(1911-1980) South African political activist
Founder and president of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) for more than 20 years, Lilian Ngoyi spent her life fighting against South Africa’s system of apartheid and for women’s rights. Her experience in political and social organizations reached across several boundaries: she participated in workers’ unions, political parties, and international women’s organizations. Her motives for joining and forming these organizations varied: at times, she fought for a particular goal within a larger movement, while at other times, she actively sought solutions to a broad range of social ills. Although the South African government silenced and physically restrained her, Ngoyi resisted all attempts to stifle her activism.
Ngoyi was born to a Bapedi family in the village of Gamatlala near Pretoria, South Africa. She attended primary school in the village of Kilnerton, but poverty forced an end to her formal education after one year of high school. She had an experience during the years that she worked as a domestic servant that would shape her later life. She was delivering laundry for her mother to a white housewife who refused to let Lilian or her younger brother into her house. Later, she saw the woman take a stray dog into her house. A question nagged at Lilian: why could not a black child enter a house, while a dog could?
She left domestic service in 1935, when she began working as a nurse’s assistant and trainee. She met and married a van driver, but the marriage ended with his death at an early age. The couple had one daughter and an adopted son.
To support herself after her husband’s death, Ngoyi found work as a machinist at a clothing factory. During this time, she became a pro-labor and antiapartheid activist. She experienced firsthand the exploitative wages and working conditions worsened by the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s and ’40s, and she became convinced that a labor union could improve the lives of working-class blacks. She joined the militant Garment Workers’ Union and became a leader of one of its local offices.
In the early 1950s, Ngoyi joined the African National Congress (ANC). Nationalists had formed the ANC in 1912 to fight for black South Africans’ rights. Since the Dutch East India Company built a provision station at Cape Town in 1652, Europeans have been a powerful minority in South Africa (black Africans make up about 75 percent of the population today). Dutch, German, and French people, known collectively as Boers (farmers), began settling in South Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries and creating independent Boer republics. British immigrants began pouring into South Africa when explorers discovered gold in Transvaal; imperialists in Great Britain launched a campaign to take over the Boer republics. The Boer War (1899-1902) resulted in British victory and sovereignty in South Africa. In 1913, the Native Land Act introduced territorial separation, restricting black Africans to homelands, which consisted of only 15 percent of the total area of South Africa. The Native Land Act anticipated a series of “homeland” laws that instituted South Africa’s system of apartheid. The government passed the Mixed Marriage Act and the Immorality Amendment Act in 1948, which outlawed marriage and sexual relations between different races. The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953) segregated transportation and public places. The government then created separate local administrations according to racial groups.
Before apartheid ended in 1992 (South Africans can now live anywhere and the homelands have been abolished), the ANC fought against the restrictions imposed by the system. Lilian Ngoyi took part in the 1952 Defiance Campaign, in which black South Africans collectively defied apartheid laws. As part of this campaign, she ignored “Whites Only” signs hung in public buildings such as post offices, for which she was arrested and sentenced to prison. The Defiance Campaign, along with other ANC activities, resulted in the governmental ban on the organization in 1960, forcing the organization underground. Meanwhile, in 1954, Ngoyi became president of the ANC’s Women League; in 1956, she became the first woman elected to the ANC National Executive Committee. The year 1954 also marked the formation of the FSAW; Ngoyi became its president in 1956. In essence, the ANC and the FSAW represented the only political organizations in which black South Africans could participate. From 1959 until apartheid ended, South Africa’s Parliament included separate houses for whites, Asians, and coloreds (mixed-race people); blacks had no representation at all.
The Federation of South African Women was formed to agitate against the extension of the abhorrent “pass laws” to women. Beginning in the 1950s, pass laws (officially called “influx control”) were instituted to help enforce the segregation of races and prevent blacks from encroaching in white areas. The government required all nonwhites to carry documents authorizing their presence in restricted areas. The idea was to keep black laborers away urban areas where white workers competed for jobs. In 1960, the pass laws were extended to women.
During her tenure as president of the FSAW, Ngoyi represented South African women at various conferences, including the International Democratic Federation of Europe. In 1954, she and a companion, Dora Tamane, slipped out of South Africa without a passport to attend the World Congress of Women in Switzerland. She also visited Russia, China, and other eastern bloc countries.
Back in South Africa, on August 8, 1956, Ngoyi and the FSAW organized one of the largest demonstrations in South African history to protest the pass laws. Ngoyi led protesters to the government buildings in Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital. There, authorities placed her under arrest and charged her with high treason. Four years later, she spent five months in jail—71 days in solitary confinement— during the 1960 State of Emergency, in which the ANC launched a massive antigovernment campaign. Upon her release from prison, Ngoyi was acquitted of the 1956 treason charge. August 8 has been celebrated as South African Women’s Day ever since.
After 1962, Ngoyi lived essentially under house arrest. The government served her with banning orders, which meant that she could not leave her hometown of Orlando, near Johannesburg. The government lifted the banning order in 1972 but then reinstated it in 1975. In an interview with Drum magazine (see Bessie HEAD) in 1972 she stated, “My spirits have not been dampened.” “I am looking forward to the day when my children will share in the wealth of our lovely South Africa.” Ngoyi did not live to see the 1994 all-race election in South Africa, when voters chose Nelson Mandela (1916— ) and the ANC to lead the nation in a transition to democracy. She died on March 13, 1980.
On March 22, more than 2,000 mourners, wearing the ANC’s colors of black, green, and gold, attended Lilian Ngoyi’s funeral in Soweto, Johannesburg’s black township. Among the speakers were Helen Joseph (1905-92), another participant in the anti-pass law demonstration, and Bishop Desmond Tutu (1931- ). Two years after her death Lilian Ngoyi became the first woman awarded with the Isit-walandwe, the highest award in South Africa, granted by the African National Congress to honor those who participated in the liberation struggle.