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#WomensDay: 5 Cape Town Heroines Who Paved the Way for Women’s Rights

They marched in solidarity against the repressive apartheid pass laws against black women, 20 000-strong, chanting: “You strike a woman, you strike a rock”.

Today, 62 years after the historic Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956, we pay tribute to just some of Cape Town’s own Struggle heroines who paved the way for women’s rights in South Africa.

Mildred Mandu Lesia

In 1944, at the age of 21, Langa-born Mildred Mandu Lesia joined an ANC protest against the introduction of Bantu Education. A year later, she, together with other women of the ANC, went door-to-door, campaigning for ideas on what people of colour wanted to be incorporated into the now-historic Freedom Charter.

Mildred Lesia Ramagana and Amy Thornton , ANC veterans who took part in 1956 march paid a visit to Joe Slovo Park to commemorate International Women’s Day in 2016. Picture Cindy Waxa.

Her contribution to the Women’s March of 1956 was spearheaded in Cape Town, where she led a local march to Parliament, due to a lack of available funds to attend the national march in Pretoria.

In 1958, Lesia was elected to the regional committee of the ANC and became the organiser for the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). Her involvement with the group, which campaigned against the forced removals of people of colour in the Western Cape, led to a one-year detention and six years imprisonment – which was late reduced to a year.

In 1981, Lesia was instrumental in helping to launch the United Women’s Organisation, and in 1983, the United Democratic Front (UDF).

She played an important role in the 1989 delegation of South African women who met with ANC women in the Netherlands, and in 1994 was elected to Parliament, representing the Gugulethu Uluntu Centre.

Today, this living icon of the Struggle goes by the honorific of Dr Mandu Mildred Ramakaba-Lesia, after being bestowed an honorary doctorate in Public Management from CPUT, and still remains an outspoken champion for women’s rights in South Africa.

Nellie Jibiliza

Born into a family of ANC activists Athlone in 1926, Nellie Jibiliza had politics running through her veins from a young age. In the 1950s, she became involved with the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) – where she’d later become regional chairperson, the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) – where she served as regional secretary, and the Communist Party.

Jibiliza was one of the Western Cape’s representatives at the 1956 Women’s March, where she participated in the historic event whilst carrying her baby. In 1957, she became one of the founders of the Cape Association for the Abolition of Passes for African Women. She also took part in the Potato Boycott of 1959.

In the 1980s, Jibiliza reentered the political fray, this time through the Women’s Front and the United Women’s Congress.

She passed away in her home in Gugulethu in June 1993.

Rahima Moosa 


One of the most significant figures of the women’s crusade was Strand-born Rahima Moosa, a revered member of both the South African Indian Congress and the ANC.

On August 9, 1956, a pregnant Moosa, along with Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, Helen Joseph and Lillian Ngoyi, led 20 000 women in demonstration against oppressive apartheid laws.

Picture: South African History Online

She was one of the key organisers of the Women’s March of 1956, and a respected figurehead in South African politics during the Struggle.

Raised in a liberated Muslim home and educated at Trafalgar High School in District Six, Moosa dropped out of high school to take up the political cause.

In 1951, while serving as a shop steward for the Cape Town Food and Canning Workers’ Union, Moosa married her comrade activist and treason trialist, Dr. Hassen “Ike” Mohamed Moosa. The couple later moved to Johannesburg together where they played a role in organising the 1955 Congress of the People and the drawing up of the Freedom Charter.

Moosa was listed by the apartheid regime from the 1960s until the unbanning of the ANC in 1990. Sadly, she never got to experience the dawn of a new South Africa, as she died on in May 1993, less than a year before the country’s first democratic elections.

Ayesha Bibi Dawood

Ayesha ‘Asa’ Bibi Dawood was born in Worcester to an Indian merchant and a mother of Cape Malay descent.

She became actively interested and involved in politics from a young age, while reading the newspaper with her father. In 1951, she helped to organise a one-day strike against the pass laws, and was soon after elected as secretary to the chairman of the Worcester United Action Committee.

In 1956, Dawood was charged with incitement and detained for nine months under the Suppression of Communism Act. That same year, she and 155 others, were arrested and charged with treason.

In 1968 she fled the country, but returned in the 1990s when South Africa finally attained democracy.

She was a recipient of the National Order of Luthuli in Bronze, and died in June 2014.

Hetty McLeod

Trade unionist Hetty McLeod’s role in the Struggle saw her play significant roles in empowering women’s movements in the country.

As a member of the Cape Factory Workers Committee and one of the co-sponsors of the inaugural conference of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw or FSAW) in 1954, Mcleod was part of a delegation of affiliated women’s groups, African, Indian, coloured and white political organisations, and trade unions, which campaigned for the women of South Africa to secure full equality of opportunities, regardless of race, colour or creed; and called for the protection of women and children.

In 1954, as part of the South African Coloured People’s Organisation, McLeod was elected treasurer of the First National Congress of Women, but was banned in April of that year.


Written by How Africa

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