Elie and I have been talking a lot lately about why we do what we do—what we’re actually trying to accomplish with all of this research, writing, posting, communicating. And although sometimes we nearly drown in the tedium of keeping an organization running, every time we stop to re-centre ourselves, we return to the very simple fact that we want to tell good stories. Not story as fairytale or dramatic fiction, but story as actual human experience that goes beyond ideology or political stance. Not concepts to be argued, but real life stories that bring hope, honour human dignity, and build bridges. In a world that is swamped with all sorts of other narratives—toxic social media, “fake news,” soundbites of hate, judgement, and fear—we want to tell a different kind of story.
Because it is these stories that give us hope. They remind us that the world can be beautiful, that love is a powerful force, and that so many people throughout history and around the world have proven peace is possible. One of the amazing things we’ve experienced over and over is how each story, in its telling, does not stand in isolation but reaches across time and place to blend into other stories, other human lives. Stories like these intersect and interact in a way that blurs lines and exponentially increases hope. Let me show you what I mean.
Lilian Ngoyi might not be a name you recognize. She’s one of our South African Peace Heroes who could seem a bit out of place alongside widely celebrated figures like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But Ngoyi was a remarkable orator and activist whose defiance and courage helped make the women of South Africa visible in the campaign against apartheid. Her story deserves to be told.
Just a few weeks ago, in a seventh grade Language Arts class, a teacher named Sarah introduced the South African Peace Heroes unit to her students. They hadn’t heard of Lilian Ngoyi either, so Sarah told them her story: an impoverished Black girl growing up in White-dominated South Africa who was forced to drop out of high school to care for her family, whose husband died in a tragic accident, leaving her a single mother of two young children, a seamstress who was dehumanized at every turn by the seemingly invincible apartheid system. Sarah described to her class Ngoyi’s tireless commitment to peacefully resisting apartheid, even though it meant numerous arrests and imprisonments. And then she told them this part of Ngoyi’s story:
In 1955, the apartheid government extended their oppressive “pass laws” to apply to women. The laws required Black men—and now women—to carry ID “passes,” which essentially controlled all their movements and gave police the power to arrest and imprison anyone if they were caught in the supposedly wrong place, even as they tried to make a living for their family. Extending the laws to women was particularly cruel because so many men had already been arrested that in most homes there was only the mother left to care for the children. With the extension of the law to include women, many children were left completely alone, with both parents in prison.
In response to these abhorrent laws, Ngoyi and a handful of other activists formed the Federation of South African Women, an organization that united both Black and White women from all over South Africa to secure the equality of all women. Though the Federation was involved in many anti-apartheid campaigns, one of its most spectacular moments was when Ngoyi (and her co-leaders) organized an anti-pass demonstration in August of 1956. In one of the largest demonstrations in South African history to date, 20,000 women—Black and White—marched down the streets of Pretoria to the local Union Buildings to present their petition against the pass laws. Once outside the building, “Lilian Ngoyi called on [the women] to stand in silent protest for thirty minutes. As she raised her right arm in the Congress salute, 20,000 arms went up and stayed up for those endless minutes” (Joseph).
Sarah’s voice broke off as she saw two of her students in the back of the classroom raise their fists into the air, like Ngoyi and the women at the march. More students joined them, and soon, the entire class was sitting silently, their fists raised in solidarity with those South African women, who, decades before, risked their lives for the sake of justice. Sarah watched in amazement as the students didn’t just flop their arms down after a moment with a laugh, but continued to hold them there, though their muscles surely must have started to ache. Sarah eventually found her voice and continued the story:
“. . . At the end of that half hour, Lilian began to sing, softly at first, ‘Nkosi Sikelele iAfrica’ (‘Lord, give strength to Africa’) . . . The voices rose, joining Lilian, ever louder and stronger” (Joseph). After this, with her arm still raised, Ngoyi sang another song that had been written especially for the event, and which eventually turned into the anthem for the women’s liberation movement in South Africa: “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, uza kufa!” When you strike the women, you strike a rock! At the end of this half hour of protest, Ngoyi took the petition, which had over 100,000 signatures on it, and walked inside the building, where she knocked on the Prime Minister’s door in order to deliver it to him. Ngoyi paid a high price for her courage, as she was arrested later that day and charged with high treason. She would go on to spend nearly the rest of her life in prison or under house arrest for her anti-apartheid activities, but even though her freedom was taken from her, Ngoyi continued to be a clear and rallying voice in the anti-apartheid movement until her death in 1980.
Sarah’s words still hung in the air as the students slowly lowered their sore arms, and the class came to an end. But Sarah knew that something had happened in that class period. For those few moments, the lines between past and present blurred, and the actions of Lilian Ngoyi and thousands of other brave South African women reached across time and place to include a room full of racially diverse twelve year olds who were experiencing, on a small scale, their first taste of collective action, of the power of standing in solidarity with others, and of the force of silent protest.
In a later class with Sarah, those students discussed the ways they’d been impacted by Ngoyi’s story and the story of the other South African Peace Heroes. They talked about courage and the power of our words. They shared that they understood how difficult—but powerful—nonviolent protest could be. They connected the Heroes’ stories with their own personal experiences of racism and of all the inequality they still see around them today. Sarah later told us that these discussions and the ways the students reflected on their own role in standing against injustice impacted her deeply. And that the sight of all those students, with their arms raised in solidarity with Peace Heroes who had gone before them, was a teaching moment she’ll never forget.
So for Sarah—and maybe for you, too—the story of Lilian Ngoyi will always include the story of these passionate future Peace Heroes in a faraway classroom who chose to raise their arms in the air in an act of solidarity against injustice. Maybe the next time any of us feel overwhelmed by the injustices of our world and of systems of inequality that feel invincible, we’ll remember this story, which will give us a spark of hope, and Lilian Ngoyi’s impact will continue to spread in ways she never could have imagined.
Reference: Joseph, Helen. Side by Side. South African History Online, n.d. Web. 4 June 2014.