The anti-apartheid fighter empowering women in South Africa

“I want my legacy to be that of a woman who believed in justice, equality and doing what is right … Change is my legacy.”

An illustration of Gerladine Fraser-Moleketi.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

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On a warm Monday morning on August 24, 1981, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi walked into the Zimbabwe-based satellite office of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, the African National Congress (ANC), to meet her comrades.

Moments later, she was escorted out of the building in handcuffs, under arrest on suspicion of murder. It was her 21st birthday.

Two white officers with the Zimbabwean police towered over the “Coloured” South African woman in a hostile, racially charged interrogation that lasted several hours. It was a gruelling encounter, Geraldine remembers. Although the officers did not physically harm her, she was left emotionally reeling from the verbal assaults.

Without appearing in court, Geraldine was detained. She would spend 17 days in solitary confinement – part of it at the notoriously dangerous Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison – for a crime she did not commit.

The tale of her arrest and detention is grim. But for Geraldine – the now-61-year-old who has gone from the front lines of anti-racist activism to success in politics and business – the moment was a catalyst.

Her politically charged detention only made her more determined to fight what she saw as the far-reaching influence of the South African apartheid regime, and it would put her on a trajectory that took her from young idealistic radical to the helm of a new democratic government in 1994.

The injustice of apartheid

One of six children, Geraldine is the child of a school principal father and a community activist mother. She has fond memories of growing up in a home where robust debate was the order of the day. “Both my parents were very active in the community, so we grew up in a politically active family,” she says from her home office in Cape Town.

“My parents would always encourage us to know what is happening around us from a very young age. We were raised to always do the right thing and challenge injustice when we witness it,” she continues, saying that her grandmother, “a fiery woman and a staunch trade unionist”, was one of her greatest early influences.

“Because of my family’s values, and activism, there was never a time in my life where I wasn’t aware of the brutality and injustice of the apartheid system,” she says.

Geraldine’s mother, Cynthia, and her uncle, Mervyn, were a dynamic sibling duo of community activists. She recalls how they would distribute “illegal” progressive political information in the 1960s, and how she would later follow in their footsteps. “My mother and her brother used to hand out pamphlets and newspapers like the Guardian and the New Age, that had changed their names after they were banned.”

From the 1950s to the early 1980s, the apartheid government collected thousands of books across the country each year and burned them. They then banned books about Black Consciousness, resistance, revolution and communist literature, as well as several newspapers that reported critically about the apartheid regime.

“One day my father had fetched my younger sister and I from our grandmother’s house. It’s late in the evening and we get stopped by the police. Now, remember, at the time, Black and Coloured people were treated with suspicion, so it wasn’t unusual for the police to inspect not only the car but our personal belongings,” Geraldine recounts.

“In my school bag, I had the ‘illegal’ pamphlets that we had started distributing like my mother had done before. The pamphlets were really just political information and other mostly banned revolutionary content. By a stroke of luck, the policeman let us go without inspecting the vehicle, but we could have been in serious trouble had they checked my bag,” she adds, slightly amused by the ordeal in hindsight. “That was my first close call.”

At the time, the National Party – the all-white minority-rule South African government – had intensified segregationist legislation that divided people based on their race. A clear distinction was made between goods and services “for Whites only” and those “for Coloureds”, “for Indians” or “for Blacks”.

In 1974, Geraldine was 14 years old, spirited, politically conscious and growing more impatient with the racial injustice that permeated every aspect of her life – education, transport, access to basic services. So when she had her Claudette Colvin moment in a segregated bus on her way to school one morning, no one who knew her was surprised.

“There were seats in the front reserved for whites, but everyone in the bus was Black so they were all standing. I remember standing there thinking, this is … ridiculous,” says Geraldine, animated as she remembers the morning her proclivity for confronting inequality almost landed her in serious trouble.

“I walked up to an empty seat and sat down. I told myself I was not going to move. So the driver, a Black man, says to me: ‘You know you can’t sit there,’”

Unwavering, she flatly refused to get up until the driver stopped the bus. The adults on the bus were unhappy with her, most were headed to work and worried about being late. So the driver got up, picked up the petite teenager, and left her on the side of the road.

“I used to very consciously and critically look at issues. So my biggest fear wasn’t that I was going to be in trouble with the unjust law of the time, I was worried that I was going to be in trouble with my granny and my parents for not going to school,” Geraldine lets out a burst of youthful laughter.

Education was always important in the Fraser household but, in an era of racial inequality, political education was deeply entrenched in the family as a means to navigate a repressive, brutal society.

Geraldine thrived in debates and political organisation at Livingstone High School, then a school for non-white children only. Like her grandmother, she was known to be fiery and had garnered some supporters who saw her as a leader in the school. In the ninth grade, she was elected to the Student Representative Council.

By age 15, Geraldine had joined political classes that were disguised as book clubs – as well as one “normal” book club, she says.

“In the ‘illegal’ political class, we read and studied everything such as the Freedom Charter, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and so on, but then in the normal class, we read clean books, so to speak.”

