curtis and Neville Curtis (both now late) and people who were Marxist intellectuals like Ben Couzens and his wife, Paula.

The state withdrew the case, and they were detained again. They were eventually released in 1970.  Joyce was banned and restricted under house arrest.

At one of their secret meeting points, Winnie Mandela introduced her to Samson Fadana. At the time, Winnie and Joyce were both banned and under house arrest. Samson “John”  Fadana, had just been released from Robben Island. On seeing her, John immediately professed to have fallen in love. Prior to her banning and restriction orders, she had been in prison for almost two years. Joyce had been engaged to Ken Rankin in 1968.

He had to leave South Africa and she was supposed to follow. Unfortunately for Joyce, the South African Security Police arrested her. She believed that she would never be able to leave South Africa. Joyce wrote to Ken freeing him from the engagement obligation. So, when “John” proposed marriage she agreed. This happened two or three days after the secret meeting.

The couple went to the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court where along the corridors, at random, they picked two witnesses and thus got the marriage registered. A day later a car load of Security Branch men arrived at her home and told her that she would be charged for entering the Magistrate’s Court illegally and having been in the presence of more than one person. They told her that her so-called marriage was null and void because it was done illegally. 

Joyce secretly went to Durban where she met Steve Biko, Barney Pityana, Harry Nengwekhulu and others from the South African Students Organisation (SASO), and they had discussions mainly on the strategy of SASO in relation to National Union of South African Students (white) and how to take the struggle forward.

Ultimately the Black People's Convention (BPC) was formed in 1972. Through Steve Biko she met Rick Turner and Griffiths Mxenge, whom Steve was working closely with. They were the key advisers to Steve Biko. According to Joyce, Steve Biko favoured talking to the ANC. Both Mxenge and Richard Turner were later assassinated.

Joyce also formed women’s cells in Soweto. Nkosazana Dlamini (who later married Jacob Zuma); Mamphela Ramphele, Bridgette (who married Lindelwa Mabandla), and Thapelo Kubheka (who married Mosibudi Mangena) belonged to that group. The ANC didn't want SASO or the BCM to disband. That was the brief from the leadership. They just wanted a working relationship because the ANC felt BCM had a role to play.

The ANC ordered her to leave the country in 1972. The ANC had also wanted Steve Biko to leave because they had heard that there was going to be a clamp down. She spoke to Steve Biko. Unfortunately he refused to leave.

Joyce left behind a seven-month old baby girl; her son was six. She travelled in the compartment of a truck to Swaziland where she met the ANC and briefed them.  She then travelled by road, overnight, hidden, into Maputo, Mozambique. The next day she was put onto a plane to Germany, overnight, to West Berlin and the next day, to East Berlin.

She married Dr Ken Rankin and they lived in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Scotland before returning to South Africa in the early 1990s. Throughout her exile she continued to work for the ANC.

On her return she worked for the National Intelligence Agency and the SABC. She is the author of A Window on Soweto (London, IDAF, 1977), executive producer of the film A South African Love Story: Walter & Albertina Sisulu, and co-producer of Samora Machel: Son of Africa. She was one of the consulting editors for Elinor Sisulu’s book Walter & Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime (Cape Town, David Philip, 2002).

In May 2008, Ruth Muller, an archivist at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, working with Mr Mandela’s personal papers, came across a letter, dated January 1971, in a book of “Family Correspondence” addressed to “Nomvula”.

At the bottom of the hand-written letter (which would have been written out in the book before it was re-written on letter paper and sent – via the Robben Island authorities) was the name and address of the intended recipient.
Realising that this was someone she knew, Muller emailed a transcript of the letter to Joyce Sikhakhane – now Mrs Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin. This was her response, even before she had had a chance to read the letter:“I never ever received the Madiba letter. What a precious gem. You are such a darling to tell me about it. Am dying to read it no matter what its content ...”

On being asked how she felt on receiving this letter 37 years after Mandela had sent it to her from Robben Island, Joyce replied, “ I feel privileged and overwhelmed. At the same time I thank God that through a human act I got Madiba’s mind to break from the desolate silence of Robben Island and write such a beautiful, romantic letter.  He is an extraordinary soul.


Edited by Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane from an interview conducted by Gregory Houston, 16 May 2001, Pretoria, SADET Oral History Project. Available at: [Accessed 9 November 2009]|The lost letter (Online). Available at:  [Accessed 11 November 2009]


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