Women who played a prominent role in South Africa’s history

South African anti-apartheid activist, Albertina Sisulu, once said, “Without women in every struggle, there is no progress.”

Women have played a significant role in South Africa’s fight for freedom and equality – from keeping families together amid the injustices of apartheid to organising mass protests in the fight against unjust laws.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane to look at six women who played a prominent role in the country’s fight against apartheid and the injustices it caused.

Charlotte Maxeke (1871 – 1939) 

Charlotte Maxeke was the founder and first president of the Bantu Women’s League in 1918. She was a pioneer in education, becoming South Africa’s first Black woman graduate after completing a Bachelor of Science degree in 1901 at Wilberforce, the oldest African-American university in the United States of America. Colonial laws prohibited her from receiving higher education in South Africa, so she pursued her studies in the U.S. after touring the country with a group of American singers in 1894. 

The young Charlotte Maxeke. A well-known quote from her was, “This work is not for yourselves – kill that spirit of “self” and do not live above your people but live with them. If you can rise, bring someone with you.”

She returned to South Africa with her husband, Marshall Maxeke, in 1901 and founded the Wilberforce Institute for the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Evaton, Johannesburg before working at other schools across the country.

This image was the cover of a Christmas card sent by Charlotte Maxeke to Bishop Tecumseh Vernon – an American educator and bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the U.S. 1890.

She paved the way for African women’s participation in politics when she launched the Bantu Women’s League in 1918. She had a remarkable ability to inspire those who heard her speak as she advocated for women’s rights. The league eventually became the African National Congress Women’s League in 1948.

Annie Silinga (1910 – 1984) 

Annie Silinga was an anti-pass activist, member of the African National Congress (ANC) and a member of the executive committee of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). 

She was born in Nqamakwe in the Eastern Cape province and moved to Cape Town in 1937 to be with her husband. 

This sculpture was done by Jop Kuneke.

She was a key organiser of the Defiance Campaign of 1952, which was the first large-scale, multi-racial political mobilisation against apartheid laws under a shared leadership comprised of the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, and the Coloured People’s Congress. She served a brief jail term for civil disobedience.

She was one of the leaders of the women’s anti-pass campaign, and in 1955, police arrested her for refusing to carry a passbook, which was mandatory for Black South African citizens under apartheid law.

This image of Annie Silinga can be found at the National Heritage Monument of South Africa at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

After a series of appeals, she was banished to the Eastern Cape and was forced to leave her children and husband in Cape Town. She was one of the accused in the 1956 Treason Trial in Johannesburg.

She became president of the Cape Town ANC Women’s League after being acquitted at the Treason Trial, only to be imprisoned again in 1960.

She remained steadfast in refusing to carry a passbook and died in poverty in 1984 as the law prohibited her from claiming a pension from the state.

Ray Alexander Simons (1913 – 2004) 

Rachel (Ray) Alexander was an anti-apartheid activist, trade unionist and one of the founding members of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). 

This sculpture was done by Christina Salvoldi.

She was born in Latvia and moved to South Africa when she was 15 years old to live with her brother and sister in Cape Town. She was exposed at an early age to socialist and communist ideas and the importance of organisations in the advancement of workers’ rights.

When she arrived in South Africa, she joined the CPSA (Communist Party of South Africa) and became actively involved in trade unions. She became Secretary of the Commercial Employees’ Union, and by 1935, a full-time organiser of the Non-European Railway and Harbour Workers’ Union. She became Secretary-General of the Food and Canning Workers’ Union (FCWU), which was known as an active and militant organisation.

This image of Ray Alexander can be found at the National Heritage Monument of South Africa at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

She was served a banning order by the apartheid government, forcing her to resign from her position at FCWU. In 1954, she founded the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) with Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and Florence Mkhize, and helped draft the Women’s Charter, which called for the removal of all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminate against women in South Africa.

The government served her with another banning order, which forced her to resign from FEDSAW. The banning order also prevented her from joining the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane); however, she actively recruited participants from Cape Town.

She co-authored the book “Class and Colour in South Africa: 1850 – 1950” with her husband, Professor Jack Simons. In 2004, she was bestowed the ANC’s highest honour of Isithwalandwe for her contribution to South Africa’s fight for freedom and democracy.

Ida Mntwana (1903 – 1960) 

Ida Mntwana was the second president of the ANC Women’s League and the first president of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). Her political career began in 1927 when she joined the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, which was the first major trade union to embrace Black workers from all industries since its inception in 1919.

In 1948 as the president of the ANC Women’s League, she turned the organisation into one that was inclusive, incorporating women of all classes and races across the country.

This image and description can be found at the National Heritage Monument of South Africa at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

She became the national president of FEDSAW in 1954, and under her leadership, FEDSAW’s drafted Women’s Charter was incorporated into the ANC’s Freedom Charter. She was one of the organisers of the women’s anti-pass demonstrations during the 1950s, and a defendant in the Treason Trial until the state dropped the charges against her in December 1957.

She was South Africa’s most influential women leaders, and people remember her for her courage and ability to connect with others. She was a dynamic orator and had a capturing singing voice which she used when singing freedom songs to calm crowds down when police intercepted political meetings.

Josie (Palmer) Mpama (1903 – 1979) 

Josie Palmer was one of the first African women to be active in the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) and was the first president of FEDSAW in the Transvaal. 

This sculpture was done by Andre Stead.

She was born to Coloured parents in Potchefstroom in 1903 and adopted the surname Mpama when she moved to a local Black township to be with her husband, Edward Mofutsanyana. Interracial marriage was illegal under apartheid law. 

She joined the CPSA in 1928 as Branch Secretary and led that year’s campaign against residential permits in Potchefstroom. The local municipality was enforcing a system of “lodgers” permits for Black people, which was designed to dispossess those living in the area of land. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, she wrote for “Umsebenzi”, the CPSA’s journal, where she highlighted the plight of Black workers’ struggles under the apartheid political system. 

This image and description can be found at the National Heritage Monument of South Africa at Maropeng in Johannesburg.

She was a member of the CPSA’s Johannesburg Committee, becoming the first Black woman to play a significant role in the committee. The state placed her under a banning order just before the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane). Police detained her during the 1960 State of Emergency following the Sharpville massacre.

Helen Joseph (1905 – 1992) 

Helen Joseph was a British-born civil-rights activist, teacher and social worker. She was a founding member of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), co-leader of the 1956 Women’s March and a 1956 Treason Trialist. 

This sculpture was done by Zelda Stroud.

She became politically active in her 40s, being one of the speakers to read out the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955, and being one of the organisers of the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane). The march drew 20,000 women from across South Africa.

She became the first White woman to be placed under house arrest in 1963 for a period of 5 years for her involvement in various liberation organisations. She endured a series of bans throughout her life, with the last one being lifted when she was 80 years old.

In a moving article titled “Cry of the Banished”, she wrote extensively about the difficulties of life under apartheid. One of the quotes read: “And the banished man must go, taking nothing but what he can carry in his hands, leaving his home unprotected, his family unprovided for. He must go – and he knows not where nor for how long.” – From Africa Today, Vol 10, Nr 1, January 1963.

Exhibition details

These life-sized sculptures of South Africa’s freedom fighters form part of the “Long March to Freedom” exhibition by the National Heritage Monument of South Africa. The exhibition’s location is at Maropeng – Cradle of Humankind in Johannesburg. 

When visiting Maropeng between 9 am and 5 pm on weekdays and weekends, you’ll be able to see the exhibition before walking into the museum. 

* images taken by me at the National Heritage Monument of South Africa. Some are from Creative Commons.

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