60 Iconic Women — The people behind the 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria (31-40)

31. Lilian Ngoyi

(Photo: Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

Lilian Masediba Ngoyi, known affectionately as Ma Ngoyi, was born into a religious Pedi family in Pretoria in 1911. One of six children, she knew poverty and hardship from an early age. Her family could not afford her school fees and after only one year of high school, she started working to help support her family.

Ngoyi married and had a daughter, but lost her husband when their daughter was only three years old. A widow, she kept working as the sole breadwinner to support her mother, her daughter and an adopted child. As a seamstress and textile machinist, she joined and became an active member of the non-racial Garment Workers Union led by Solly Sachs, and was later on the union’s executive committee.

A trailblazer in the liberation struggle, the power of her personality and public speaking could not be ignored by male-dominated leadership of the movement. Within one year of joining the ANC, she was the first woman to be elected to the national executive, as well as becoming president of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL).

In this role, Ngoyi was instrumental in helping to launch the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw), and helped to created strong bonds between the ANCWL and Fedsaw. On the stage at Fedsaw’s inaugural conference, she spoke to rousing applause.

“Let us be brave: we have heard of men shaking in their trousers, but who ever heard of a woman shaking in her skirt?” First elected as a national vice-president, she was later elected president in 1956, before the Women’s March.

In 1955, she secretly travelled to a World Congress of Women in Switzerland as an official Fedsaw delegate, an illegal and unheard of act for a black South African woman. She addressed several large apartheid protests, including one at London’s Trafalgar Square. She visited several socialist countries, as well as Nazi concentration camps. This only renewed her determination to fight for freedom and a multi-racial South Africa.

Together with Fedsaw secretary Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, and Sophie Williams-De Bruyn, Ngoyi led the Women’s March protest of 20 000 fellow South African women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. This was among the largest and most influential mass actions in the country’s history. As president, it was Ngoyi who knocked on then prime minister JG Strijdom’s office door, armed with thousands of petitions against the law requiring women to carry passbooks.

Ngoyi was arrested for high treason in December 1956, the start of the four-year Treason Trial against 156 leaders of the liberation struggle. When out on bail, she was imprisoned under the 1960 State of Emergency. The conditions of her imprisonment and solitary confinement by the apartheid state were particularly cruel.

Due to her leadership, courage and success, she was banned by the apartheid state in 1962, limiting her movement, association and freedom of speech. Confined to her tiny house in Orlando Township for 18 years, she struggled to earn money by sewing, and her leading voice was silenced. She suffered from a heart condition and died in 1980, aged 68. Two years later, she became the first woman to be awarded the highest honour of the ANC, the Isitwalandwe Medal. — Romi Reinecke

32. Lizzy Abrahams

Lizzy Abrahams was born in Paarl in 1925, into a family of eight children. She attended the multi-racial Bethanie School in Paarl, but was forced to leave at just 14 when her father died of tuberculosis, as she had to support her mother. She worked part-time at a fruit factory, where working conditions were poor and racism rife.

When her mother fell ill, Abrahams began working full-time at the factory. She joined the Food and Canning Workers Union as a member of the floor committee, was promoted to branch executive and, upon the banning and arrest of the general secretary of the FCWU in 1956, was elected to replace him.

At the same time, Abrahams was the Western Cape secretary of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, and a member of the Coloured People’s Congress and the Federation of South African Women.

Abrahams joined the United Democratic Front in 1983 and in 1990 she joined the ANC. The following year she was elected as chairperson of the ANC and vice-chair of the ANC Women’s League.

When a democratic Parliament was elected in 1994, Abrahams took her position among the leaders of the new South Africa – she was elected to Parliament in 1995 and served as a member until 2000.

In 2002 she was awarded the Order of the Counsellor of the Baobab by then South African president Thabo Mbeki. In 2005 she received the Freedom of Paarl, and in the same year the University of the Western Cape published her biography Married to the Struggle. She died in 2008. — Linda Doke

33. Lucy Mvubelo

Lucy Mvubelo was born in the Transvaal in 1920, and started working as a teacher at the age of 18. She left the teaching profession just six months later, due to the low salaries teachers were being paid, and moved into the textile industry.

In 1946, she became involved with the Garment Workers’ Union and was one of the first black women to be elected to the national executive council of the Trade Union Council of South Africa. She went on to become general secretary of the National Union of Clothing Workers in 1962, which had a membership of 21 000 workers. According to an article published in a 1986 edition of African Insight, she was still secretary of this union in 1986, and had by then held this position for 29 years.

The article states: “Lucy Mvubelo knew what it was like to be poor. She had grown up in Johannesburg where her mother had earned £2 per month as a domestic servant and her father had earned 15 shillings per week. Because they were so poor she had to leave school at the end of standard eight. It therefore seemed natural that she should initiate a number of projects for the struggling people in her union.”

These projects included a special fund for unemployed union members who did not qualify for unemployment insurance, a food and clothing parcel distribution scheme for needy families, a funeral insurance scheme for union workers, as well as a university bursary fund and a crèche fund for the children of union workers. Mvubelo was part of a committee of women across South Africa, which met regularly ahead of the launch of the Federation of South African Women.

In the 1980s, she was criticised by some anti-apartheid activists for her calls for continued investment in the country, and these views resulted in her house being bombed in July 1984. Mvubelo died in 2000 at the age of 80. Fatima Asmal

34. Ma Nxayiya

“Ma” Nxayiya was one of the most staunchly active members of the ANC in Orlando West, Soweto. She fervently believed in righting the wrongs against the oppressed and disadvantaged, and played a determined role opposing segregation laws.

