08 August 2016

WOMEN's DAY - Remembering Lilian Ngoyi, one who wore the plumes of the rare bird

Lilian Ngoyi

"This government speaks and practices colour discrimination.

It can pass the most cruel and barbaric laws...

but it can never stop women of Africa in their forward march to freedom."

Four women led the Women's March that fateful day in 1956 - Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Sophia Williams and Lilian Ngoyi - but it was Ngoyi who stood out as a natural leader, a fearless fighter for the rights of the oppressed.

A brilliant, fiery orator, she earned a reputation as an inspiring speaker who could stir up the crowds during her early activism as a shop steward in the Garment Workers Union in the late 1940's.

Active in the Defiance Campaign, she provoked arrest by using a whites-only post office. She went onto become presidents of both the Federation for South African Women (FEDSAW) and the African National Congress (ANC) Women's League, and the first woman elected to the ANC's national executive committee in 1956.

On 9 August 1956, outside the Union Buildings in that citadel of apartheid, Pretoria, she led the women in song, warning Strijdom to ignore the women at hist peril, chanting in unison the phrase that has come to represent South African women's strength and courage:

"wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo!"

"When you strike the women, you strike the rock!"

Ngoyi came to bear much of the brunt of the warning. In 1961, she was banned and confined to her home in Soweto. Barring a reprieve of three years in the mid-1970s, Ngoyi lived under house arrest until her death in 1980, that defiant, courageous voice that had so inspired audiences effectively silenced.

In 1982, she became the first woman to be awarded the highest honour bestowed by the ANC, the Isitwalandwe medal, for "one who wears the plumes of the rare bird."

Adapted from text of SAHA exhibit on display for Women's Month 2016 at Constitution Hill

Listen to the "Voices from our Past" audio documentary about Lilian Ngoyi and the Women's March of 1956, produced in 2007 as part of the SAHA / Sunday Times Heritage Project

Visit the Lilian Ngoyi memorial produced as part of the SAHA / Sunday Times Heritage Project