Friday Feature

Dorothy Nyembe

Dorothy Nomzansi Nyembe was born on 31 December 1931 near Dundee in northern Kwa- Zulu Natal in South Africa. She attended mission school until the age of 15 when she gave birth to her only child.

In 1952, Nyembe joined the African National Congress (ANC), during this time she made a living as a street vendor.  She participated in the Defiance Campaign, a non-violent campaign against apartheid laws, in Durban and was arrested twice for her involvement. In 1954, Nyembe played a part in the formation of the ANC Women’s League in Cato Manor, Durban. She became Chairperson of the “Two Sticks” Branch Committee in Cato Manor. In 1956, Nyembe was one of the leaders against the forced removals from Cato Manor; she was also one of the leaders of the boycotts of the government controlled beer halls. The beer halls took away the income that women generated from brewing traditional beer. In large demonstrations, women armed with sticks marched into the beer-halls, attacking men who were drinking, and wrecking the facilities, despite the presence of police. One vivid account recalls that the women “were very powerful. Some came half dressed (in traditional dress) with their breasts exposed, and when they got near this place the police tried to block the women. When they saw this, the women turned and pulled up their skirts. The police closed their eyes and the women passed by and went in.” In the same year, Nyembe was elected as Vice- President of the Durban branch of the ANC Women’s League; she also became a prominent member of the Federation of South African Women.

On 09 August 1956, Nyembe led the Kwa-Zulu Natal body of women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria.  The march to the Union Buildings was to present the Prime Minister with a petition and to protest against pass laws that discriminated black people. In the same year, Nyembe was arrested and charged with high treason, however, a year later, the charges against her were withdrawn.

In 1959, Nyembe was elected President of the ANC Women’s League in Kwa-Zulu Natal. In the same year, she participated in the potato boycott, a protest against the use and treatment of prison labourers on potato farms in the Transvaal, now northern region of South Africa.

When the ANC was banned in 1960, Nyembe was recruited by Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), during this time, she worked closely with Chief Albert Luthuli, Moses Mabhida, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo. A year later, she became President of the Natal Rural Areas Committee where Nyembe participated in the organisation of anti-government demonstrations by rural women- the campaign became known as the Natal Women’s Revolt. In 1963, she was arrested and charged with furthering the aims of the banned ANC and she was sentenced to three years imprisonment. She was released in 1966; but she was banned for five years, this restricted her movement to Durban. Nyembe, nonetheless, continued with her underground activities, which ultimately lead to her detainment in 1968. She was charged on five counts under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1969, Nyembe was found guilty of harbouring MK members and was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment. These years in prison were spent in prisons for women at Barberton in the eastern Transvaal, and then at Kroonstad in the Orange Free State, far from her family. Her prison work involved washing the clothes of male convicts.

On 23 March 1984, Nyembe was released and soon after she became active in the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), a community organisation fighting against rent increases, transport costs, poor education and lack of child care facilities. When apartheid ended and South Africa became a democracy, Nyembe was elected as a member of the National Assembly in Parliament.

On 17 December 1998, Nyembe passed on; this was said of her, "She will rest in peace for she died a day after our heroes whose remains lie strewn along the sacred Ncome River were finally recognised and honoured. She will rest in peace for she knows that the struggle continues and must continue for her colleagues.”

For her strength and sacrifice, Nyembe was awarded the Soviet Union’s greatest awards, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) People’s Friendship Award. In 1992 she was awarded the Chief Albert Luthuli prize for her commitment and dedication to the liberation struggle. Various public spaces; for instance, a park, streets are named after Nyembe in her honour.


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