FEDSAW Women’s Protests, Pretoria 1956.
In 1954, Lilian Masediba Ngoyi 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, Ngoyi, a textile worker and mother of three from Orlando, Johannesburg, 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.
Born into a poor family in 1911 in Pretoria, Lilian Ngoyi became one of the leading lights of anti-apartheid protest. In a political career that spanned three decades Ngoyi, a garment worker by trade, became the Secretary General of the ANC Women’s League (ANC-WL), the National Chairman of FEDSAW and the first female to be elected to office in the main body of the African National Congress (ANC). She would lead the members of FEDSAW to the doors of the Union Buildings in Pretoria on the 9th of August 1956, to present petitions protesting the pass laws on behalf of the 20,000 women from across South Africa who had gathered outside. Later that year she was arrested for high treason along with 155 other leading activists. An event that would mark the beginning of a succession of banning orders and censorship attempts aimed to silence her.
Ngoyi at Union Buildings, FEDSAW Women’s Protests, Pretoria 1956.
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, aimed at the separation of the races through the restriction of black movement, 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. As a result, the ‘women’s struggle’, and the struggle of every South African opposed to the policies of the minority Nationalist Government, became one.
Lilian Ngoyi was also a transnational figure who recognised the potential influence that international support could have on the struggle against apartheid and the emancipation of black women. With this in mind she embarked on an audacious (and highly illegal) journey to Lausanne, Switzerland in 1955 to participate in the World Congress of Mothers held by the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF). Accompanied by her fellow activist Dora Tamana, and as an official delegate of FEDSAW, 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. With Tamana, she would visit England, Germany, Switzerland, Romania, China and Russia, meeting women leaders often engaged in left wing politics, before arriving back in South Africa a wanted woman. At Lausanne, Ngoyi 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 declared: “The Federation of South African Women…has joined hands with all organisations fighting for democratic rights, for full equality, irrespective of race or sex.” 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 Ngoyi and Tamana 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 that sought to prevent the mobility of non-whites at all costs. As she traversed Europe, passing from London, through the iron curtain to the eastern bloc, Ngoyi commented on the absence of racism and the potential benefits of communism. She 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.” Through her travels, Ngoyi collapsed racial and geographical divides. She was part of a global motherhood that brought people together in the name of peace, freedom and democracy – regardless of race.
As a result of her defiance and anti-apartheid organising Ngoyi 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 or meet more than one person at a time (including family members). She was constantly monitored by the police and no news of her was allowed to appear in the press. Ngoyi’s physical isolation took an inevitable toll on her political activities and she struggled to earn a living using her skills as seamstress. Despite this, she remained outspoken both on African and women’s rights until her death in 1980. Lilian Ngoyi, by bringing together her concerns as an African and as a woman, promoted a militant black motherhood that would shape the struggle against apartheid laws in the 1950s. 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.”
Nicholas Grant is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds working on the transnational networks of black protest that existed between the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s. He is particularly interested in the role that black women played in forging these global ties and relationships and hopes that, through BHM, the fascinating lives of many of these under-researched female figures will become more widely known.