8 women whose role in the Struggle is recognised worldwide
While millions of women have shared in the fight for South Africa's freedom, a number of them stand out and are recognised internationally for their role in the struggle. In celebration of Women's Month we look at a few of these exemplary women.
1. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Born in Bizana, in the Eastern Cape on 26 September 1936, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela is probably one of the most well-known and controversial women activists in South Africa.
Just three years into their marriage, Nelson Mandela was convicted of treason and jailed for life, leaving Winnie to raise their young family and carry on her anti-apartheid work alone.
Imprisoned numerous times by the apartheid police, banned, isolated and eventually tried for treason, Winnie remained steadfast in her commitment to South Africa’s liberation and the advancement of women’s rights.
Madikizela-Mandela’s role in resistance politics and her persecution at the hands of the South African government is well documented.
When Nelson divorced her shortly after his release from prison, she was relegated to the fringes of the ANC, but remains an influential voice among the old guard of the ruling party.
2. Lillian Ngoyi
Born on September 25, 1911, Lillian Masediba Matabane Ngoyi was the first woman ever to be elected to the ANC's executive.
Along with Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, Motlalepula Chabaku, Bertha Gxowa and Albertina Sisulu, she was one of the organisers of the march by 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on August 09, 1956.
A powerful orator whose fiery speeches served as an inspiration to her comrades in the anti-apartheid movement, Lillian worked as a seamstress after abandoning her nursing studies.
The previous year Lillian had travelled to Switzerland to drum up international support for the Struggle and the emancipation of women at the World Congress of Mothers organised by the Women's International Democratic Federation.
In 1956 she was detained in solitary confinement for 71 days, and on her release was subjected to an 11-year ban that severely restricted her movements.
Lillian died on March 13, 1980.
3. Helen Suzman
Helen Suzman (nee Govronsky) was born in Germiston on 7 November 1917 to European Jews who fled the rising tide of anti-Semitism on that coontinent.
In 1937, Helen dropped out of Wits to marry Dr Moses Suzman. She later returned to her studies and obtained first-class passes in Economics and Economic History.
Suzman lectured in Economic History at Wits from 1944 until 1952.
The following year she was elected to represent the United Party in Parliament.
In 1959, Helen was one of 12 MPs who broke away from the United Party and subsequently formed the Progressive Party.
Suzman became known for her strong public criticism of the National Party's apartheid policies at a time when this was unusual amongst white people. She was an MP for 36 years, and retired from Parliament in 1989, but remained actively involved in politics. She died in her sleep on 1 January 2009, at the age of 91.
4. Albertina Sisulu
As well as being the wife of former ANC deputy president Walter Sisulu, Albertina was a political activist in her own right, and nurse, and one of the most important leaders of anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. This has earned her the moniker “Mother of the Nation”.
In the 1950s she began to assume a leadership role – both in the ANC and in the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), and was one of the organizers of the historic anti-pass Women’s March in 1956. She also vehemently opposed inferior `Bantu’ education.
Albertina was constantly harassed by the security police and was jailed a number of times.
In 1963, Walter Sisulu skipped bail while awaiting an appeal against a 6-year sentence and police arrested Albertina and her young son Zwelakhe. Albertina became the first women to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act which gave the police the power to hold suspects in detention for 90 days without charging them. Albertina was placed in solitary confinement incommunicado for almost two months while the Security Branch looked for her husband.
Ma Sisulu was relentlessly tortured during her confinement and had no idea that the police had raided Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia and had arrested her husband and 16 others. She only found out three weeks after she was released from detention.Six of the accused were subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Walter was one of them.
Albertina Sisulu was detained and put in solitary confinement in 1981 and in 1985. She was also subjected to bannings and house arrest, but remained a valuable link between jailed members of the ANC and those in exile.
In 1994 Albertina Sisulu served in the first democratically elected Parliament. She and her husband have won numerous humanitarian awards. She died at her Linden home on June 02, 2011, aged 92.
5. Navanethem (Navi) Pillay
Navanethem (Navi) Pillay was born on 23 September 1941 in Clairwood, Durban. She graduated from the University of Natal with a BA in 1963 and with an LLB in 1965. At the University ahe joined the Unity Movement.
