Women who played a prominent role in South Africa’s history (part 2)

Women’s participation in politics in South Africa left an indelible mark on history. From forming pre-schools and literacy classes in their communities to the historic 1956 Women’s March at the Union Buildings, women civil rights activists were fearless and determined in their fight for freedom and equality.

Take a walk with me down memory to learn more about 6 women who played a significant role in South Africa’s road to freedom and democracy.

Frances Baard (1903 – 1997)

Frances Goitsemang Baard was a trade unionist, co-founder of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and Secretary and Treasurer of the ANC Women’s League in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape province. She was born in Kimberley in the Northern Cape in 1903. 

She trained as a teacher and received a job at a mission school, a position she held for only a year when she was replaced by a male teacher. She went back to work as a domestic worker, and her experience in domestic work fueled her passion for equality and freedom. 

This sculpture was done by Kgaogelo Mashilo.

Her involvement in politics intensified in the 1940s when women became more militant in their defiance against apartheid. She joined the ANC in 1948, and helped to establish the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union along with Ray Alexander Simons. She was an active organizer of the 1952 Defiance Campaign, and played a leading role in the 1956 Women’s March at the Union Buildings in Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane). 

She was detained in solitary confinement for a year, and banned between 1960 and 1969. While in solitary confinement, she was denied any reading material, and a light inside the cell was switched on 24 hours a day to make her lose track of time.

After her release and a day in court, she was sent back to prison for another 5 years for denying the lengthly list of charges against her. Her relatives in Port Elizabeth and Kimberley took care of her children during this time. 

At a later stage, apartheid police abandoned her in an open field in the middle of a cold winter with only the clothes she was wearing.  

In her honor, the Diamantveld District Municipality in the Northern Cape was renamed to the Frances Baard District Municipality in June 2001. 

Rahima Moosa (1922 – 1993)

Rahima Moosa was a union activist and co-leader of the 1956 Women’s March with Lillian Ngoyi, Sophie De Bruyn and Helen Joseph. 

She was recruited in her early 20s by trade union stalwart Ray Alexander Simons to become a shop steward in the Cape Town Food and Canning Workers’ Union. The union was founded by Alexander Simons in 1941. She helped to enlist workers from other food factories and fruit canning plants to the organisation. 

This sculpture was done by Zelda Stroud.

She was often monitored by the Special Branch unit of the apartheid police. They frequently stationed outside her home to monitor her suspected political activities. Fortunately, she had a twin sister with whom she would switch identities to confuse the police. 

The historic 1956 Women’s March saw 20,000 women march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane) to protest against apartheid law that forced women to carry passbooks. They also protested against other repressive apartheid laws. This march changed women’s participation in politics, making an indelible mark on history. 

In her honor, Coronation Hospital in Johannesburg was renamed to Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital. Jeppe Street in Johannesburg was renamed to Rahima Moosa Street.

Lilian Ngoyi (1911 – 1980)

Masediba Lilian Ngoyi was the president of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), the president of the African National Congress Women’s League in 1953 and one of the leaders of the 1956 Women’s March. 

Born in Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane) in 1911, Lilian was one of the most prominent and respected female leaders of the ANC in the 1950s. She trained as a nurse in her early years, and worked as a machinist in a clothing factory from 1945 to 1956. 

This sculpture was done by Zelda Stroud.

She joined the Garment Workers Union under Solly Sachs, and soon became one of the leading figures in the organisation. She took part in the ANC’s 1950 Defiance Campaign, which led to her arrest for using facilities designated for White people. 

She was elected as president of FEDSAW in 1956, and led the Women’s March to the Union Buildings along with Sophie De Bruyn, Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and 20,000 women from across the nation. She held thousands of petitions in her hand as she knocked on Prime Minister Strijdom’s door to hand over the petitions.

She was later arrested in December that year, and was one of 100s accused of treason in the 1956 – 1961 Treason Trial. While out on bail in 1960, she was imprisoned for 5 months, and spent most of this time in solitary confinement. 

She was issued her banning orders in 1962, which confined her to Orlando in Soweto. She spent most of the 60s in and out of prison and under bans from the apartheid government, which made it difficult for her to earn a living to support herself. She succumbed to heart complications in March 1980 at the age of 69. 

In honor of her role in South Africa’s struggle for freedom and democracy, Bree Street in Johannesburg and Van Der Walt Street in Pretoria were renamed to Lilian Ngoyi Street. 

Bertha Mkhize (1889 – 1981)

Nhlumba Bertha Mkhize was a teacher, national vice-president of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and president of the African National Congress Women’s League in 1956. 

