This post was originally posted on Mother’s Day, when I wanted to share the story of a powerful mother, a fearless leader and a global adventurer who was a force to be reckoned with – Lilian Ngoyi.
Lilian Ngoyi Road was formerly Windermere Road.
- First female elected to office in the main body of the ANC.
- President of the ANC Women’s League.
- Stood trial under the Treason Act.
- Spent 71 days in solitary confinement.
- Was banned and under house arrest for eleven years after leaving prison.
Lilian Masediba Ngoyi was born in Pretoria in 1911 to a poor family of six children. She enrolled for a nurses’ training course, but she eventually took up work as a machinist in a clothing factory where she worked from 1945 to 1956.
As a widow with two children at the time, also supporting her elderly mother, she was working as a seamstress when she joined the Garment Workers Union (GWU) and she soon became one of its leaders. Impressed by the spirit of African National Congress (ANC) volunteers, she joined the ANC during the 1950 Defiance Campaign and was arrested for using facilities in a post office that were reserved for white people. Her energy and her gift as a public speaker won her rapid recognition, and within a year of joining the ANC she was elected as president of the ANC Women’s League.
Lilian took to the stage of the inaugural conference of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and stated to the gathered group of multiracial delegates:
“Let us be brave: we have heard of men shaking in their trousers, but who ever heard of a woman shaking in her skirt?”
As the cheers, applause and laughter subsided, she concluded her speech in typical fashion: with the declaration that all South African women, regardless of their race or background, should be willing to die for the future of their children.
In her words and actions Lilian Ngoyi combined her identities as an African, woman, mother and worker to mobilize South African women in the fight against apartheid. For Ngoyi, the restrictions and limitations that apartheid laws placed on black women were at the heart of the system of white supremacy. Therefore, it was only natural that black women be in the vanguard of anti-apartheid resistance.
She highlighted how the pass laws, Bantu Education, forced removals and other state sanctions, hit African women the hardest and were deliberately designed to erode the African family and deny a future for African children.
Ngoyi dedicated her life to struggling against these oppressive measures and to securing a better future for her children and the children of South Africa. She mobilized a brand of militant motherhood that laid bare the oppressive nature of apartheid and allowed her to simultaneously address the specific plight of women in South Africa and the broader racial struggles against apartheid.
In 1955, Lilian embarked on an audacious (and highly illegal) journey to Lausanne, Switzerland to participate in the World Congress of Mothers held by the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF). Accompanied by her fellow activist Dora Tamana she embarked on a journey that would see an attempt to stow away on a boat leaving Cape Town under “white names”, defy (with the help of a sympathetic pilot) segregated seating on a plane bound for London and gain entry to Britain under the pretext of completing her course in bible studies.
She visited England, Germany, Switzerland, Romania, China and Russia, meeting women leaders often engaged in left wing politics, before arriving back in South Africa as a “wanted woman”.
At Lausanne, Lilian presided over the 2nd session of the conference, giving its opening address. Standing in front of assembled women and mothers from almost every continent, she detailed the hardships faced by South African women to a global audience and appealed for support in bringing freedom and democracy to the nation in the name of the women’s international peace movement.
The travels of Lilian and Dora were made all the more remarkable when, back in South Africa, efforts were continually being made to monitor and strictly control African movement and mobility. As a result, the trip effectively asserted Ngoyi’s right, as a black woman, to travel and move freely. By escaping the hold of the pass laws and making illegal border crossings these two black women struck at the heart of the doctrine of apartheid.
As she traversed Europe, passing from London, through the iron curtain to the eastern bloc, Ngoyi observed that the women she met were not black, white or coloured, but mothers, stating: “I was a woman and a mother, my colour was not my problem.”
On the 9th of August 1956, she led the women’s anti-pass march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, one of the largest demonstrations staged in South African history. Holding thousands of petitions in one hand, Lilian was the one who knocked on Prime Minister Strijdom’s door to hand over the petitions.
Lilian was known as a strong orator and a fiery inspiration to many of her colleagues in the ANC. In December 1956, Ngoyi was arrested for high treason along with 156 other leading figures, and stood trial until 1961 as one of the accused in the four–year-long Treason Trial. While the trial was still on and the accused out on bail, Lilian was imprisoned for five months under the 1960 state of emergency. She spent 71 days in solitary confinement.
As a result of her defiance and anti-apartheid organising Lilian was issued with her first banning order in October 1962. It lasted for 10 years and was renewed again in 1975 for a further 5 year period. In this time she was not allowed to leave Orlando, she was forbidden to attend any gatherings and she couldn’t meet more than one person at a time (including family members).
Affectionately known as ‘Ma Ngoyi’, she suffered heart trouble and died on the 13th of March 1980 at the age of 69.
Reflecting on her life in 1972 she chose to look to her own mother to articulate the growing militancy of black women in South Africa that she herself represented:
“My mother firmly believed our tears shall be wiped away in the next world. I believed we should start enjoying life here.”