One evening back in 1963, policemen carrying guns went to the house of Elias and Caroline Motsoaledi in old Mzimhlophe. They took Elias away with them. He has been in prison ever since.
Elias Motsoaledi was charged in the Rivonia Trial – with Mandela, Sisulu and the other leaders of the freedom struggle. He was sentenced to life in prison.
And since the evening all those years ago, Caroline Motsoaledi has been both a mother and a father to their seven children. She has fed them, clothed them and sent them all to school. She has worked in the day and sat up with sick children at night. She has done all this alone.
Caroline Motsoaledi, or Ma Motsoaledi as everyone calls her, is now 57 years old. She works in a clothing factory in the day. And then she goes home to feed the children – and anyone else who may be there. And one thing’s for sure. There are always plenty of visitors there. It was like that even when Elias was still there.
And so the Motsoaledi family and all their visitors, young and old, eat together. And then they talk. They talk about this and that and everything else. But in the end they talk about somebody who they all miss and care for very much. They talk about Elias Motsoaledi.
And when they talk about Elias Ma Motsoaledi keeps quiet for a while. She thinks her own thoughts. Sometimes she will feel a great sadness biting at her heart. But at other times she will laugh quietly to herself when she remembers the good times. Like when she first met Elias.
FALLING IN LOVE
“I grew up in Doornkop near Middleburg in the Northern Transvaal,” says Caroline. “I grew up working in the fields. We planted mealies, cabbages and lots of other things. I came from a poor family. We worked hard for our food everyday.
Then one day some young men came to Doornkop. Elias was among them. They were in Doornkop to see their relatives. I did not think about these young men. I did not notice Elias.
But when the time came for the men to go home, one of them stayed behind in Doornkop. His name was Elias, of course. And his heart was in Doornkop. He was in love with me.
By the time Elias left Doornkop, I was in love with him. We made promises to each other for the future. We promised to be with each other soon.
We wrote letters to each other all the time. I did not know when I would see Elias again. But I waited for his letters. And when they came, they were worth waiting for.
And then suddenly Elias stopped writing. I still don’t know why he stopped. And so I waited for a letter from Elias. That was a very unhappy time for me. I read the last letter I got from him again and again. I felt very lonely and sad.
Maybe Elias was getting me ready for our life together. If he was, I must say he did a very good job. I learned to live away from the one I love.
Then one day I left Doornkop to visit my mother in Brakpan. I got off the train at Jeppe and waited for the next train to Brakpan. The train came but it didn’t stop. It went straight past.
I sat there for a long time and worried. I did not know when the next train would come. And then, just a few steps away from me, I saw a young man sitting on a bench. He was just sitting and thinking.
I went to the man and asked him when the next train was coming. When he looked up, I got a surprise. I was looking at Elias.
I asked him if he remembered me. He said he did not know who I was. If he was joking or not, I cannot say. But I still believe he was joking. He was that kind of person. He always liked a good joke.
I told him who I was. But I did not tell him where I came from. Then he took out his wallet and pulled out a photo – a photo of me. I gave him the photo when we first met.
Elias looked at the photo and smiled. He looked very happy – even happier than he looked in Doornkop. We did not leave each other again. We got married in 1950.
We did not have a big wedding party. Elias said that there was no time for that. The Nationalists had come into power just a few years before. And Elias was very busy. He had much work to do.”
MAKING IT HAPPEN
“I did not see Elias very often. He was always going to political meetings. I did not really understand what was happening. I asked Elias and he explained to me. He was very patient. And then I stopped wondering what was happening. And I joined the people who were making it happen.
I began to go to a lot of ANC meetings. I was not a member but in those days you did not have to carry a membership card to be member.
People came in large numbers to the meetings because the meetings were in big, empty spaces. And we used to say: “As long as you want freedom, you are a member of the ANC”
I then joined the Federation of South African Women. And then the government made a new law. Women now had to carry passes. The women were angry. Very angry. We planned a march. And that was my first real taste of politics.
I marched with 20 thousand other women to Pretoria. I remember the day very well. It was the 9th August 1956. We marched behind our leaders to the prime minister’s office in Pretoria. We wanted to tell Mr Strydom just what we thought about his law.
We sat quietly on the grounds of the Union Buildings. We were wearing our green uniforms of the Federation and African National Congress. Our uniforms were as green as the green lawn of the Union Buildings. We looked beautiful that day.
And then we spoke. “Strydom wa thinta abafazi wa thint’ imbokodwe uzakufa.”, we said. “Strydom, you touched the women, you have struck a rock.”
