Lillian Ngoyi, known as the Mother of the Black Resistance in South Africa (9/25/11 – d. 3/13/1980) was 69 when she died of heart failure in her two-room house in Mzimhlophe, a section of Soweto. She had been banned under South Africa’s apartheid laws for 15 years when her obituary appeared in the newspaper. The obituary was the first time her name would legally be allowed in print as the apartheid ban meant that no one could print anything about Lillian or quote her publicly without being in violation of the banning law against her in South Africa at the time.
Lillian Ngoyi was one of six children born in Pretoria. Her father was a mineworker and her mother supplemented their household income by laundering clothes. Her family was close relatives of Chief Phatudi of the Lebowa homeland. Es’kia Mphahlele, the celebrated African author who wrote Down Second Avenue, was also named among her kin. Models of leadership were present in her family.
Lillian began community organizing early. She became active in the Garment Workers Union when she worked as a machinist in a clothing factory for ten years. By 1956, she was the national president of both the Federation of African Women (FAW) and the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL), a branch of the African National Congress. As president of the women’s league, she is often noted as the first woman elected to an executive committee of the ANC.
Lillian as machinist in clothing factory.
Soon, we find Lillian in Johannesburg where she and her enlisted friends go into a “Whites Only” section of the Rissik Street Post Office. They were immediately told to move to the non-white section. They refused. In fact, they had to refuse. The “Whites Only” section was the only section that allowed for sending a telegram to the prime minister. Their goal was to send a telegram to the prime minister. They were soon arrested by police for resisting. Once outside the post office, they were met by a cheering crowd. After five court appearances, the charges were dropped. As the president of FAW and ANCWL, however, Lillian was under the constant eye of the policing authorities in South Africa.
By 1966, Lillian Ngoyi was elected, together with Dora Tamana of Cape Town, to represent the FAW at a conference of the Womens’ International Democratic Federation in Switzerland. Both of the ladies knew they would never receive exit visas from the South African government. A lack of visa would not stop them. They were captured as stow-away on a ship headed to Cape Town to catch a plane that would take them to Switzerland. After being released by the police, they traveled to Johannesburg and received the help of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo to board a plane to England.
Lillian Ngoyi, first woman elected to an ANC executive committee.
They did not make it directly to Switzerland. Instead, Lillian spent two months speaking in England to large groups about the apartheid pass laws and the Bantu Education Act, with reports of audiences being brought to tears. She went on to Germany and was greeted with grand displays of flower bouquets. Her final stop was in Switzerland for the World Conference. She was soon invited to Russia and accepted. She went on to China. Though she knew the punishment awaiting her in South Africa, she loved her country so much that she returned. When arriving at the Jan Smuts Airport in South Africa she kissed the ground of her homeland, happy to be back on African soil.
The South African government silenced her. She was not allowed to publish written communication nor to address a crowd. She lived under a banning order, with only a few among the younger generations knowing the sacrifices she made. This was not the age where a Google.com search would give you information at your finger tips. While many of the men of the anti-apartheid movement are known, there were a number of women like Lillian Ngoyi whose efforts led the way to the end of legal apartheid in South Africa. Let us not forget her courageous works.