Nyembe, Dorothy (1930–1998)

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Nyembe, Dorothy (1930–1998)

South African anti-apartheid leader. Name variations: Dorothy Nomzansi Nyembe; Mam D. Born in Thalane, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, on December 31, 1930 (some sources cite 1931); died on December 17, 1998, in KwaZulu-Natal; children: at least one daughter.

Dorothy Nyembe spent her life fighting against the oppression of black South Africans. Born in rural KwaZulu-Natal in 1930, she joined the African National Congress (ANC) in her early 20s—eventually becoming deputy chair of the local ANC Women's League—and was jailed for two years as a result of her participation in the 1952 Defiance Campaign. During the campaign, thousands of blacks protesting apartheid entered white-only establishments and broke curfews and pass laws, which mandated the carrying of identity papers and rigid limitation of travel within the country by blacks.

In 1956, Nyembe led a Natal women's protest against the pass laws and also led boycotts against beer halls. She was endorsed out of Durban in 1959, and was detained for five months during the State of Emergency of 1960. That same year the ANC was declared an illegal organization by the white government. Nyembe continued working with the congress as it went underground, and upon the inception the following year of its liberation army, the Spear of the Nation (Umkhonto we Sizwe), was one of the first members to join. She represented the Women's Federation in the South African Congress of Trade Unions in 1962, and in 1963 was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for her work on behalf of the ANC. Upon her release in 1966, she was placed under strict banning orders by the government, but nevertheless continued working clandestinely against apartheid. Nyembe was arrested again in 1968, tortured, and charged with violating the Terrorism Act and the Suppression of Communism Act. She was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment at the infamous Barberton Prison.

After serving the full term of her sentence (during which time the Soviet Union bestowed on her its USSR People's Friendship Award), Nyembe was released from prison in 1984 and resumed working in the ANC. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and the ANC began negotiating with the government. Nyembe was one of the ANC members who participated in 1993 in the drafting of a new, democratic constitution, which granted the vote to all adult citizens and effectively marked the end of apartheid. During the historic 1994 elections that swept Mandela into the presidency, Nyembe was elected a member of Parliament. Popularly called "Mam D" by younger members of the ANC, she was revered for her long participation in the struggle for the people. Dorothy Nyembe died at her home in December 1998, while preparing for celebrations to mark the 37th anniversary of the founding of the Spear of the Nation.


Herald-Leader (Lexington, KY). December 28, 1998.

Uglow, Jennifer, ed. and comp. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1989.

Howard Gofstein , freelance writer, Oak Park, Michigan