In celebration of Women’s Day 2017, we take a look at some influential women who have shaped our past, who have made South Africa what it is today, and who are shaping our future. There are many familiar names amongst our national heroines…Ruth First, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Charlotte Maxeke, Miriam Makeba…but we want to feature some lesser-known women of note. We look at three women who played a role in the pass law demonstrations of 1956, and three women changing South Africa today.


Ida Fiyo Mntwana

Ida was born in 1903 and worked as a dressmaker. She was the first president of the African National Congress Women’s League and a leader of many mass women’s demonstrations from Western Native Township. She was elected into the African National Executive Committee (ANC) Executive Committee during the 1950s, and in 1954 was also elected as National president of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), a position she held until 1956. She led the women’s anti-pass demonstrations of the 1950s and was instrumental in the organisation of the Congress of the People. In 1956, Ida was also one of the defendants in the marathon Treason Trial. Ida died in 1960.

Sophia Williams-de Bruyn

Sophia Williams-de Bruyn is the only surviving leader of the 1956 march. She was 18 when she joined Lilian Ngoyi, Rehana Moosa and Helen Joseph to lead 20,000 women in protest against the hated and unjust pass laws.

Sophia was born in 1938 in Port Elizabeth. Working in a local textile factory to earn extra pocket money as a young girl, she became involved in the unions and her political education began. She did not pursue her studies, choosing instead to work at the factory, becoming a shop steward. Eventually, she became an executive member of the Textile Workers’ Union in Port Elizabeth, counting among her peers Raymond Mhlaba, Vuyisile Mini and Govan Mbeki.

She was a founder member of the SA Congress of Trade Unions and was appointed full-time organiser of the Coloured People’s Congress in 1955.

Sophia’s influence continues today. She is deputy speaker of the Gauteng legislature and continues to work to uplift the community. In recognition of her work, she was appointed commissioner on the Commission for Gender Equality.

Amina Cachalia

Amina Cachalie was born in Vereeniging but moved to Johannesburg as a girl. She became involved in the ANC and came into contact with Lillian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph. In 1948 Amina established the Women’s Progressive Union, which worked closely with the Institute of Race Relations. After joining the ANC Amina became a key player in the Defiance Campaign. She marched with Ida Mtwana and a small group of black, Indian and coloured women in Germiston on 26 August 1952. All were arrested and sentenced to fourteen days in Boksburg prison.

Together with Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi, Josie Mpama and Ida Mtwana, Amina was instrumental in setting up the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in 1954, with Lillian Ngoyi as President and Amina as Treasurer. Their first priority was the opposition of the proposed pass laws for women. FEDSAW first organised a demonstration of women at the Union Buildings in 1955 in which Ida Mtwana led 2000 women, mainly African. This march was the precursor to national march which included 20,000 women of all races on 9 August 1956.

Amina continued her work as an activist but successive banning orders, totally 15 years, limited her political activity during the struggle. In 2004, she was awarded The Order of Luthuli in Bronze for her lifetime contribution to the struggle for gender equality, non-racialism and a free and democratic South Africa. She died in 2013.

And now…

Thuli Madonsela

She is hardly lesser known, but no article on modern South African women of note would be complete without mention of Thuli Madonsela, who won the hearts and minds of all South Africans in her courageous execution of her role as Public Protector. It is no exaggeration to call Thuli Madonsela the nation’s moral compass.

Thuli was born in Soweto in 1962 and is a human rights lawyer and equality expert. She was one of the 11 technical experts who helped the Constitutional Assembly draft the final Constitution in 1994 and 1995.

Her willingness to challenge corruption in all its forms, taking on no less than the office of the President, has resulted in Time magazine naming her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi, has called Thuli Madonsela “an inspirational example of what African public officers need to be”.

Sibongile Sambo

If you want to go places, Sibongile Sambo can take you there…literally. She is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of SRS Aviation Ltd., the first wholly black- and female-owned aviation services company in South Africa. SRS has been in operation since 2004 and provides private aviation services to South African and international clients. Not quite a choice for a cheap flight to Cape Town, SRS is in the business of professional and personalised services such as VIP transport and tourist and helicopter services.

In a male-dominated sector, Sibongile is somewhat of a pioneer and she wants to be sure other young women can enter the industry, so she devotes a portion of her time to mentoring young women who are interested in becoming pilots, leaders and entrepreneurs.

Sibongile’s awards are too numerous to list here, but worthy of mention is the Presidential Award – Youth Business Leadership | Black Management Forum and Fidentia’s Top Emerging Gender Empowered Company (SRS Aviation).

Anne Githuku-Shongwe 


Anne Githuku-Shongwe observed the enthusiasm and concentration her kids demonstrated when engaging with their cell phones, and decided to harness that attention for the benefit of learning. After more than 20 years with the UN, she founded Afroes Transformational Games, creating game-based learning platforms for mobile devices. Anne wants our youth to absorb positive messages and lessons about Africa, rather than the negative images of the continent that often come across via Western media. She saw that ‘edutainment’ was a way to reach screen-obsessed young people.

Anne’s commitment to social transformation underpins the work of Afroes. The company has produced a series of games for mobile devices and the web tackling serious issues such as child protection, environmental rights and gender-based violence. Furthermore, each game is designed in collaboration with communities, engaging them on the challenges they face and potential solutions.

This has led to Afroes winning a string of awards, including PEACEapp in 2014, an award which promotes digital games and gamified apps as venues for cultural dialogue and conflict management; Gender Mainstreaming Awards, Empowerment Initiatives, South Africa, 2014; and ICT Innovation Award, Gender Youth and Vulnerable Groups, Kenya, 2014, amongst many others.

The next time you see a young person glued to their cell phone screen, they may just be learning something important from Afroes!

These are but a few…

Our selection represents just a tiny portion of the women who have changed and are changing South Africa. We wish we could have included more. There was no agenda behind the choice of women featured in this article, other than their inspirational stories. We hope you also find their lives and achievements inspiring. Happy Women’s Month!

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