A little known memorial in Soweto

The ‘house with the sewing machine’: Lilian Ngoyi’s house in Soweto

Kim Miller, assistant professor of women’s studies and art history at Wheaton College in the States, is currently researching visual representations of women political activists in South Africa both during and after the struggle against apartheid.  When in Johannesburg on her research trips, Kim stays at Liz at Lancaster Guest House.  Wanting to track down the little known monument to Lilian Ngoyi, I accompanied Kim and en ex-Wits colleague and friend of mine, Barbara Buntman, to Soweto last week to find Lilian Ngoyi’s house in Kkungu St.  Abey Pheega, a tour guide and transport provider, took us to ‘the house with the sewing machine’.

Ngoyi’s life and achievements

Nkungu St with 'elephant houses' Soweto
Nkungu St with ‘elephant houses’ Soweto Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

Lilian Ngoyi, one of the many extraordinary women who stood up against apartheid legislation, has the record of being the person who spent the longest period of time under house arrest.  First banned in 1961 at the age of 50, she remained under house arrest (the banning was lifted between 1972 and 1975),  until she died in March 1980. Although she died 2 months before her current banning order was due to expire, she would almost certainly have been rebanned under a further 5 year order. Ngoyi first made her mark as a unionist and went on to become the first woman member of the ANC national executive.  President of the Federation of South African Women and vice-president of the ANC Women’s League she was one of four women – along with Sophie Williams, Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa – who led the march of 20, 000 women to the Union Buildings on August 9, 1956 to protest against the extension of apartheid’s pass laws to African women.

Memorial to Lilian Ngoyi

The plaque outside her house, now occupied by her daughter Memory and her grandchild,  includes the following:  ‘Her friend and comrade in the ANC, Hilda Bernstein wrote:  “For 18 years this beautiful and brilliant woman spent her time in a tiny house, silenced, trying to earn money by doing sewing”.’

It is appropriate therefore that the subject of the memorial to Ngoyi is a sewing machine with the representation of an ANC Women’s League dress in the making. Constructed entirely out of painted car parts by the artist Stephen Maqashela, it is sadly in poor condition and requires some restoration work in the peeling paint work.

Painted sculpture made of car parts depicting a sewing machine and half-made ANC shirt
Painted sculpture made of car parts depicting a sewing machine and half-made ANC shirt  Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

This memorial formed part of the Sunday Times heritage project which aimed to develop a number of memorials to some of the remarkable people and events of  the 20th Century. For more on this project go to: www.sundaytimes.co.za/heritage

Even though she was getting ready to travel across to Pretoria, Memory invited us in and generously spoke to Kim about her memories of growing up in the house and as Lilian’s daughter.  Memory has altered the exterior of the ‘elephant house’ (made of concrete with a curved roof resembling an elephant’s back) and modernized and extended the interior sitting room area.


Memory Ngoyi, Kim Miller and Barbara Buntman in the living room of Memory's house
Memory Ngoyi, Kim Miller and Barbara Buntman in the living room of Memory’s house Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
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