Ngoyi, Lilian (1911–1980)

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Ngoyi, Lilian (1911–1980)

South African leader in the struggle against apartheid, president of the African National Congress Women's League (ANCWL) and of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW), who was banned for her activism and held under government restriction for almost 20 years. Name variations: Lilian Masediba Ngoyi; Lilie; Masediba (a common name among the Pedi, one of the northern-Sotho groups, meaning "stable pool of water" and signifying women as a source of life or energy and reliability); maNgoyi (Ma or mama is a common Southern African salutation for a prominent or elderly woman). Born Lilian Masediba Ngoyi in 1911 at Pretoria, South Africa; died on March 11, 1980, in Orlando Township, Johannesburg; married John Ngoyi, in 1936; children: three.

Lilian Ngoyi's life spanned much of the most critical period in the political history of South Africa, during which its minority white population kept brutal control of the country through one of the worst systems of racial oppression in the modern world. One year after her birth, South Africa's entire indigenous population lost access to 87% of their country through the imposition of the 1912 Natives Land Act, kickstarting the formalization of the government's racist policies that would come to be codified as apartheid after the 1948 election of the Nationalist Party. In 1958, racial oppression had become so refined that Ngoyi's challenge to new Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was dismissed as frivolous. In part due to her relentless work for the liberation of South Africa, however, by the time she died in March 1980, resistance against oppression had gathered irreversible momentum.

Little is known about Ngoyi's parents or early childhood. She was born in the capital city of Pretoria in 1911, to a Pedi father who worked first in the mines and later as a packer in a local shop, and a mother who worked as a domestic servant in the homes of white families. Her parents made considerable sacrifices to see that she received an education, at the primary school at Kilnerton, Pretoria, where she completed the standard program of eight years. They were also passionate churchgoers, according to Julia Wells , but as she grew up Ngoyi resisted the institution as an instrument of white domination. For a time she studied nursing, but gave it up when the glaring contradictions of caring for the sick within a framework of racial oppression became impossible to stomach. Ngoyi eventually left Pretoria for the nearby city of Johannesburg, where she settled in Orlando, one of the group of southwestern black townships known collectively as Soweto. In 1936, she married John Ngoyi, with whom she had three children.

South Africa's urban areas (including Soweto) held the most manifest and persistent examples of racial oppression, in the forms of poor housing, inadequate sanitation and social services, and restrictions on freedom of movement. By the same token, they were also hothouses for heightening political consciousness among the blacks who lived there, as Ngoyi did. In addition, after training as a seamstress she worked from 1945 to 1956 as a machinist in a clothing factory. There she came into contact with the Garment Workers' Union, which from the 1930s into the 1960s was at the forefront of organized resistance to militant pro-Afrikaner and antiblack economic policies. In the '30s and '40s, particularly, it was strong in defending the rights of its members to decent work conditions and security of employment. Ngoyi joined the union as one of a new generation of activist women who proved to be politically skillful, disciplined and militant in their outlook. Beginning in the late 1940s, she was increasingly attracted to the African National Congress (ANC), the black political organization of South Africa. When the newly elected white Nationalist Party officially established its racist policy of apartheid in 1948, the ANC became radicalized in self-defense. In 1952, the congress went on the offensive against unjust and draconian laws with its Defiance Campaign, and Ngoyi joined the ANC to take part. A widow at the age of 40, she quickly distinguished herself in the campaign as an effective, energetic, and courageous politician, and a brilliant public speaker.

Throughout the 1950s, Ngoyi linked the struggles of women with the campaigns and objectives of the ANC. In 1953, she was elected president of the ANC Women's League (ANCWL), a post she held until 1963. With the formation of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) on April 17, 1954, she became one of the new group's four vice-presidents, representing the Transvaal branch. In 1955, she made a trip overseas (which, according to Wells, was the "event of her life"), visiting Italy, Eastern Europe, and China, the country that left her with the most favorable impression. She returned home with a renewed sense of conviction about the need to win freedom, whatever the cost, for the people of South Africa. That same year, she joined the Transvaal ANC executive committee, and by February of the following year her spirited fight to establish in South Africa a society both color-blind and non-sexist had led Drum Magazine to describe her as a "masterpiece of bronze" (although clearly her determination was made of steel). At the Transvaal Women's Day Conference, her eloquent description of the hardships endured by black men in South Africa under apartheid caused women to weep, and recruited followers even among the country's white women, whom the government tried to portray as the greatest beneficiaries of apartheid. Ngoyi welcomed whites to the struggle, as she welcomed all colors and classes, if they were prepared to renounce the privileges they enjoyed based on skin color.

