On 9 August 1956, more than 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the Pass Laws of 1950 (Urban Areas Act). They left petitions signed by more than one hundred thousand people at the doors of the then Prime Minister, J G Strijdom. Outside the Union buildings the crowd of women stood silently for half an hour, then sang a protest song composed specially for that march. The words of that song would go on to become a symbol of the strength and courage of the South African woman. “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (Loosely translated as You strike a woman, you strike a rock.)”
At the head of that march was Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Albertina Sisulu and Sophie Williams. Today I am going to look at the life of Lilian Masediba Ngoyi, known to many as “Ma Ngoyi”.
She was born on 25 September 1911 and she, a widowed seamstress supporting two children and an elderly mother, joined the ANC Women’s League in 1952. She went on to became the first woman elected to the executive committee of the African National Congress.
She travelled to Switzerland in 1955 to participate in the World Congress of Mothers held by the Women’s International Democratic Federation to plead the cause of black women in South Africa. Then she went on to visit England, Germany, Romania, China and Russia before returning to South Africa as a “wanted woman”.
She was arrested in 1956, spent 71 days in solitary confinement and for eleven more years was banned and confined to her home in Orlando, Soweto, causing great suffering for her and her family. Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Beyers Naudé wrote several letters pleading Lilian Ngoyi’s cause. Naudé discussed her various domestic and financial needs, while raising the “possibility of her banning order being lifted”.
Amongst the many honours since the fall of apartheid that have been heaped on her, a community health centre in Soweto, a Hall at Rhodes University, as well as an environmental patrol vessel is named in her honour.
Lilian Masediba Ngoyi died on 13 March 1980, many years before the country would reap the fruits of her labour despite her express wish: “I am hoping with confidence that, before I die, I will see change in this country.”
Happy Women’s Day to all of South Africa’s women.