top of page

A woman at war

Special people are born on Christmas Day — like Thandi Modise. She has carried the cross for her people. She has suffered so that they may be free.

In 1980 Thandi was jailed for eight years for being a soldier in the ANC’s army, uMkhonto we Sizwe. She was the first woman member of MK to be caught and sent to prison.

She was released in November last year. And she has come back as strong as ever. All the troubles and hardships she has been through have put steel in her bones.

Learn and Teach went to visit Thandi at her home in Huhudi, outside Vryburg, in the Northern Cape. She told us her story…


Thandi Modise was born in Huhudi 30 years ago. She was the sixth and last child of Frans and Grace Modise.

She got her primary education in Huhudi and completed standard eight at a school in Taung. Both schools belonged to the Catholic Church. “We were happy to attend these schools because our results were always better than the government schools,” she says.

Right from the beginning, Thandi had a burning hatred for the government’s apartheid laws. She learned a lot about the struggle from her father. “My father was a member of the African National Congress. This cost him his job as a train driver. He now earns his living from shoemaking.”

Thandi proudly points to the shoes she is wearing and tells us that her father made them. He gave the shoes to her as a homecoming present when she came out of prison.


In 1975 Thandi got pregnant and had to leave school. But knowing the importance of education, she decided to go back the following year. She left her young daughter, Boingotlo, with her mother — and went to do form four at the Barolong High School in Mafikeng.

It was 1976 and the winds of protest were blowing from Soweto. “Our school was very far from Soweto. But we organised a prayer meeting to protest against the killing of students. But still the killings and detentions did not stop. We saw that praying without action means nothing.

“We planned a protest march. But before we could take this action, the soldiers came to the school. I can still remember the bullets hissing past my ears and seeing students lying dead and wounded on the ground.”

Then they started looking for the ‘ringleaders’. And Thandi’s name was on the list. “I lived like an owl. I slept during the day, and went out in the evening. We heard stories of students skipping the country. People advised me to do the same.”


“It was late in the evening when we walked over the border to Botswana. There were ten of us — four girls and six boys.

“In Botswana, members of the ANC and PAC came to speak to us. They explained their policies and told us to choose which organisation we wanted to join. The ANC’s policy met almost all of our demands. So we all went to the ANC.”

From Botswana, she made her way to Zambia — and from there to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.

“The ANC advised women to go for schooling, and not military training. And that is where I did not agree with them. I told them that I wanted to be trained as a soldier. Later they gave me the green light.”

Thandi was sent to Angola for military training in January 1977. She found that she was not the only woman who had chosen to become a soldier. There were 21 others.


Thandi says that she was a bit fearful about the training. She worried about what would happen to her body. Would she get big muscles and large shoulders? Just by looking at Thandi today, we can see that this did not happen. “Training did not change our bodies. We did not get funny muscles and we could still be women. We carried on doing womanly things, like braiding our hair and caring for ourselves.”

But Thandi and the other women did have some problems. “At first our male comrades looked down on us. After our first day of training, we were very sick and these comrades laughed at us. But our commanders gave us courage to go on. We worked hard to prove that we were their equals.

“After a few months, everyone in the camps treated us as their equals. They called us their comrades-in-arms. Some of us could even shoot better than some male comrades. I loved my life as a guerrilla and I miss it.”

Thandi’s respect for the ANC grew stronger during training. She met some of the leaders. “It was an honour for me to shake hands with comrades such as Alfred Nzo and Joe Modise. They always raised our spirits.”

After about eight months, Thandi completed her training — and early in 1978 she returned to South Africa.


“I came to stay in Diepkloof, Johannesburg. Our job was to look around Johannesburg for targets. We sent information about these targets to our commanders outside the country.”

Thandi then moved to Eldorado Park where she formed a cell. She worked ‘underground’ for two years. Then, on the afternoon of 31 October 1979, she heard the knock on the door. It was the security police. They took her to John Vorster Square. She was five months pregnant.

“The police knew much about me. Yet only two people in Maputo knew about my activities. So I was sold out by one of them.

“My labour pains started during questioning. When they saw what was happening, they took me back to my cell. The uniformed police drove me to the hospital and I gave birth two hours later. I named my second daughter Mandisa.”

Thandi and her baby were separated after six days. They did not allow her to breastfeed. “Even if they had allowed me to breastfeed her for two days, it would have meant a lot to me.”

The prison authorities and social workers wanted Thandi to give her baby up for adoption. But she refused. Mandisa was sent to Thandi’s mother in Huhudi.

Thandi was charged in court with her two comrades, Slim Mogale and Moses Nkosi. In November 1980, Thandi was sentenced to eight years. Mogale was given a five year suspended sentence. Nkosi was sentenced to five years imprisonment. But he skipped the country while he was out on bail waiting to appeal.


Thandi’s fight did not stop after she was sentenced. “Our first struggle was to make the prison authorities see us as people — and not as things. We were not happy with the food and clothing — and so we went on a number of hunger strikes.”

Thandi believes that, in many ways, women political prisoners have a harder time than male prisoners. “For example, on Robben Island there is a television for comrades, but we had nothing.”

She says that sometimes it is not easy for women to get permission to study. “I had to wait for 18 months. I only got permission after I wrote a letter to my lawyer, Priscilla Jana, asking her to challenge these people.”

But getting permission did not mean the end of Thandi’s problems. “I sometimes got letters from Unisa telling me that I did not send library books back. When I asked the authorities why they did not send the books, they said they had forgotten.”

But all these problems did not stop Thandi from completing her studies. She got her Bachelor of Commerce (B. Com.) degree from Unisa.


But for Thandi, the hardest thing about prison was being away from her children. “I thought about my poor kids who did not know their mother. But with the help of comrades such as Dorothy Nyembe and Ntombi Shope, I fought against thinking about my family.”

But it was not easy — especially when her mother and daughters came to visit her in prison.

“Once Mandisa came to see me with stones in her pocket. She took them out when she saw me through the glass. She wanted to break the window to set me free.”

But even the pain of seeing her children through the glass did not weaken Thandi. She was offered the chance to go home if she signed a form saying she no longer supported violence. She refused. “We told them we were not violent, but it was Botha’s government that was violent.”

But that was not the only offer that Thandi got. “One day some people asked me to join the National Party. I asked them how could I join the NP because I was black, and also a ‘terrorist’ in their eyes. They promised to free me if I agreed. I told them they were mad.”

There was still more to come: “Six months before I was released, the SB’s came. They wanted to know what I was planning to do outside. They asked me if I was still going to fight the government. My answer was simple. I told them the people’s freedom is the only stop sign in the road that I can respect.”

NEW WORDS policies —rules and guidelines that an organisation follows targets — places or people to attack activities —actions prison authorities — the people in charge of the jail


If you would like to print or save this article as a PDF, press ctrl + p on your keyboard (cmd + p on mac).

bottom of page