CEC Journal: Issue 4

Remembering || South Africa

Women and the South African liberation struggle
An alternative to unbalanced narratives in historiography

“Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis”, an innovative study by JW Scott (1986), has played an influential role in steering, academics, feminists, and scholars alike to challenge traditional historical writing. Scott reasons that the practice of using the concept of gender and its theoretical framework permits a more compound analysis of history and understanding, of different times and societies. Gender, Scott maintains, provides an opening to articulate the power relations and power structures that create both the pecking order between men and women. In the last two decades, numerous studies have used Scott’s methodological framework to offer novel and different perspectives on the gendering of wars, and nationalistic/anticolonial protests in the context of masculinity, femininity, gender roles/relations and sexual divisions of labour. Evidence abounds around Africa -- where in such countries as Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Algeria, Kenya, Mozambique Namibia, and Ethiopia -- women backed war/nationalistic efforts through intelligence work, cooking, providing medical services, raising soldiers’ morale and helping as porters, disseminators of propaganda and combat trainers. Some women had the support of their spouses, whilst others had to contend with the prejudices of their families and communities, all in their strivings to play a vital role in the struggle in question (Giesler, 2004). Furthermore, contemporary studies have pursued framing gender and political conflict in the setting of family dynamics, emphasizing the lived realities of wives, mothers and children and thus providing newer insights and conceptual frameworks in these ignored areas of research (Fishman, 1992; Breen, 2008; Giacaman and Johnson, 2013).

I arrived in South Africa, from Nigeria, about three years ago, with the enthusiasm of a young scholar with keen interests in writing history; unknown to me, a number of shocks were in store. I had followed the South African apartheid struggle passionately in its latter years, as a teenager, and thought I was relatively informed. I knew of the great exploits of the country's legendary freedom fighter, icon of soft power, and unifying symbol of the rainbow nation: Nelson Mandela. I also knew about a number of the lieutenants with whom Mandela served lengthy jail terms at the now popular tourist resort, Robben Island. Known to me were the likes of Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Endrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Dennis Goldberg, and Govan Mbeki. Underscoring the gendered nature of the South African liberation struggle is the fact that prior to my coming to the shores of the country, the only woman whose name I knew was Winnie Mandela. And that was before I came to find out that her contributions were grossly understated, as she was often portrayed as merely the spouse of Nelson Mandela. This experience, coupled with the challenge put to me by my undergraduate students, whom I teach part time, has spurred me to take this step of contributing to tilting the pendulum of balance in the gendered narratives of the South African liberation struggle.

Women’s broad contributions

Women in South Africa contributed immensely to the anti-colonial rule and anti-apartheid struggle. From, 1910 to 1920 women joined in the early anti-pass campaigns intended at controlling the movement of women to the cities. In 1913, Indian women partook in Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance targeted at the discriminatory boundaries imposed on the Indian population. During the 1950s, Defiance Campaign women were at the lead of the tussle challenging race laws and courting arrest. Women employed marches to government offices, isolated cases of “pass” burnings, protests rallies, boycotts and house to house mobilising in their fight against the apartheid system.

Women began to organize themselves on a larger scale in the 1950s and participated in the Defiance Campaign, in the Campaign against the Bantu Education Act and at the Congress of the People (South African History Archives). The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) led a mammoth march of about twenty thousand women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria (the seat of power), in demonstration against the extension of  pass laws to  women on the 9 of August 1956. FEDSAW in cooperation with the Women’s League of the African National Congress (ANC) sustained their opposition to apartheid laws. In the 1980s, women became keenly involved in community organisations and also started wielding their effect on unemployment, poverty, and housing neighbourhood issues. In the sphere of trade union activities, women played lead roles as organisers and massive mobilisers at the grassroots level garnering support.

Women’s struggles and demonstrations got to an all-time high in the 1980s and this caused the prosecution of countless women. Women detainees were seized for long durations under Alternative Regulations or security legislation, and were sentenced -- or were put on trial -- for sedition, terrorism, subversion, treason, sabotage, possession of banned literature, membership in the ANC, Pan African Congress (PAC), Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), the UDF, the Black Sash, and attending illegal gatherings (Geisler, 2004; Human et al, 2006; South African History Archives (SAHA), FEDSAW, n d.). Not to mention the fact that detained women were also exposed to horrifying prison treatment.