Navi commenced her legal career by doing her articles in Durban under the guidance of Narainsamy Thumbi Naicker, a banned member of the ANC who was also under house arrest. In 1967, Pillay became the first woman to open her own law practice in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, providing legal services for political activists detained by the apartheid government.
During this time, Navi was exposed to the practice and effects of torture and solitary confinement on detainees. In 1973, she fought for, and won, the right for political prisoners to have access to legal counsel. \Pillay defended detained members of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) such as Saths Cooper and Strini Moodley in the 70s.
In 1982, Navi obtained a Masters in Law and in 1988 a Doctorate in Juridical Science from Harvard University. Pillay joined the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1995, and was elected as its Judge President in 1999. She served two four-year terms. Since 2003, Navi has served as judge on the International Criminal Court, and was appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on 28 July 2008.
6. Cheryl Carolus
Born on 20 April 1959 to a working class coloured family in Silvertown, Cape Town, Cheryl Carolus was a member of the South African Black Students Association and in high school. She embarked on a campaign to replace the conventional prefect system with democratic elections for a Students’ Representatives Council.
After matric, a politically active Carolus registered for a BA degree and a teacher’s diploma at the University of the Western Cape.During this time Cheryl was a member of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) and was detained for five months in 1976.
Carolus went on to teach History and English and was actively involved in the 1981 school boycotts.
In 1983, Carolus was instrumental in the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the Western Cape, serving as general secretary after its launch in August. She was a member of the organisation’s National Executive between 1983 and 1987.
In July 1991 Carolus was elected to the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) while also serving on the organisation’s National Working Committee (NWC). In 1995 Cheryl played an important part in the ANC’s local elections and on 2 March 1998 assumed the post as South Africa’s High Commissioner in London where she forged strong parliamentary, NGO and global business relationships. In 2004 Carolus was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Law by the University of Cape Town for her human rights’ work.
7. Fatima Meer
The second of nine children, Fatima Meer was born in Grey Street, Durban on 12 August 1928.
From a young age Fatima started doing odd jobs to assist with the production of the family-owned newspaper, Indian Views, learning the power of the written and spoken word. Over the years Fatima developed a strong command of the English language, which helped her career as an academic, writer, human rights and political activist.
Fatima attended Durban Indian Girls’ High School and subsequently completed her Bachelor’s and Masters degrees in Sociology at the University of Natal.
In 1944, when she was 16 years old, Fatima helped raise £1 000 for famine relief in Bengal. Fatima was swept up by the 1946 Indian Passive Resistance Campaign, which propelled her into the public eye.
In 1956 Meer became the first Black woman to be appointed as a lecturer at a white South African university and she remained on the staff of Natal University until 1988. Fatima was the only banned person who was ever granted permission to teach at any educational institution.
When offered a seat in parliament in 1994, Fatima Meer declined it because of her preference for non-governmental work.
Meer produced over forty books, some as author, some as editor and some as publisher, and was invited to numerous academic and other conferences, where she fearlessly spoke against the country’s apartheid policies.
Fatima Meer died on 13 March 2010 at the age of 81.
8. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
Appointed as SA’s first female deputy president in June 2005, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has a long history of fighting for education and women’s rights. She was was born on November 03, 1955 in Claremont, Durban.
Mlambo-Ngcuka is married to Bulelani Ngcuka, former National Director of Public Prosecutions.
Mlambo-Ngcuka became the first president of the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), an affiliate of the United Democratic Front (UDF), which was formed in December 1983. From 1984, Phumzile worked as a youth director for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Board in Geneva, where she was actively involved in promoting the development of education in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
As a director of TEAM between 1987 and 1989, she was involved in serving women in informal settlements and African independent churches, promoting economic self-reliance and running skills training programmes.
In the late 1990s Mlambo-Ngcuka served as member of the ANC's NEC as well as being the vice-chairperson of the party's Western Cape executive. She also served as a member of the RDP Select Committee and chairperson of the Public Service Select Committee.
Mlambo-Ngcuka initially became a member of parliament in 1994, and was appointed the deputy president in June 2005, when she replaced Jacob Zuma after he was dismissed from the post by the president Thabo Mbeki on allegations of corruption. Her term ended when Thabo Mbeki was voted out as leader by the ANC at Polokwane in December 2007.
* Sources: SA History, Independent Media archives