Janet Love: the story of a <em>real</em> MK soldier


Janet Love: the story of a real MK soldier

Electoral commissioner Janet Love is a former MK soldier. When Duduzile Zuma — a figurehead of a party that hijacked the name and legacy of one of the ANC's most revered symbols — called for Love's arrest, the searing irony was not lost on ANNELIESE BURGESS.


JANET LOVE takes the stage to make the closing remarks at the Electoral Commission (IEC) results announcement. She speaks of a “tough journey". I don't think I imagine the tremor of emotion in her voice. 

The IEC faced its fair share of challenges during the May 29 election. There were technical glitches at polling stations, late deliveries of voting materials, delayed security services escorts and community protests. But there was also an undercurrent of political threat — with a sustained barrage of attacks on the IEC from Jacob Zuma's uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MKP).

Love had personally come under repeated attack from MKP for alleged bias after a response to a question at a media conference about Zuma's eligibility to be a candidate for the National Assembly because of his prison sentence. The Electoral Court and Constitutional Court cleared her of prejudging Zuma’s candidacy but this did not silence MKP's attack dogs. 

Jacob Zuma alleged that “the machines were being done things that’s wrong” and Duduzile Zuma demanded that Love be arrested for alleged vote-rigging.

The attacks were deliberately incendiary, but the call to arrest Love by a self-styled revolutionary from a party that had hijacked the name of one of the ANC's most revered symbols was also darkly ironic, considering that Love was a trained soldier of the real uMkhonto weSizwe.  

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Who is Janet Love?

Janet Yetta Love was born on December 21, 1957 in Johannesburg, a first-generation South African. Her mother, Dora Rabinowitz, was a survivor of the Stutthof concentration camp and met her father, British soldier Frank Love, when he helped liberate the camp.

In an interview with the historian Padraig O'Malley*, Love talks about the trauma of her mother's life and how it also affected her upbringing.

“I think our upbringing was very coloured by my parents' history, in particular my mother. She was somebody who, at the age of 16, was taken into the ghettos and, subsequently, the concentration camps. She spent most of her time in a camp in Poland.

“Her mother died in her arms, her sister died in her arms, her brother was executed, and she was dislocated from her father. The whole trauma of that, I think, was ever-present. So much of her make-up, I believe, was coloured by that."

Love's father worked for a multinational mining company which brought him to South Africa, but the reason the family remained in the country was because of another unimaginable tragedy — the drowning of their seven-year-old daughter. Love believes that after her sister's death, her parents could not face uprooting the family but that there was “an ongoing ambiguity" about living in a country where apartheid was becoming ever more deeply rooted.

Drawn to the struggle

Love studied political science and industrial sociology at Wits. She became involved in the anti-apartheid National Union of South African Students, was elected to the Student Representative Council and was recruited into the informal ANC underground in South Africa.

In 1977, she left South Africa for what was to be a short trip abroad after a security crackdown led to the arrests of activists who had been assisted by Love; there was concern that they might reveal this during interrogation.

“As it turned out, they didn't in any way reveal where support had come from and were released about three months after I had left," she remembers.

Love, however, did not return to South Africa. She remained in exile for 10 years, working for the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) in London and joining MK.

She tells of how she “managed to escape to Lusaka" from London's “greyness" after two years.

Marion Sparg, another MK soldier, writes about her friendship with Love in her memoir Guilty and Proud.

“By the time I met her, she already had years of experience with the ANC, and she generously shared her insights with me. I met her at the Sactu offices in Lusaka. When we first made eye contact, I realised I had met a true friend and soulmate. This was particularly significant because it was difficult to make friends in exile. No matter where you were posted, especially as an MK cadre, you were never sure, when you said goodnight to someone, whether they would still be there in the morning." 

Military training

Love underwent military and intelligence training, including in Russia.

“Intelligence training involved a lot of stuff to do with underground work, and then I went on a specialised course in Cuba to train on various aspects of perfecting disguises and on the construction of dead letter boxes.

“There was a group of us; we were all prepared for different reasons and different things. I was the only one from that group who was part of the contingent that eventually got settled into the country and then joined up with Operation Vula. However, I also spent some time at a military establishment in Cuba as part of the training. That's just where they had the facilities."

