Apartheid in South Africa is a political system of segregation that perpetuated unequal relationships between Europeans and their descendants and local people of color. This system of segregation placed an inhumane burden on African, Indian, and Couloured people of South Africa. The government placed heavy restrictions intruding on every aspect of private life for these persecuted citizens. Specialized passes, restricted living areas, and daily police harassment were just the least of what an average black citizen faced. In the in the long struggle of overcoming this injustice and retaking their country not only were mass protests, boycotts, and disobedience commonplace, but so were police beatings and shootings, unjustified detention, and rape. Figures like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and countless others were praised for their work fighting against the system of injustice, however much of the praise missed one critical group to the anti-apartheid movement: the women. The history of Deborah Nikiwe Matshoba, among others, reveals the atrocities faced by women and the extent of power the government had with laws like the Suppression of Communist Act.

            Under Apartheid, the government forced black South Africans out of their land into designated Bantustans, or homelands, such as KwaZulu for the Zulu nation, or QwaQwa for the Basotho, where they could live and farm in a separate, black nation. The white government was committed to keeping blacks and whites separate, segregating not only land, but schools, bathrooms, train cars, and much more. The facilities labeled “non-white” were often lower in quality than their white-only counterpart.

            Like many Black South Africans, Deborah Matshoba’s life was shaped by apartheid legislation. Deborah Matshoba’s family was forcefully removed by the government to Kagiso Township during her youth. Matshoba attended Boipelo Primary School and the St. Francis College at Marianhill.[1]

Matshoba managed to get involved Anne Hope of the Christian Institute who trained her and fellow activists like Steve Biko, Welile Nhlapo, Saths Cooper, and many other future prominent leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in literacy workshops.[2] Some of these became the most adamant activists with the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). The BCM included a series of community development projects that specialized in educating and uniting South African Blacks against the government.[3] Early interaction with high-profile activists set Matshoba on a path of political action, spreading the idea of freedom to black South Africans across the country. Matshoba eventually became literacy director at the South African Student Organization, where she ran a literacy campaign across the country.[4] The trickiness of task at hand was that Matshoba was the only one in that class of ten activists that was not banned by the government at the time, so the literacy campaign was resting on her shoulders. As young as she was, Matshoba faced a massive responsibility in the anti-apartheid movement. Matshoba played a major role in setting up a massive platform for social messaging and causing real change within the anti-apartheid movement, all before she even left university.

            The literacy movement Matshoba trained for with famous activists like Biko took on the name of the Black Consciences movement. This movement had a unique rhetoric encouraging followers to take control of their lives and stand up to the white oppressor. The BCM focused on black South Africans with the belief that they have a unique unity that could be weakened by other demographics. Matshoba’s role was to spread the message as far as possible, as Saleem Badat argues “the BC movement saw race as the main dividing line, and racial and national oppression as the key problem in South Africa. Division in terms of class was not seen as important, and neither for the most part, were gender issues.”[5] The BC movement gained momentum among the black population and was a major unifying movement. Despite many integral activists being women, the women’s movement was sidelined. Women like Matshoba focused to concentrate the movements instead. Support for the Black Consciousness movement reflects sacrifices Black South African women made every day for the anti-apartheid movement that often go unnoticed. With the message the BC movement was speeding, it easily caught on in Matshoba’s SASO group where the message could be easily received, and then amplified into black South Africa.    

Matshoba’s main effort in resisting the government is often seen as her efforts in SASO. She was an executive member directing literacy related to the BCM. SASO itself was a pretty unique group in that, according to Saleem Badat, “in the political conditions of the 1960s, the launch of SASO and BC organizations was an important step. It ended the silence and despair of the 1960s, rebuilt black oppositional politics, and inspired a new era of black political activism and resistance.”[6] Founded in 1968, SASO filled a large void in the restless apartheid resistance, for most prominent activists and groups like the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan African Congress (PAC) were banned by the government in the 1960s. SASO was one of the first organized forms of resistance in years that served as a beacon for the resurgence of political action. The creation of this organization was timely because it was a group of young, ambitious students that did not face the government repression that their parents had faced before them in decades passed. These brave students helped rekindle the public anti-apartheid movement, but their naivety will soon face the wrath of government backlash, as Matshoba experienced first-hand.

