The Private Letters 1976
Lilian Ngoyi's private letters were written between 1971 and 1980, the last decade of her life. She was corresponding with Belinda Allan, a young American woman who had first made contact with Ngoyi in her capacity as a member of the Riverside (New York) branch of Amnesty International. At the start of their correspondence, Allan was about to marry and follow her husband, Donald, to Europe where he worked for UNICEF. After the move, she continued in her private capacity to augment the money sent to Ngoyi by Amnesty International.
The letters are addressed to Belinda, Donald and Diana: Diana was Belinda's daughter, to whom she gave birth during the correspondence. Sometimes, they are addressed to "Blinda" or "My Dearest Child", all referring to Belinda. They are all, of necessity, short, having been hand-written on the blue aerogramme letters available at the time.
In an article entitled "From a Shadow City: Lilian Ngoyi's letters, 1971-1980, Orlando, Soweto", MJ (Margaret) Daymond points out Ngoyi's "unassuming confidence in allowing a stranger into her life - one for whom she might have been merely an object of charity".
"Ngoyi often says that she is embarrassed at having to ask for help and to receive gifts, which she cannot reciprocate, but she does not allow this imbalance in the relationship to affect her sense of self-worth," writes Daymond. "This self-respect is a miraculous survival in Ngoyi of a sense of what a community of equals might be, and a survival within a place which, at every corner, must have spoken to her of the denial of that community... Ngoyi sustained such values [ubuntu] not by turning inwards to the shelter of her own kind (her banning orders made this almost impossible anyway) but by turning outwards, by refusing to be 'imprisoned', by refusing in her mind the implications of ghetto life."
"We are not a lazy lot" - March 5, 1976
I'm highly pleased to hear that you might get a house of your own... I live in three rooms. The largest is 12 by 9 - no bathroom, no bedrooms for children or visitors. If I had R500 I would buy [one of those] removable houses so as to be able to have one side as a bathroom - we have been sponging on a dish for years.My Dearest Belinda,
Thanks very much for your informative letter. I'm feeling much better in health. And have also taken a resolution that my daughters troubles are just but part of my domestic worries. I must say that after writing about them to you, then I feel very much relieved. Did get a letter from Peter Rane in which he was telling me that he is a vice President of the Bank of America, and I showed that letter to the man of the bank this end, who did change his cheque, but wrote Pete a letter asking him next to send a bank draft as personal cheques could not be changed. In his letter he said he was going away for 60 days but he will write. The other Prof, one who has relatives in Geneva wrote, asking me what help I needed and I wrote back to say financial and he also promised to send me some seeds but this has not yet done. Belinda, you and Donald, I shall never forget for you are practical. You know my Dear. My position and some of my colleagues in the struggle is difficult. In this manner we are not a lazy lot, but the government with its bans of us gatherings are a problem of earning ones living, especially to people who were sewing, or knitting like myself. I cannot demonstrate anything or sewing for anybody as three people are a gathering. We feel so small to say thanks all the time. But we are forced by circumstances beyond our control. I said your letter was informative because the news were rather good. I'm highly pleased to learn you might get a house of your own, and our Dear Diana will run around. No Dear, she must get to parks to get a different breeze from her surroundings. How I envy you. With the little changes in the country we too are allowed to extend our houses, for instance I live in three rooms, the largest is 12 by 9. No bathroom, no bedroom for children or visitors. Some of us who are employed can afford to build or extend the match-boxes houses. But if I had R600 I would buy the removable houses so as to be able to have one side as a bathroom. One have been sponging on a dish for years. An unknown friend gave me a geyser for hot water, & this has really aroused my wish for a bathroom. With all the changes of events you might come & see our conditions of housing, but lately that people are allowed to extend you notice here and there beautiful houses. I'm anxious to see Diana's picture. As I received your letter, two parcels of books arrived. I did not open [them] as I wanted this letter off. I very much love revolutionary books. I'll be very happy to read your favourite Blessings. Thanks once more for the parcel, each time it arrives my kitchen smells good for a couple of days.
Peace & Friendship & Love to all the family,
Also see an image of the original letter: Page 1 | Page 2
"They do not want Afrikaans" - June 24, 1976
Suddenly teargas was used and shootings of children. I'm telling you, it sparked trouble. People were dying like flies. Buildings were burning.Dearest Belinda & Donald,
Surely, you are anxious to know what is happening. Students and just some children were on a protest march. They do not want Afrikaans, unless it is a subject.
