The liberation struggle is saturated with images of men who fought against the apartheid state for our political freedom, to the exclusion of women. Besides the late – and great – Mam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, here are five other women that fought against patriarchy and racism to give us our political freedom. SHAAZIA EBRAHIM and FATIMA MOOSA commemorate these brave women this Freedom Day.
Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu was a nurse by profession. Through her political activism, she became one of the most important leaders of the anti-apartheid resistance. Mam’ Albertina is often referred to as the “Mother of the Nation”. Through Walter Sisulu, Mam’ Albertina attended the first conference of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League where she was the only woman present. She was one of the organisers of the historic anti-pass Women’s March in 1956. During the historic march, Sisulu and other activists sang the famous song Wathint` abafazi, Strijdom! Wathint` imbokodo uzo kufa!” (Now you have touched the women, Strijdom! You have struck a rock, You will be crushed!).
She was the first woman to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act which gave police the right to arrests suspects without detention. In 1981, she was elected the co-president of the United Democratic Front (UDF). When Mam’ Albertina completed her schooling she decided to not get married and wanted to be a professional so that she could support her family. She initially wanted to become a nun because she didn’t want to get marry but was advised to become a nurse so she would get paid. Sisulu formed part of a group of women migrants who moved to Johannesburg to forge a better life for themselves. In 1948 when the ANC Women’s League was formed, Sisulu became an activist in her own right. Mam’ Albertina had to face many years alone with many of her comrades in prison or in exile.
“Women are the people who are going to relieve us from all this oppression and depression. The rent boycott that is happening in Soweto now is alive because of the women. It is the women who are on the street committees educating the people to stand up and protect each other.”
Lillian Masediba Ngoyi started off as machinist in a clothing factory and then joined and became one of the leading members of the Garment Workers Union. After the Defiance Campaign in 1950, she joined the ANC. Ma Ngoyi’s energy and gift for public speaking won her recognition. In her lifetime she addressed protest meetings against apartheid all over the world, including in London’s Trafalgar Square. She was elected as the president of the ANC Women’s League merely a year after she joined the ANC; and was national vice-president then president of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw). The stalwart travelled as a delegate to a Women’s International Democratic Federation conference and toured Russia, China, and other Eastern bloc countries. In 1955, she became a member of the Transvaal ANC executive then became the first woman elected to the ANC national executive committee. On 9 August 1956 Ma Ngoyi led the women’s anti-pass march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, one of the largest demonstrations in our history. Holding thousands of petitions in one hand, Ngoyi knocked on Prime Minister Strijdom’s door to hand them over. Ma Ngoyi continues to be a fierce inspiration for activists.
“We are women, we are workers, we stand together. And we will never accept passes. We will never carry passes under any conditions. We know what these passes are doing to our men. We have seen them bundled into vans and sent to farm labour camps. Passes will place us at the mercy of the police.”
Ruth Heloise First was a journalist, scholar, and activist. Her parents emigrated from Latvia and formed the first communist party in South Africa. At university, she received firsts in sociology, anthropology, economic history, and native administration – and attended class with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo. First helped found the Federation of Progressive Students, was secretary to the Young Communist League, and later at the forefront of debates within the Johannesburg Discussion Club which led to the formation of the underground South African Communist Party (SACP) and to ties between the SACP and the ANC. In 1953, she helped found the South African Congress of Democrats, the White wing of the Congress Alliance. She married Slovo and throughout the 50s their home was a centre for multiracial political gatherings.
As a labour reporter specialising in investigative reporting, First wrote some of the finest articles about the women’s anti-pass campaign, migrant labour, bus boycotts, and slum conditions. She was also the editor of a number of left-wing publications and a lecturer in universities in England and Mozambique. First researched and edited many activist’s books and published some of her own. She was on the drafting committee of the Freedom Charter, but couldn’t attend the Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955 because of her banning order. Even when she later settled in London, First threw herself into anti-apartheid politics, joining the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and holding talks, seminars, and public discussions in support of the ANC and SACP.
You can read some of Ruth First’s writings and notes here.
Charlotte Maxeke was an anti-apartheid activist as well as one of the first Black women graduates in South Africa. Maxeke was one of the first Black South Africans to fight for freedom from exploitative and social conditions of African women. She was known as the “Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa.”
She attended university in the United States where the education she received there helped her to develop into a future missionary in Africa. She also met her husband while studying in the States. Moving back to South Africa, the pair taught and established evangelical schools in many places including the Transkei. Maxeke also participated in the king’s court which was something unheard of for a woman. Maxeke, while having many concerns around the church, also wrote extensively in Xhosa on the social and political situation occupied by women. She was also firmly against the pass and helped occupied movements against it in Bloemfontein. Maxeke was also the first Black woman to become a parole officer for juvenile delinquents.
“It is high time that the voice of black women be heard. They must ready themselves for a struggle.”
She also wanted to know, after listening to a speech by a male person: “How can men liberate women from the pass laws if they themselves are subject to it?”
Nicknamed Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba was a exceptional singer who used her voice in her activism. Makeba was the first vocalist to put African music onto the international map in the 1960s. Mam’ Miriam acted in the movie, King Kong in 1959. The movie became a huge success in South Africa and overseas. She also acted in the movie, Come Back Africa for which she was flown to Venice for the film festival. However, this movie caught the attention of the authorities who received negative attention through the movie. Her passport was revoked and she became the first black musician to leave South Africa on account of apartheid.
During the 70s and 80s, Makeba who was living in the USA at the time, addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly twice, speaking out against apartheid as a Guinean delegate to the United Nations (UN). In 1986, she was awarded the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize from the Diplomatic Academy for Peace.
While Makeba was not understood as an anti-apartheid activist in the traditional sense of the word, she used her music to tell the story of South Africa and the hardships black people were undergoing.
“I’m not a political singer” I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us – especially the things that hurt us.”
Viva the undying spirit of the women who fought for our freedom, Viva!