By Nelvis Qekema
29 April 2018

Cde Thenjiwe Leeuw seems to have lived by the prescript of Daniel O’Donnel’ s Desiderata where it advises:

“Go placidly amid the noise and haste
And remember what peace there may be, in silence,
As far as possible without surrender,
Be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly.”

The element of surprise was the boat with which she sailed through all the complexities and challenges of life. With her calm and softspokeness, it was all difficult to connect the breath-taking stories of her activities as political activist and as a trained guerrilla operative.

Her pronounced beauty and attractiveness came handy to her as a natural weapon she used effectively to navigate through the dangerous terrain she operated on as a guerrilla. She was helped by the patriarchal stereotype of the apartheid regime to not expect a woman, let alone an extremely beautiful one, to go through rigorous training and sacrifice required by serving in the armed struggle.

Incumbent AZAPO President Strike Thokoane relates how he, as one of the Commanders of AZANLA, crossed the borders from South Africa into Botswana under Cde Thenji’s guidance in 1986. CdeThenji knew the terrain very well. They were spotted by the soldiers, upon which they pretended to be lovers. The weapons were hidden on Cde Thenji’s beautiful body. Patriarchy, which undermined Cde Thenji’s gender, and benumbed by her beauty, took the eye off the ball and the AZANLA guerrillas slipped through undetected.

There must have been some spiritual quality in the fact that she was born 50 years ago on 21 March, the day on which the militants of Sharpeville were massacred in 1960. Her name “Thenjiwe” means “the trusted one”. Indeed, AZANLA fighters could rely on her in times of distress, sorrow or happiness. Her presence radiated that liberating feeling to her fellow combatants. They gave her the guerrilla name “Nonkukuleko” for operational purposes. That name simply means “freedom”.

Cde Thenji cut her political teeth in the early 1980s in AZASM – the student wing of AZAPO. As a student at Ibongo High in Dlamini, she got involved in campaigns to oppose the Tri-Cameral Parliament with her peers like Cdes Thami Mcerwa, Stan Sigotyana, George Biya and Thami Mkhwanazi. They soon got involved in an action to expel white teachers from black schools. Their reasoning was that priority for employment in black schools should have been given to black teachers. Those political activities led to Cde Thenji’s suspension and barring from writing exams.

That technical expulsion from school did not kill her revolutionary spirit. She joined the Black Electrical and Electronics Workers’ Union (BEEWU), and became active in the workers struggles.

It was during that time that in 1986 she was recruited to join AZANLA at a secret base on the mountains of Qwaqwa or Mt Aux-Sources. When that military base was later compromised, a group of about 30 had to embark on a “Long March” of about 12 hours on dangerous terrain on foot. Cde Thenji acquitted herself well and in the process proved that the willingness to fight and toughness had nothing to do with gender.

They were later loaded into two kombis and headed towards the borders where they slipped into Botswana. After she underwent her advanced military training, Thenji was deployed back into South Africa to undertake military activities including recruitment of women in particular. One of the most efficient female fighting machines, the late Kuki Lerato Tlhako, was recruited and coached by Thenji.

AZANLA took a decision that it could not wage armed struggle against a democratically elected government. The soldiers had to return home as from 1994, and the army refocussed its political work. The element of surprise was to reveal itself yet again. Thenji reinvented herself and became an ordained and well respected pastor of the religion. In that calling, Pastor Thenji buried a lot of his former comrade-in-arms like Stan Sigotyana, and also led the tombstone unveilings of her AZANLA fellow guerrillas.

Her religious calling landed her in the US where she died on 10 April 2018 in Atlanta after spending some time on life-supporting machines in the ICU. AZANLA General Commander Pitso Hlasa told the mourners at Cde Thenji’s funeral at the Dlamini Multipurpose Centre on 28 April 2018 that even under those circumstances, she fought for her life in a manner that dismayed the doctors.

“Thenjiwe was one of a kind. Very strong and powerful. I was not surprised that even when death was beckoning, she still remained strong to the dismay of many who had already resigned themselves to the eventuality of her passing on”, said Cde Pitso.

The speakers included AZAPO President Strike Thokoane, former BCMA and AZAPO Secretary General Mpotseng Kgokong, General George Biya and IMBEKEKO Secretary General Fancy Malapela.

Former BPC Vice President Adv Chris Mokoditoa and veteran black journalists Prof Mathatha Tsedu, Khathu Mamaila and Oupa Ngwenya, were among the dignitaries who attended the funeral.

The Johannesburg Metro acknowledged Cde Thenji’s contribution by allowing her to be buried at Avalon Cemetery’s Heroes Acre section.

A pleasant coincident, which was discovered only when we were filling Cde Thenji’s grave with soil, was that Cde Stan Sigotyana’s grave was next to hers below her feet. The two were peers who were AZASM Comrades at Ibongo High, and AZANLA cadres.

Incidentally, it is Cde Thenji who officiated in her capacity as a pastor at Cde Stan’s funeral.

Cde Thenji’s son Khotso was too distraught to speak at the funeral, and her sister Khomotso spoke on his behalf.

As Cde Thenji’s coffin was sinking to be swallowed by the bosom of the earth, AZANLA soldiers saluted her as others conducted the 21 Gun Salute.

We stiffen our bodies and as we raise our Black Power fists sky-high to salute one of the gallant Daughters of the Soil whose name should be called with those of Makeda, Nzinga, Nehanda and MaNthatise.