Born in Embo in KwaZulu-Natal, Mkhize worked as a teacher until she was about 30 years old before becoming a tailor.

She started a tailoring business with her brother in Durban, and stayed in the business until 1965 when the Durban City Council forced African businesses to move out of the city. She was one of the first Black women to run a successful business in KwaZulu-Natal, which was a remarkable achievement given the difficult circumstances that Black women faced due to apartheid and patriarchy. 

This sculpture was done by Francois de Wet.

She joined the fight against low wages and “no pay notice” laws against Black workers with the Industrial and Commercial Workers union (ICU), and took part in campaigns against passes for women in 1931 and 1936. She participated in the 1925 Defiance Campaign in Durban and marched with about 500 women to the City council. 

After the Durban City Council forced Black businesses in town to close down in 1965, Bertha moved to Inanda in KwaZulu-Natal where she set up pre-schools for children, sewing groups and literacy classes. She was introduced to the Bahai faith during this time, and translated Bahai books into isiZulu. She passed away at the age of 91 while trying to set up an old age home in her community. 

Bertha had a reputation for speaking her mind, and worked to improve the lives of women in her community. 

Dorothy Nyembe (1932 – 1998) 

Nomzansi Dorothy Nyembe was president of the African National Congress Women’s League in 1959, and was the founding member of the United Democratic Front (UDF). 

She participated in the various Defiance Campaigns by ANC in Durban, leading the Natal women 1952 Defiance Campaign. She led Natal-based women to the 1956 Women’s March at the Union Buildings in Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane).

She was also active in the potato boycott of 1959 as the president of the ANC Women’s League. The boycott was a protest against the use and ill-treatment of prison labourers on potato farms in the Transvaal.

This sculpture was done by Mamphuti Nelly Mabotja.

She led the Natal Women’s Revolt in 1962 when she became president of the Natal Rural Areas Committee. The revolt was part of demonstrations by rural Black women who refused to fill cattle dips as part of their protest against apartheid. Following this, she was arrested and imprisoned for 3 years after being found guilty for furthering the interests of the then banned ANC. 

She was in and out of prison during her fight against apartheid, and in 1994 when democracy was ushered into South Africa, she was one of the pioneer Members of the National Assembly and one of the founding mothers and fathers of the South African democratic constitution. 

She received the Chief Albert Luthuli Prize in 1992 from the ANC for her long-life commitment to the struggle. In her honor, the Dorothy Nyembe Park in Soweto was named after her, and Gardiner Street in Durban was renamed Dorothy Nyembe Street.

Bertha Gxowa (1934 – 2010)

Bertha Gxowa was a trade unionist and co-founder of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). She was born in Germiston in Johannesburg, and she became political after she experienced the harsh realities for Black people living under apartheid. 

She volunteered in the 1952 Defiance Campaign, where she went with other protesters to Krugersdorp in the west of Johannesburg without a pass book. She was arrested and spent 10 days in prison after refusing to pay a fine. 

She studied bookkeeping and shorthand after working as an office assistant for the South African Clothing Workers’ Union. As part of her job role, she collected subscriptions from factories and participated in wage negotiations. 

This sculpture was done by Sarah Richards.

After joining FEDSAW in 1954, she helped to organize the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria (renamed to Tshwane). She traveled around the country with other women collecting petitions that were to be delivered to the apartheid government at the Union Buildings. 

She was a defendant in the 1956 – 1961 Treason Trial, and in 1960, she was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act for 11 years. Once her banning order was lifted, she joined the South African National Tuberculosis Association and undertook community work. She become active again in her church, the African Methodist Church, which she believed was the only church that stood for the cause of Black people. 

She became a Member of Parliament after the 1994 democratic elections, serving 2 terms and remaining active with the ANC Women’s League. She passed away in 2010 at the age of 76 in Johannesburg after complications with an operation. 

In her honor, the Bertha Gxowa Hospital in Germiston, Johannesburg was named after her. The Bertha Gxowa Foundation was formed to empower communities to live free of poverty and inequality as they realize their full potential. 

To read part one of women who played a significant role in South Africa’s history, click here.

Exhibition details

This is the Long March to Freedom exhibition by the National Heritage Monument of South Africa. It’s located at Maropeng – Cradle of Humankind in Johannesburg.

The exhibition is comprised of life-sized sculptures of South Africa’s freedom fighters. When visiting Maropeng between 9am and 5pm 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, and from Creative Commons.


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