An attempt at giving a comprehensive account of the enviable and numerous contributions of women to the liberation struggle in South Africa would be impossible in a couple of book publications, let alone an article, so I have decided to select four women activists who crossed racial divides, reflecting the rich diversity of the state in their struggles. The article will focus on the biographies of Dorothy Nyembe, Poomanie Moodley, Phyllis Naidoo, and Sister Bernard Ncube. I have sourced for primary sources at the Luthuli Ghandi documentation centre at UKZN Westville campus Durban, and some online archives in a bid to give a voice to the contributions and lived experiences of these four women. Their historical accounts are customarily under-represented in South Africa’s liberation narratives.

Sister Ncube

Sister Ncube was born in Johannesburg in 1932. She schooled at Roma College in Lesotho, where she received a diploma in Theology, and in 1955 she entered the Companions Catholic Order, and was teaching till 1960. In the 1970s and the 1980s, Sister Ncube helped form local women’s organisations in the Transvaal region and in 1984 was elected president of the Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW). Sister Ncube was incarcerated six times under emergency protocols, including once when she spent three months in lonely confinement in 1986. Sister Ncube’s situation attracted international attention, she was freed but was rearrested with a number of other people, and once again charged with sedition and subversion. The state eventually withdrew these charges when no substantial evidence was found.

Sister Ncube was part of the United Democratic Front (UDF) delegation that went to meet with President George Bush of the United States of America in 1989. Between, 1991-94, she served as a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC. In 1994 she was elected member of Parliament where she chaired the committee on Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. She went to be elected mayor of the West Rand region of Johannesburg in 2002. She is referred to as an unorthodox nun; she took an unexpected position and debated in support of abortion during her participation in the debate for the Abortion Bill. 

Sister Ncube died in Edenvale on August 31 2012.

Phyllis Naidoo

Phyllis Naidoo (1923 - 2013) was born in Estcourt, Kwazulu Natal Province. Early on in her life, as a young woman she was really committed to community work and political activism. She was a member of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM). She became a teacher and student at Natal University, where she established and coordinated a Human Rights Committee, which helped to raise funds to support Treason Trialists and their families.

Later on, she joined the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) where she met Comrades Nandha (Steve) Naidoo, George Sewpersadh, Dr Randeree, MD Naidoo among others. She married MD Naidoo a committed member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1958, and in 1961 she joined the SACP. She also started working with fellow women comrades like Dorothy Nyembe, and Florence Mkhize. Her relationship with these known political leaders drew the ire of the apartheid state and she was banned in March 1966.
Her husband, Comrade MD, was charged and sent to incarceration on Robben Island; this coupled with her banning left the family deprived. She could not work and had to depend on friends and family for welfare assistance. Supported by comrades, friends and neighbours she also stitched items such as table cloths, napkins and blouses to earn a meagre income. She used those little resources to also ensure that other less fortunate comrades had some comfort once sending a packet of Marie biscuits to a comrade in Umlazi when she received news of her banning order. She wrote a note in solidarity but could not sign her name because of the ban order.

Comrade Phyllis' banning orders were renewed with house arrest and she was banned until 1976. In the course of her ten year ban, her home was raided fourteen times. Upon being placed under house arrest, she started to study law. She attained eligibility as a lawyer in 1973 but could not practice, because of her ban and was not allowed in court. Eventually, her ban was lifted in 1976 and she started her practice. She went into legal partnership with Comrade Archie Gumede. She defended Comrade Harry Gwala of the SACP in some of his numerous cases against the apartheid state, which charged and tried for treason and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Comrades who had been released from Robben Island gathered around Mam' Phyllis Naidoo who tried to find employment for them. Finding employment was a challenge as most people were scared to employ them because of their personal history of incarceration.  She had five ex-Robben Island detainees as messengers at her law firm at some time and one of these is the present president of the republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.

