Nontsikelelo June-Rose Cothoza was born at King Edward Hospital, Umbilo, Durban, in June 1967. The second child of Zizile Cothoza, Nontsikelelo Cothoza, or Nstiki, as her family refers to her, was raised in Lamontville, a township south of Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). Cothoza attended Lamontville High School where she excelled academically. She became increasingly involved in student activism as the presence of the South African Defence Force (SADF) intensified in the townships and on school premises, attempting to stifle student political mobilisation. Any attempts towards political organisation and discussions held by students were met with teargas and assault by the SADF. The threat of harm, however, did not stop her pursuit of knowledge and a good education. She often found herself in trouble with the school. Her mother once received a letter from a teacher stating that Nontsikelelo Cothoza was causing problems. Cothoza, however, told her mother that the facilities at the school were derelict, there was a shortage of teachers and the students therefore wanted to learn under better conditions. In addition to her political endeavours at school, Cothoza was also part of Lamontville Youth Organisation which attended to issues facing the community.
When Cothoza was in standard 9 (grade 11), she fell pregnant. She gave birth to a boy whom she named Lunga. In an article published by SPEAK in 1988, Zizile Cothoza explained that during this period the conditions in SADF occupied Lamontville were becoming increasingly bad as the community’s pursuit for better living conditions were met with hostility from the government. Nontsikelelo Cothoza, facing continued harassment from the police, left Lamontville with her then nine month old son to seek refuge. They were however captured by the police and Cothoza and her son were imprisoned for three weeks.
Shortly after this ordeal, Cothoza went missing, leaving her family ignorant of her whereabouts, and her mother in particular, to face inquiries from the police. It was later revealed that Cothoza was in fact detained once again after having attempted to escape the country illicitly. While she continued attending school after her detainment, she continued to be harassed by the police, until she finally left her home in Lamontville for good and went into exile to Swaziland. Although she’d write to her mother, reassuring her of her safety, Cothoza’s absence broke her family’s heart − her son now old enough, mourned his mother’s absence for months. She would never return home.
Cothoza died on 8 June 1988 while attempting to return to South Africa from exile in Swaziland. A member of the African National Congress’s (ANC) armed wing uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), Cothoza was killed together with three of her comrades, Surendra Lenny Naidu, Makhosi Nyoka and Charity Mthembu. They were assassinated when their vehicle was ambushed in Piet Retief, Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) along the Mpumalanga/Swaziland border by Eugene De Kock’s Vlakplaas assassins. Cothoza and her comrades were betrayed by the driver of the vehicle, Lieutenant Silulame Moshe, who they knew as ‘Amos’. Only four days later, another group of four ANC combatants were also transported across the border by an askari, Sergeant Frans Manzini, ambushed and gunned down by De Kock’s assassins. Around the same time, another two ANC cadres were ambushed within the Swaziland border, one of whom managed to escape.
Zizile Cothoza, having seen the news of the killings was at this point unaware that her daughter was also killed. A week after the killings, Zizile Cothoza received an anonymous call advising her to visit Piet Retief station because her daughter may have been among the deceased. Shortly afterwards, the police visited the home of Zizile Cothoza and showed her photographs of her deceased daughter’s body. She thereafter sought the help of a lawyer to find the whereabouts of her daughter. Together with the parents of the liberation fighters that were killed within that week along the Swaziland border, Zizile Cothoza travelled to Piet Retief to identify the body of her daughter. The bodies were haphazardly placed one above the other and badly decayed − emitting an odious smell. Nontsikelelo Cothoza’s body, in particular, was so badly disfigured that her mother could barely recognise her. The families were also taken to see the vehicle they were killed in. In the SPEAK article, Zizile Cothoza recalled seeing the bullet holes, however, stated that it was hard to discern how they were actually killed in light of the injuries sustained by the bodies. Perhaps this is an allusion to her disbelief of the official narrative propagated by the police.
After democracy, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) provided families the prospect of learning the truth about their relatives’ deaths. The TRC received amnesty applications from the officers involved in the planning and killings of the MK members at the Swaziland border. The applicants maintained that the group of MK cadres intended to invade Natal from the Swaziland border. The group was, however, infiltrated by a double agent handled by the Piet Retief Security Branch. The double agent, Lieutenant Moshe, or “Amos”, was charged with transporting them over the border into the ambush by the security branch. Moshe ran from the vehicle, and the MK cadres were brutally shot to their death. However, after finding the MK combatants to be unarmed, the assassins planted weapons in their vehicle.
While the hope was for transparency, the amnesty hearings only revealed further denials and deceit on the part of the amnesty applicants as different versions of the events were relayed, obscuring the truth. Contestation arose among the amnesty applicants’ versions of events regarding whether the objective was to arrest the insurgents upon ambush or to kill them. The applicants who upheld that the intention was to arrest the cadres claim that this plan was derailed once it was discovered that the insurgents were armed. De Kock’s testimony, however, contradicted this. The TRC determined that considering the number of deaths that occurred in this manner little attempt was likely made to arrest the liberation fighters. Nine amnesty applicants involved in the killing of Cothoza and her comrades were granted amnesty.
On 1 July 1988, a memorial service was held for the nine MK cadres who were killed in the Piet Retief ambushes in June. Held at St. Anthony’s Catholic School in Durban, the service was monitored by the police and restricted to 200 mourners.
Cothoza is one of many liberation fighters who died in exile. While the liberation fighters who died with her have had roads renamed after them in Durban, Cothoza has not yet been memorialised in this manner. 
Her sacrifice, however, is no less significant.
The specifics of these events - where they fled to, where they were captured and where they were detained - are not elaborated in the article. Speak collective. ‘A Fighting Life Nontsikelelo.’ Speak. Johannesburg, 1988. Available at: www.sahistory.org.za/archive/fighting-life-nontsikelelo-speak-johannesb…. Accessed on 13 January 2020. ↵
Ngami Pewe, ‘Identification of Liberation Heritage Sites at Lamontville and its Linkage to the Kwazulu-Natal Liberation Heritage Route,’ MA dis., University of Zululand, 2014. ↵
Harper, Paddy. ‘Lies and deceit in the death of 9 activists.’ Independent Online. July 30, 1999. www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/lies-and-deceit-in-death-of-9-activists-6571. Accessed on 14 January 2020.
Mercury Reporter. ‘Police helicopter hovers over mourners.’ Mercury. 4 July 1988. Available at www.lndi.co.za/index.php/press-room. Accessed on 3 February 2020.
Pewe, Ngami. ‘Identification of Liberation Heritage Sites at Lamontville and its Linkage to the Kwazulu-Natal Liberation Heritage Route.’ MA diss., University of Zululand, 2014.
Speak collective. ‘A Fighting Life Nontsikelelo.’ Speak. Johannesburg, 1988. Available at www.sahistory.org.za/archive/fighting-life-nontsikelelo-speak-johannesburg. Accessed on 13 January 2020.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Final Report. Volume 2. 1998. Available at sabctrc.saha.org.za/reports/volume2/chapter3/subsection37.htm&tab=report. Accessed on 14 January 2020.