Celebrating SA's Struggle Heroines

(Pic: 21Icons)
Remembering some of the women who helped shape democracy in South Africa

"One of the tragedies of Apartheid is that it turned you into an animal. It took your self-respect away. It took 'Botho jwa gago', that's what they say in Tswana, ‘Botho jwa gago’, your dignity, your personality."
(Ruth Mompati)


Ruth Mompati had a happy childhood in the rural North-West villages of Ganyesa and Thlapeng. Her father moved the family to Vryburg so that she and her siblings could be educated. In Vryburg, Ruth Mompati became a teacher and came into contact with the ANC.

In 1954, she helped to form the Federation of South African Women. Mompati was involved in the 1956 women's march against the pass laws to the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the 1990 Groote Schuur talks-about-talks to end apartheid.

In Johannesburg, Mompati refused to teach under the Bantu Education system and became the legal secretary of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.

In 1962, Ruth Mompati left the country for military training in Tanzania and the former Soviet Union. She didn't see her two sons for the next ten years.

Ruth Mompati was one of only two women included in the 1990 Groote Schuur talks-about-talks that paved the way for democracy in South Africa.

After serving as a Member of Parliament, Mompati returned to Vryburg to become the mayor of what she called 'her people'.

"One of the tragedies of Apartheid is that it turned you into an animal. It took your self-respect away. It took 'Botho jwa gago', that's what they say in Tswana, ‘Botho jwa gago’, your dignity, your personality. It will take a very long time for all the people to realize that they've got this back because the best part of their lives they were told they are nobody. And some people were treated so badly that even if you know that you are a somebody, it is very difficult to carry on as a somebody," said Mompati.

Pic: 21Icons


Sophia Theresa Williams-de Bruyn was born in 1938, in Villageboard, a mixed area that had different nationalities living side by side.

She became the founder member of the South African Congress of Trade Union (SACTU), which is the predecessor of the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU). Her trade union work interacted with mainstream political movements of the day, such as the ANC. The Congress alliance (Indian Congress and the ANC) at the time was grappling with issues such as the Group Areas Act, Separate Development Act and the Bantu Education Act. It was then that the 'Coloured People Congress' was formed.

In 1955 Sophia was appointed as a full-time organiser of the ‘Coloured People’s Congress’ in Johannesburg. The African National Congress and the Transvaal Indian Congress had offices in the basement of the Market Theater and they gave the Coloured People Congress office space in the same basement.

When the Coloured Population Act was put forward, Sophia was assigned by the Congress to work with the lawyer Shulamuth Muller, an attorney whose husband, Mike Muller, was secretary-general of the Textile Workers Union and was already banned. Together they helped to organize the women around pass issues with women such as Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi and Rahima Moosa. At the same time Sophia was at the forefront of the Congress Of the People in Kliptown. She led the Women’s March to the Union Buildings in 1956 and is the only surviving leader of the historical event. She currently serves as a human resources manager and a commissioner at the Commission for Gender Equality. She is a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC Women’s League and is a member of the Saartjie Baartman Reference Group.

(Source: SAHA)


Lilian Masediba Ngoyi was born in Pretoria in 1911 to a family of six children, and obtained her primary schooling in Kilnerton. She later enrolled for a nurses' training course, but she eventually took up work as a machinist in a clothing factory where she worked from 1945 to 1956.

She joined the Garment Workers Union (GWU) under Solly Sachs, and soon became one of its leading figures. Impressed by the spirit of African National Congress (ANC) volunteers, she joined the ANC during the 1950Defiance Campaign and was arrested for using facilities in a post office that were reserved for white people.

Her energy and her gift as a public speaker won her rapid recognition, and within a year of joining the ANC she was elected as president of the ANC Women's League. When the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) was formed in 1954, she became one of its national vice-presidents, and in 1956 she was elected president.

On the 9th of August 1956, she led the women's anti-pass march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, one of the largest demonstrations staged in South African history. Holding thousands of petitions in one hand, Ngoyi was the one who knocked on Prime Minister Strijdom's door to hand over the petitions.

In December 1956, Ngoyi was arrested for high treason along with 156 other leading figures, and stood trial until 1961 as one of the accused in the four–year-long Treason Trial. While the trial was still on and the accused out on bail, Ngoyi was imprisoned for five months under the 1960 state of emergency. She spent much of this time in solitary confinement.

She was first issued her banning orders in October 1962, which confined her to Orlando Township in Johannesburg and she was forbidden to attend any gatherings.

In the mid-1960s, she was jailed under the 90-day detention act and spent 71 days in solitary confinement.

