Mobilising the Women

Presidential address to the ANC Women's League, Transvaal - November 11, 1956


 Lilian Ngoyi’s gift for public speaking contributed to her rapid rise to the upper echelons of the African National Congress.
Lilian Ngoyi’s gift for public speaking contributed to her rapid rise to the upper echelons of the African National Congress.
Picture: Drum © Bailey's History Archive

Read the presidential address delivered by Ngoyi at the annual conference of the ANC Women's League (Transvaal) held at Lewis Isaac Hall, Jabavu, Soweto, on November 11, 1956.


Mr. Speaker and my dear friends, I hereby welcome you this annual conference of the African National Congress Women's League (Transvaal), on your behalf I send you warm greetings to the millions of women of all races throughout the length and breadth of our country and I wish them success in the struggle for justice, peace and freedom.

Although they are not preset to take part in person, in the important discussion that will take place at this conference, we know that they are with us in spirit and that they fully support our struggle against oppression and colour discrimination. Today we have come together in order that we may take stock of our activities during the last twelve months, in order that we may examine our mistakes and achievements, our defeats and victories and in order that we discuss our present problems, check and remedy our weaknesses and make fresh plans for the future.

This is important, an important job and your representatives of millions of women in our province and as the most conscious and advanced fighters in out struggle, will be spirited to carry out your duties today with the dignity, seriousness and determination of people who fully realize sacredness of their mission and their heavy responsibility that lies on their shoulders.

The presidential address delivered at the Annual conference of the Transvaal Branch of the African National Congress in Pretoria last week, as well as the executive report discussed several issues of importance to the liberatory movement. The savage attacks that are being made by the Nationalist government and the democratic movement, the deportation of leaders, the disastrous effects of the group area act on the economic and progress of the non European people, the removals of the vast numbers of Africans all over the County, the urgent and vital need for a broad united front of the oppressive people and their democratic against the nationalist government and all matters that are specifically dealt with at that conference and I suggest that you read the conference the report most carefully so that you should be fully informed on these matters. In the address I propose to deal very briefly with and to emphasize only those issues which primarily affect the African women. The principal and most pressing tasks of the women' league at the present moment is to mobilize all the women of South Africa to fight against the extension of the passes to African women.

Hardly any other South African law has caused so much suffering and hardship to Africans as the pass laws. Hardly other measures have created so much suffering and racial friction and hostility between Black and White. Any policeman may at anytime demand to see your pass and failure to produce it for any reason means imprisonment or a fine.

It makes sit permissible to violate the sanctity and privacy of our homes. An African sleeping peacefully in his house may be woken up at night and asked to produce one and failure to do so may lead to his arrest and imprisonment even though he has committed no crime whatsoever. Before an African is issued with a Railway ticket especially when traveling form one province to another, he must produce his pass to the booking clerk. No trading license may be given to an African unless his pass shows that he is lawfully resident in the area where he wants to trade. Attempts were made recently by marriage officers to register and stop African marriages unless a reference book was produced. All sorts of Africans live under the pass laws. For example Africans are not allowed unless they have a special pass from an employer. Under this system thousands of innocent and respectable Africans are arrested, flung into kwelakwelas, detained in jail and cruelly ill-treated.

Strydom, stop and think! For you have aroused the wrath of the women of South Africa and that wrath might put you and your evil deeds out of action sooner than you expect.

The pass laws and exploitation in this Country. It is a desire to object cheap labour for the people, It is a bridge therefore all sorts of insults ad humiliation may be permitted on Africans by members of the ruling claws. It is because of these reasons that the Congress has always regarded the pass laws as the principal target of the struggle for freedom. It is because of these reasons that African leaders, progressives, liberals and even Government Commissioners have repeatedly condemned the system as the source of dangerous, explosive and racial tensions. It is also because of the fact that the Congress has chosen the extension of the pass laws to African women as major issue if National importance. The issue is perfectly clear; the Government had decided that we shall carry passes. Must we accept this deception? Definitely not! To do so, would be to expose the African women to all the evils that we have referred to above. We would loose our honour; betray our comrades at Winburg, Lichtenburg and in numerous other towns and villages throughout the Country where the daughters of Africa are putting are up a glorious struggle in defence of their rights. When the rights of people are taken away from them and are being crushed, the only way that is open to them is to mobilize the masses of the people affected to stand up and fight those injustices. The immediate issue facing us therefore is to, is to organize all the various organizations of African women and individuals against this inhuman and wicked decision of the Government. Only direct mass action will fight the Government and stop it from proceeding with its cruel laws. It is in recognition of these women of South Africa who have launched a national campaign against the extension of the pass laws. Numerous local and National demonstrations have already been staged with amazing success. In the face of numerous difficulties more than 50,000 women of all races from town and village took part in these demonstrations.