‘I wanted to struggle for change’

Early on, South Africa’s liberation movement largely adopted a non-violent approach towards ending apartheid similar to the civil rights movement in the United States. This changed in 1961 when the ANC took up arms with the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), which translates to Spear of the Nation.

The MK – led by Nelson Mandela – was the official armed wing of the ANC, and it ignited in response to the increasingly brutal repression of dissidents through extrajudicial killings, torture and detention without trial. In retaliation, the apartheid state outlawed the MK and designated the group a terrorist organisation.

By age 19, Geraldine was determined to make a significant and drastic contribution to the struggle against apartheid. She gravitated towards an ANC ally, the South African Communist Party (SACP). By then, she had fully entrenched herself in activism, taken up leadership roles in community politics and fostered meaningful political connections across different organisations in Cape Town.

Through her connections to the ANC underground, she initiated the process of joining the armed struggle.

“The situation at the time necessitated that we explore other ways to fight against apartheid. Remember, at the time, we were a few years fresh from the student uprising of 1976, hundreds of Black youth had been killed in Soweto by the regime,” says Geraldine, referring to the Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976, when Black schoolchildren demonstrating against inferior, racist education and other injustices were gunned down by apartheid police.

In 1980, Geraldine was a second-year university student when she left the country for military training and landed in Harare, Zimbabwe.

“You know, when I walked out of the gate of the University of the Western Cape campus to leave the country, I knew what I wanted to do was struggle for change. I wasn’t naive to the dangers, I was just … not fazed,” she says, recounting the day she joined the armed struggle.

In Zimbabwe, Geraldine underwent military training. She earned her fighter stripes and worked alongside Joe Gqabi, a prominent anti-apartheid leader – who was previously incarcerated on Robben Island with Mandela and others – and who headed ANC operations in Zimbabwe.

“Life was very structured, our movements were preplanned all the way down to the food we ate. We would receive donations from other countries, as well as whatever support that could come from the ANC,” she recalls.

Geraldine, Gqabi and other anti-apartheid comrades lived together in a safe house in Ashdown Park, a leafy suburb of Harare. It was there on a cold winter evening, July 31, 1981, that Gqabi was assassinated.

“I remember feeling uneasy as we drove up to the house around midnight, and seeing that the gate was open,” a pensive Geraldine recalls.

“You see we had very strict security protocols that we set up for our safety, for instance, the gate was never to be left unlocked. We all knew at the time, whether in the Frontline States, in the country, underground or elsewhere in the world whilst in exile, we knew we had to be cautious.”

Although they were in a different country, separated from the apartheid regime by borders, they were always aware that they were not completely safe.

Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, had gained independence from Great Britain in 1980. However, elements of the white minority government with close ties to the apartheid state in South Africa remained, including in the police force. This created insecurity for Geraldine and her comrades.

On the night of Gqabi’s death, Geraldine and another young comrade were dropped off at the safehouse. They found the gate open and Gqabi’s car parked in the driveway.

“I walked to the door of the house to unlock it, and the comrade with me went to have a closer inspection of the car. As soon as he looked through the window, he yelled in my direction: ‘Geraldine, run!'”

The comrade was Shadrack Ganda, who later testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997 about the “devastating” moment he and Geraldine discovered Gqabi.

“As I was about to open the door on the side of the driveway, I could see the car and I saw that the glass, the window had been shattered … As I was approaching the car, the door was riddled with bullets and I looked into the car, Joe Gqabi was slouched in the seat. He had fallen onto the left passenger seat,” reads an extract from Ganda’s testimony in the TRC report.

Geraldine recalls how they sped to the home of then-minister of state security, and now president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was a close associate of Gqabi, “to inform him that something happened and we needed the police and ambulance at the safehouse”.

Mnangagwa drove back to Ashdown Park with her, armed with an AK47.

“When we arrived, he said to me: ‘Stay in the car,’ then he got out and cocked his AK before walking down the driveway. He first looked towards the back of the house before walking to the car.

“I then got out of the car and he said to me: ‘Comrade Joe is dead.’ I must say, I flipped for a minute,” adds Geraldine, the dramatic events of that night 41 years ago still so vivid in her mind.

‘It was war’

Gqabi would later receive a state funeral courtesy of the Zimbabwean government, attended by senior members of the ANC, including Oliver Tambo, the then-president of the ANC, and several ANC leaders and members such as Thabo Mbeki.

“We learned that comrade Joe had been under surveillance by members of the hit squad for about three weeks before he was killed,” Geraldine says.

The apartheid state was infamous for having a hit squad that would carry out brutal extrajudicial killings across borders.

According to newspapers that picked up the story in 1981, the death of Gqabi was a case study characteristic of the far-reaching brutality of the South African apartheid state, but to Geraldine, the ANC, and the military resistance wing of the liberation movement at the time, “it was war”.

For Geraldine, the war became even more personal just weeks after Gqabi’s death.

“I was arrested on the 24th of August by the Zimbabwean police, MacCallum and Varkevisser, at the ANC offices in the presence of two high-ranking ANC members at the time,” she recounts, “They said for the murder of Joe Gqabi.”

