Honouring the leaders of the 1956 Women’s March

By Jessie Taylor

On 9 August 1956, more than 20 000 women of all backgrounds and cultures, some of them with infants on their backs, gathered to protest against unjust apartheid laws, in a moment South Africans commemorate annually. The march marked a critical moment in the liberation struggle, ensuring that women were seen as visible participants in the fight against apartheid.

During Women’s month, celebrated in August in South Africa, we pay tribute to the women who marched to the Union Buildings in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. But the month is also an opportunity to reflect on those women who shaped the liberation struggle through their strong leadership. To commemorate this leadership, we honour the four women who led the 1956 women’s march:


Rahima Moosa

Rahima Moosa was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and became politically active as a teenager, along with her identical twin sister, Fatima, in her hometown of Cape Town. Later in life, the two would use their identical looks to confuse security branch officers and avoid harassment by switching identities.

After dropping out of school in Grade 11, Rahima Moosa became active in labour politics, joining the Cape Town Food and Canning Workers’ Union. She became more active in the liberation struggle, and after marrying Dr Hassen Moosa in 1951, she moved to Johannesburg and became involved in the Transvaal Indian Congress and later the ANC. She helped organise the historic march while she was pregnant with her daughter, Natasha. In the early 1960s, Rahima Moosa became listed and remained so until 1990 when the ANC was unbanned. She died shortly afterwards, in 1993, after years of deteriorating health.

Lillian Ngoyi

Lilian Ngoyi, who helped mobilise thousands of women, was the one to knock on then Prime Minister Hans Strijdom’s door to hand over petitions against the Pass laws. She became involved in politics after taking up work as a machinist in a clothing factory in 1945. While in this position, she joined the Garment Workers Union (GWU) and soon became one of its leading figures. She went on to join the ANC during the 1950 Defiance Campaign and was arrested for using facilities in a post office that were reserved for white people.

Ngoyi was a gifted public speaker and a champion of women’s rights. She held the position of president of the ANC Women’s League and became the president of the Federation of South African Women in 1956. However, she was also targeted by the State for being a radical opponent of apartheid. Only months after the Women’s March, Lilian Ngoyi was arrested for high treason with 156 other political figures was one of the accused in the four–year-long Treason Trial. She was imprisoned on several occasions, often placed in solitary confinement. She was issued banning orders in 1962, which were in effect until 1975. She passed away on 13 March 1980 at the age of 69.

Helen Joseph

Helen Joseph grew up in London and became a teacher after graduating with a degree in English from the University of London. She taught in India for three years, before moving to Durban. It was here that she met and married dentist Billie Joseph. During the Second World War, Joseph worked as an information and welfare officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Among her duties was to teach women about the South African government system and this exposed her to the country’s inequality. She was inspired to become a social worker, and after moving to Cape Town, joined the Garment Workers Union. She was a founding member of the Congress of Democrats and involved in the Federation of South African Women. She was a leading figure in organising the Women’s March, but only months later faced charges of treason.

She was banned in 1957 and became the first person to be placed under house arrest in 1962. Joseph suffered years of police harassment and survived a series of assassination attempts, including bullets shot through her bedroom window late at night and a bomb wired to her front gate. Her ban was finally lifted when she was 80 years old. She passed away in 1992.

Sophia Williams-De Bruyn


Sophia Williams-De Bruyn became involved in labour politics while working at a textile factory during her school holidays, to earn pocket money. She was soon approached to represent workers and after increasing her involvement in the Textile Workers Union, continued working at the factory and did not return to school. She later became a founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), the predecessor of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Her work with labour unions saw her interacting with political movements such as the ANC and she became involved in the Coloured People Congress, and she began mobilising women around pass issues and other unjust laws. She was only 18 when she led the Women’s March.

Williams-De Bruyn is still a champion for women’s rights, and today works as a commissioner at the Commission for Gender Equality. She has remained politically active through the ANC’s Women’s League. During her lifetime, she has been honoured with numerous awards, including Ida Mntwana Award in Silver for exceptional service rendered to the women of South Africa in 1999, the 2001 Women’s Award for exceptional national service, the Mahatma Gandhi Award for her extraordinary contribution to the establishment of democracy in South Africa, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Johannesburg.

Sources: https://mg.co.za | https://ourconstitution.constitutionhill.org.za | https://www.globalcitizen.org | https://www.gov.za/WomenDay2022 | https://www.kathradafoundation.org | https://www.sahistory.org.za | https://www.uj.ac.za