07 August 2018

Remembering Dorothy Nyembe: a woman who spent 18 years in prison to fighting for what she believed in

This black and white photograph of Dorothy Nyembe at a protest meeting was taken by Myron Peters, date unknown.

This year during Women’s month we commemorate one of the struggle heroes who relatively little is written about. Dorothy Nyembe spent a total of 18 years in prison. She was the female activist with the longest served prison sentence.  It is sad how little importance is given by the history books to women and their role in the struggle.

Even though so much of her life was spent in jail for the struggle relatively little is written or generally known about Dorothy Nyembe. She was born and grew up near Dundee in northern KZN formerly known as Natal.  She was a leading member of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) at its establishment and the ANC women’s league in KZN. She participated in the defiance campaign and anti-pass campaign. She led the contingent of Natal women that protested the pass laws on August 9 1956. She was detained during the 1960 State of emergency and then in 1963 she was arrested and charged with furthering the aims of the ANC, a banned organisation by this point. She was imprisoned for three years and subsequently banned.

This did not stop her. Two years later she was again detained and then charged in 1969 under the Terrorism Act and the Suppression of Communism Act. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison for harbouring freedom fighters.

When she was asked in an interview (AL2460) if she had sacrificed enough and someone else should take up the baton she responded “…I know I will go back. I know I will die inside in jail, but I am not planning to remain and sit fold up my hands - no.” 

She continued to fight the apartheid government and remained a part of the anti-apartheid movement. At liberation she became one of the first members of the national assembly. She passed away on 17 December 1998 after fighting her whole life what she believed in. We should commemorate and remember this lesser remembered woman who played a pivotal role in the struggle for a free and fair society in South Africa.

For further reading on the roles played by women during the struggle see the SAHA virtual exhibition “Women Hold Up Half the Sky”  

Welcome Home Dorothy AL2446_0457AL2446_0982 Women political prisoners what are their conditionsWELCOME DOROTHY NYEMBE : Women of South Africa are proud of you : March 1984

AL2446_1832 WELCOME HOME DOROTHY : welcome home friend compatriot comrade