Phindile Xaba and Thapelo Mokoetsi

Born into activism, Joyce Nomafa Sikhakhane-Rankin, is a living legend with almost five decades of experience in the media industry as a film producer, journalist and author. Her interest is social justice advocacy.

Sikhakhane-Rankin was born in 1943 at the Bridgeman Memorial Maternity Hospital in Johannesburg, and lived with her family in Orlando West close to the residences of ANC stalwarts such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

Growing up in Orlando West in the presence of social activists, she played with the Mandela and the Sisulu children. She attended Holy Cross Primary School, run by Father Trevor Huddleston of the Anglican Church. When Bantu Education was introduced in 1954, the ANC immediately called for a boycott; as a result the school was closed. That is when the Sisulu’s opened their home to establish a new school, which Sikhakhane- Rankin attended. This was her initiation into political activism.

Political initiation

It was around this time that her parents separated. Her father, J.M Sikhakhane, sent them to their paternal grandfather in Clermont, Durban. “my grandfather was the chaplain of the ANC in Natal. Whenever they had provincial meetings, he would be the one who prayed. He was also the chairperson of the Clermont branch of the ANC and there were regular meetings at his house. He used to send me to take messages to his ANC comrades. I would say that’s where my taste for underground activity started,“ said Sikhakhane-Rankin in The Road to Democracy. As a teenager, she would overhear the debates and this sharpened her political understanding.

Getting an education

She enrolled at Inanda Seminary boarding school and was influenced by student politics. When her parents ultimately divorced and her mother was awarded custody she moved back to Johannesburg and enrolled at Orlando High School, where she was introduced to Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) politics through her schoolmates such as Thami Mazwai and Joe Tlholoe, who would later link up with during her journalism career. She however did not enjoy being at the school and her mother consulted a social worker, Winnie Mandela, who convinced the young girl’s father to send her back to boarding school.

In 1962, she attended one of the secrets meetings in Durban, addressed by Ernest Gallo, one of the leaders of the African Student Association (ASA), and a young former President Thabo Mbeki. She matriculated in 1963 and after winning a national essay competition, her English teacher encouraged her to consider journalism as a career. Since she refused to attend apartheid tribal colleges, she wrote to the World newspaper for a job.

The first black female journalist at Rand Daily Mail

The World took her on as a cub reporter for six month from December 1963 where she worked alongside journalists Joe Tlholoe and Thami Mazwai. She found the environment stifling as the paper was influenced by a conservative Christian Movement, Moral Rearmanent, which she regarded as being at odds with her progressive politics.

When, at the end of the Rivonia Trial in 1964, the trialists were sent Robben Island, Sikhakhane-Rankin scribed her first book titled ‘Window on Soweto’ that predicted the June 1976 Uprising.
She joined the Rand Daily Mail in 1968. “At The World I got so pissed off by the pacifist Moral Rearmament philosophy that I applied for a job at the Rand Daily Mail. They took me on. They didn’t even put me on probation and actually gave me a full-time job. I worked with people like Benjamin Pogrund, who was very much pro-PAC and virulently anti-communist, Allister Sparks, and Anthony Holiday.

There she got an opportunity to highlight the effects of apartheid on the African population. It is around this time that forced removals happened wherein African people were being removed from their ancestral land and dumped in outlandish places like Limehill, in KwazuluNatal. This is where she saw a woman giving birth in the open veld, an event that moved her to seek help.

“That was a really painful situation. I went to a friend of mine called Ian Thompson, who was a Presbyterian priest, Cosmas Desmond, Beyers Naude and others, related what I saw and urged them to organise doctors who could offer medical services to these people.”

They formed the Justice and Peace Commission, a collective of priests against apartheid. At that time she was engaged to an African doctor. “ When I spoke to him about this he wasn’t interested and I threw the engagement ring in his face. Over weekends I would join these other doctors, recruited from Baragwanath and other hospitals who all happened to be white, to go and work there. That’s how I met my current husband, Ken Rankin, who had come from Scotland to train in surgery. He was appalled by apartheid. We fell in love, which complicated matters. He left South Africa and I hoped I would join him.” But two weeks later she was arrested and seventeen months would lapse while she along with others were fighting to get released.

Detention and exile

“I was arrested in the early hours of the morning. I think it was 2am. And they told me they were arresting me under the Terrorism Act.” It was during the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in the 90s that the world would be exposed to how women in detention were treated.

Sikhakhane-Rankin was held near death row in Pretoria Central before being moved to Nylstroom Prison. During the TRC hearings she shared how the male prison wardens would find pleasure in observing female political prisoners’ menstrual blood trickle down, settle and thicken on their legs and they would withhold sanitary pads as a form of punishment.

“As a woman, you dreaded the commencement of your menstrual period because it became so public under the notice of your interrogators,” said Rankin. “You had to ask them for sanitary pads. With your menstrual flow, they made you stand interminably as punishment,” she was quoted as saying in an interview with IPS Correspondents in South Africa-human rights: No More Secrets to Hide published in 1997. Women at these hearings told of rape, psychological torture, the killing of their families and of the dehumanisation they suffered at the hands of the apartheid regime during the struggle for independence, wrote IPS Correspondents.

Their detention – known as ‘Trial of the 22’ – raised consciousness against apartheid, When she was eventually released in 1970, she was banned and restricted.

Being Exiled

After her release in 1970 and the work she did underground, the ANC decided that exile would serve her better as she was courting being arrested again. In 1972, she left behind a seven-month old baby girl; and a six-year-old son, escaping South Africa into exile. Her passage included going via Swaziland where she was briefed by the ANC, through to Maputo, Mozambique, and then she boarded a plane for Germany, and landed in East Berlin. She married Dr Ken Rankin and they lived in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Scotland before returning to South Africa in the early 1990s.

Throughout her exile she continued to work for the ANC. On her return she worked for the National Intelligence Agency and the SABC. She is executive producer of the film A South African Love Story: Walter & Albertina Sisulu, and co-producer of Samora Machel: Son of Africa. She was one of the consulting editors for Elinor Sisulu’s book Walter & Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime (Cape Town, David Philip, 2002).

Sikhakhane-Rankin holds a BSc Honours degree from the Open University in the U.K. She gained herself admirers as she started young to be active in politics, even Madiba had penned a letter to her which never received until recently, 37 years later, in it he praised her sterling work as an organizer. When the Nelson Mandela Foundation archivist Ruth Muller found it in May 2008, and shared it with her, this is what she had to say: “I never ever received the Madiba letter. What a precious gem. You are such a darling to tell me about it. Am dying to read it no matter what its content..”