Sophia Williams-De Bruyn may be best known for leading the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings, but after spending an afternoon chatting to the veteran, Delani Majola, learns that her contribution to the struggle spans decades.
Sophia Williams-De-Bruyn radiates ‘eternal youth’ that belies her 78 years of age.
She sits stylishly composed at her daughter’s Sandton home, talking about everything from her own history to the contribution of numerous other anti-apartheid veterans.
Aunty Sophie, as she is fondly known, admits that as far as she can remember, she has always been an activist, with her involvement in South Africa’s liberation movement spanning decades. Her story is not an uncommon one - reflective of the lives of many struggle activists who either died for their cause, or who were fortunate enough to have witnessed democracy. It is the story of bartering years of comfort, safety and luxury for an emancipated South Africa.
The only surviving leader of the 1956 Women’s March, Aunty Sophie’s story has been etched into South Africa’s history. Many would have come across the iconic images of Aunty Sophie, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa leading 20 000 women to the Union Buildings to protest against the extension of pass books to black women.
What is not widely known, is that Aunty Sophie was only 18 years old on August 9, 1956, making her the youngest of the four leaders.
Without completing her matric, Aunty Sophie had moved to Johannesburg from the small Port Elizabeth town of Villageboard due to her growing involvement in the Textile Workers Union. In Johannesburg she worked as the organiser for the Coloured People’s Congress, being drawn into the politics of the broader Congress movement.
Following dozens of protests against pass laws for African women, the Federation of South African Women and the African National Congress Women’s League organised the march to the Union Buildings.
“Even though passes weren’t extended to Coloured and Indian women, there was a strong sense of unity and empathy among us, because what touched them today, would touch us tomorrow. We were all marching against the same thing,” Aunty Sophie explains.
The march garnered the support of women from various parts of South Africa. But, it was successful in more than one way. It served to break stereotypes about the level of involvement of women in liberation politics and challenged male chauvinism. “It was only after the historic march that the chief organiser, Lillian Ngoyi, was elected to the ANC’s National Executive Committee, despite having centered her life around the liberation struggle. It was unheard of at the time for a woman to be on the executive,” Aunty Sophie says.
While Aunty Sophie’s activism may be best symbolised through the images of her on the steps of the Union Buildings, it didn’t end there.
She explains that after meeting the objectives of the march, which included mobilisation and a seamless execution of the demonstration, she went back to working at the Coloured People’s Congress. But, this was not without its challenges.
On her way to work on one occasion, Aunty Sophie says she remembers being stopped by a security guard who tipped her off to not proceed any further as the special branch police officers were making arrests. “The apartheid police had been monitoring the Congress movement’s headquarters, which resulted in its closure. They had also been rounding up and arresting Congress members for the notorious Treason Trial so I escaped being arrested for high treason.”
With growing uncertainty among the activists, Aunty Sophie went back to PE where she found herself a job in a textile factory. In 1959, she and Henry De Bruyn tied the knot. She later learned that her ‘discreet’ husband ‘who never spoke about what he did’ was also an activist in the liberation movement and an Umkhonto we Sizwe cadre in the underground. Soon, their home became a safe haven for comrades Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Wilton Mkwayi. It wasn’t long before the police caught onto the activities at the De Bruyn household, but not before the hidden comrades were safely smuggled out.
It is difficult associating the regal Aunty Sophie with stories of hardship and torture. She speaks of the police brutality when she and her husband were taken in for questioning. “During that time, I pretended to not know anything because I knew I was not going to betray my commitment to the struggle,” she says.
Drumming her perfectly manicured nails together, she adds, “I remember they took me to a room with a window where only I could see Henry, but he couldn’t see me. His face was bleeding and he had been interrogated but had refused to say anything. They told me to speak if I wanted them to let him go, but still, I said nothing.”
Following his release from detention, the Congress underground machinery made arrangements for them to leave the country for exile in Zambia, where the movement was based. It was in Zambia that they rekindled their activism, working with the ANC leader O.R. Tambo, along with bringing up three children.
“In Zambia, life was very difficult and the movement cared and maintained the liberation community of freedom fighters with international support and the help of the front-line countries,” Aunty Sophie says.
Zambia however, gave her the opportunity to finish her high school through evening classes while working for the ANC by day. After completing her studies, she received a scholarship and went on to get training as a teacher trainer. It was in her last year of studies that an offer presented itself in the form of a lecturing post at the newly opened United Nations Institute of Namibia (UNIN) for SWAPO activists, preparing them to assume key positions once they took over governance. Aunty Sophie took on the position and was a specialist in administration and commerce in which she lectured, as well as advanced shorthand and typing. “The current President of Namibia, Hage Geingob, was the Director of UNIN at that time,” Aunty Sophie says.
“While I was deployed to the school post, my husband had been deployed to Rome and my children were abroad after they received scholarships to study further,” she adds.
“I never had real leave from the time I started lecturing in the 70s, as I had to juggle my ANC and ANC Women’s League duties with UNIN’s work. In 1988 I was promoted to the position of Head of Department.”
In 1990, a fax had come through from the ANC inviting Aunty Sophie to help administer the conference that was organising the unbanning of the ANC. Although she was not yet indemnified, she jumped at the opportunity of “being back in my home country after almost two decades.”
She was immediately thrown into the thick of the administration, working alongside Hermanus Loots, Joe Jele, Valli Moosa and Ahmed Kathrada.
After the party was unbanned, Aunty Sophie was once again roped in: she set up structures, formulated guidelines and together with the leadership, saw the drafting and implementation of policies. She was later at Shell House, Plain Street, appointed Head of Personnel.
All the chief representatives of the ANC were called to return to South Africa including Henry, who had been living in Rome for 7 years. The De Bruyns had been separated by their activities in exile and only visited one another occasionally. The return to South Africa not only meant a breakthrough in the political landscape, but a reunion for the couple as well.
She would also join her husband over the next few years in Jordan, after he had become South Africa’s ambassador. Henry passed away in June 1999.
Aunty Sophie would thereafter serve on the Commission for Gender Equality before joining the Gauteng Legislature in 2004 and becoming its deputy speaker from 2005 until 2009, before moving to national parliament.
From my early youth up to this day, I’m still a member of the ANC and I’m still kept fairly busy,” Aunty Sophie says.
Today, she sits on various structures and boards including the ANC’s Integrity Commission, and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.
Perhaps Aunty Sophie’s youthful looks are reflective of her still very energetic and hardworking personality. The veteran will soon be launching a Foundation in her and her husband’s name. The foundation will focus largely on issues of gender equality and non-sexism – ideals that are symbolically associated with her lifelong activism.
* On Monday, August 8, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn led a delegation from the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation as well as community and youth activists to the graves of Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and Rahima Moosa to mark the 60th anniversary of the Women’s March.
* This article was first published in The Star and Daily News newspapers