top of page

The loved ones who are left behind

Everybody remembers the leaders of the people who have been behind bars for many years now – like Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada, Mlangeni, Motsoaledi, Mhlaba, Mkwayi and Masemola….

The government doesn’t let us publish their photographs. We can’t tell you what they have to say. But their names live on in our memories: we know how they have suffered, and we will never forget the price they have paid.

But how many of us have spared a thought for their families? The wives, lovers and children of the men who have spent so long in the prisons of apartheid? When the police vans came for our leaders, what happened to the loved ones they left behind? \


Koikoi Motsoaledi lives with his mother Caroline in Mzimhlope, Soweto. He is 25 years old now, but he was only five months old and living on his mother’s milk when the police came to the house to arrest his father, Elias.

Soon after the arrest of Elias, the police also came to detain his mother. “Who will look after this child?” cried Caroline. The police looked at the tiny baby, and saw that they had a problem. But in the South Africa of apartheid all problems have a solution – whether you like it or not. The police drove to the home of Koikoi’s grandmother, and made her come to Soweto to look after him.

Mme Caroline Motsoaledi spent 162 days in detention in a prison cell with black walls. She had no books, and she couldn’t exercise. She marked the days on the walls by scraping off the black paint. The police wanted her to give evidence at the Rivonia trial against her husband, Elias. She refused. When the trial ended, she heard the magic words: “You can go now.”

“How?” she asked. “I can’t walk, and I don’t know where I am.” She made the police take her home in a van. “You have to be tough with these people,” says Mme Caroline. “Otherwise they think they can play games with you.”


When his mother arrived home, Koikoi, now ten months old, was crawling about in the small garden. He recognised her straight away. It was as if she had never been away.

But her problems were only just beginning. She had seven children. Elias had been jailed for life. His wages had supported the entire family. All Mme Caroline’s strength was needed to keep the family together, and to find food and clothes.

“It was difficult to find work, but a friend found me a job in a textile factory,” Mme Caroline told Learn and Teach. Then the police started coming to the factory. They would take her to John Vorster Square and ask her about her eldest son. “Find him yourself,” Caroline told them. “And stop bothering me at work.” They stopped, but after that they would go to the house at all hours of the day and night.

Mme Caroline has worked at the textile factory for 25 years. The owner has been kind to her, and she is grateful for that. But it was difficult to bring up seven children on her wages. They were always short of food, clothes and shoes. And there were always too many visits from the police.


Until Koikoi was eleven years old, he had no idea that he had a father. “When I found out that he was alive, I felt anger towards him. I couldn’t understand how he could have left us. Sometimes there were whole days without food, and we had to go to school without shoes on cold winter days. I thought he was to blame for this.”

Koikoi found out his father’s address. He didn’t know it was a prison. He wrote a letter to his father. “When are you going to come and work here for us?” he said in the letter. “All the other fathers buy shoes and clothes for their children.”

When friends told him that Robben Island was a prison, Koikoi felt ashamed. “A criminal? My father?” Koikoi couldn’t believe it.

Elias was very upset when he received Koikoi’s letter. He wrote to Mme Caroline and asked her to explain to the children why he was in prison. One of Koikoi’s teachers also helped to open his eyes. “Do you know what a great man your father is?” the teacher asked.

And so Koikoi began to understand. He discovered that his father is a man who is deeply loved and respected by his people. A man who defended his rights, and the rights of others.

“Then I was proud to have as a father a man who was braver than other children’s fathers,” says Koikoi. “But I had no-one to share it with. Everyone knew Mandela’s name, but they knew very little about the other Rivonia trialists.”


Koikoi remembers the 1976 uprising as a moment of liberation. “I and other children became enlightened in 1976. We all learnt who the Rivonia trialists were, and what they had done for the people.”

Koikoi wrote another letter to his father. His father wrote back. They wrote many more letters to each other, because children were not allowed to visit prisons.

In 1979 the long awaited day came. Koikoi travelled to Cape Town by train, with the help of the Red Cross. Even the accommodation was paid for – not like the times when Mme Caroline had to sleep in public toilets when she got off the train.

The next day Koikoi got onto the boat to Robben Island. He was worried about meeting his father for the first time since he was a baby. He sat in the waiting room of the prison, wondering if they would be able to talk to each other.

Suddenly, on the other side of the thick glass window, he saw his father’s face. Koikoi need not have worried. Father and son had a lot in common. And, after all the letters, they had a lot to talk about.

The next time Elias saw Caroline, he asked her: “How come Koikoi’s so short?” Koikoi says: “It’s his fault – he’s just as short as I am!” But they are like each other in other ways: a teacher who knew Elias says that Koikoi even writes the same way as his father.


At the age of sixteen Koikoi finally found his father. He also found out a lot about the history of the struggle against apartheid. Now Koikoi and Caroline, together with the rest of the family, are looking forward to Elias’ release. They don’t pay attention to rumours, but they hope he will come home soon.

The council has threatened to evict Caroline and Koikoi from their house because they refuse to pay their rent. “I’m not moving,” says Caroline. “I want Elias to come back to this very house.”

The same house where, twenty-five years ago, a police van took a father away from his wife and baby son. This is the story of Caroline and Koikoi Motsoaledi.

But there are many other families divided by apartheid: families who also have to fight for survival without the breadwinners. Children who have to grow up without fathers or mothers, husbands and wives who have to comfort themselves with a photograph of their loved one. When the prisoners come home, a wound in these families will be healed. And a wound in the hearts of the people will be healed too!

NEW WORDS a solution – an answer to a problem in common – when you have something in common, you share it with someone else accomodation – a place to stay


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