Going ‘home’

In 1985, the ANC held its national consultative conference in Kabwe, Zambia. The conference reaffirmed the ANC's commitment to the armed struggle and support for negotiations — what Oliver Tambo called “simultaneous elements of the struggle to bring about the demise of apartheid".

Kabwe had implications for Love — it was decided she would be sent “home".

“Although I was not at that time briefed with the full dimensions of what later became Operation Vula, it was agreed at the Kabwe conference that there would be a group of ANC members in exile who would base themselves inside the country."

Operation Vula was about establishing an underground network in South Africa that would link activist structures inside the country with the leadership in exile. It was also about getting a direct line of communication between ANC headquarters in Lusaka and Nelson Mandela, who had begun discussing a negotiated settlement on the ANC's behalf from inside prison. 

Love was to be a one-person advance unit who would establish a support base for Operation Vula. This would also involve infiltrating weapons and ANC leaders back into South Africa.

A life in disguise

Part of the training Love received in Cuba involved constructing a legend for her re-entry into South Africa.

“It became established in people's minds that I was hovering around somewhere in Zimbabwe, so by the time I was located in South Africa in 1987, my absence in areas where I had spent a lot of time before had already been explained away."

Until this point, it was not common practice for ANC operatives to be sent back to South Africa permanently. Her return required extreme vigilance — and a false identity. 

“The disguise I came back in is not the disguise that I then wore on a longer-term basis. The extent to which you can disguise yourself also depends partly on what you're doing it for, but also partly on how long the disguise lasts.

“There were occasions when I disguised myself as a man. Now, that's not something you can do for any length of time, whatever the novels tell you. Having to make yourself up and put on an endless amount of paraphernalia on a daily basis takes a lot of time, and you'll never get it perfectly right every day.

Everybody I dealt with overtly knew me as Kathy. I had blonde hair, green eyes and glasses. I also had something that could alter my jaw, which was part of the disguise."

Working covertly

One key instruction was to set up and test a purpose-built encrypted communication system in preparation for the arrival of Mac Maharaj, who was to take command of Vula.

“We needed to lug around very heavy briefcases, which were actually mobile phones. Also, I had to set up a whole lot of access points. One of the things I did in Cuba was learn how to pick locks and make keys and things like that because I had to get access to a whole load of offices in order to be able to use different landlines for the purposes of computer communication."

She also met the people who were official visitors to ANC leaders in prison. 

“We met with people who were doing the visiting, and we got documents in and out, and part of what I had to do on a number of occasions was type up handwritten documents that had been smuggled out of the prison for transmission to Lusaka via London. In fact, Madiba's communications about the negotiations were transmitted in that way mostly."

Cover blown

In July 1990, during a raid in Durban, the Security Branch uncovered evidence of Operation Vula. Two ANC operatives, Charles Ndaba and Mbuso Shabalala, disappeared. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission later found that they had been arrested and killed by the Security Branch and their bodies thrown in the Tugela River. 

After these arrests, a new level of vigilance was required by Love.

“Notwithstanding the negotiations, there were a lot of things happening in the townships. The hit squads were very, very busy. The kind of killings that were going on in the Vaal and the East Rand of people who were associated with ANC or with ANC-aligned organisations like the Cosatu unions.

“A very, very new disguise," she told O'Malley. “No more blonde hair for a start, but I also used to travel almost exclusively only at night. For a year."

In August 1990, the ANC formally ended its armed struggle with the signing of the Pretoria Minute.

After obtaining her indemnity in 1991, Love became involved in negotiating the new constitution and establishing the first government. She was an ANC MP in the first democratic Parliament from 1994 to 1999. She later served on the Human Rights Commission and headed  the Legal Resources Centre before becoming a part-time commissioner of the IEC in 2016, then full-time in 2018.

When she explained to O'Malley how she survived in the underground, she might as well have been talking about surviving the attacks on her during this election.

“I survived because I was intense, serious, probably full of lip, but quite disciplined. So, that's probably how it was possible for me to survive as long as I did. And it wasn't easy."

* The text of the verbatim interview with Padraig O'Malley was lightly edited for readability

♦ VWB ♦

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