Ganda was also arrested. However, following hours of aggressive interrogation, he was released by Zimbabwean police without explanation.

Geraldine, meanwhile, would endure days of hostile interrogation both at the Harare Central Police Station and Chikurubi Prison.

“When they were questioning me, they had placed one of the weapons they said was used in the assassination on the chair next to me,” she recalls. “They asked various questions that had already been asked at the time about the day we discovered comrade Joe. By then, I had been through the events of that day multiple times with the ANC leadership.

“And then I eventually realised the police were more interested in the ANC than me being a suspect through their line of questioning. They’d ask: ‘What motivates one to join, what is the ideology of the movement?'”

The ANC in Zimbabwe, led by Gqabi, had built good relations with the Zimbabwean government and ruling party, the ZANU-PF. However, the detectives in charge of the case were former members of the British South Africa Police, which was the Rhodesian police force that was closely allied with the apartheid regime.

Geraldine was held in solitary without charge at the maximum-security prison for some time and then moved to the central police cells, where she was eventually released – still without charge – after 17 days.

‘A better, more just society’

When Geraldine was released from prison in mid-September 1981, she went straight back to work and activism, continuing to help build ANC structures in Zimbabwe while undergoing military training with her comrades and Zimbabwean allies.

According to the South African History Archive Trust, the ANC encouraged women to take up arms and join the MK. However, the final report of the TRC claimed that during the height of anti-apartheid resistance and up until the early 1990s, women were in a minority accounting for “approximately 20 percent of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadres”.

Geraldine recalls how the women she met held their own. “I encountered a few women in the camp, but we all knew what we had to do. We knew what was at stake, we were there to train and contribute to the struggle against apartheid.

“I never thought it was harder for me because I am a woman, but I always had to navigate my way carefully through the gender inequality – that wasn’t just an ANC camp problem, it was a world problem.”

Towards the end of 1981, Geraldine went to further her training in Angola. It was in the capital, Luanda, that she met her husband, Jabu Moleketi – a fellow MK cadre.

She can’t help but smile as she recalls their first meeting. “I was in the safe house, he walked inside and said: ‘Where’s the food comrade, I’m hungry?'” she laughs. “I said: ‘There’s the kitchen comrade, help yourself.'”

“He understood me, we were comrades first then partners, so there wasn’t any chance of gender roles,” she adds.

The pair would go on to marry over a year later and eventually have three children. Geraldine became Fraser-Moleketi.

In 1982, Geraldine underwent specialised training in the Soviet Union, which was an ally of the ANC. Geraldine stoically recounts training at a winter camp outside Moscow. One day, they were dropped off in the middle of the woods, given water, a compass and a map, and told to “march” their way back to camp.

“After wandering through the woods all night, they collected me and the only other female comrade, and gave us a ride back so we didn’t have to complete the full march overnight,” she adds, “that was the only time I allowed myself some slack, to not do what the male comrades were doing, no matter how tough it got.”

The ANC and the Soviet Union had strengthened ties after the Sharpeville Massacre – when apartheid police fired on a group of peaceful protesters in a Black township on March 21, 1960, killing 69 people – with the Soviet Union making an estimated $30,000 donation to the SACP, to assist the victims’ families. They also provided training for those in the armed struggle, refuge for those in exile, and financial support for victims of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

By 1990, the apartheid state had begun to crumble. When FW de Klerk took over as prime minister, he made critical changes that saw the unbanning of “Black” political formations, including the ANC, the SACP, the Pan African Congress and others.

These changes also meant that anti-apartheid activists like Geraldine could finally return home.

“We had to come back and rebuild not only the country, but our connections with families, friends, and communities. It wasn’t easy,” she says. “But I was overjoyed to be home. There was potential to build a better, more just society. We could work towards alleviating poverty, racial inequalities and make basic needs accessible to everyone. I had hope.”

Geraldine was instrumental in relaunching the SACP, as she diligently presided over its administration. She also worked with prominent anti-apartheid leaders, eventually serving in South Africa’s historic first democratic cabinet.

Well into the 2000s, Geraldine left politics, but she was still pushing back against the status quo in the development and finance sectors. After joining the African Development Bank, she spearheaded a $300m development fund to support female-led businesses on the continent, something she calls “one of my proudest achievements”. Today, she is accomplished as the chairman of Tiger Brands, the largest food company on the African continent and the Chancellor of Nelson Mandela University.

Although her name, her strife and passion for justice is entrenched in the fabric of South African history, Geraldine is caught off guard when asked about her legacy.

“That’s a tough one,” she smiles. “I want my legacy to be that of a woman who believed in justice, equality and doing what is right. I wanted to contribute to a better, fairer, transformed society where everyone has equal opportunities. Change is my legacy.”

From the Afghan woman who fought patriarchy and the Soviets to the mother who taught her daughter what it means to survive and the art of care, we are telling the stories of women – contemporary, historical, in the public eye and overlooked – who are shaping other women’s lives. In 2022, starting from Women’s History Month in March, these are the stories of women who are making a difference to other women.

Source: Al Jazeera