And then Lilian Ngoyi and our other leaders went up to the balcony to see the prime minister. But he did not come out to meet them. And then our leaders said: ‘They must know that we we are not going to carry these funny books. The struggle against these passes will always carry on in the townships and in the country side.’ We then sang Nkosi sikeleli’ Africa and went back to our homes.
And for Elias and I the struggle did carry on. Our marriage was busy but very happy. And then we were parted. And we have been parted ever since.”
“The morning after Elias was arrested, I went to the Orlando Police Station to find out what was happening. But the police did not tell me anything. They did not tell me where he was. I walked up and down and I always came home very tired. I was pregnant with my last born at that time.
“After three weeks, the lawyers came to my house and told me that Elias was in the Central Prison in Pretoria. They said that I could take clothes to him. But I could not see him.
I saw my husband a year later. I saw him when the trial started. I went to the trial with all the other wives, children and friends. There were always plenty of people in the court room. This made Elias and the other men happy. It gave them hope.
And then soon after the trial started, I was arrested. They kept me for 90 days and asked me a lot of questions about my husband. They said that I carried bombs and other weapons for Elias. I said that it was not true.
When 90 days had passed, they did not let me go. They gave me another 90 days. While I was locked up in prison, the police went to fetch my mother in Doornkop. They brought her to Soweto to look after my children. Nobody asked them to do that.
Then just before they let me free, this young policeman came into my cell. He looked very happy with himself. He told me that Elias and the other leaders were sentenced to life in prison. I got the news from that young, happy policeman.
THE STRUGGLE FOR A JOB
When I came out of jail, I knew that our friends and comrades would not let us starve. But I did not want to fold my arms and wait for someone to help us. My biggest problem was my children who were all still young at the time. I wanted them to go to school like other children.
I decided not to go back to work as a domestic worker the work I was doing before I was arrested. I needed to earn more money. But I first had to go back to my old job to get some of my belongings.
When I got there, I found somebody else working there. I did not ask for my job back. I just took all my belongings and quickly left. I did not want anyone to ask where I was for those six months.
But they knew. And when I went looking for a job, the people always phoned that man for a reference. And he always told them that I spent time in jail. And when they put the phone down, they always said: “I don’t employ ANC people. Please try somewhere else.”
I struggled to find a job. After a while, I looked for a job as p domestic worker again. But I had no luck. While I was looking some organisations helped me. Church organisations helped me a lot. Some of the children got bursaries to stay at school.
In the end I got this job at the clothing factory. They gave me a job without asking all those silly questions. I have now worked here for nearly 22 years. The owner of the factory is a fine, old man. He knows that Elias is in jail. But he does not say anything about it.
And when the police come to fetch me from work to ask me questions, he does not shout and say that he will fire me. But he will ask me what they wanted with me. The old man cares about me.”
A MOTHER AND A FATHER
“I always worry when I look at my fatherless children. I always wanted to be near and close to them I wanted to do all I cou Id to make them happy.
But I am not the only one who worries. The children care about me too. Whenever I am sad, they sit down next to me and find out what is wrong. They don’t like to see me looking sad.
The children suffered a lot. They often went to school without food in their lunch tins. And their school uniforms were always old and worn out. But they never complained.
But worst of all, they missed their father – maybe even more than myself. I remember how much my last born, Ngwato, missed his father. But he did not say anything until he shocked everybody in the house. He wrote to his father and asked him why he did not care for us. “Why do you stay in jail and leave us to suffer?” he asked his father.
Elias read that letter and felt very sorry for his son. He sent me Ngwato’s letter and asked me to read it. He blamed me for not telling the children what they must know and hear.
So one winter night I called the whole family together. And I told them their father’s story. The older ones already knew something from books and newspapers. But the young ones knew nothing. Ngwato listened to every word I said. He asked many questions and I had to answer them all.
When some of them were old enough, I wrote to Pretoria to get permits for them to visit Elias. I wrote first to get a permit for my third son. Before I got a reply, they called my son to security headquarters in Soweto. They asked him all sorts of questions. They asked him why he wanted to visit his father. He told them that he wanted to visit Elias because Elias was his father.
And then they asked him to work for them. My son refused and said: “That will be the time my father tells me not to call myself his son.”
They did not let him visit his father on Robben Island. My son was hurt and angry. He left the country soon after that. Another two of my sons followed him They know the story of their father and they want to follow in his footsteps. They want to walk the same path.
I have not seen my three sons since they left. And I do not think I will see them for a long time to come. I miss them so much – just like I miss my husband. But I must carry on and be strong. There is no other way.