Madam Phyllis escaped to Lesotho on the 23rd of July 1977 as her underground comrades were detained, along a new route established by Comrades Omar Badsha, Rick Turner and others. She was driven to the Lesotho border by Comrade Basil Chockalingam. She joined the ANC in exile and was involved in welfare work providing for children who had left South Africa. She was also assisting members of the SACP and ANC to escape from South Africa and providing them with support in Lesotho. There, a parcel bomb sent to her home in Maseru on 5 July 1979 injured Comrades Bishop John Osmers, Sokupa, Wandile, Siphiwe and Madam Phyllis. She was nursed back to health in Hungary and had an enduring admiration for the selfless solidarity especially of the governments and people of the Eastern bloc.

She was forced to leave Lesotho in 1983, when apartheid air strikes against Lesotho commenced and all its twelve borders were closed. The ANC then sent her to Zimbabwe. The apartheid regime sustained the air strikes and despite that she remained in Harare for seven years where she continued her political activities for the liberation of South Africa and taught at the Law Department of the University of Zimbabwe. She was particularly concerned with the prisoners, both political and criminal, on death row. She wrote "Waiting to Die in Pretoria", which decried the inhumanity of capital punishment.

She lost her son Sahdhan, who was assassinated by an apartheid hit squad at the ANC's Chongella Farm in Zambia in 1989. Her other son, Sha died after complications from surgery soon after returning from exile. In other words, she lost her two sons to the struggle.

She returned to South Africa in 1990, and immediately went to visit prisoners on death row and Robben Island. Mam' Phyllis received the Order of Luthuli in Silver from the President of the Republic and honorary doctorates from the University of Durban-Westville and Durban University of Technology in addition to a string of other awards. She bade farewell to the world on the 13th of February 2013 in Durban.


Poomanie Moodley

Poomanie Moodley was born on 28 June 1926 in Mooi River, Natal. Her family moved to Durban while she was very young and settled in Clairwood, where they lived for several decades. She freed herself from her conservative family background to lead her life as she thought best as a vibrant organizer in the Natal Indian Congress, (MIC) and the South African Congress of Trade Unions. She was a trained nurse and worked in TB hospitals throughout her nursing career. She fought the brutal system of apartheid and the ex­ploitation of man by man. She fought against all divisive forces in order to create unity amongst all the peoples of South Africa. Poomanie worked tirelessly to enhance the struggle.

The intensifying political activity of the 1940s caught the imagination of thousands of people from all communities. One of the thousands of people who attended the massive public meetings in the famous Red Square in Commercial Road was Poomanie. These meetings introduced her to the in­justices of the political and economic system in South Africa. She immediately became involved in the major campaigns of the 1940s: the historic Passive Resistance Campaign during which the Indian com­munity unanimously rejected the Asiatic Land Tenure and Representation Act; the resistance to the Pegging Act, (the mini Group Areas Act) when members of the Congress camped defiantly against the law. Hers was the task, together with other Congress men and women, to canvas house-to-house support for the campaigns, selling the con­gress newspaper and distributing pamphlets. Her political involvement was immense as the Congress grew into a powerful organization. She was actively involved in the intense mass activity of the 1950's. Poomanie was one of the participants in the heroic Defiance Campaign led by the South African Indian Congress and the African National Congress.

In the mid-1950s, Poomanie joined the Durban Central Branch of the NIC. Among her comrades were M.D. Naidoo, Dr Randeree, Thumba Pillay, and Phyllis Naidoo. M.J. Naidoo, Natu Babenia and T.C. Mehta. She also joined the South African Congress of Trade Unions and helped in the organizational work. She gave lectures to workers at the SACT U of­fice in Lakhani Chambers. The Congress decided in 1954 that the people of South Africa should be consulted on what the future democratic South Africa should look like. Thousands of "freedom volunteers," Poomanie among them, walked house-to-house asking people for their views on a future South Africa.

