The Private Letters 1973-75

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."

"A train bound for Durban" - July 24, 1973

I never thought that I would come here. I'm looking at the sea waves, the ships, the multitudes of people and I say, 'Yes!'.My Dearest Belinda & Donald,

I immediately booked a second class coach to Durban, and within a day I was in a train bound for Durban. A wonderful coincidence when your parcel arrived also another from a friend in London Yours amounted to R40 and the friend another, so I was alright for Durban, 430 miles from Johannesburg as I write, I've been swimming in the sea, Now as I'm having my launch thought of writing to you and thanking you. May the love of God which is above all knowledge be with you Now and for ever. I never thought I would come here. I'm am looking at the sea waves, the ships, the multitudes of people and I say yes 11 years thanks you were not renewed. I set by the window noticing the wonderful changes, the guard of our train says tickets, tickets Ladies, we were three black women. How nice to our ears to be addressed ladies. Then the next man comes in, Bedding &Super. I proudly said yes because of you, & your family. As we were at a certain place called black rock, of course let me tell you Durban is full of Hills, at this place you notice the Hill is full of mud houses, and you notice a few women carrying waters pots on their heads you wonder where they do their shopping, immediately you get to the next Hill you notice very nice white buildings almost every house a garage, then you get depressed. Is it because of the colour of our skins Lord? Then as you enter Pietermaritzburg you notice a place called the Valley of a thousand Hills. Oh! Nature can provide beauty. I felt now this is where I would suggest a university for our children should be erected without descrimination of colour race or creed.

I arrived at Durban to find no friends to meet me, as usual my telegram was delayed. Never the less I got to their place safely. Durban is noted for producing sugar the place is marvellous. The Sunday of 21st July, I hired a taxi to take me to Groutville to the Grave of Chief Albert Luthuli I'm sure you read about him he was our Leader when he died I could not attend his funeral according to our Custom I do not need a wreath, and of course I could not afford one. Our car stalled for about 3 hours & it was getting dark I was able to go through the sand on behalf of all those who did not have the privilege. And on behalf of all those sentenced to life imprisonment. I will make a day to see his widow, next week, I'll go back home to arrange for Cape Town If I am allowed will try & see the life sentenced Colleagues. You can answer to the Johannesburg address you know my address. Here is too much activity I'm rushing to go to the Snake park.

Much love to Donald & the children.


Also see an image of the original hand-written letter: Page 1 | Page 2


"Granted permission" - August 11, 1973

I had made an application to see one of the prisoners sentenced to life, Nelson Mandela... I'll write soon. Hopefully, from the Table Mountain... At the moment I am too excited.Dearest Belinda & Donald,

How lovely to learn that the children are well and happy, so am I my Dear, I think by now you received my letter which I wrote in Durban.

I'm proceeding to Cape Town. I had made an application to see one of the prisoners sentenced to life, Nelson Mandela, You will be happy to learn the South African Authorities granted me to see him. So I'm entraining on the 16th - 8 - 73 a train bound to Cape Town. A very exciting scenery. I'll write as soon as I arrive.

This Wonderful happiness that I now enjoy, is through your wonderful efforts. May God Bless your home, & give you the happiness that you deserve with your Husband. I'm happy you wrote to Professor. Since you left USA, the parcels were never regular.

With the cost of living up, had it not been for your efforts& I would be lost in the bush. I just received a letter from Peter Roux, no parcel, that he has left for Francisco, where he got a job. So I do not know what next.

Any how Dear expect one from me as soon as I get there. It has been so cold, these days. My garden is not as nice as always, and it breaks my heart, but as I'm not settled down, I'll attend to it on my arrival back.

I'll write again later and hope again to write whilst on Table Mountain. I will be able to tell you more. At present am too excited Dear greetings & love to the family.

Yours affectionately,



An Account of Lilian Ngoyi's visit to Robben Island

Lilian Ngoyi visited Nelson Mandela on Robben Island in August 1973. A memorandum compiled by the security police on its surveillance of Ngoyi (Police Surveillance Files, SAPS Archives, Pretoria) contains the following entry, dated August 25, 1973 (unless otherwise indicated, the extracts below were translated from the original Afrikaans):

"Subject visits Nelson Mandela in Robben Island prison. Trustworthy, verified information points to these two people taking account of the past. Nelson questioned the subject about the whereabouts of ANC exiles. She gave the right answers every time.

Further Nelson told Lilian that she is known for her leadership in the various organisations, and that no one doubts her word.

Nelson and Lilian admitted that they had made mistakes in the past, but that they would not repeat them. Nelson, in addition, remarks as follows: [original]""You know Lily, people here (Robben Island) do rely too much on you. They have a trust on you, they rely on you too much. You know if we hear that you unite people like this ..... That is very important to us here."


"I have to stand firm" - December 20, 1975

The hard hand has a grip on the back of my neck. But how wonderful I'm not alone.My Dearest Belinda & Donald

Thank you very much for your charming letter. I was very happy to receive the gift from both your family and professors. I quickly got dressed & made myself pretty with my handbag to the Supermarket. I'm very fond of my food. Once I have food, I'm able to think better. Also have to stand firm. I had a quiet life because of the banning orders and go out so little. I haven't had the opportunity of meeting other women, & have tea round a table & discuss as women. The hard hand has a grip on the back of my neck. But how wonderful I'm not alone. So Pete has lost interest. He is young, he should be writing love letters than reading depressing letters from me. Thanks very much for having written to Professor. I shall now bank on him. I hope Diana is fine. I'll also let you know as soon as the books arrive. Thanks in advance Dear.

With warmest thoughts and wishes to hope this Christmas will be especially nice for you.

Greetings & Love


Also see an image of the original hand-written letter: Page 1 | Page 2

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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.
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Friends and relatives of Lilian Ngoyi gather for the unveiling of Stephen Maqashela’s artwork.
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