- Iris BergerIris BergerDepartment of History, University at Albany, State University of New York
Lilian Masediba Matabane Ngoyi was a passionate anti-apartheid and women’s rights advocate and one of the most prominent woman leaders during the 1950s. Born in Pretoria in 1911, she attended primary school through Standard 6 and trained as a nurse for three years before becoming a seamstress. Her marriage to John Ngoyi ended with his death in an automobile accident. In 1945 Ngoyi began working in a garment factory and joined the Garment Workers’ Union of the Transvaal. Her union activism led her to take part in the Defiance Campaign against apartheid laws. Ngoyi’s arrest in 1952 for standing in the whites-only line at the post office in Pretoria changed the course of her life.
From this time onward, while still struggling to support her family, she devoted herself to anti-apartheid activism. A passionate speaker, she was elected to the top positions in the Federation of South African Women and the African National Congress Women’s League and became the first woman elected to the ANC Executive Committee. In 1954, as a delegate to the World Congress of Mothers, she traveled widely in Europe, China, and the Soviet Union. Upon returning to South Africa, Ngoyi was a key leader of the historic demonstrations against passes for women in 1955 and 1956. But her political prominence also made her a target of state repression. First arrested in the Treason Trial in 1956, she was among the anti-apartheid leaders detained after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. Between trial appearances and imprisonment, she continued her political activities. In the last two decades of her life, she suffered from a series of banning orders that restricted her to her Soweto home. She died on March 13, 1980.