Throughout her life Poomanie believed in and actively promoted the organization of women and their equal involvement in the struggle for freedom and their own emancipation. She and fellow comrades like Albertina Sisulu, Mary Moodley, Bertha Mkhize, Winnie Mandela, Liz Abrahams, Dorothy Nyembe, Phyllis Naidoo, Helen Joseph, Lilia Ngoye and Molly Fisher Poomanie were leading lights to women.

More than 3000 delegates, from all communities and classes from all parts of South Africa attended the Congress of the People in Kliptown on 26 June 1955. They jointly formulated the Freedom Charter, which for the Congress and Poomanie became the guiding light in the struggle.

The years after the Congress of the People saw more cruel subjugation by the minority government and more determined efforts by the oppressed com­munities to resist. In 1956, 156 Congress men and women were arrested and charged with treason. The Treason Trial went on for four years. Eventually, all the accused were acquitted. Poomanie, with people like Phyllis Naidoo, organized many fund-raising campaigns and looked after the families of the accused.

Nurses worked under the most oppressive and ex­ploitative conditions. In 1960, Poomanie was a nurse at King George V Hospital in Durban. She organized a nurses union to struggle for better salaries and working conditions. The nurses went on strike and Poomanie and several others were fired. Congress helped to open a dress shop where the nurses worked to earn some money. Poomanie later worked at the FOSA TB Settlement in Durban.

In 1963, Poomanie was among the first to be detained under the new 90 day detention law. She was detained alongside comrades like, Billy Nair, Curnick Ndlovu, Natu Babenia, Kisten Moonsamy, and Sunny Singh All of whom were sentenced to 10 years of incarceration on Robben Island.

She was suspected of being a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the banned African National Congress. She was released and charges were dropped. She was detained again for 90 days, four months later, and this time for allegedly being a member of an unlawful organization. In 1965 she was detained for 10 days for allegedly participating in illegal literacy classes.
Poomanie Moodley s heroic life offers important lessons to the Freedom Fighters who continue the struggle to which she dedicated her life and a rare woman whose contribution to the struggle is not accorded the right place in history

She died on the 11th of August 1982 in Clairwood Durban where she grew up.


Dorothy Nyembe

Dorothy Nyembe was born on the 31st of December 1931 near Dundee in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Her mother, Leeya Basolise Nyembe was the daughter of Chief Ngedee Shezi. Dorothy attended mission schools until Standard Nine, and at the age of fifteen gave birth to her only child. She joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1952, participating as a volunteer in the Defiance Campaign in Durban and was imprisoned briefly on two occasions. In 1954, she participated in the establishment of the ANC Women’s League in Cato Manor and becoming Chairperson of the "Two Sticks" Branch Committee. She earned a living as a hawker. She was one of the leaders against the removals from Cato Manor in 1956, and also one of the leaders of boycotts of the government controlled "beer hall".

The beer halls were perceived to destroy traditional beer brewing, the only viable source of income for women in the townships (rural areas). In the same year, Dorothy was elected as Vice-President of the Durban ANC Women’s League and a leading member of the Federation of South African Women. On the 9th of August 1956, she led the Natal province contingent of women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protests against the introduction of passes for women. In December of that same year, she was one of the 156 people arrested and charged with high treason, but the charges against her and sixty others were dropped on 18 December 1957. In 1959 she was elected President of the ANC Women’s League in Natal, and was active in the potato boycott, called in protest against the use and treatment of prison labourers on potato farms in the Transvaal.

In 1961, Dorothy was recruited into the Umkhonto we Sizwe and worked closely with the likes of Chief Albert Luthuli, Moses Mabhida, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo. In 1962 with the ANC outlawed, Dorothy became President of the Natal Rural Areas Committee where she participated in the organisation of anti-government demonstrations by rural women, including their refusal to fill cattle dips. The campaign became known as the Natal Women’s Revolt. In 1963, Dorothy was arrested and charged with furthering the aims of the banned ANC and she was sentenced to three years’ incarceration. Following her release in 1966 Dorothy was served with a five-year banning order restricting her to the magisterial district of Durban, however she carried on with her underground activities. In 1968, she was detained with ten others and charged on five counts under the Suppression of Communism Act. In January 1969, she was found guilty of harbouring members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, and was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment. She was released on 23 March 1984, and become active in the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), a community organisation fighting against rent increases, transport costs, poor education and lack of child care facilities.

