Lilian Ngoyi spent almost two decades banned and confined to her house in Mzimhlope, Soweto, sewing to make a living.
AS co-founder and president of the Federation of South African Women and vice-president of the ANC Women’s League, Transvaal, Lilian Ngoyi was one of four women - along with Sophie Williams, Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa - who led the march of 20 000 women to the Union Buildings on August 9, 1956 to protest against the extension of apartheid’s pass laws to African women.
There were severe penalties for not being able to produce the hated "dompas" on demand - immediate arrest and imprisonment.
Ngoyi and other leaders argued that homes would be broken up and children left uncared for. They took their petition to then Prime Minister JG Strijdom. It read: "Mothers will be torn from their babies for failure to produce a pass". But the new law took effect and mothers were indeed separated from their children - by the thousand.
She was the first woman member of the ANC’s national executive, a well-known figure at meetings and a brilliant, fiery orator. She earned a reputation as an inspiring speaker who could stir up the crowds. The author Es’kia Mphahlele said of her: "She can toss an audience on her little finger, get men grunting with shame and a feeling of smallness, and infuse everyone with renewed courage."
She can toss an audience on her little finger, get men grunting with shame and a feeling of smallness, and infuse everyone with renewed courage
Her lifelong friend Helen Joseph described her as "beautiful … her head often tilted a little to one side of her slim neck, laughing eyes and a flashing smile to show an enchanting little gap in her front teeth". Her comrade Hilda Bernstein spoke of her "vital and dynamic personality with a flair for passionate expression, able to move and audience to tears or laughter".
But there were not many opportunities for Ngoyi to address audiences. She was first banned in 1961 and confined to the area of her home in Soweto, not allowed to attend meetings and prevented from speaking in public. She spent only three years unbanned, from 1972 to 1975. She died two months before her last banning order was due to expire and was buried at Avalon Cemetery alongside her friend Joseph.
Ngoyi was first arrested in December 1956 and taken to the Old Fort prison (where the Constitutional Court now stands). She was charged with treason, along with 156 other leaders, including Nelson Mandela. The trial dragged on for more than four years. In 1960, during the State of Emergency, she was arrested again at her home in the middle of the night and taken to Pretoria Central where she spent five months.
No sooner had she had been released and acquitted in 1961 than she was served with her first five-year banning order.
She spent a weekend in jail after breaking her banning order by holding a party in her house, attended by, among others, Walter Sisulu and Alfred Nzo.
As soon as her first banning order expired in 1967, she was banned again. This became the pattern.
She was beautiful … her head often tilted a little to one side of her slim neck, laughing eyes and a flashing smile to show an enchanting little gap in her front teeth
Bernstein wrote of her: "For 18 years this brilliant and beautiful woman spent her time in a tiny house, silenced, struggling to earn money by doing sewing, and with her great energies totally suppressed."
Her home was well known. Ngoyi rented out a room to Dr Alfred Letele from Kimberley, who had been on trial with her. His patients would wait in the front of the house where Ngoyi would sit sewing at her machine - often the black, green and gold blouses worn by the women in the organisations she belonged to.
In a period between banning orders, Ngoyi told an interviewer: "You can tell my friends all over the world that this girl is still her old self, if not more mature after all the experiences."
Desmond Tutu, then general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, said at her funeral, attended by more than 2 000 people, that when the true history of South Africa was written Ngoyi’s name would be in "letters of gold".
Researched by Gillian Anstey, with acknowledgements and thanks to:
• Side by Side: The Autobiography of Helen Joseph (William Morrow & Co.)
• They Fought for Freedom - Lilian Ngoyi (Maskew Miller Longman)