Part 2 of 3: The Story of Violet Sarah Matlou (nee Phiri), Veteran ANC Lady-Activist
Violet was born on April 4, 1920 in Rustenburg, South Africa, the second born to Mr. and Mrs. Phiri. She began her primary education at Welgevaal and completed it at Mmabeskraal, under the strict tutelage of the well-known and famous Reverend S.S. Tema. She then proceeded to Orlando High School in Orlando East, Soweto, Johannesburg, where she completed her secondary education.
In 1940 she commenced training as a nurse in Johannesburg. When she completed her nursing course in 1943, she went to work at the Non-European General Hospital, and then went on to King Edward VIII General Hospital in Durban where she trained in Midwifery, completing in 1947.
The then Miss Violet Sarah Phiri met her beloved handsome future husband, ANC Youth League member Jo Matlou, in Johannesburg. Jo Matlou stated his case straight. He “wanted a wife and not a girlfriend.” He had asked his friend’s girlfriend, Lillian Kanetsi (nee Mochochoco) to look for a beautiful, well-behaved young lady for him to marry. Lillian knew just one such lady, and it turned out to be the beautiful Violet. It was sealed: they married in 1950.
Violet soon realized that she had not just married Jo Matlou but that she had married the ANC along with him. Her early introduction to the activities of the ANC was having to cook for the likes of Joe Modise, Robert Resha, Mr. Mji, and several other youth activists who politicked late into the night and, after their meetings, would then stop over to eat at her place while continuing discussions about the liberation of this beloved land.
She soon became a very active member of the movement, participating in the many strikes and marches against the pass laws with women like Dorothy Nyembe, Kate Molale, Maggie Resha, Ms. Thebe, Ms. Kraai, Ms. Naome Ramothonyana, amongst a host of others.
In 1956, whilst pregnant with her fifth child, Mrs. Matlou came within a hair’s breadth of death, when a bullet narrowly missed her during a protest march by women. She spent a frightening night in jail.
That same year, Jo Matlou was arrested with 156 others for Treason. This left Mrs. Matlou with the burden of caring for her four children by herself. Her husband’s business, Estate Agency, suffered badly due to this ignominious and infamous case which only got resolved in 1961.
It had been decided previously that Jo Matlou should go into exile in Botswana with the express mission of opening an ANC office in that country. He went to Gaborone and engaged with the paramount chief of the Bakwena tribe regarding the feasibility of opening an office for a liberation movement that was banned in South Africa.
In 1961 he moved to Lobatse and proceeded to open an office to facilitate the passage of ANC cadres through Botswana. Jo Matlou was responsible for collecting escaping future Umkhonto we Sizwe (armed wing of the ANC) combatants and other ANC members from the hilly borders of Botswana for safe passage to Botswana and further north for military training. This was usually done on foot, running the risk of attacks by wild animals and the ever present threat of discovery and arrest by the South African Special Branch police. Violet Matlou, on the other hand made sure, together with Mrs. Keitsing, that these valiant soldiers were cooked for and fed until their departure for East Africa.
The ANC decided to send Jo Matlou to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1963. Mrs. Matlou was left behind with six children whom she had to feed, clothe, and send to school entirely on her own.
Her own journey into the unknown commenced in March 1963. She was ordered to join her husband in Tanzania. Without any traveling documents, without ever having traveled that route before, with very limited resources and six children to boot, Violet headed for the northern border of Botswana by train.
On arrival at the border she had to devise all sorts of tricks to outwit the immigration officials – those of the then Bechuanaland Protectorate, and those of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe – who obviously were colonialists with sympathies for their white brothers in South Africa; all the while, she was praying that they not discover her mission, especially because she had her young children with her.
It was an unstable period just before independence, with various political campaigns in full swing. On reaching Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, the trip deteriorated rapidly. While traveling by bus towards the Tanzanian border, she was accosted by party activists belonging, she suspected later, to Kaunda’s party.
Upon realizing that she did not understand them, they interrogated her as to who she was, where she came from and where she was going. The discovery that she was fleeing into exile without valid traveling documents excited them immeasurably, and they proceeded to inform her that she would have to be detained at the border pending their investigation.
Violet had to remain calm for the sake of the six children in her care. She had to figure out how to avoid being sent back to Pretoria, which is what these men were now contemplating, openly discussing, and threatening to do. She appealed to them to allow her to reach the Tanzanian border so that she could send a message to her husband, which they agreed to.
Upon reaching the border she was whisked off to the immigration offices where a case was lodged with the authorities. To her relief, Jo had sent an emissary in the person of Mr. Sam Masemola to meet his family at the border. Masemola was called in and told of the imminent deportation of the Matlou family back to Pretoria. He quickly informed the Tanzanian immigration officers who, being very sympathetic to the plight of South African oppressed, devised a plan to free Violet from the Zambians.
South Africans had already begun arriving in large numbers in Tanzania as refugees. Things took an interesting turn as the events that unfolded in the next thirty to sixty minutes of intense arguments played themselves out like a Hollywood action movie.
The bus driver was asked to cross into Tanzania with the six children so that if there was to be any deportation at all, it would entail Mrs. Matlou being sent back to Pretoria by herself. The Tanzanians planned to distract the Zambians and told her to flee across the border as soon as the gate was raised. This she did with a speed that would have left Marion Jones green with envy.
As she sprinted to freedom across the border, the Tanzanians hailed her and shouted for joy at their victory, leaving the Zambian immigration officers livid with anger at having been outwitted so cunningly. On arrival in Tanzania Violet discovered that her husband Jo, had already moved on to Algeria to work in the ANC office there.
