Lilian Ngoyi memorial unveiled

A 92-year-old cousin of struggle leader Lilian Ngoyi is so inspired by the artwork erected in Ngoyi's honour that she is determined to start sewing again, writes Henriette Geldenhuys.

Ethel Leisa was among a group of about 40 people, including other relatives and neighbours, who attended the unveiling of the artwork in Soweto on Saturday, May 6, 2006. The artwork, a bronze sewing machine made from car parts next to a car's oil sump painted in the ANC's black, yellow and green colours, was built into the fence in front of the Nkungu Street home where Ngoyi had been under house arrest for 18 years. While Ngoyi was confined to her house, she often used her sewing machine to make outfits, especially for ANC Women's League members.

On Saturday, 10 ANC Women's League veterans, all dressed in green shirts, black skirts and hats in all three ANC colours, sat in a group among the audience. People crammed into a small space between the front door of the house and the fence. They crowd stood up to sing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika in honour of Ngoyi, who was one of four women who led the 20 000-strong women's march to Pretoria in 1956 to protest against the extension of pass laws to African women. Ngoyi, the first woman member of the ANC's national executive committee and co-founder of the Federation of South African Women, died in 1980 at the age of 68. The memorial, one of 40 projects created in honour of remarkable South African people and events, forms part of the Sunday Times's centenary celebrations.

The artwork, made by Steve Maqashela, was unveiled by Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and Ngoyi's adopted daughter, Memory Mphahlele, who still lives in the house. Leisa said: "Oh, my dear, this is very, very important. I think Lilian would have been the happiest woman in the world right now if she could see what was happening today.

I used to like sewing too ... but my machine broke. But now, after seeing this, I want to sew again. I will fix it and make some shawls that I can sell."It reminded me of Lilian and her sewing machine. I used to like sewing too ... but my machine broke. But now, after seeing this, I want to sew again. I will fix it and make some shawls that I can sell.

"Lilian was my cousin, she was my friend. I can say my everything. She was very, very brave," said Leisa. She recalled the bad old days when she cared for Ngoyi's daughters while Ngoyi was in detention or arranged for them to be placed in a crèche free of charge.

"Once, when she was hiding from the police, I gave her shelter in my bedroom. I was so scared I would be arrested! But I wasn't!" Leisa said, still sounding surprised at this good fortune.

Ratau "Rex" Mphahlele, Ngoyi's first cousin, asked the audience to remember that although Ngoyi was well known as a political firebrand, she also played an important role at home, within the family. "Lilian is said to have been a fiery, brilliant orator, who could stir the crowds. But there's also the other side - she was a lamb at home. She was not only the tiger you would see on the ANC stage.

"I'm particularly indebted to Lilian. When tragedy struck in 1943 and my mom passed away, Memory, our youngest sister, was only a few days old and Lilian adopted her since that day. She was a cousin to Lilian, but Lilian adopted her, brought her up and finally settled at this address. And Memory grew up to be the gorgeous lady you see moving around here," he said.

"We regard this day as a great day ... in the sense that we are honouring one of our leaders. It's significant that Lilian's South Africa was so different from today's South Africa. "Today, everyone in South Africa, be it black or white, is entitled to vote. The constitution embodies all the high ideals we had, but couldn't reach in the past. The contribution made by Lilian and others has been responsible for the magnificent changes we see today, the fruits we enjoy today," he said.

Ngoyi's niece, Mante Mphahlele, thanked the Sunday Times: "As a family, we feel very, very honoured by the Sunday Times for making this day happen and saying to us: We want to come to your home," she said.


back to the Lilian Ngoyi memorial page

"I am hoping with confidence that, before I die, I will see change in this country."
Lilian Ngoyi
Lilian Ngoyi at her sewing machine.
Picture: © Bailey’s History Archive


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.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
Images from the public and private lives of Lilian Ngoyi.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Friends and relatives of Lilian Ngoyi gather for the unveiling of Stephen Maqashela’s artwork.
Audio Archive
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.
Audio Slideshow