Suddenly teargas was used and shootings of children, I'm telling you it sparked trouble. People were dying like flies. Buildings were burning, so you must still use the known address. Because our post office is burnt down. You will forgive me for this short letter. I can still hear bullets ringing in my ears. Could you imagine the army shooting dead children? How is Diana am still waiting anxiously for her photograph. I will write when my nerves have cooled down.
"The children killed the dogs" - July 22, 1976
Oh! Lord have mercy on us. I shall never, never forget, nor shall I ever care for racial discrimination. Even children of eight years are lying in the mortuaries. A simple talk would have saved an ugly situation.
Dearest Belinda, & Donald
|In her July 22, 1976 letter to Belinda and Donald Allan, Ngoyi mentions that the Phirima post office, which she used, was torched during the Soweto uprising of the previous month. The photograph above of the post office building served as an exhibit at the Cillié Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the Soweto riots.
|Courtesy SA National Archives, Accessed at Wits Historical Papers, Collection A3200
Oh! What a relief to have received your note, plus the beautiful pictures of you and Diana. Isn't she beautiful? You also appear to have a wonderful figure, I am so delighted for I know you must be concerned about my whereabouts. Thanks a million also for the gift. As I have mentioned you notice ruins around us including our P.O. Phirima, and other buildings vehicles, Beer Halls, but of all our children were shot down like shooting birds. Just because they protested against Afrikaans language being used as a medium of instruction but the students said it should be a subject. Oh! Lord have mercy on us. I shall never, never never forget, nor shall I ever care for racial discrimination. Even children of eight years are lying in the mortuaries. A simple talk would have saved an ugly situation. Police dogs were set on kids and in return just with stones the children killed the dogs and some police & whites who were in the area. But even then some whites were hidden in some black homes. But others died a painful death. Stoned mercilessly unto death. Why the white Police used guns it's just a mass, even now the whole country is not at rest isolated fires of Universities this was no riot but war, because Soldiers had to be called. I envy your home it will take time before some of us could own such beautiful homes.
[P.S.] I'm sure Diana will not see an ugly South Africa when she grows up.
"Ruins all over" - August 14, 1976
We here have never known what it is like to have War. During my visit abroad I saw ruins by bombs in Germany especially, & a few places in Italy. But Dear, our South Africa [...] is burning. Students have set on fire schools, churches, clinics... The Police & Soldiers have shot down our children.My Dearest Donald & Belinda,
I was surprised & grateful to receive your letter so promptly. Soweto the area where I stay is like a province on its own, and with arson which has been the order of the day. Our post is very slow. I have just received letters from friends from as long as June. I must thank you for informing about the death of our friend Professor Ian Morris[.] We find us sad after Death. May we be comforted[,] love, he died at an early age. You know we here have never known what it is like to have War. During my visit abroad I saw ruins by bombs in Germany especially, & a few places in Italy. But Dear our South Africa, the whole four Provinces is burning[.] Students have [set] on fire, schools, churches, clinics, [libraries], cars, offices, Post offices administration offices, [Police] stations & shops. And the Police & Soldiers have shot down our children. Students are [dissatisfied] with Bantu education amongst other [grievances] such as discrimination in every sphere. So one notices ruins all over[.] We are not sure what will happen the next day or minutes. The situation is ugly one does not know from which end the fire blows. No schools, children & students are idling around. I feel there will be some change after this. Our Government seems not to be moved. You see here we are looked upon as an inferior race, but the tide has turned[. N]ot a single [parent] knows what is going on with her kid. The students even if their [colleague] is shot, it does not worry them[. T]hey get to the police with stones at times [unarmed]. [T]he situation is tense[;] [news]papers do not give the true picture at times, for instance it says students are gone back to school [-] very untrue[.] As for we parents [we] do not know what is going to happen re education. How is my beautiful Diana? I am also thanking you for all my love[.] I'm writing so many local letters[;] people want to know if we are safe. Thanks a million for all. Greetings & love
Also see an image of the original handwritten letter: Page 1 | Page 2
"I am hoping with confidence that, before I die, I will see change in this country."
Lilian Ngoyi at her sewing machine.
Picture: © Bailey’s History Archive
IN THE CLASSROOM
Personal letters as historical sources
Working with personal letters is an excellent way of encouraging learners to want to know about people and events in history. They can potentially create an emotional empathy with people who lived in the past.
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|Artwork Photo Gallery|
|Friends and relatives of Lilian Ngoyi gather for the unveiling of Stephen Maqashela’s artwork. |
|A gripping documentary on Lilian Ngoyi’s life and times.|
|Take a 360° tour of the artwork at Ngoyi's home on Nkungu Street, Soweto.|