Women Struggle Icons Who Paved the Way for Democracy in South Africa.

In early 2019, South African mountaineer Saray Khumalo became the first black African woman to reach the top of Mount Everest. It was a monumental and historic feat that inspired many across the nation and world.

“Let’s find other things that we haven’t done and also create a space at the table and let more of us show the world that we can do what we want to do, when we want to do it and how we want to do it. We’re just as capable,” declared Khumalo to the press.

Of course, she is completely right, women are more than capable and there are many “mountains” that women can, have and continue to climb. Whether it’s Bonang Matheba expanding her media empire, former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela continuing the fight for equality or Zanele Muholi whose artwork on black lesbian, gay and trans people have gained global recognition, there are many phenomenal South Africa women breaking boundaries.

And the fact is, South Africa has a long history of women challenging obstacles and oppression. The brave, courageous and ground-breaking females of the past laid the foundations for the rights and freedoms of today, but are often overlooked, since their male counterparts generally get more media recognition.

So, we’ve decided to honour some South African female freedom fighters who challenged the racist apartheid regime and fought for women’s rights in South Africa. These female activists, politicians and other influential figures deserve more praise.

albertina-sisulu Affectionately known as the “Mother of the Nation”, Albertina Sisulu was an astute political activist and one of the first women to occupy a leadership position in an anti-apartheid movement. In the 1950s, Sisulu- who was married to former ANC deputy president Walter Sisulu- became involved in organising The Federation of South African Women’s (FEDSAW) historic and iconic Women’s March to protest amendments to the racist pass laws of the time.

Sisulu’s defiance and activism led to her being jailed and tortured on numerous occasions; in fact, she became the first woman to be detained by police under a new law that allowed authorities to place suspects in prison for 90 days without making any official charges.  In 1989, Albertina Sisulu and other fearless female politicians opened the ANC’s Women’s League first office in Durban. As the country transitioned into a free and democratic nation, Albertina and her husband both became members of Parliament. On 2 June 2011, at the age of 92, Sisulu passed away at her home. She received a State funeral .

lillian-ngoyiWith a powerful dedication to the liberation of black South African women during apartheid, Lillian Ngoyi is widely regarded as a pivotal figure in the struggle for our nation’s freedom. Known for her stirring public speaking skills, Ngoyi quickly rose in the ranks of the ANC, and was elected as the President of the ANC Women’s League. She is best known for leading the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, and famously knocked on then Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom’s door to personally hand him signed petitions to stop the introduction of pass laws for black women.

That same year, Ngoyi, was arrested and stood trial for treason in the infamous Treason Trial. She was eventually imprisoned for five months in 1960, where she spent a significant portion of her sentence in solitary confinement.

She was ultimately issued banning orders in the 60s, which were renewed throughout the 70s and confined her to Orlando Township in Johannesburg.  She passed away from a heart condition in 1980 at the age of 69.

Cheryl Carolus’ strong sense of fairness and equality began at an early age: in high school, she initiated a campaign to change the way prefects were chosen and successfully introduced a democratic election via a Students’ Representatives Council.

Her commitment to education and justice continued after she matriculated. After registering for a BA degree at the University of the Western Cape, she became very active in politics in the 70s. She joined the  Black Consciousness group and the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), and after the apartheid government caught wind of her activism they detained her for 5 months in 1976.

Throughout the 1980s continued to pave the way for democracy: she participated in the 1981 school boycotts and helped for the United Democratic Front (UDF). During the 90s, Carolus’ focus shifted to the ANC, and she was elected to the party’s National Executive Committee in 1991.

In post-apartheid South Africa, she assumed the post as South Africa’s High Commissioner in London, and upon her return in 2001, she became the Chief Executive Officer of South African Tourism, until 2004.

She’s also received an Honorary Doctorate in Law from UCT for her human rights work.

helen-suzmanHelen Suzman’s name is synonymous with anti-apartheid and gender equality activism.

After completing her studies,  Suzman went on to lecture Economic History at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) from 1944 until 1952. During and after that period, Suzman became known as an outspoken critic of the apartheid government and the National Party’s oppressive policies.  In 1959, she, along with 12 other United Party members left to establish The Progressive Party.  Her political career as an member of parliament spanned 36 years, before retiring in 1989.

In addition to being a global icon for her humanitarian work, Helen Suzman also received two Nobel Peace Prize nominations before her death in 2009. She was 91 years old.


Durban-born Fatima Meer was an academic, author, human rights activist and political struggle icon.

She first found “her voice” in her family’s business- a newspaper called Indian Views, which, as the name suggests, explored and reported on issues facing the Indian community in what was then called Natal.

After completing her Master’s degree in Sociology at the University of Natal, Meer began her philanthropic work and political activism. However, it wasn’t until 1946 when Fatima, who was just 18 years old, that she gained public recognition, thanks to being recruited by the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign.  A decade later, she also rose to prominence by being the only woman of colour lecturer at an all-white South African University.

As the nation transitioned into a democracy, she was offered a seat in Parliament, but rejected the offer in favour of writing, editing and publishing. She has more than 40 publications to her name.

She passed away in March 2010, at the age of 81.

Feeling Inspired and Continuing the climb!

With these incredible stories of perseverance, dedication and sacrifice, and a brief overview of the history of women’s struggle in mind, it’s difficult not to be motivated to tackle the Everest in our life! Yes, there will be uphill battles, but it’s time for you to pave the way forward for a new generation of women in South Africa.

We’ve got your back!

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