Today’s extract is about Lilian Ngoyi.


The year is 1945. A 34-year-old widow works at a sewing machine in a sweat shop. She supports two children and an aged mother.

And Lilian Ngoyi thinks: “The more we pray, the more poor we are.”

She joins the Garment Workers’ Union, then the ANC in 1950. As president of the ANC Women’s League, she tours Europe and attends conferences. But her year of destiny comes in 1956. Ngoyi marches to the Union Buildings at the head of 20 000 women.

Ngoyi shows the apartheid rulers that a woman’s resolve can be as hard as granite. She sings: “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo. [If you strike a woman, you strike a rock.]” Those words still echo across South Africa.

She was the first woman on the ANC national executive committee. A banning order put her under house arrest in Mzimhlophe, Soweto. Ngoyi supported herself for 20 years by sewing. She died of a heart ailment on March 13 1980.

More than 2 000 mourners wore ANC colours at her funeral. In 1994, soon-to-be-president Nelson Mandela cast the first ballot of his life. He said that he was casting it for those who did not live to see democracy – including Lilian Ngoyi.

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