Makhosi “Tholi” Nyoka was born on 3 April 1957 and grew up in KwaMashu, a township north of Durban, where she attended Umzuvele Secondary School. Nyoka was politically inclined and committed to political involvement and mobilisation, becoming a member of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), the United Democratic Front (UDF), and community movement, KwaMashu Youth Organisation.

On 18 May 1982, facing constant harassment from the police, Nyoka fled into exile with the help of Chief Kwenza Mlaba and Phindi Duma, where she would live in Moses Mabhida’s home in Swaziland. In exile, Nyoka would undergo military training in Caxito, Angola, in 1983 as a member of the Natal Machinery - a cohort of MK members operating under the Natal branch. Thereafter she would receive training in the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). After her training, Nyoka was stationed in Swaziland where her role was to assist in the infiltration of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) cadres over the Swaziland border into Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal).

On the night of 8 June 1988, Nyoka, together with Surendra “Lenny” Naidu, Nontsikelelo June-Rose Cothoza and Charity Mthembu were transported over the Swaziland border into Piet Retief, Transvaal (Mpumalanga), where they were ambushed by Eugene De Kock’s death squad. De Kock was a member of the South African Police and commander of a counterinsurgency unit known as Vlakplaas which carried out the abduction, torture and murder of anti-apartheid liberation fighters. De Kock led the ambushes of June 1988 in Piet Retief. Unbeknown to the four MK cadres, their driver, Silulame Moshe, who they knew as “Amos”, was an askari - a member of the ANC who turned to become an agent for the apartheid government’s police. The four combatants were massacred and weapons were planted in their vehicle. This, however, was the first of three ambushes along the Swaziland/Transvaal border in June 1988. Four days after the ambush of the 8th, four more MK cadres were killed in an ambush attempting to cross the border. Two more cadres were ambushed on the same day, and one person managed to escape. After the events along the border in June 1988, then Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok was reported as saying, ‘Terrorists have been instructed by the ANC hierarchy to perpetrate large scale acts of terror in South Africa to coincide with the so called Soweto day anniversary.’[1]

The South African Broadcasting Commission (SABC) reported that on the night of June 8, police arranged a roadblock outside of Piet Retief on the way to Swaziland. The police stopped the vehicle transporting the MK combatants and ‘a black man jumped out and opened fire with an AK-47 rifle. The police immediately retaliated. The policemen who had been waiting for the group were well prepared and within seconds it was all over.’[2] This version of events would be disputed among amnesty applicants at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Subsequent to the massacre, Fredrick Pienaar, one of the officers involved in the ambush was commissioned as the investigating officer in the case. Pienaar is reported to have burned the clothing of the victims. He justified this act by claiming he did it in fear of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Contrary to the SABC report on the killings, at the TRC Eugene De Kock refuted the notion that a roadblock was held outside Piet Retief, emphasising instead that it was an ambush. De Kock and his fellow officers fired countless gunshots at the vehicle from mostly 9mm Uzis. An injured female staggered out of the vehicle, and according to De Kock, it appeared that she was trying to speak. De Kock ordered officer Marthinus Ras to shoot her.  As stated by De Kock, no shots were fired from inside the vehicle, nor were any weapons found on the deceased upon inspection of the vehicle and belongings. De Kock testified that one of the officers was sent to fetch some of their own personal weapons to plant on the persons of the deceased victims. This created the impression that the MK cadres were armed, and would perhaps justify their killing by the police. [3]

Furthermore, Marthinus Grobler, former police officer on duty at the Piet Retief Police Station on the night of the killings, corroborated the version that there were no weapons found on the victims. Uninvolved in the planning, undertaking and in condemnation of the ambushes, Grobler asserted that were any weapons found on them, the officers would then have ‘to hand it in to [him,] the police charge office sergeant who would put it into the official books and then hand it into the safe and lock the safe.’[4] He maintained that no evidence was handed to him, and thereby disputes the assertions made by Officer Leon Flores and others. Additionally, Grobler stated that little respect was shown for the corpses of the MK cadres. Their bodies were dragged out of the vehicle which transported the bodies to the station and dropped on the floor of the morgue.

Although the TRC allowed for the perpetrators to testify in the hopes of attaining amnesty, it also provided relatives of the deceased an opportunity to express their pain and desire for the truth. Nyoka’s sister, Nelly Nyoka, expressed one of her experiences with the police shortly after the killings at the human rights violations hearings: ‘They showed the photo of my sister as well as other people who had died. They were all naked and they said we should point out my sister… We were told that they had died and they never explained anything.’[5] This validates Grobler’s assertions that Makhosi Nyoka and her comrades were given little dignity in death.

Nine amnesty applicants involved in the killing of Nyoka and her comrades were granted amnesty. 

Beyond her gruesome death, Nyoka is remembered for being a gifted singer. Some of her songs of liberation were recorded and sent to the International Youth Year Congress in Geneva, Switzerland. Nyoka also contributed to the formation of the Constitution of the Natal Organisation of Women. Nyoka was a multifaceted member of the ANC and the liberation struggle. In 2010, Nyoka was posthumously awarded the National Order of Mendi for Bravery in Gold. She was awarded this Order for her brave and sacrificial contributions towards liberation and democracy.[6]

End notes:

[1]SABC, ‘TRC Episode 18, Part 2,’ YouTube, 18 April 2011, 7:31,

[2]SABC, ‘TRC Episode 18, Part 2,’ YouTube, 18 April 2011, 7:31,

[3]Truth and Reconciliation Commission Special Report, ‘Amnesty Hearings: Eugene De Kock,’ 26 July 1999,…, accessed 23 January 2020.

[4]SABC, ‘TRC Episode 18, Part 2,’ YouTube, 18 April 2011, 7:31,

[5]SABC, ‘TRC Episode 18, Part 2,’ YouTube, 18 April 2011, 7:31,

[6]The Presidency: Republic of South Africa, ‘Makhosi “Tholi” Nyoka (1957-1988),… accessed 23 January 2020.


The Presidency: Republic of South Africa, ‘Makhosi “Tholi” Nyoka (1957-1988),

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Special Report, ‘Amnesty Hearings: Eugene De Kock,’ 26 July 1999,

SABC, ‘TRC Episode 18, Part 2,’ YouTube, 18 April 2011, 7:31,

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