In Tanzania, Violet and her children were the only family living in camps with the Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers. In 1963 she was the only woman in the Luthuli Camp at Ukonga in Dar Es Salaam.
Together with the other female members of the ANC, Violet decided to form the first ANC Women’s League in exile. Mrs. Violet Matlou is the proud first Lady Chairman of that organization. She worked very hard to ensure that this wing of the ANC became vibrant and relevant. Other ladies like Mrs. Agnes Msimang, Mrs. Ruth Mompati, Mrs. Ngalo, Mrs. Duma Nokwe, Mrs. Thandi Rankwe, Mrs. Ruth Makiwane, Mrs. Edith and Koleka Thunyiswa, Mrs. Joyce Nonkonayne, Ms. Georgina Masusu, Mrs. Edith Ncwana-Madenge, Mrs. Nobadula, Mrs. Siyo and others too numerous to mention, worked hard to add the gender value to the struggle in exile.
Violet Matlou remained in Tanzania until 1966. In 1965 Jo Matlou had opened the ANC office in Kwame Nkrumah’s Accra, Ghana. The following year Violet, once again, had to gather her six children who were all still young, to head for West Africa to join her beloved husband, whom she repeatedly seemed to manage to miss whenever she got to his country of residence. This time, she arrived in Ghana ten days after the greatest visionary Africa had ever known, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, was overthrown by a conspiracy of disgruntled soldiers with the connivance of the CIA of America.
On arrival at the airport, Violet Matlou was man-handled and verbally abused by bayonet-wielding soldiers. The accusations thrown at her were that freedom fighters were responsible for the economic woes of Ghana. Nkrumah was said to have spent Ghana’s money on his ‘Africa Must Unite’ dream. Once again Jo Matlou was on the move. Ghana had expelled all freedom fighters and liberation movements in that country. It was indeed a turbulent time in Africa’s checkered history!
Mrs. Matlou made up her mind that enough was enough. This time she was going to stay put. She had lost what little possessions she had managed to acquire for herself in each country she had lived in. Her children’s schooling was constantly interrupted by the constant movement. She decided she would appeal to the new government in Ghana to permit her to stay. This she and husband did and she remained in Ghana while he headed back to Tanzania. The Ghana government demanded that she avoid engaging in any political activities that would be deemed provocative.
In Ghana, Mrs. Matlou proceeded to quietly contribute her quota to the liberation struggle in her peculiar motherly fashion, by opening her home to all refugees regardless of where they came from. Members of various political parties (Liberation Movements) and even students from all over Africa, stretching from the Sudan across Equitorial Guinea, past Angola, through Mozambique and Swaziland to South Africa, knew of a lady who was always prepared to host them with pap-en-vleis any time they decided to visit.
These regular gatherings in her home contributed a lot to making these heroes – the likes of Tsietsi Mashinini, Oupa Mphuti, Letang, Vader Mtimkhulu, David, Gibson Nokwe, Siphiwe, Joyce, Vusi Make, Peter, Nonceba, Levin, Ben Molefe, Miriam Makeba, Mnxolisi Mnqashe, Nthobi Moahloli, Zonke Majodina, from South Africa; Dr. Princess Veleleni Dlamini and Health Minister Patricia Dlamini, Rhyne and Mrs. Mathebula, from Zimbabwe; Mmamanyane Disele, Andrew Sesinyi, Cecilia Matlapeng, Sheila Letswiti from Botswana and many many, others – to have a piece of South Africa in Exile.
Many an issue on the events at home was debated into the night by these youngsters who had fought the South African killer machines in the streets of Soweto. The freedom struggle in South Africa benefited in no uncertain terms from the presence of the Matlou family in Ghana. This was especially so for the youth of the continent, as the once very young children who had left South Africa in 1961 were now young adults who walked in the footsteps of their parents.
Mrs. Matlou’s strength of character was tested in 1966 when she had to send off five of her children aged between seven and fifteen years of age, to attend school in Nigeria. That country erupted in a thirty month civil war (1966 to 1970) soon after the Matlou children arrived in the country.
She put up with criticisms from her colleagues at work who questioned the wisdom of leaving such small children in a war-ravaged country. Her defense was that it had been impossible to get schools for the children in Ghana at that material time, due to the prevailing atmosphere and attitudes towards freedom fighters soon after the coup d’etat, and also that these children were freedom fighters and had to learn to survive in difficult times, which they did admirably.
On her ninetieth birthday celebration in Pretoria recently, many of these people had the opportunity to thank Mrs. Matlou for good deeds. Mr. Frank Nuamah of the Ghana High Commission in Pretoria, whose family were neighbours of the Matlous’ for two decades, recounted how selflessly Mama served the whole Kanda neighbourhood in Accra, whenever there was someone ill, without ever charging a penny. He told the gathering how Mrs. Matlou had actually delivered one of his daughters in the family toilet, as the child arrived unexpectedly.
Mrs. Matlou remained in Ghana from 1966 until 1985 when she and her husband returned to Southern Africa, Botswana. From 1994 she was in America, nursing her youngest daughter, Nkope, who was involved in a near-fatal car accident. She returned to South Africa in June 1998.
Today, she lives with her eldest child, Boshigo, in Pretoria, in what would have been blissful retirement had the Special Pensions in [Ghana’s] Ministry of Finance seen fit to disburse her husband’s or her own pension, after so many years of struggle. (To post a comment, scroll to bottom of page)
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