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Remembering the Yu Chi Chan Club — and the women who made sacrifices for liberation

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

As we take stock of everyday politics and the shenanigans of our leaders in the ANC, when the state has been hollowed out through State Capture and corruption has set in as the norm, let us remember the sacrifices of the women of our Struggle.

In this Women’s Month, let us remember all women in our liberation struggle and not only the ones with a history in the ANC. When I attended the funeral of a former revolutionary, Neville Alexander, who spent 10 years on Robben Island as a fellow prisoner of Nelson Mandela, I was reminded of the Yu Chi Chan Club (YCCC). The meaning of this Chinese name means “guerrilla warfare”.

This was a club made up of leftist revolutionaries who took their contributions to the revolution very seriously and were prepared to make sacrifices in pursuit of such principles as non-racialism, non-sexism and democracy. Marcus Solomon was another member who also spent a “short” stint on Robben Island of 10 years.

The YCCC disbanded in late 1962 and was replaced by the National Liberation Front (NLF). In July 1963, Neville, along with most members of the NLF, was arrested. In 1964, he was convicted of conspiracy to commit sabotage. From 1964-1974 he was imprisoned on Robben Island. What most people do not know is what happened to the other members and in particular, the women in the group. I want to dedicate this article to them.

The treason trial of the Yu Chi Chan Club lasted from 1962 to 1964 and led to others being sentenced to imprisonment as well. At first, Elizabeth van der Heyden, with her sister Doris and brother Lesley van der Heyden, received “minor” sentences.

Elizabeth was detained in 1963 and kept in solitary confinement for four months. The charge was promoting revolutionary conspiracy. In 1964 the core group was charged with conspiring to commit sabotage and incite acts of politically motivated violence. At the age of 28, Elizabeth was sentenced again, to an effective 10 years’ imprisonment. After her release in 1973, she was slapped with a further five-year banning order. What I would like to highlight here, though, is although many women cadres served time in prison, few served a continuous 10-year sentence as Elizabeth did.

Doris van der Heyden, Doris Alexander and Dulcie September all received their respective sentences, during which time they endured severe physical and psychological abuse. On Dulcie’s release, she too was slapped with a five-year banning order. Afterwards, she made her way into exile in 1973 where she naturally joined the anti-apartheid movement. In 1983 she was appointed as ANC Chief Representative in France. Five years later, she was too much of a threat to the apartheid security police and she was assassinated outside the ANC Paris office. She was shot five times in the head with a .22-calibre silenced rifle.

On 1 August 1985, Victoria Mxenge, anti-apartheid activist, community leader and human rights lawyer was assassinated by apartheid death squads at her Umlazi, Durban, home. The gruesome killing occurred just days after she spoke at the funeral of the murdered UDF-affiliated Eastern Cape activists known as the Cradock Four — Mathew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Fort Calata and Sicelo Mhlauli.

There are many other unsung heroes of our liberation movement, too many to mention, but we must always remember the word, Imbokodo. It refers to the stone or rock used for crushing or grinding maize. When the women of 1956 marched on the Union Buildings on 9 August, they marched to the slogan “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo — you strike the women, you strike the rock.”

The Yu Chi Chan Club (treason trial 1962-64) members were: Elizabeth van der Heyden, Doris van der Heyden, Dorothy Alexander, Dulcie September, Neville Alexander, Fikile Bam, Don Davies, Lionel Davies, Lesley van der Heyden, Marcus Solomons and Gordon Hendricks.

When visiting the Barberton Museum, the museum reminds us who among many women cadres we must never forget. These include Amina Desai, Ann Nicholson, Dorothy Nyembe, Dulcie September, Esther Barsel, Jean Middleton, Sheila Weinberg, Stephanie Kemp, Violet Weinberg, Doris van der Heyden, Florence Duncan, Molly Anderson, Sylvia Neame and so many, many more.

So, as we take stock of everyday politics and the shenanigans of our leaders in the ANC, where factional battles are the order of the day, when the state has been hollowed out through State Capture and corruption has set in as the norm, let us remember the sacrifices of the women of our Struggle.

Let us honour their names with a renewed commitment to the principles of non-racism, non-sexism and democracy.

As we wait for the next instalment of this week’s series, “Mzansi’s implosion — will CR survive?” we must recall the Women’s March on 9 August 1956, where the sole survivor of the leaders of that march, Sophie Williams-De Bruyn today looks at all of us and asks:

But why? Why all this infighting at the expense of the country?”

The current ANC Women’s League and its leadership is a shadow of its former self — to think they once produced cadres of the calibre of the women mentioned above is impossible to imagine. That they were led by a revolutionary such as Winnie Mandela. How far the apple has fallen from the tree. Let us hope a new generation of young women will pick up the mantle and restore the dignity of the once-glorious ANC Women’s League.

As for the Yu Chi Chan Club, may we never forget the sacrifices they made for our liberation and especially honouring the women of this group. DM

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