Dorothy Nyembe was sentenced to ten years in Kroonstad prison in the 1960’s. At the same time the Rivonia trials was accorded global attention and together with the tussles of inmates on Robben Island, it subsequently led to improved conditions on the Island. Dorothy’s incarceration on the other hand, received scant attention. She served her sentence in virtual isolation (SAHA, FEDSAW, n.d.).

Dorothy was awarded the Soviet Union’s greatest awards, the USSR People’s Friendship Award. In 1992 the ANC she was awarded the Chief Albert Luthuli prize for her commitment and dedication to the liberation struggle.

In 1994, after the first democratic elections, 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. Dorothy Nyembe may rest in peace now. She will rest in peace for she died a day after our heroes whose remains lie strewn along the sacred Ncome River were finally recognised and honoured. She will rest in peace for she knows that the struggle continues and must continue for her colleagues - Florence Mkhize, Tryphina "Mamboxela" Njokweni, Gladys Manzi and Alzina Zondi remain at the helm of the struggle.

Concluding Remarks

Facts don’ts govern, narratives govern. The reality of this statement was one of my motivations for embarking on this project, and this piece is definitely just a start; a start that needs to be followed up with concerted efforts to ensure that there is an expansion of the South African liberation struggle narratives to cover women’s contributions.

Regular seminars, workshops, and conferences commemorating the contributions of men who contributed to the South African liberation struggle abound in numbers, and are still being sustained as the post-apartheid years roll on. These has ensured that the historical narrative is tilted in favour of men. Biographies of men in the struggle are also used as resources of instruction in undergraduate modules (I know this since I teach History at a South African University), which has ensured that the narrative is male centred.

The portrayal of the struggle to the “born free” (those born after South Africa’s first fully democratic elections in 1994, and never experienced the struggle of the Apartheid era), is immensely gendered, and gives an impression that it was a men’s struggle. Biographies of women who also contributed substantially to the liberation struggle should be put out there and integrated into the academic curriculum from high school, through to tertiary level as a starting point to beaming the lens on their contributions. It is expected that this will eventually lead to a broader and more encompassing narrative that will incorporate women and recognise their efforts at fighting and ending the apartheid regime. I believe that this will leave the “born free” spoilt for choices of role models  across gender divides as they seek to build  capacity  and assume positions of leadership and take responsibility in building a new South Africa. 



  • Arnfred, S. 1988. Women in Mozambique: Gender struggle and gender politics. Review of African Political Economy. 41: 5-16. 
  • Breen, J. 2008. Prisoners’ families and the ripple effects of imprisonment. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 97(385): 59-71. 
  • Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). n.d.. Women in PrisonJohannesburg: South African History Archive.
  • Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW). n.d. A Women’s Place is in the Struggle, Not Behind Bars!, Johannesburg: South African History Archive.
  • Fishman, S. 1992 We will wait: Wives of French prisoners of war, 1940-1945. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Geisler, G. 2004 Women and the remaking of politics in Southern Africa negotiating autonomy, incorporation and representation. Uppsala, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet. 
  • Giacaman, R & Johnson, P. 2013. "Our life is prison”: The triple captivity of wives and mothers of Palestinian political prisoners. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies. 9(3): 54-80.
  • Hiralal, K. 2015. Narratives and testimonies of women detainees in the anti-apartheid struggle. London: Routledge . 
  • Scott, J.W. 1986. Gender: A useful category of historical analysis. The American Historical Review. 91(5): 1053-1075. 
  • Turshen, M. 2002. Algerian women in the liberation struggle and the civil war: From active participants to passive victims? Social Research 69(3): 889-911.
  • White, A.M. 2007. All the men are fighting for freedom, all the women are mourning their men, but some of us carried guns: A raced-gendered analysis of Fanon’s psychological perspectives on war. Signs. 32(4):857-884. 
All images used here are from the Luthuli Ghandi Documentation Centre, Westville campus of the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa.

This page has paths:

Contents of this path:

This page references: