Despite her key role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, details about Lilian Ngoi’s life remain scarce. The short paragraphs of her legacy repeat a few clichés. South African “mother of the black resistance”, widow and rumored lover of Nelson Mandela, and the first female member of the national executive committee, the main leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), the resistance movement that would later become the government of democratic South Africa. She was also, of course, one of the leaders of the famous Women’s March in the country.
On August 9, 1956, which is now celebrated as Women’s Day in South Africa, Ngoyi and other women leaders led approximately 20,000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, home to the white minority government. They were protesting the extension of the much-hated pass laws to women. These laws required black citizens to carry passes to better control their movements.
Beyond that, Ma Ngoi, as she was affectionately known, remains an oft-mentioned but somewhat two-dimensional figure in history.
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Perhaps because she was not the wife of a senior ANC leader and lived most of her life as an outlaw, dying in destitution, there is no Lilian Ngoi fund or important biography. Yet the pioneering role she played and the sacrifices she made reached far beyond the Women’s March.
Born Lilian Masediba Matabane in 1911, Ngoi lived a life unlike other anti-apartheid activists. Not only was she an independent woman, but she was born into urban poverty. She did not come from a royal or rural family like the Mandelas, Sisulus and other elite members of the ANC whose role in the struggle against apartheid is well documented.
Ngoyi was the granddaughter of an itinerant Methodist minister who was a historical figure in his own right. But his extraordinary contribution to missionary work in southern Africa did not lead to any significant mobility for the family.
Her mother, although literate, worked as a laundress and domestic worker, and her father was a miner and laborer who died of lung disease related to mining. Being the only girl in a family of four, she was last in line for education. However, Ngoi’s family rallied to keep her at Kilnerton, a leading black Methodist school, even though she was only able to finish junior high. She moved to Johannesburg to take up a short-lived position as one of the first black female interns at the City Deep Mine Hospital.
Her youth epitomized the contemporary experience of many black women in urban South Africa. She became pregnant at 19, married at 23, but was widowed at 26. She took over the care of her newborn cousin when her brother’s wife died and was the primary caregiver for her aging parents.
The family spent a miserable decade living in the Shelters, the site of the country’s first urban land invasion led by the charismatic James Mpanza, who encouraged backyard dwellers to occupy open land in Orlando, Soweto. Here, Ngoi experienced the humiliation of poverty firsthand.
Politics changed everything for her. In 1953, at the end of the Campaign of Disobedience, a mass non-violent resistance protest, Ngoi risked a three-year prison term by walking into the whites-only section of the post office in Johannesburg. Apartheid laws created and controlled racially segregated spaces, and it took great courage to challenge them.
Ngoi became a member of the ANC and quickly rose through its ranks. She joined the newly formed Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw), forming a lifelong friendship with trade unionist and activist Helen Joseph. A broad coalition of women’s organizations, Fedsaw organized the 1956 march with Ngoi and Joseph leading the way.
Ngoi had the ability to inspire mass mobilization and unite people, especially women. By all accounts, she was an exceptional speaker. In a 1956 profile in the leading black magazine of the time, Drum, author and activist Ezekiel Mphahlele wrote:
She can throw the audience on the little finger, make men grumble with shame and a sense of worthlessness.
Anti-apartheid activist and Nelson Mandela’s wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela recalls:
She spoke the language of the worker, and she herself was an ordinary factory worker. When she said she stood up, she evoked an emotion that no one else could evoke.
In 1955, the International Democratic Federation of Women, considered a Soviet front organization, sponsored Ngoi’s trip abroad. Attended conferences and propaganda tours in Europe, China and the USSR.
She came home to the government’s plans to expand the pass system for women. The experience abroad, when she was treated as a human being for the first time, revived her. Ngoi began campaigning in support of the famous march. The largest gathering of women in the country’s history, it was the kind of mass mobilization that ANC men had only dreamed of.
In 1956, Ngoi was among 156 dissidents arrested by the security police. Accused of treason, they became known as treason trialists. She was finally acquitted in 1960, but lost her job as a machinist at the factory. Soon she was arrested again and held for five months, of which she spent 19 days in detention. During her arrest in 1963, she spent 71 days in solitary confinement, which affected her ability to concentrate.
After that, Ngoi drops out of the story. She was subjected to three five-year bans, lived in a state of permanent imprisonment. For most of the rest of her life, she was forbidden to associate with other forbidden people. She could not meet more than three people at a time and could not attend lectures, go to the cinema or accept invitations to weddings, funerals or any parties.
The banning orders ended her political career and gradually undermined her ability to earn a living as a seamstress, unable to travel to the city to purchase fabric. The police often raided her home, driving away potential customers. Ngoi was forced to rely on sporadic donations. In a letter of thanks to the sponsor, she expressed the humiliation of her position:
We feel small to give thanks all the time.
Not being the wife of an elite ANC leader, she did not receive financial contributions from the exiled men, nor was she supported by the International Defense and Relief Fund, which helped the families of political prisoners. However, she did not lose hope and, like Mandela, took solace in gardening, planting seeds sent to her by foreign friends. Her little yard was all in April.
On March 13, 1980, two months before the expiration of her third restraining order, Ngoi died at the age of 69. She never saw freedom in her life and never got the recognition she deserved for her efforts to achieve it. At her funeral, activist and church leader Desmond Tutu said that when the true history of South Africa is written, Ngoi’s name will be written in “letters of gold”.
This has manifested itself to a certain extent – several clinics and roads bear her name. But the true nature of her achievements and challenges, as well as the achievements and challenges of other banned and exiled individuals in South Africa, should never be forgotten.
Martha Evans, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Cape Town
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.