Her banning orders lapsed in 1972, but were renewed for a new five-year period in 1975. During the time of her banning, Ngoyi’s great energies were totally suppressed and she struggled to earn a decent living.

Affectionately known as 'Ma Ngoyi’, she suffered heart trouble and died on the 13th of March 1980 at the age of 69.

(Source: SAHA)


Helen Beatrice May Fennell was born in Sussex, England, in 1905. She grew up in London, with her parents and brother, Frank. She then taught for three years in India, at Mahbubia School, a school for girls in Hyderabad. She then came to live in Durban, South Africa c. 1930, where she met and married dentist Billie Joseph.

After the war she took a job with the Garment Workers Union (GWU) and came under the influence of Solly Sachs, Johanna Cornelius and Anna Scheepers. Helen was a founder member of the African National Congress (ANC)'s white ally, the Congress of Democrats (COD), and national secretary of Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in the 1950s.

In 1955, she was one of the leaders who read out the clauses of the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People. The Women's March on 9 August 1956 was one of the most memorable moments of her illustrious political career, as she was one of the main organisers of the protest.

Arrested on a charge of high treason in December 1956, and banned in 1957, Helen's life became a long saga of police persecution. She was the first person to be placed under house arrest in 1962, and she survived several assassination attempts, including bullets shot through her bedroom window late at night and a bomb wired to her front gate.

Joseph was diagnosed with cancer in 1971, and her banning orders were lifted for a short time before being reinstated for two years in 1980.

Joseph passed away on 25 December 1992 in Johannesburg.

Helen Joseph was awarded the ANC's highest award, the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe Medal for her devotion to the liberation struggle as a symbol of defiance, integrity and courage.

(Source: SAHA)


Charlotte Makgomo Manye was born in Ramokgopa in the Polokwane (Pietersburg) District on April 7 1874. She received a missionary education at Edwards Memorial School in the Eastern Cape in the early 1880s. After the discovery of diamonds, Maxeke moved to Kimberley with her family in 1885. While in Kimberley, she became a teacher.

As a dedicated churchgoer, Maxeke and her sister, Katie joined the African Jubilee Choir in 1891, and toured England for two years. During this tour, Maxeke performed for Queen Victoria, allegedly in Victorian costume. Sources state that the sisters were uncomfortable with being treated as novelties in London, and during this time Maxeke is said to have attended suffragette speeches by women such as Emmeline Pankhurst.

With hopes of pursuing an education, Maxeke went on a second tour to the United States of America (USA) with her church choir in 1894 [some sources state this date as 1896]. When the tour collapsed, Maxeke stayed in the USA and studied at Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio, which was controlled by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). At the university, she was taught under Pan-Africanist, W.E.B Du Bois, and received an education that was focused on developing her as a future missionary in Africa.

Maxeke was greatly influenced by AMEC and through her connections with the Ethiopian Church the AMEC was founded in South Africa.

Maxeke and her husband established a school at Evaton on the Witwatersrand. The Maxekes went on to teach and evangelise in other places, including Thembuland in the Transkei under King Sabata Dalindyebo. It was here that Maxeke participated in the king's court, a privilege unheard of for a woman. However, they finally settled in Johannesburg, where they became involved in political movements.

Both her and her husband attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in Bloemfontein in 1912, and although her main concerns were church-linked social issues, Charlotte also wrote in Xhosa on the social and political situation occupied by women. In Umteteli wa Bantu, she addressed the 'woman question'. As an early opponent of passes for black women, Maxeke was politically active throughout her adult life. She helped organized the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913 and founded the Bantu Women’s League of the SANNC in 1918.

As leader of this organization, she led a delegation to Prime Minister Louis Botha to discuss the issue of passes for women, and this was followed up by a protest the following year. She was also involved in protests on the Witwatersrand about low wages, and participated in the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Worker’s Union (ICU) in 1920.

Maxeke was also involved in multiracial movements. She addressed the Women’s Reform Club in Pretoria, which was an organization for the voting rights of women, and joined the Joint Council of Europeans and Bantus. Maxeke was also elected as president of the Women’s Missionary Society.

In 1928, she attended a conference in the USA, and became increasingly concerned about the welfare of Africans. She set up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg and was the first black woman to become a parole officer for juvenile delinquents.

Maxeke was often honoured as ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa’, and had an ANC nursery school named after her in Tanzania.

She died in Johannesburg in 1939.

(Source; SAHA)

RAY SIMONS and Eli Weinberg were the first Whites to be accepted into the African National Congress (ANC).

Ray Alexander Simons née Alexandrowich was born on 12 January 1913 in Latvia. While at school, she displayed little fear in challenging authorities. Her independent thinking suggested she pursue a career in medicine but she soon took up politics. When she was about 13, she became active in the underground Latvian Communist Party.