One white woman who did not need to be recruited was activist Helen Joseph , with whom Ngoyi had been friends since they had worked together in 1952 against the new government policy that required black women to carry passes. Secretary-director for the Transvaal of the Medical Aid Fund of the Garment Workers' Union, Joseph was also a member of the Congress of Democrats (COD), a white South African organization of liberals and radicals against apartheid. In August 1956, when Ngoyi

became president of the FSAW, Joseph became the federation's secretary, and their close association would continue for many years, during which each would be subject to bannings, restrictions, and arrests. One of the first actions they organized in the FSAW took place on August 9, 1956, when Ngoyi and Joseph were among those who led some 20,000 women from all over the country in a march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria. One of the country's biggest anti-pass demonstrations, the event included 30 minutes of silence in protest of apartheid and the pass laws as well as Ngoyi's challenge to the unseen members of the government to address the "women of Africa," whose husbands had "built this place." Inside the Union Buildings, officials arranged a safe escape through a side passage for Prime Minister Johannes Strijdom.

In December 1956, Ngoyi became the first woman ever elected to the ANC national executive committee. Also towards the end of that year, she was among 156 anti-apartheid activists (including Joseph, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Ruth First ) arrested and charged by the government with treason. The complicated case, which has since come to be known as the Treason Trial, would last some four years and end with the acquittal of all the defendants. Meanwhile the Defiance Campaign increased in intensity, and from 1958 to 1963 Ngoyi was subjected to banning and periods of imprisonment.

While Johannesburg was Ngoyi's primary political base, her work for the FSAW and the ANCWL frequently took her to nearby Pretoria and to other parts of South Africa as well. When she made an appearance in Winburg, a rural town close to Johannesburg and one of the first places that the government imposed passes, local women honored her with a bonfire fueled by the burning of their passes. This was an action considered so radical that even the ANC advised against it. In March 1960, police in Sharpeville, a township 40 miles south of Johannesburg, fired into the crowd at a demonstration against apartheid, killing over 60 people and wounding nearly 200 more. In the aftermath of what would become known as the Sharpeville massacre, Ngoyi spoke against the formation of pistol clubs by white women who felt the need to defend themselves against increased militancy and violence. Soon thereafter, she was held in jail five months for her part in the anti-pass campaigns.

Freedom does not come walking towards you. It must be won. As women we must go on playing our part.

—Lilian Ngoyi

In her efforts to transform her country, Ngoyi addressed two strands in the struggle for human rights. In a speech delivered at Port Elizabeth in September 1961, she called for a confrontation with the forces of white privilege, warning black South Africans that freedom would not "walk to them." In the same speech, she called upon women to be weapons in their own struggle, for she saw, in the government restriction of black women to rural areas and the imposition of passes to justify their presence in urban areas, not only racism but also the systematic subordination of women to patriarchal values. She dedicated women's struggle to the struggle of the ANC, and with such a broad vision was able to work with both women and men for the dignity and rights deserved by all human beings.

From 1958 until the end of her life, Ngoyi lived either under a ban order, government restrictions (which among other things prevented her from being quoted), or strictures imposed from being listed as a communist. In October 1962, she received a banning order restricting her to Orlando Township. She also served a 90-day detention, which included 71 days spent in solitary confinement. Thereafter, banning orders against her were renewed every five years through 1975, and from 1963 until her death she was restricted to her home. Nonetheless, she was a bridge between generations as well as between different racial communities and social classes, and many young people in Orlando Township were inspired by the example of her presence. In 1976, when hundreds of blacks in Soweto—many of them children—were killed while protesting the compulsory teaching of Afrikaans in their schools, she was again a moral reference point.

Ngoyi died in Orlando Township in March 1980, still restricted to her house by the government. She never lost her belief that the government's oppression would be defeated. In a 1977 interview with Julia Wells, she still foresaw "freedom in our life time." Memorial services organized after her death revealed both how sophisticated the struggle against apartheid had become and how close she remained to her country's people. Ten years after her death, negotiations between the ANC and the white government resulted in the repeal of apartheid legislation. Four years after that, in 1994, the country's first multiracial elections were held and Nelson Mandela was elected president. Freedom came, as she had believed it would. August 9th, the day of the women's march on Pretoria in 1956, is now celebrated in South Africa as National Woman's Day.


Gerhart, G.N., and T. Karis. From Protest to Challenge. Vol. 4. Stanford University Press, 1973.

Lodge, T. Black Politics in South Africa since 1945. London: Longman, 1983.

Personal interview with Dr. Julia C. Wells on July 5, 1995, Rhodes University.

Walker, C. Women and Resistance in South Africa Cape Town. David Philip, 1991.

Wells, J.C. We Have Done with Pleading. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1991.

——. We Now Demand. Witwatersrand University Press, 1993.

Ackson M. Kanduza , Department of History, University of Swaziland, Kwaluseni, Swaziland