Along with the literacy campaign, in the summer of 1976, Matshoba said she was managing an “intensive move” of students who wanted to leave the country to flee the government.[7] It was during this translocation project in July of 1976 where Matshoba was first arrested. 1976 was a pivotal year in the movement because of the group’s public demonstrations in Soweto. The protests led to intense government backlash that incited violent, which caused many students and organizers to escape the governments fury by leaving the country.[8] People died directly from police brutality during the uprisings, turning what was a protest into an ideological, and even physical war for many students.  It was Matshoba’s responsibility to facilitate transporting these political refugees across the nation’s borders. Eventually, the government identified Matshoba as a key activist, leading to her arrest and eventual torture.

In an age of political unrest and mass protest, it was common for many Africans to find themselves in the walls of prison. For Matshoba this reality came true after being sent to the Fort in Johannesburg under the Suppression of Communism act. Matshoba was not stranded alone in her detention, “among the other women who were with me at the Fort was Winnie Mandela, Joyce Seroke, Fatima Meer, Sele Moklana, Wesper Smith, that was in 1976. So, it was quite a powerful group of women.”[9] Matshoba explains how she stuck to this group of women while imprisoned, continuing to practice their anti-apartheid ways. The woman continued to disobey the authorities, protesting conditions in the prison to the point where they caused real change. Led by Winnie Mandela, the women confronted prison authorities about black prisoners not being allowed to wear undergarments; eventually all women in the Fort were given these, just like their white counterparts who were “allowed to have the full regalia every women needs,” according to Matshoba.[10] This group of women is far from insignificant in South Africa, and Matshoba being a part of it reflects what an important role she played at SASO and the anti-apartheid movement in general. Unfortunately for Matshoba, along with her activism in prison, the justice system was aware of that role as well.

The worst of Matshoba’s prison experience was still yet to come. After being released for a short six weeks, Matshoba was detained again and this time sent to Pietermaritzburg prison. After being placed in solitary confinement, eventually for 12 straight months, uninformed of what crime she committed, with no right to a trial, Matshoba defiantly asked for the Security Police. The security police are the ones who brutally interrogated political prisoners. Media coverage of these police suggests the variety of their inhumane tactics.[11] It was these men that Matshoba asked for because she believed she could cause change here, or that she was not being held properly. When they arrived for Matshoba, two of them showed up drunk, and collected her without her clothes and spent all night interrogating her.[12] They manacled her to an iron ball and made her stand for three straight days. When she refused to compromise SASO, they beat her. When she fell from exhaustion, they beat her. When she suffered from her asthma, they left her without medication.[13] She then returned to solitary confinement in the prison where she was harassed by the wardresses. The system knew the role Matshoba played in opposing their regime, and they organized hellish conditions to torture their enemy.

Solitary confinement is a brutal tactic weaponized by governments to break their prisoners. An officer in the military, Richard Steele, sentenced to 18 months in prison explains his thoughts to the Truth and Reconciliation Comimssion: “I argue that solitary confinement is a form of torture and enumerate to the court some of the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of my experience in solitary confinement.”[14] Steele was thrown into a cell with a fresh blood stain from a man who tried to kill himself in solitary confinement. As social creatures, humans need social interaction to remain sane, and when that is taken away, people start to lose themselves. Steele was in a military prison and the policy for his prison had a 14-day maximum on consecutive days in solitary, and he still attests to the horrors of the isolation. Matshoba faced months straight in confinement, away from anyone. Matshoba was one of many to be abused while detained, but her horrors remained obscured prior to her testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Matshoba her torture and imprisonment. Some of her fellow BCM colleagues like Steve Biko, who died from trauma occurred during a beating by Security Police in custody, did not.

            After 12 months of torture and mental warfare, Matshoba was transferred back to the Fort, where she met up with her previous friends. When she arrived, she had no hair and weighed 43 kilograms.[15] The women cried when they saw the state Matshoba was in when she returned. She spent six months there where she was taken care of by fellow inmates before she was released, however, being released from prison did not mean freedom. The state still wanted to punish her, so she was assigned a five-year banning order, restricting her to Krugersdorp. This meant five more grueling years under the government’s control, and she had little ability to help with the movement.

