60 Iconic Women — The people behind the 1956 Women's March to Pretoria (41-50)

The crowd at the Union Buildings on August 9 1956. About 20 000 women marched to Pretoria to protest against passes for black women. (Photo: Robben Island Mayibuye Archive)

The crowd at the Union Buildings on August 9 1956. About 20 000 women marched to Pretoria to protest against passes for black women. (Photo: Robben Island Mayibuye Archive)

41. Mary Moodley

Together with women such as Viola Hashe and Mabel Balfour, Mary Moodley, born 1913, was an activist fighting the triple oppression of black women workers (gender, race and class). Remembered as “Auntie Mary” of Benoni, she was active in the South African Women’s Federation and the Coloured People’s Congress.

Moodley recruited workers into the Food and Canning Workers Union in the East Rand in the 1950s, and served on the Witwatersrand Local Committee of the South African Congress of Trade Unions. She was also an ANC member and a grassroots organiser for the Federation of South African Women.

Her home in Wattville township was a refuge for several people, including a blind, paralysed homeless man she found lying in the street.
Moodley is also credited with helping fugitives flee the country. She was detained during the 1960 State of Emergency and was banned from 1963 until 1977. She died in 1979. — Tracy Burrows

42. Mary Ngalo

Mary Ngalo was born in the Eastern Cape town of Cradock. She entered politics at an early age, joining the ANC Youth League and marrying Zenzile Ngalo, a fellow ANC member.

She was elected branch secretary of the ANC Women’s League, and played an active role in fighting for the rights of women. She encouraged hundreds to join the Federation of South African Women, a non-racial body uniting women from all walks of life, irrespective of political belief or affiliation, in the struggle against the apartheid system.

In 1957 Ngalo was arrested during the beer hall boycott, a protest launched by the ANC Women’s League urging men to boycott drinking at beer halls, encouraging them to rather use their money on their family. She was charged and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment.

During the 1960 State of Emergency Ngalo was sought by the security police and forced into hiding. The ANC Women’s League arranged for her to flee the country with her three children, directing her to Tanzania, where her husband was stationed. There she was elected secretary of the ANC Women’s Section, the external arm of the ANC Women’s League.

The family were then sent to Cairo, Egypt, where Mary was seconded to the Afro/Asia Solidarity Committee (AAPSO). She attended the fifth conference of AAPSO in Cairo in January 1972, and the tenth anniversary of the All Africa Women’s Conference in Dar-es-Salaam that same year. This was her last participation in a major event in the women’s struggle for a world free of oppression — she died in Cairo in March 1973. — Linda Doke

43. Mary Thipe

Mary Thipe was born in 1917 in Ramhlakoane village, near the Eastern Cape border of KwaZulu-Natal. As a young woman she moved to Umkhumbane and joined the liberation struggle in 1952, actively resisting the pass laws. She also championed the 1950s potato boycotts in support of the mistreated workers of Bethal.

For her efforts the apartheid government detained, arrested and banned her for five years.

Mary was vice-chairperson of the ANC Women’s League in the Cato Manor area near Pietermaritzburg. in In April 2015 she was awarded the Order of Luthuli for her contributions to the struggle for freedom. — Linda Doke

44. Mildred Lesia 

Mildred Lesia was born in 1933, in Langa township near Cape Town. Aged 21 she joined the ANC to protest the introduction of Bantu Education. The following year she and other ANC women went door-to-door, collecting people’s demands for the kind of South Africa they envisaged, and how they should be incorporated into the Freedom Charter.

Rejecting the pass laws and all forms of injustice, Lesia was one of the 20 000 women who marched on the Union Buildings on August 9 1956.

Two years later, she was elected to the regional committee of the ANC and became the organiser for the South African Congress of Trade Unions, the leading non-racial trade union co-ordinating body of that time. The group vigorously campaigned against the forced removal of communities in the Western Cape, and she was detained for one year and sentenced to six years in prison. This was reduced to one year, but Lesia found herself banned for five years, restricted to the Wynberg Magisterial area.

Upon her release in 1972, she worked hard to steadily strengthen and revive various women’s structures. In 1981 she helped to launch the United Women’s Organisation and the United Democratic Front in 1983. In 1989, she was part of a delegation of South African women who met with ANC women in the Netherlands — it turned out to be the final international conference before the organisation was unbanned.

In 1994 Lesia was elected to Parliament, representing the Gugulethu Uluntu Centre. — Linda Doke

45. Nellie Jibiliza

Nellie Jibiliza was born in Athlone, Cape Town in 1926 and was politicised through her parents, who were both ANC activists.  By the 1950s she was heavily involved in politics via the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL), the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) and the Communist Party.  She was elected the regional chairperson of the ANCWL and the regional secretary of Fedsaw in 1956.

She was one of the Western Cape representatives at the Women’s March to the Union Buildings, and took part in the march carrying her baby.  The following year she became one of the founders of the Cape Association for the Abolition of Passes for African Women.

Concerning the anti-pass campaign, she said: “We really thought at least the government would answer our petition and abolish passes. From 1954, when passes were introduced for African women in the Western Cape, we had marches, demonstrations and protests whenever we could.” 

Jibiliza re-entered politics in the 1980s through the Women’s Front and the United Women’s Congress. She died in Gugulethu in June 1993.  — Fatima Asmal

46. Nokukhanya Luthuli

Nokukhanya Bhengu was born in Umngeni in 1904, the granddaughter of Ngcolosi chief Ndlokolo Bhengu. An outstanding student, she embarked on a teacher-training course at Adams College. While taking her higher teacher’s diploma, she met Albert Luthuli and the couple married in 1927. “MaBhengu” Luthuli went on to have seven children and spent some years raising the children and supplementing the family’s income through farming.

When Albert became chief of Groutville, his wife was active in the community, setting up a post office, rallying for the establishment of a local clinic, and serving as a founding member of the Groutville branch of “Daughters of Africa”, forerunner to the ANC Women’s League. Nokukhanya was also elected as a delegate to the ANC national conference in Bloemfontein in 1955.

In December 1961 she traveled with Albert to Oslo where he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Nokukhanya died in 1996 at the age of 92.

Speaking at her funeral, the late president Nelson Mandela said: “Mama Nokukhanya shared the trenches of struggle with our beloved leader Chief Albert Luthuli … she was one of those leaders who contributed to our struggle away from the limelight. But she will go down in history as a member of the battalions of resilient women whose spirit could not be broken by the pain and suffering the apartheid government imposed on them.

“Her understanding, her wisdom, her love and care for others were apparent to anyone in her presence. That was a privilege that I often had, on many occasions, particularly when I had to go to Groutville to consult with chief Luthuli after he was banned. We deeply cherished that motherly care and hospitality. And we did not fail to notice that stern and knowing look that said to us: ‘Be brave, be gold; but be careful, and avoid recklessness!’ ” — Tracy Burrows

47. Nontsokometse Joyi 

Nontsokometse Joyi was born and raised in the Eastern Cape. She joined the ANC in 1952 and became an active campaigner against apartheid’s unjust laws. She was arrested and jailed for a year and again for three months, but this did not deter her — she became more determined than ever to be part of the movement of women pressing for change.

She recalls with pride how she participated in the women’s march on the Union Buildings in 1956: “More than 20 000 of us from all over South Africa converged on the Union Buildings in Pretoria demanding to meet and confront [JG] Strijdom, the then Prime Minister, to tell him that we women of South Africa shall never rest until we win for ourselves fundamental freedoms and human dignity.”

Joyi also took part in the 1959 potato boycott, urging women not to buy and eat potatoes nourished by the flesh and blood of boys arrested for pass offences, who were forced to work on Bethal farms. The campaign was successful, as large numbers of workers ordered “fish with no chips” for their lunch.

In 1979 she joined the Aligned Workers Union and became its organiser at factory level. Two years later she joined the newly formed United Women’s Organisation in the Western Cape, as well as the South African National Civic Organisation and the Unemployed Workers Union.

Joyi remains the branch chairperson of the ANC Women’s League in her area of the Eastern Cape. — Linda Doke

48. Pixie Benjamin

When Pixie Benjamin and her husband lived in England, and their home was recognised by ANC activists as a safe place to stay when in that country for meetings to gain support and political traction.

When they returned to South Africa in 1956, Benjamin joined the South African Communist Party and became secretary of the Johannesburg office of the Congress of Democrats.

Not only was she was one of the organisers of the women’s march to the Union Buildings in 1956, but she played a significant role in the publishing and distribution of anti-apartheid leaflets and political pamphlets. Her home was frequently raided, and on several occasions Benjamin was charged for the dissemination of illegal literature, and prohibited from attending gatherings and publishing her opinion.

In 1962 she was arrested and given a six-month jail sentence for painting slogans protesting the banning of the ANC. Two years later she was arrested again and held in detention for five months. During this time Benjamin embarked on a hunger strike, demanding to be charged or released. After 49 days without food, doctors intervened, warning that if she did not eat within 48 hours she would not survive. She was then granted bail on humanitarian grounds, and in 1965 charges against her were dropped.

The toll on her physical health, however, remained and Benjamin died in 1976. — Linda Doke 

49. Rahima Moosa


(Photo: Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

One of the key organisers of the Women’s March of 1956, Rahima Moosa was a respected member of the South African Indian Congress and the ANC.

Born in the Strand, Cape Town, on 14 October 1922, Rahima and her identical twin sister, Fatima, became politically active as teenagers, when they became aware of the unjust laws that ruled South Africa.

In 1943 she became the shop steward for the Cape Town Food and Canning Workers’ Union, later becoming the Union’s branch secretary. She was active in the South African Indian Congress, and later the ANC. In 1951 she married Dr Hassen ‘Ike’ Mohamed Moosa, a fellow ANC member and a treason triallist. The couple moved to Johannesburg and together, they played a role in organising the 1955 Congress of the People and the drawing up of the Freedom Charter.

In 1956, while pregnant with her daughter Natasha, she helped lead the Women’s March on the Union Buildings under the auspices of the Federation of South African Women. She was listed by the apartheid regime from the 1960s until the unbanning of the ANC in 1990. She died on 26 May 1993, a year before South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

In Celebrating the Heroines of the Struggle, edited by Professor Dasarath Chetty and Deanna Collins, then Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan said of the march organisers: “They risked their lives and everything they had when they took to the streets … Rahima Moosa dedicated her life to fighting for a free and just South Africa and ensured that South Africa’s children today enjoy democracy.” — Tracy Burrows

50. Ray Alexander Simons


(Photo: Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

Ray Alexander Simons, née Rachel Alexandrowich, was born into a working class family in Latvia in 1913. An activist from an early age, she was only 13 years old when she became a member of the underground Latvian Communist Party. It was a dangerous time to be involved in politics in the turbulent Baltic state, and facing imminent arrest, her worried mother sent her to South Africa to live with family there.

She arrived in Cape Town in 1929, and it took the 16-year-old Simons only five days to join the South African Communist Party (SACP). The SACP at that time was the only political party with a non-racial membership.

As a young worker and active SACP member, she was soon fired from her job for participating alongside blacks in an anti-pass campaign. Undeterred, she found a new job and started organising workers. She was arrested, and sentenced to one month’s hard labour, for her role in organising the Tram and Bus Worker’s strike in 1930. She became a member of the political bureau in 1934 and general secretary of the CPSA in 1935.

She spent the rest of her twenties travelling throughout the Cape, organising seasonal workers from rural workers into unions for the first time. In 1941 these workers joined together into the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU), and Simons is credited as its founder. The non-racial FCWU (today called the Food and Allied Workers Union) gained a reputation as an organised and effective union movement, and was to prove instrumental in the Women’s March. Simons was also a regular newspaper columnist on trade union matters.

Simons was systematically persecuted by the apartheid state. She was banned in 1953 and the state forced her to quit as general secretary of the FCWU. One of her most notable achievements was the founding of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) in 1954 alongside fellow SACP member Hilda Bernstein. Fedsaw united members within the anti-apartheid movement, such as those already within the ANC Women’s League, rather than risk dividing them.

Again, the apartheid regime barred her from being general secretary within days of Fedsaw’s founding. Although Simons was under banning at the time of the 1956 Women’s March, and unable to attend it, she was an organiser and recruited about 175 women from Cape Town.

She found her life partner in Professor Jack Simons in 1941, a fellow SACP leader who shared her passion for speaking out against oppression. Together, they worked through persecution, detention and banning until forced into exile in 1965.

The couple made a principled decision to live out their exile in Africa rather than Europe or America, so Jack taught in Angolan bush camps and Ray continued with underground work in Lusaka, creating a safe house to harbour struggle members. The Simons were the first white members to be accepted into the ANC in 1969. They returned to South Africa in 1990, and continued to advise trade unions, the SACP and the ANC.

Simons passed away in Cape Town in 2004, the same year the ANC awarded her their highest honour of Isithwalandwe. Traditionally bestowed upon only the bravest warriors for their leadership and heroism, the award honours individuals who made an outstanding contribution and sacrifice to the liberation struggle. — Romi Reinecke

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