Never afraid to stand up for her beliefs, there were many examples of Ma Nxayiya’s resistance to apartheid authority. For example, she fought against music systems being installed on public buses as an excuse to raise bus fares, and eventually they were removed. She also played an active role in the potato boycott of 1959.

When political trials became commonplace, she joined other women attending court to give moral support to the victims of apartheid law, and took food and clean laundry to detainees.

She worked tirelessly in the weeks leading up to the Women’s March on the Union Buildings in 1956, helping spread the word and encouraging women to support the march for the rights of women, fundamental freedoms and human dignity. — Linda Doke

35. Mabel Balfour

A veteran campaigner alongside the likes of Viola Hashe and Mary Moodley, Mabel Balfour was a trade unionist and black women’s rights activist and participated in the 1956 Women’s March. She was an active member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) during the 1950s and was eventually elected Transvaal General Secretary of the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union in 1962, fighting against what was described as the triple oppression of South African women on the grounds of race, gender and worker status. In 1958, she was arrested along with several other trade unionists and given a suspended sentence. In 1963, she was banned and confined to a small house in the Roodepoort area. — Tracy Burrows

36. Magdaline Resha

Magdaline Resha was born in the Eastern Cape in 1923. After qualifying as a nurse, she began working at Pretoria Hospital in 1947. Her involvement in politics started when she married Robert Resha, a leader of the ANC Youth League in 1948.

She served as an office bearer for the ANC Sophiatown branch, and was later elected to the national executive committee of the Federation of South African Women. Resha was a leading organiser of the march of 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956.

She was imprisoned at various times due to her participation in protests. She later moved to Soweto, where she became the chairperson of the ANC Women’s League branch there. In 1962 the ANC smuggled Resha out of the country to continue her work in exile, first in Tanzania, then at its new diplomatic office in Algeria.

In 1966, she was appointed the ANC’s Deputy Chief Representative to the North African countries. She was also the ANC’s representative of the Pan African Women’s Organisation, to which women’s organisations from throughout the continent were affiliated, and in 1973 she was elected general secretary of the All-Africa Women’s Conference.

When her husband died in 1973, Resha moved to the UK, where she became the chairperson of the ANC London branch and deputy chairperson of the Women’s League branch. She returned to South Africa in 1993, where she lived in Romohlokana location until her death in 2003. — Fatima Asmal

37. Margaret Ballinger

Born Violet Margaret Livingstone Hodgson in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1894, Ballinger moved to South Africa as a child in 1904, and studied in South Africa and England. She later taught history at Rhodes University in Grahamstown and University of the Witwatersrand and married trade unionist William Ballinger in 1934.

Under the Native Representation Act of 1936, black South Africans were to be represented in the house by three members of Parliament. Ballinger was nominated by the Eastern Cape Circle of the Cape Province workers’ group to stand as a candidate, and went on to represent the people of the Eastern Cape on the Native Representatives Council (NRC) for over 20 years. She was one of very few people who openly criticised H.F. Verwoerd. In Margaret Ballinger: A Tribute, O.D. Wolheim wrote: “For 23 of her 86 years, Margaret Ballinger sat stoically and heroically through six months of every year in Parliament having to endure abuse, calumny, distortion of her words and often venomous attacks on her personality.” He notes that Ballinger reflected in her book From Union to Apartheid: a Trek to Isolation: “It is impossible to read its record without being oppressed by the tragedy of those years … How little it would have taken to establish a co-operative relationship with both the leaders and the mass of the African people”.

Ballinger also initiated the formation of the liberal Society of the Friends of Africa (FOA) in 1934, Association of European and African Women in 1936.

In 1953, Ballinger became leader of the new Liberal Party and later president of the organisation, and agitated for reform until 1960, when “native representation” was abolished. She died in 1980. — Tracy Burrows

38. Margaret Gazo

Born in 1918, Margaret Gazo was one of the organisers of the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings, in protest of the extension of the pass laws to women.

At the time Gazo lived in Springs, east of Johannesburg. She led the march from Payneville and as they approached town, soldiers and police started shooting at the women. Some of the protesters, fearing for their lives, abandoned the march, but Gazo and a small group continued to the Union Buildings, to be counted among the multitudes who gathered there that day.

Gazo spent five years in prison for political activism, due to her leading a local anti-pass demonstration and helping to organise the bigger national march. A stalwart of the African National Congress Women’s League, she died in 1974 of natural causes.

In 2011, the South African government conferred The Order of Luthuli in Bronze to Gazo for leading the Women’s March to the Union Buildings, for her outstanding leadership and commitment to the ideals of democracy, and for her contribution to human rights and the struggle against apartheid. — Fatima Asmal

39. Martha Mothlakoana

Martha Mohlakoana was born in 1906 to a family of squatters on a farm in the Orange Free State. She worked in domestic service for 22 years.

Mohlakoana joined the ANC in 1939 and became one of the leaders of the women in the province who actively protested in the 1956 anti-pass campaign. — Tracy Burrows

40. Mary Goitsemang Ranta

Born in 1922, Mary Ranta grew up near Pretoria. After leaving school, she worked as a “tea girl” at the Pretoria Mint, and later was employed as a typist for the African Iron and Steel Workers’ Union.

By the early 1950s Mary was an active trade unionist and shop steward for the Garment Workers’ Union. She joined the ANC in 1948, was elected to the Transvaal executive of the ANC Women’s League in 1954, and was made national secretary in 1955.

Ranta was also on the executive committee of the Federation of South African Women, and played a leading role in protest marches against the extension of passes to women in the mid-1950s.

In December 1956 she was one of 19 women charged with treason, but charges against her were dropped the following year. — Linda Doke




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