This extensive punishment disrupted every aspect of Matshoba’s free life, demonstrating her imprisonment was not truly over. The banning order separated her and her husband to different districts. Matshoba was unable to attend her wedding celebration because it would have been too large of a gathering. This order placed an unjust burden on her marriage, to the point where her husband could no longer stay with her. The government not only had to take away Matshoba’s dignity and humanity while torturing her, but they also had to crush her happiness and break up her family. Later, Matshoba’s daughter reveals that the police also hunted down her son, Andile, and killed him: “Their first reaction was to run away, because they realized that it must be the police. From the people that alighted from the vehicle, one of them shouted Andile and he had to react in a way that made them sure that this was Andile, because the shots that followed after that, made it clear that he fell.”[16] Andile was involved in “the struggle” just as his mother had been, and he was shot dead because of it. Not only was he shot, but the murderers also went up and stabbed him afterwards to confirm the kill. The killers left and no one was able to identify them and Matshoba was never able to face them. Matshoba and her family sacrificed much for this struggle to freedom, and her commitment shows how important of a role she, and countless women like her played in achieving their goal of freedom and equality. The government’s power and ruthlessness are also displayed and demonstrates the extent it will go to win its battle of oppression.

 Matshoba fought to create a fairer world for everyone. She played a key role in the anti-apartheid movement during the 1970s and her position in SASO allowed for her to facilitate unity and identity among the black community. Matshoba’s dedication to the movement was demonstrated by her sacrifice and must not be forgotten. The destruction apartheid caused is horrifically clear even after just one point of view. There are countless other stories just like Deborah Matshoba’s. Fortunately, Matshoba is able to tell her experience of torture, mistreatment, and harassment for the world to remember the cost of freedom. Even after facing all these brutalities, Matshoba is courageous enough to tell her story, and hold her captors accountable. The work of Mandela and his colleagues never would have caused the change it did without the effort and sacrifice of individuals as devoted as Matshoba was.

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project


[1] South African History Online, “Nikiwe Deborath Matshoba.” https://sahistory.org.za/people/nikiwe-deborah-matshoba.

[2] Leslie Anne Hadfield, Liberation and Development: Black Consciousness Community Programs in South Africa (Michigan State University Press, 2016), 45-62.

[3] Hadfield, Liberation and Development, 45-62.

[4] Deborah Matshoba. Victim testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Durban, July 24, 1996.

[5] Saleem Badat, “SASO and Black Consciousness, and the Shift to Congress Politics.” In Students must rise (Wits University Press, 2016), 99-101.

[6] Badat, Students Must Rise, 99-101.

[7] Matshoba, Testimony, 1996.

[8] Hadfield, Liberation and Development, 45-62.

[9] Matshoba, Testimony, 1997.

[10] Matshoba, Testimony, 1997.

[11] Jon Blair, “When Memory Comes: Between….,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 29, 1999. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-aug-29-bk-4714-story.html

[12] Matshoba, Testimony, 1997.

[13] Blair, “When Memory Comes: Between….,” Los Angeles Times.

[14] Richard Steele. Victim testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Cape Town, July 23, 1997.

[15] Matshoba, Testimony, 1997.

[16] D. Mdingi. Victim testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Queenstown, July 22, 1996.

  • Badat, Saleem. “SASO and Black Consciousness, and the Shift to Congress Politics.” In Students Must Rise, Wits University Press, 2016.
  • Blair, Jon. “When Memory Comes: Between….” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 29, 1999. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-aug-29-bk-4714-story.html
  • Hadfield, Leslie Anne, Liberation and Development: Black Consciousness Community Programs  in South Africa. Michigan State University Press, 2016. 45-62.
  • Matshoba, Deborah. Victim testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Durban,
  • July 24, 1996.
  • Matshoba, Deborah. Victim testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Durban,
  • July 29, 1997.
  • Mdingi, D. Victim testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Queenstown, July 22,  1996.
  • Richard Steele. Victim testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Cape Town, July 23, 1997.