Inspiring Thursday: Lillian Ngoyi

South African activist Lillian Ngoyi was known as ‘the mother of the black resistance’ and she served as president of the women’s league of the African National Congress. For 18 years of her life, she lived as a banned person – an attempt by the South African government to silence her.

Lillian Masediba Ngoyi was born on September 24th, 1911 in the city of Pretoria, South Africa. Her mother was Annie Modipadi Matabane and her father was Isaac Mmankhatteng, who worked in a platinum mine. She was educated at the Kilnerton Institution in the mid-1920ies, but her dream of becoming a teacher were dampened when she was forced to quit school and help take care of her family.

Between 1928 and 1930, she worked as a nurse at the City Mine Hospital. In 1934, she married the van driver John Ngoyi and had three children with him, Edith Mosime, Memory Chauke, and Eggart, but the couple ended up separating. Ngoyi started working as a domestic servant, but lasted just three months in the job, which she despised, before she left. A few years later, she ended up in a clothing factory where she worked as a machinist for 11 years. On top of this job, she became an official in the Garment Workers’ Union, which spurred her remarkable career in activism.

In 1952, she joined the African National Congress (ANC), an organisation dedicated to ending apartheid. Along with other political pioneers, Helen Suzman, Helen Joseph, Ida Mtwana, and Charlotte Mxeke , Ngoyi founded the Women’s League of the ANC and went on to attain several leadership positions within the organisation, such as national president and Transvaal provicional president. She also became president of the Federation of South African Women.

She was arrested several times for her involvement in activist events. One time, she was arrested for using facilities reserved for white people at the post office, and after the mass march, which took place the 9th of August, 1956, she was arrested and tried for treason. In the end, she was acquitted, but was later arrested at a number of occasions for her political involvement and spent five months in solitary confinement and additional time in prison.

On August 9th, 20,000 women gathered for a mass march protesting against the pass laws, which sought to restrict black women further and prevent them from moving around freely, expose them to sexual abuse from officials who would never be held responsible, and affect their children to a devastating extend. Many of the women had never left their villages and others were carrying their employers’ babies on their back. The marchers took 100,000 signatures and headed towards the office of prime minister Strijdom. Ngoyi knocked on his door to hand over the petitions, but was told, from a voice behind the door, that a letter had been sent to her prohibiting her from showing up at the office. To that Ngoyi said: “The women of Africa are outside. They built this place. Their husbands died for this.” She then went back to the marchers announcing that “Strijdom is too much of a coward to meet with us.” The women sang Wathint’abafazi, wathint’imbokodo. Strijdom uzakufa (You touch the women, you touch the rock) and then left in peace. Despite the dismissal, the they felt a sense of victory.

When she died in her home in 1980, she had been living under a banning order issued by the government for 18 years. This meant that she was restricted in her movements and contacts, and she could not be quoted by the press either. She was buried at the Avalon Cemetery in Soweto next to Helen Joseph.

By Ida Larsen, WAVE Intern