Ngoyi's prison is now a monument

Thabo Mkhize reports on the Sunday Times Heritage Project's memorial to Lilian Ngoyi.

For almost two decades Lilian Ngoyi was a prisoner in her own home. She spent 18 years under house arrest in Mzimhlophe, Soweto, earning the dubious record of being the person who spent the longest period of time under house arrest.

Banned from attending any social gatherings or political meetings, Ngoyi found solace in writing letters and spending hours at her sewing machine.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the famous women's anti-pass march to Pretoria of which Ngoyi was a leader, an artwork commissioned by the Sunday Times will remind future generations of her dedication to South Africa and of her suffering.

The sculpture of a sewing machine made by artist Stephen Maqashela from car parts is fixed to the wall of Ngoyi's house, a Soweto landmark.

Her adopted daughter, Memory Mphahlele, lives in the house and still misses her mother, who died of a heart complication two weeks before her last banning order was to expire in 1980.

"I miss her," Mphalele, 62, says. "She was very neat and loved cooking and singing. She also loved sewing and making blouses for the ANC Women's League."

She speaks about the hardships the family endured and how she and her two sisters were sent away from their mother for safety reasons and because of constant police harassment.

Ngoyi's letters paint a vivid picture of how she felt.

She always told us she was sorting things out for us today so that in the future we would walk freely in Pretoria."House arrest was no child's play," she said in one letter. Neither was solitary confinement, she wrote.

"You see, this solitary confinement is devilish. One is locked in a cell of about 10 by 10. You are given a bucket of water and bucket to use for your stool, nothing to cover it.

"You are interrogated, your limbs are getting loose from sitting down. You count your fingers until you count no more. One day I actually fainted and when I complained to the authorities, I was told that I asked for it."

One photograph Mphahlele loves is of her helping her mother wash clothes in a steel basin.

The two were so close that she learned that she was adopted only when she was a teenager.

Ngoyi, a former nurse and a machinist in a clothing factory, always told her three daughters - Mphahlele, Nomathamsanqa and Edith Ngoyi, who died 12 years ago - that she was struggling so they could have a better future. "She always told us she was sorting things out for us today so that in the future we would walk freely in Pretoria."

Her recollections and Ngoyi's letters show that her mother's spirit was never broken.

Ngoyi's bans from public life did not prevent her visiting friends and relatives. Mphahlele says her mother would disguise herself as an old lady and go to see friends. She attended her brother's funeral disguised as an Indian woman.

Ngoyi even broke her very first banning order in the early '60s by holding a party in her house, which was attended by the late Walter Sisulu and Alfred Nzo. She spent a weekend in jail for it.

Ngoyi first made her mark as a unionist and went on to become the first woman member of the ANC national executive.

She was first arrested in December 1956. She was charged with treason, along with 156 other political leaders, including Nelson Mandela.

Ngoyi's bans from public life did not prevent her visiting friends and relatives. She attended her brother's funeral disguised as an Indian woman.A tall, good-looking woman with a gap between her front teeth, Ngoyi was regarded as a fiery orator who, as literary figure Es'kia Mphahlele said, could "toss an audience on her little finger".

In the early '50s, Ngoyi slipped out of the country and went to Europe. It is clear from her writings that a visit to a Nazi concentration camp strengthened her resolve against violence and oppression.

Ngoyi developed deep friendships with political leaders Hilda Bernstein and Helen Joseph, who also spent years under house arrest.

Bernstein wrote of Ngoyi: "For 18 years this brilliant and beautiful woman spent her time in a tiny house, silenced, struggling to earn money by sewing."

Maqashela, 39, created the sculpture of her sewing machine, with an ANC blouse lying next to it, in the yard of his Alexandra home, where it became a local talking point.

"People kept coming to my house, especially the elderly who told me about her and what she did. They said she was brave and a good public speaker," he says.

Maqashela knew little about the struggle of the '50s but making the artwork "took him back to the struggle. I felt like I was there."


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