The Private Letters 1977
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."
"The situation is tense" - January 26, 1977
We do not know what is happening with the students in particular. Detentions without trials are the order of the day, including detainees dying in detention, 17 already since the riots.My Dearest Belinda & Donald,
I wish to thank you very much for your letter of the 18th Jan 77, am just surprised to learn you did not receive mine to you in ... I was acknowledging the receipt of your Dec letter also the gift, also the January gift. Thanks a million my dear. Very funny just before receiving your letter, I was looking at your picture also Donald looking at each other peacefully. I went on further to read the invitation to your wedding. I was going through the hyms which were sung on that particular day. I also went on to know from what great families you came from, and I asked myself this question "who am I that these great people are mindful of." You will remember this question was asked by David, the son of Jesse to God. Your letters are a great consolation. For we here are now at a steep hill. If you are a driver of a car you will exactly know which gear you use or apply including brakes and your clutch otherwise your car will ascend. Your letters are a real help to somedays depression. When we look around we ask ourself if it was a mistake or a curse to be black. The colour of our skin is the real issue. But we say no it was no mistake. We all belong to the human family, but the capitalists & imperialists took advantage of our ignorance & kept us there. Forgetting that you cannot throttle a man without him struggle to gasp. The situation is tense. We do not know what is happening with the students in particular. Detentions without trials are the order of the day, including detainees dying in detention, 17 already since the riots. Lack of finance is the greatest problem. The heat is also extremely high, with showers of rain here and there. I have not yet received a letter from the late Professor's fiancée. Well she can never be him. I would have loved to hear from her. Also its all quiet with all Americans. A lady called Barbera was supposed according to her letter to send me $10 a month and she only did this twice and all is quiet. As for Pete I used to enjoy his letters. Also nothing doing from his side. My daughter is sinking in alcohol, a great pity to my poor soul. How is Diana?
Greetings and love, Lilian
"Hell racial war" - June 14, 1977
Oh! God, I wish I could get out of this ugly situation. South Africa could be beautiful, with all colours of people living side by side. Now innocent people, even innocent whites, are cold-blooded murdered. I do not speak about the blacks. They will be in hundreds. But why?My Dearest Mr & Mrs Allan
At least we are still not hurt. Tension is mounting high, increasingly. Students had asked the public to observe June the 16th as a day in which we remember the dead last year. Already so many students are locked up. My own observations are had the officials not intervened, this was going smoothly. Now police have come in the picture. Already as I write the situation is very ugly. Thus bi felt I should write now as one never knows what next. The place is full of police with their guns, patrolling Soweto. There has been stone throwing and arson. Really how long does the South Africa Whites think we shall be slaves for ever? And be spoonfed, for instance, with education designed by them? The situation is very ugly. Before I forget my dear I wish to thank you a million for the gift. I shall now be expecting Dianas photographs. My feelings are so low that I lost interest in my little garden. It is so shubily. Oh, yes, wild flowers can be beautiful. As I write a friend shows me in the City, three Africans, according to the paper, have killed two Whites. Just a situation we are trying to avoid. Now there will be hell racial war. We are demanding our rights nor murdering each other. You just watch your TV. Oh! God I wish I could get out of this ugly situation. South African could be beautiful, with all colours of people living side by side. Now innocent people, even innocent Whites, are cold blooded murdered. I do not speak about the blacks, they will be in hundreds. But why? When shall we be civilized and understand the scriptures especially the Book of Revelation as it stands by God. So many detentions, arrests, exiles, these are most primitive. My dear, you will remember I said in one of my letters that my daughter was married, divorced. She gave birth to a son, which I had to bring up. Now he is a Form 1 student. I thought I had told you about this. It was one of those things in life. She still drinks, but a less bit better. In this way she use to drink Monday to Monday. Now at least some days she is sober. God will help her. Some people in life have trials just like me. I have to ask for courage. Please just name the lawyer. It is very chilly these days. Please pass my love to your mother. Tell her I thank her for having given birth to you, my friend in need and deed.
Greetings and love, Lilian
"This kind of dirty life" - July 13, 1977
We the older generation ... are doing absolutely nothing about it, except praying and saying God must forgive our exploiters. But not the new generation -they will rather die or face jail.My Dearest Belinda & Donald,
At this time of tension it is really great to know that some one some where has a soft spot for us. Accept my gratitude re the gift also loving picture also Drawing from my Diana. I love her very much I made a monkey from the back of the card. Isn't she sweet, I hope by the time she grows the world will have changed for better, & peaceful. We really find consolation in your letters. Thus I worry so much about Roux if only he could write. All our friends thoughts and prayers are a source of strength. Especially because my Daughter chose her own way of disgraceful life, I'm not against drinking, but to be an alcoholic? You are quite a big family keep it up my Dear. Life with you people is worthwhile you can be able to get to the mountains. Here is a case which has adjourned. One of us a white woman who is banned was invited by a friend for lunch was arrested for accepting this simple lunch of two people. She has appealed against her suspended sentence of 9 months for the Magistrate said it was a social gathering. It means we no longer can speak to the 1st person. Life is so unbearable. Now we the older generation are so conditioned to this kind of dirty life, and one doing absolutely nothing about it. Except praying & saying God must forgive our exploiters. Oh! No, the new generation say they are prepared to die if may be or rather be jailed. I do not remember telling you about a friend who just came to my house and asked about my conditions of living broken stoves, beds to pieces no school uniforms, my spectacles were finished this was noted next thing I got a cheque saying attend to your spectacles also your fridge. I bought cheese, chicken, fruits all the kitchen necessaries also a bottle of wine there was a good smell, as the gifts I have to use for rent coal wood & electricity. This has been very great my Dear you started the ball rolling Barbara is now punctual. I also hope I'll be going for a Holiday in one of the Provinces, for a change be at the seaside if all goes well. Though one never knows what next. Even the city is not safe, anything happens unexpectedly. It is Icy chilly this month, we can no longer tolerate it any longer. What news do you get there from your end? About South Africa? Have you papers like the Star or Mail? Are they not biased? We as parents are not sure of our students. They lately asked the U.B.C. to resign, this stands for Urban Bantu Council, which they did. Now they are demanding the School Boards which represent Bantu Education. Can you imagine tear-gas being thrown at about 5,000 people at a funeral?
Greetings & Love. I'll write soon. P.S. Another Letter to follow soon Lovey.
Also see an image of the original handwritten letter: Page 1 | Page 2
"I am hoping with confidence that, before I die, I will see change in this country."
Lilian Ngoyi at her sewing machine.
Picture: © Bailey’s History Archive
IN THE CLASSROOM
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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