She arrived in South Africa on 6 November 1929, and began to organise Black workers unions. Five days later, on 11 November 1929, after meeting Cissie Gool and lifelong friend John Gomas, she joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), aged 16.

In the same year, she lost her first job when she took part in an anti-pass campaign. She was involved with all facets of the Party's work, and after being dismissed from a job for attending the founding conference of the Anti-Fascist League, she became increasingly involved in trade union activity.

Alexander Simons was the Secretary of the Communist Party in 1934 and 1935, and recruited many women into the organisation. She helped organise workers in many different trades, but the union which became synonymous with her name was the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU). Founded in 1941, the FCWU spread through the fruit canning industry of the Boland and up the west coast among fishing communities.

In September 1953, she was served with banning orders. It was issued by Justice Minister Swart, and this forced her to resign as general secretary of the FCWU.

In April 1954, together with Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and Florence Mkhize, she helped found the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), which fought for women's rights and participated in drafting the pioneeringWomen's Charter.

Her FCWU banning precluded her attending the 1956 Women's March to the Union Buildings, but she was involved in its organisation and recruited about 175 women from Cape Town. After another banning order in April 1954, she was forced to resign from FEDSAW.

Alexander Simons married Eli Weinberg in 1937, but they separated and she later married Professor Jack Simons, a devoted communist and a lecturer in African Studies, in 1941.

They were the first Whites to be accepted into the African National Congress (ANC).

Alexander Simons and her husband then returned to South Africa in 1990.

Today, Ray Alexander Simons remains honoured for her contributions to organisations like the Communist Party, ANC and FEDSAW, Unions, SWAPO and the New Women's Movement. In 2004, the ANC's National Executive Committee bestowed the ANC's highest honour of Isithwalandwe on this liberation movement stalwart.

She is the third woman to receive this award, and some of the previous 18 recipients are Chief Albert Luthuli,Father Trevor Huddleston and Yusuf Dadoo in 1955, Lilian Ngoyi in 1982, Nelson Mandela and Helen Joseph in 1992. Literally translated, Isithwalandwe means "the one who wears the plumes of the rare bird".

Ray Alexander Simons died on 12 September 2004, at the age of 91.

(Source: SAHA)


Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is an activist and politician who has held several government positions and headed the African National Congress Women's League. She is a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee.

She was married to Nelson Mandela for 38 years, including 27 years during which he was imprisoned. Although they were still married at the time of his becoming president of South Africa in May 1994, the couple had separated two years earlier. Their divorce was finalised on 19 March 1996,though Winnie Mandela continued to be a presence in Mandela's life in later years despite his remarriage in 1998. Winnie could be seen almost daily visiting her former husband Nelson Mandela at the Mediclinic heart hospital inPretoria where he was receiving treatment

A controversial activist, she remains popular among her supporters, who refer to her as the 'Mother of the Nation', yet reviled by others after the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission found that she had personally been responsible for the murder, torture, abduction and assault of numerous men, women and children, as well as indirectly responsible for an even larger number of such crimes. Her Xhosa name is Nomzamo ("She who tries").

Due to her political activities, Winnie was regularly detained by the South African government. She was tortured, subjected to house arrest, kept under surveillance, held in solitary confinement for over a year and banished to a remote town. She emerged as a leading opponent of apartheid during the later years of her husband's imprisonment (August 1963 – February 1990). For many of those years, she was exiled to the town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State and confined to the area, except for the times she was allowed to visit her husband at the prison on Robben Island. Beginning in 1969, she spent eighteen months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison.

During South Africa's transition to democracy, she adopted a far less conciliatory and compromising attitude than her husband toward the white community.

Appointed Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in the first post-Apartheid government (May 1994), she was dismissed eleven months later following allegations of corruption.

On 24 April 2003, Winnie Mandela was found guilty on 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft, and her broker, Addy Moolman, was convicted on 58 counts of fraud and 25 of theft. Both had pleaded not guilty to the charges, which related to money taken from loan applicants' accounts for a funeral fund, but from which the applicants did not benefit. Madikizela-Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison. Shortly after the conviction, she resigned from all leadership positions in the ANC, including her parliamentary seat and the presidency of the ANC Women's League. In July 2004, an appeal judge of the Pretoria High Court ruled that "the crimes were not committed for personal gain". The judge overturned the conviction for theft, but upheld the one for fraud, handing her a three years and six months suspended sentence.

When the ANC announced the election of its National Executive Committee on 21 December 2007, Madikizela-Mandela placed first with 2845 votes.

(Source: Wikipedia)