The Private Letters 1971-72

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."


"Trying to find banned books" - November 12, 1971

Please do not think I am asking too much, but if you find them, kindly send [them to me] one by one.

My Dearest Belinda,

I am delighted to inform you that I received your letter and a very sweet letter. I'm rather too disappointed to learn that my letter written to you in November, that is, just after the letter where I was asking you to send me some flower seeds did not reach you. I was so thrilled to know that you enjoy my letters. I shall not write a long letter until I hear from you. I have enclosed my picture, though I don't look great, but wanted you to see how my garden looks like. I receive parcels from the Professsor regularly. You will notice I addressed your letter to him, because I'm sure the other got lost. I had hidden your letter, because we sometimes get raided and some letters get confiscated. I then forgot your surname, so please forgive me for addressing your letter to him. I hope when you answer you will give me your surname. I have received all the books, thanks. I have also been trying to find this long list of banned books and if you have the following in your care I would love to have them.

1. Heavenly Discourse by Mark Twain.
2. Treasury of the worlds, great letters.
3. Treasury of the worlds, great speeches - published by Simon Schuster.
4. Their worlds and ours by Leon Trotsky.

And, please do not think I'm asking too much, but if you find them, kindly send one by one. I will write a longer letter though my writing is bad. I would have taken typing; I was given a wonderful typing machine in Germany, but by now it would have gone to the other side. Please answer and tell me what you think of my garden and also send seeds. I'm anxious to see how U.S.A. seeds will look like. You will notice I have a variety of plants, but my main pleasure is when they have bloomed. I also I have a very small lawn. Thanks love, what happened to Nobubu? She is silent, please tell her I miss her letters. Greetings to all, I'm starting my 800 words letter to you. Yours sincerely, Lilian Ngoyi


"The thought of seeing you" - February 10, 1972

I need not even try and get a passport, because it shall never be given to me.My Dearest Belinda,

Thank you for your letter and its kind invitation. I need not even try to get a passport, because it shall never be given to me. But Darling the 6th of March will ring in my ears, and I'll attend your wedding in spiritually. The thought of seeing you is just what I need to cheer me up. I did not want my card to arrive late, thus it is there. No, your friend has not sent the January parcel yet. Perhaps it will arrive one of these days and it is anxiously waited for. I hope you have recovered from your cold. I shall never forget to remind you to sent me your wedding picture. I have also started on my long letter. Will you be going for your Honey Moon? I wish I could join your mother.

Thanks love.

Yours sincerely

L. Ngoyi


"Members of one family" - April 21, 1972

I'm now 61 years. I have no security, I'm no longer as strong as I was physically, but my spirit is strong as a rock. I love life, and would be pleased to see a change in the country I love and its people before I close my eyes in death.My Dearest Mrs Allan,

I'm herein answering your letter of the 12th April. I must thank you very much for the 10 dollars which amounted to the sum of [...] R7.34. A great help. What a lovely picture of you and your Husband. I have received the last two cheques Thanks a million. The address is very much correct, sometimes our letters are being tampered, & this really had put me out of form the one sent on the 3rd April has arrived. I'm very happy you received part one, & surely you will receive part 2. I will get my bible and read 1 Corinthians 13. Oh! I wish you a happy marriage. I wish I was there to see you in your gown, & enjoy the jazz bands Ah well that is just life, I hope Professor will find someone to make him happy. Does it mean when you go to Beirut Lebanon I'll be forgotten? I envy you truly, I wish I could be somewhere where I could not be followed by the S.B. Yes Dear Lucky you No, my love you did not sent Treasury I would be happy to receive one.

You are from a well educated family, I envy you very. I notice your mother is a Magistrate in London. & you and your husband are holding key positions in your countries. I'll write again I'm too excited. The post will soon leave. Remember! me to your husband I'm very much impressed by your picture, & wish I could be reborn & enjoy the life of youth full of love & fun. Thanks once more Dear. Love to all our friends.

Yours Lily


"African students protesting" - June 5, 1972

I am hoping with confidence that before I die, I will [see] change in this country, as it is now the students [who] are busy protesting against apartheid.My Dearest Belinda,

How wonderful once more to read one from you. Thanks very much.

Yes our friend Peter has written me a very nice letter June & enclosed my parcel as well. I'm very happy you got the two long letters. I thought you would say this is no good, but it is factual my Dear. If I was telling you verbally of my experiences you would laugh & cry. Life has been tough, but I think I was lucky to go abroad, & see for myself the struggles in other countries which were bloody, but still men & women looked forward for their victory. I'm also hoping with confidence that before I die I will change in this country. As it is now the students are putting protests against Apartheid African students against Bantu Education, Bus Drivers against lower Salaries, there is no peace & some 400 Bus drivers in jail, white students also some bitten by Police & are in Jail. Every thing seems to be very wrong. Months are becoming shorter to bring Nov nearer me. I ask myself this question. Will my banning order be lifted or will it be forgotten?" since 1961. I have lived it with it. Maybe it will be renewed. If so God give me the Courage not to weaken. How do you find married life? I hope you will not be a nagging wife, but discuss your problems at the right place, right time. My warmest greetings to your Husband. I only hope you will not give up writing to me. Your letters are of great comfort & gives me courage to face day to day problems. This year, I think my soul is bit tired it's a very small garden, & has never rested, as when it is in bloom gives me very much and keeps me busy with the weeding. Greetings to Professor & our other friends. One day I'll come there to see you, & speak verbally to you all. Thanks once more for all.

Yours sincerely






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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


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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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.
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