Trade unionist, political detainee, banned person, member of the ANC, ANCWL, SACP, FSAW and the UWO, Member of Parliament, recipient of Provincial and National Government Awards.
Mandu Mildred Ramakaba-Lesiea was born on 28 January 1933 in Langa, Cape Town, Western Province (now Western Cape), the only official area for African accommodation in Cape Town in the 1930s. She grew up in the racially mixed area of Kensington.
Her father, Sello Ramakaba, was from Lesotho and grew up in Ladybrand in the Orange Free State (now Free State). Unable to find employment in Ladybrand, Ramakaba migrated to Cape Town, in the early 1920s, where he found employment as a labourer at a wholesaler.
In 1924, he married Francina Pretorius, who was also from Ladybrand. Francina’s mother was an Afrikaner and the children were brought up speaking both Sotho and Afrikaans, although they were classified as African because of their father.
Mildred attended the City Mission School in Kensington and then Kensington High ”” with mainly coloured students, as segregated schooling was not yet strictly enforced in Cape Town. Mildred was educated until standard six (Grade 8).
When she was 16, her father died. Her mother remarried James Khojana, an ex-soldier. Rebelling against the attempts of her stepfather to obtain bride wealth from her prospective suitors, Mildred was made to leave the family home and forced to find work. Thus at the age of 16, Mildred started employment as a domestic worker for a family in Sea Point. It was a live-in job.
In 1952, she married her baby’s father, James Lesiea, from Aliwal North, whom she had met while he was working in a hotel in Sea Point. The couple moved to an informal settlement on the Eureka Estate in Elsies River.
While living in Elsies River that Mildred was drawn into political activity against the introduction of Bantu Education. Local meetings were organised by the African National Congress (ANC). The Eureka African Primary School was the first school in the Western Cape to have Bantu Education imposed upon it. Consequently, she joined the Elsies River Civic Association in 1954 to protest against the education board and subsequently joined the ANC, as well as the underground structure of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), which was by then banned.
In 1954, Lesiea was elected the Treasurer of the local branch of the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL). As elsewhere in South Africa, African women in the Western Cape were galvanised into some form of protest by the anti-pass campaign at this time and Mildred was among those active in its organisation.
Like other women involved in the Federation of South African Women (FSAW), in the mid-l950s she participated in the ‘grand’ campaigns of the ANC such as the Congress of the People (COD) and the subsequent ‘Hands Off Our Leaders Campaign’ in opposition to the 1956 Treason Trial. In 1957, she was involved in the campaign against forced removals in the Western Cape. She also participated in the famous Women’s March of 1956 by going door-to-door to obtain signatures against the pass laws. However, she did not go to Pretoria as the organisation’s finances only allowed a small delegation to travel to Pretoria. She participated in the local march to Parliament in Cape Town.
In 1958, Lesiea’s involvement in radical politics extended to joining the union movement. She became a volunteer organiser for the Brick, Cement and Quarry Workers’ Union, which was affiliated to the trade union federation, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). Lesiea was responsible for enlisting members from the hostels and was delegated to build bridges between hostel-dwellers and local residents.
When reference books were imposed on women in 1959, Lesiea was among the women who protested against it. She was one of 24 women who stayed fourteen days in jail and was then released on bail for this incident.That same year 1959, Lesiea was one of the many Africans forcibly removed from Elsies River and moved to Nyanga in terms of the Group Areas Act .
Lesiea, like Dora Tamana, played an active role in encouraging support from other political groups and had close personal relationships with a number of white communists such as Ray Alexander and Wolfie Kodesh. She became one of those who visited Eulalie Stott’s house to meet with Black Sash women to educate them about the meaning of the pass laws.
In 1962, she was elected to visit and record the experiences of those who had been banished under the state’s draconian security legislation, together with Helen Joseph, former secretary of FSAW, and Joe Morolong. In 1963, after Lesiea’s return to Cape Town, she herself was detained under the new 90-day detention law. She spent five months in solitary confinement under the terms of the General Law Amendment Act (No. 37 of 1963), which allowed prisoners to be detained for 90 days without charge. At the end of 1963, many political activists, including Lesiea, were re-arrested on completion of their first term of detention.
In 1964, after five months of detention, Lesiea and 44 others were charged with sabotage under the Suppression of Communism Act in a trial known as The State versus Willie Mboiornpo and Others. She was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, and became the first woman to be held at Pollsmoor, but after an appeal in 1965, her sentence was overturned.
Following her release, Peter Hjul, a member of the Institute for Race Relations as well as the Liberal Party, approached her and offered to help her leave the country. For many reasons, including her unwillingness to desert her family and friends and her declared allegiance to the ANC, she chose to remain in South Africa.
For the next five years, she was banned, unable to work and subject to house arrest. In order to support her family, she knitted jerseys. During this time the security police, who tried regularly to coerce economically vulnerable African women to act as informers, frequently approached her. Lesiea, however, remained active in the ANC underground movement, liaising with Ray Alexander, among others, over developments in the unions.
Despite having lived in Cape Town all her life, in 1966 Lesiea was accused of not registering in time for a reference book and was ordered to move to Witsieshoek in Qwa Qwa, where her husband had family. On appeal, however, she was able to prove her legal right to remain in Cape Town, and subsequently won the right to a house in Langa.
After the expiry of her banning order, Lesiea resumed work as a domestic cleaner and then found employment in a factory. For a number of years, she had been the sole breadwinner in the family. With James, she had had three daughters: Matsibiso, Mpalakeng and Dirnakatso. She divorced him in 1971.
Lesiea helped establish the United Women’s Organisation (UWO) in Cape Town in 1981, becoming its first chairperson. She spent large periods of the 1980s in hiding. She did underground work for the ANC, which included mobilising communities to support the Black Xmas Campaign in 1984. During the 1985 State of Emergency, Lesiea served five months in detention.
After 1994, Lesiea served in the national steering committee of the ANC Women's League. From 1995 to1998, Lesiea served as an elected as a ward councillor in Gugulethu. In 1997, she was voted onto the national executive of the ANCWL, and in 1998, she was elected as an ANC MP to Parliament, representing Gugulethu in Cape Town.
IN 2004, Lesiea was on the List of Honourees receiving Provincial Honours, the Office of the Order of Disa, from the then the Premier of the Western Cape, Ebrahim Rasool. The South African Government conferred The Order of Luthuli in Silver for her excellent contribution to the struggle for gender equality and a non-racial, just and democratic South Africa in 2005.
• Western Cape Government (2004). List of Honourees receiving Provincial Honours [online] Available at www.westerncape.gov.za . [Accessed on 16 May 2012]
• Scanlon, H. (2007) Representation & reality: portraits of women's lives in the Western Cape 1948 -1976, (Cape Town: HSRC Press)
Dear friends of SAHO
South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.
SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.
Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.