Lilian Ngoyi Residence (formerley Veritas)

Politician, visionary, women’s rights champion
Birthplace: Pretoria

The ANC recognised her talent for uniting people in a common cause.

On 9 August, 1956, a bold and determined young politician marched 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

The 45-year-old Lilian Ngoyi, gifted public speaker and rising star in the ANC and resistance circles, was protesting against the apartheid government law requiring women to carry pass books.

It was one of the largest demonstrations in the country’s history. Witnesses spoke of Ngoyi’s courage as she knocked on the Prime Minister’s door to hand over thousands of petitions.

Months later, owing to her growing success as an anti-apartheid activist, Ngoyi was among 156 well-known figures arrested for high treason – and one of the accused to stand trial during the infamous, four-year-long Treason Trial.

Born to lead

One of six children, Ngoyi enrolled for a nurses’ training course after school, but later worked as a clothing factory machinist for 11 years.

There, her taste for emancipation, human rights and politics was nurtured – she joined the Garment Workers’ Union (GWU) and became a leading figure in the organisation.

A naturally strong, vivacious woman, Ngoyi was attracted to the ethos and spirit of the ANC, joining the organisation during the 1950 Defiance Campaign, and was among those arrested for using facilities reserved for white people.

The ANC recognised her talent for uniting people in a common cause. A year later, she was elected ANC Women’s League president and became president of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in 1956.

Ngoyi was also the first woman to be elected to the ANC National Executive Committee.

International influence

Ngoyi’s recognition extended beyond South Africa, with mounting global interest in her work.

A year before the anti-pass march, she attended the Women’s International Democratic Federation conference and was invited to tour eastern bloc countries – including Russia and China – with a group of socialist delegates.

Her determination to create awareness of apartheid further influenced her meteoric rise to international recognition.

Ngoyi addressed protest gatherings in several countries, including London, where she spoke to a packed Trafalgar Square. Ever the rebel, she, together with colleague Dora Tamana, was once arrested while trying to board a ship to Switzerland without a passport.

Hard times

The outspoken politician endured severe hardship as a result of her activities, spending much time in solitary confinement while imprisoned under the 1960 state of emergency.

Issued with banning orders 24 months later, she was forbidden for several years to attend gatherings, spent weeks in solitary confinement while jailed under the Detention Act and battled to earn an income.

The students of Veritas chose to honour Ngoyi for her unquenchable sense of justice, and as an enduring symbol of emancipation and the upliftment of women.

A transnational figure and tireless champion of political freedom and human rights, she died in 1980, aged 69.