The remarkable success we have gained.

The campaign that the democratic movement in this country can stop and even defect the forces of reaction if we work hard enough. We have made an excellent start.

The historic Pretoria demonstrations of October last year including 30,000 women constitute an important landmark in our struggle against injustice and will remain the source of tremendous inspiration for many years to come.

Strydom stop and thing for you have aroused the wrath of the women of South Africa and that wrath might put you and your evil deeds out of action sooner than you expect.

In spite of the remarkable victories that we have won, there are still some serious weaknesses in our movement, 50,000 is still a very small number in a population of 12 and a half million. More women must be brought into the anti-pass movement in order that the fight should be organized and concerted. The movement against the passes is still primarily centered in the big cities and sufficient work has not been done on the country dorps, on the farms and in the Reserves. In these places the organizations is comparatively weak and the Government has taken advantage of the situation and is busy issuing reference books.

The aim is to isolate the stranger areas and therefore concentrate all its resources to crush opposition in the cities. We must immediately deal with this situation. I would suggest the appointment in each province of a number of full time organizers who will visit various areas, talk to women, establish committees and bring out mass opposition to the scheme. We strongly condemn and reject the passes and we shall fight it with all the resources in our disposal to the bitter end, and at the same time we must, as far as possible, avoid reckless and isolated action taken in one isolated place. Without sufficient work being done and without proper co-coordinating this may be disastrous to the movement. It may give the Government the opportunity to concentrate all its resources in crushing resistance in that local place in the victimization of the active fighters in that area and the crushing of resistance.

To ensure the defeat of the nationalist Government we must work with the African people and the broadest possible alliance changing the Congress movement, the congress and all those who oppose Apartheid. The African Women, the National Council of African women, the mothers' welfare organization, religious, sporting political, and otherwise, should be invited to enter the campaign against the Nationalist Government. In this way our movement will become a mighty movement for the defeat of the Nationalist government during our lifetime.

The minister of native affairs has announced that African women will in future be requested to pay poll-tax. This decision had three objects, firstly it is intended to force the African to pay of the cost of Apartheid, secondly it is intended to answer the attack on the Nationalists by United party to the effect that the Nationalists are spending more money on Africans than the U.P. ever spent. Thirdly and most important it is an election stunt on the part of the nationalists.

We will fight against this move. We have in numerous times.

We are at a time when the oppressed people all over the World are rebelling against colonialism and oppression. We are going through a period when some of this people have bravely fought and won their independence. But these are also hours of serious danger. The imperialists, reading that their days are numbered, are becoming more desperate and restless. The Unlawful aggression in Egypt by the English, French and Israelites carries as an act of aggression and brings the danger of fear very close to our charges. In such dangerous times it became the duty of the women of our country to put the question of peace on the address day. We stand for peace in Africa and the rest of the world. We stand for the objection of weapons. We are against military blocs.

I close this address by sending our heartiest congratulations to the great daughters of Winburg a United and gallant fight against the passes early this year. It was in Winburg that the passes for women were introduced it was also in this place that the direct action was taken for the first time against the passes for women. The whole of South Africa was impressed by heroism of the women of Winburg. The reverses we suffered there were more than compensated by the historic Pretoria march of 20,000 on the 9th of August this year. This Government speaks and practices colour discrimination, it can pass the most cruel and barbaric laws. It can deport leaders and brake homes. But it can never stop women of Africa in their forward march towards freedom.

- Wits Historical Papers: "Presidential Address", Lilian Ngoyi Collection, A2551


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"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


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