Sikakane, Joyce Nomafa (1943—)

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Sikakane, Joyce Nomafa (1943—)

South African journalist and anti-apartheid activist. Name variations: Joyce Sikhakane. Born Joyce Nomafa Sikakane in 1943 in Soweto, South Africa; daughter of Amelia Nxumalo and Jonathan Sikakane; attended Orlando High School; married Kenneth Rankin (a physician); children: Nkosinathi; Nomzamo; Samora; Vikela.

Worked as a reporter for the World, Johannesburg (1960–68); was a freelance reporter for the Rand Daily Mail and a staff reporter with the Post and the Drum (1968); became the first African female staff reporter at the Rand Daily Mail (1968); detained under Terrorism Act (May 12, 1969); charged under Suppression of Communism Act (December 1, 1969); released with banning orders (September 14, 1970); went into exile in Zambia (July 1973); family reunited and married Kenneth Rankin.

Before she leaves for work every morning, a mother locks her young children in a room from which all sharp objects have been removed. There they remain, with a plate of food and a chamberpot, until she returns in the evening. Incidents such as this were part of the daily lives of the citizens of Soweto. Soweto township in the Republic of South Africa, writes one historian, was "a bastard child born out of circumstances following the dispossession of the African people and the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand."

In Soweto township in 1943, in a four-room house located in Orlando, a second girl was born to the Sikakane household. Her parents named her Joyce; her grandfather named her Nomafa (inheritance). Her mother Amelia Nxumalo stayed home with the children, knowing that this was the only way they would get good care. When the children were old enough, they were sent to church schools in a futile attempt to shield them from the government-mandated "Bantu" education system, which aimed to make black children subservient to whites and fit only for manual labor.

After finishing high school, Sikakane, like many of her classmates, refused on principle to attend the apartheid government's tribal colleges. Instead, she pursued her interest in writing and in 1960 began reporting for the World, a newspaper run by whites that catered to the black population of Johannesburg. Sikakane's job description was listed with the authorities as that of a filing clerk, since the law forbade African women from doing such skilled work as reporting.

In 1968, dissatisfied with the sensationalistic stories that she was expected to file at the World, Sikakane applied to the Rand Daily Mail for a position. Reluctant to hire an African woman as a reporter, the paper took her on as a freelancer. She also fell in love and became engaged to a Scottish doctor, Kenneth Rankin, but their mixed-race relationship was illegal in South Africa. Rankin returned to Scotland; Sikakane prepared to join him. Meanwhile, she built a name for herself at the Rand Daily Mail, reporting extensively on the impact of apartheid in the townships. She continued to demand that the paper put her on its staff. "Because the Mail was taking a long time in deciding on my job prospects," she wrote, "I staged a demonstration by walking out and taking a full-time job with Post and Drum.… As I was now in great demand, I wanted to prove a point to the Mail that as an intelligent black woman journalist I was a force to be reckoned with." The Rand Daily Mail gave in to her demands, and Joyce Sikakane became their first female African staff reporter.

Her triumph was short-lived. Less than a year later, at 2 am on May 12, 1969, the police appeared at Amelia Nxumalo's door. They searched the house and placed Sikakane under detention. Brought to Pretoria Central Prison, she was kept alone in a dank, windowless cell and interrogated numerous times, once for three days straight, about her activities on behalf of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC). As she wrote, "[W]hat we had been doing was something that would not, in any other country, be considered 'terroristic': we were involved with the welfare of political prisoners, helping to make arrangements for families of prisoners to visit their husbands or parents." On December 1, 1969, after more than six months in prison, Sikakane was among 21 activists, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Martha Dhlamini, Thokozile Mngoma and Rita Ndzanga , charged on 21 counts under the Suppression of Communism Act. The trial, a farce, did more to expose the state's brutality than prove a case against the accused. One witness for the prosecution was fellow activist Shanthie Naidoo , whom Sikakane and the others had been told had volunteered to testify against them. Brought from her jail cell to the courtroom, Naidoo said on the witness stand that she had been threatened with the arrest of her entire family to force her to testify, and then cited her friendship with Sikakane and Madikizela-Mandela in declining to give evidence. "I will not be able to live with my conscience if I do," she said. (She subsequently spent four months in solitary confinement.) On February 16, 1970, all charges against the activists were withdrawn. With relatives singing in celebration, Sikakane and the others began to leave the courtroom. The police promptly re-detained them before they had a chance to leave the building.

Sikakane spent another six months in prison, separated from the general convict population but able to hear the sounds of guards beating women prisoners with sjamboks and the hymns men prisoners sang before one of their number was hanged. Along with the other activists, she was finally released in September, after 17 months in prison. They were then served with banning orders, which were used by the apartheid government to restrict the movement and activities of "political agitators." As a banned person, in effect a non-person, Sikakane returned to Soweto, itself a non-place, jokingly called "so-where-to" by the people who lived there.

Unable to find permanent employment, and with the threat of another government crack-down in the air, Sikakane decided in 1973 to leave South Africa for Zambia and the exiled branch of the ANC. Once beyond the borders of the apartheid state, she finally was able to marry. Together with Rankin and their four children, Sikakane lived in Scotland and then in Zimbabwe, writing and campaigning, continuing to fight against the injustices of apartheid that she had witnessed in her birthplace of Soweto. Her autobiographical A Window on Soweto was published in 1977.


Sikakane, Joyce. A Window on Soweto. London: International Defence and Aid Fund, 1977.

suggested reading:

Busby, Margaret, ed. Daughters of Africa. London: Jonathan Cape, 1992.

Mandela, Winnie. Part of My Soul Went with Him. Edited by Anne Benjamin, adapted by Mary Benson. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1984.

Berrian, Brenda, ed. Bibliography of African Women Writers and Journalists. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 1985.

Muhonjia Khaminwa , freelance writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts