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Elizabeth van der Heyden, known as Betty or sometimes Liz, was born on 8 December 1935 and raised in the working-class area of Gleemoor, Athlone. She was the third of eight children, six girls and two boys. Their father Israel Rudolph van der Heyden was a carpenter of Dutch and Khoi ancestry, and their mother Hilda Irene Adams, a housewife and domestic worker of slave ancestry. Their family was of humble means: the children went to school barefoot, and Betty van der Heyden learned early in life the stigma of living in a council house. But their father valued political discussions, and the children were encouraged to speak and ask questions. In this way van der Heyden learned to speak and voice her opinions in small groups. She credits her intellectual and political development to this home environment.[1]

Theirs was an English-speaking home. Their mother worked for an English-speaking family and spoke English well, having attended an English-medium school. Betty van der Heyden went to an English-medium school and listened to BBC radio—the radio being their primary means of news and entertainment.

Van der Heyden read voraciously and was a good student. But her mother insisted that she aim at marriage, warning her that men didn’t like smart women. With her father’s support, however, she managed to get to standard 10—the end of high school. She attended Wynberg High School for her junior certificate and then moved to the newly-established Athlone High School, matriculating in 1953. Also unusually in the area, she did not attend church and later became an atheist.

At both schools she was strongly influenced by teachers active in the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM)—Edgar Maurice, a Wynberg High English teacher, and Reggie Crook, an Athlone High History teacher. At Athlone High Pallo Jordan was in the same year as her younger brother Leslie. There were a number of students from Namibia (then South West Africa), many of whom were older, as they or their parents had worked to save money for their schooling in Cape Town. Van der Heyden became friends with a Namibian girl who later joined the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO).

Thus politicized, she began attending the Cape Flats Educational Fellowship—one of several NEUM-aligned fellowships, where she met the medical doctor and NEUM intellectual, N. A. Murison. It was still safe to travel at night, and after the meetings she returned home at midnight or 1 am. But as the impact of the 1950 Group Areas Act began being felt in uprooted communities and intensified segregation, local transportation became less safe and more expensive.

At that time nursing and teaching were the only professions open to women classified as coloured. ‘You could get a loan for a teacher’s course and then get a job and pay the loan back month by month,’ van der Heyden explained.[2] So after high school she took a two-year teacher training course at Hewat Training College in Cape Town and in 1956 began teaching English, social studies and general science at Grassy Park High School, where Ursula Wolhuter (later Fataar) also taught. By contrast, her younger brother Leslie was groomed for university. He began studying law at the University of Cape Town (UCT), meeting fellow law student Fikile Bam. But he didn’t like law and switched to education.

Van der Heyden’s political interests developed further at college, where the New Era Fellowship held meetings in conjunction with the college debating society. In 1957 she joined the Athlone branch of the Teachers League of South Africa (TLSA), a NEUM affiliate. But the NEUM’s factional fighting carried over into its affiliates, and the TLSA could scarcely do any organizational work. And there was not much room for women leaders. Although a significant proportion of teachers were women, most TLSA leaders were men, who often had the higher educational qualifications prized for leadership positions in the NEUM affiliates.

Education for blacks was being hammered at all levels. In 1956 the government cut schooling for coloured children by two years, raising their school entry age from six to seven, and stopping primary school at standard five rather than six.[3] That year also saw the introduction of the Extension of University Education Bill (University Apartheid Bill) in Parliament. The NEUM had campaigned against the 1953 Bantu Education Act, but this new bill hit its Cape Town leadership particularly hard, Neville Alexander suggested, because of the NEUM’s emphasis on higher education and the allure that UCT had for the Western Cape’s coloured intelligentsia.[4] Tiny numbers of black students had been able to enroll at historically white universities like UCT, but in 1959 Parliament passed the Extension of University Education Act, No 45, making it a criminal offense for a black student to register at a formerly open university without written permission from the Minister of Internal Affairs.

The bill had catalyzed the launch of the Cape Peninsula Students Union (CPSU) in March 1957. The CPSU was both a response to the increasing university segregation and a backlash against the factionalized NEUM. While the white National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) campaigned for academic non-segregation, the CPSU countered that academic non-segregation meant non-academic segregation or social apartheid rather than full democracy.  The CPSU’s launch was strongly opposed by the NEUM’s Ben Kies–Hosea Jaffe faction, which was responsible for the organization’s educational fellowships and saw it as a threat.[5] Since van der Heyden was already teaching, she joined the CPSU as an associate member. From then on she saw herself as a participant in politics rather than an observer.[6]

Aside from Nasheba Jardine as treasurer, the CPSU’s office-bearers were all male and included the medical doctor Kenneth Abrahams as president and Neville Alexander as editor; in Elizabeth’s recollection, they were the main speakers and movers, with Alexander pushing for the CPSU to remain politically non-aligned rather than affiliate to the NEUM.

At the CPSU van der Heyden became friendly with Kenny Abrahams, Ottilie (Tilly) Shimming (later Abrahams) from Namibia, Alexander, Archie Mafeje, Marcus Solomon, Fikile Bam and others. A group of them—herself, Dulcie September, Alexander, Bam, Mafeje, Frank van der Horst, Bobby Wilcox and Tony Wilcox—used to climb Table Mountain and camp when this was still possible. Van der Heyden became an activist, recruiting for the CPSU and launching its South Peninsula Branch in Grassy Park.

Van der Heyden had been friends with Dulcie September since primary school. The Septembers and van der Heydens lived around the corner from each other—although Mr September, a primary school principal, owned his own home and thus the Septembers had a higher social standing. September’s father beat her, and as a result she was often at the van der Heyden’s. Like Betty van der Heyden, she attended Athlone High, where she was similarly politicized by her Unity Movement teachers, but her father removed her from school in the middle of standard 8 [now, form 10]. Nonetheless, she took evening classes and eventually completed a two-year training course at Battswood Teacher Training College in Wynberg. In July 1956 she began teaching at Bridgetown Primary in Athlone and joined the TLSA’s Athlone branch. Van der Heyden convinced September to attend CPSU meetings, but she never joined.[7]

The Sharpeville-Langa massacres

Following the March 1960 Sharpeville and Langa massacres, the Unlawful Organizations Act No 34 of 1960 (commenced 7 April 1960) allowed the government to declare unlawful any organizations deemed to threaten public order or safety. The African National Congress (ANC), Pan Africanist Congress and their elected representatives were banned. The NEUM leader Tabata had been banned and restricted to Cape Town in 1956; his banning order expired in 1961.

In December 1960 the NEUM faction led by Isaac Tabata, Jane Gool and Ali Fataar launched the African People’s Democratic Union, which became the African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA) in January 1961. APDUSA affiliated to the NEUM, but unlike the NEUM, which had a federal structure, APDUSA was a unitary organization based on individual membership. APDUSA prioritized the ‘demands and aspiration of the oppressed workers and peasants’ and therefore attracted a younger and more militant membership that was less occupationally restricted to teaching than other NEUM structures.[8] Van der Heyden and September joined APDUSA and resigned from the TLSA because of its continued bickering.[9] At the APDUSA meetings and conferences van der Heyden met Tabata, Jane Gool and Stella Peterson, a highly respected Biology teacher at Livingstone High School in Claremont. Once again, van der Heyden observed, with the significant exception of Jane Gool, the conference speakers were men. Van der Heyden spoke in small group sessions but not at the large conference sessions.

In the Western Cape underground groups mushroomed, along with calls for armed struggle. SWAPO came out for armed struggle; Kenny Abrahams pushed the SWAPO line, and Alexander raised the issue with the NEUM leadership. As a result, they were both suspended from NEUM affiliates in January 1962.

But they had supporters in APDUSA. Van der Heyden, September, Solomon and Alexander’s sister Dorothy Alexander formed a secret caucus and invited Abrahams and Alexander to their fortnightly meetings. As September put it, ‘the leadership…had a bureaucratic hold over the organisation, with the result that no progressive work could be done and the suspension of Drs. Alexander and Abrahams caused a rift in the organization…many of the members were contemplating leaving.’[10]  

Yu Chi Chan Club and National Liberation Front

The APDUSA caucus meetings became irregular, and a new circle began meeting fortnightly at the home of the Abrahamses. The group included Alexander, Xenophon Pitt, a UWC student from Queenstown, and two Namibians active in SWAPO, David Hafecue and Andreas Shipanga. They became the core of the Yu Chi Chan Club (YCCC). Fikile Bam, who boarded with the Abrahamses, began attending meetings in June 1962.[11] Van der Heyden joined in mid-July. As she later recalled: ‘We felt armed struggle was inevitable and that we needed to be a part of it.’ In the meantime, van der Heyden remained active in APDUSA, serving on its finance committee until 1963.[12]

The YCCC members studied Mao Tse Tung’s Yu Chi Chan [Guerrilla Warfare], Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare, Joan Gillespie’s Algeria: Rebellion and Revolution, and Deneys Reitz’s Commando, on the 1899-1902 Afrikaner guerrilla war against the British. The point was to assess whether and in what ways these guerrilla struggles might be applicable to South Africa’s conditions. They began producing pamphlets. Alexander wrote The Conquest of Power in South Africa, Abrahams, Technical and Organisational Aspects of the Yu Chi Chan Club, and van der Heyden, Secret Communications, the main source for which was the 1962 Encyclopedia Britannica section on ‘codes and ciphers’. They ran off the documents in the van der Heyden home.[13]

In December 1962, they disbanded the YCCC and began setting up a network of cells across the Cape Peninsula. The network was called the National Liberation Front, after Algeria’s Front de Libération Nationale, which had launched a sabotage campaign on November 1, 1954.[14]

In van der Heyden’s recollection they mainly recruited CPSU and APDUSA members they thought would be amenable to discussions of guerrilla strategy. With a few exceptions, recruitment followed gender lines, with men recruiting men, and women, women. Van der Heyden recruited Dulcie September and Dorothy Alexander, also a teacher, as well as her younger sister Doris van der Heyden, born in 1940, who had studied Librarianship at UCT for three years.[15]

Van der Heyden set up an Athlone cell with September and Doris van der Heyden. Others joined, and the cell split into Athlone and Lansdowne cells. Van der Heyden ran the Athlone cell, and Neville Alexander, Lansdowne.

Most NLF members were teachers and thus could only travel during the school breaks. In late June van der Heyden went to Reheboth to meet with the Abrahamses, who had moved there to set up a cell. She also went to Swakopmund, where she had a sister, and tried unsuccessfully to meet with Shipanga.

When she returned to Cape Town in mid-July, she learned that their organization had been infiltrated by a police spy and that Neville Alexander had been arrested on 12 July 1963, coincidentally the day after the police raid on Umkhonto we Sizwe leaders at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia.[16]

Arrest and imprisonment

Van der Heyden was arrested on 18 July and detained in solitary for four months at the Bellville Police Station in Bellville, Cape Town. She was the first woman held under the General Law Amendment Act of 1963—the 90-day detention law. Unlike her male comrades, who could at least shout to each other across their cells, she was isolated and had no idea what was going on outside her cell. She walked around her cell trying to remember poetry and doodled on paper she was given to write her confession. She worried about her father, with whom she was very close.[17]

The trial of the eleven NLF prisoners began on 4 November 1963. During the trial the prisoners were kept in Roeland Street prison—women and men were on opposite sides of the prison. During the Christmas break the men were sent to Robben Island and later returned to Roeland Street until the end of the trial.

On April 15, 1964 the court found the prisoners guilty of conspiracy to commit certain wrongful and willful acts, of inciting other persons to do likewise and of contravention of the Suppression of Communism Act. It dispensed sentences ranging from five to ten years.[18] Van der Heyden was given ten years, while the other three women, September, Doris van der Heyden and Dorothy Alexander, received five-year sentences. The men were sent to Robben Island, and the women remained at Roeland Street for about a month before being sent to Worcester prison, about 120 kilometers northeast of Cape Town.

Both Helen Scanlon and N. P. Z. Mbatha note the persistent stereotype that women prisoners were treated better than their male counterparts, despite evidence to the contrary. Women political prisoners were generally shifted around to different prisons across the country, making it very difficult for family members to visit—some families shunned them for violating gender norms—and for the women to develop friendships.[19] Van der Heyden stresses the hierarchical nature of prison administrative structures. Yet, she found that their wardresses had been fearful of their image as terrorists but were surprised when they met them and sometimes softened. So traumatized were the four NLF women, she recounts, that their periods had stopped for a year after their arrest and they hadn’t even noticed.

At Worcester they were put in separate cells, each with common law prisoners. They were well received by the other prisoners and respected because they were teachers; coincidentally, van der Heyden had taught one of her fellow prisoner’s niece. They wrote letters for other women in English or, occasionally, Afrikaans and read letters for free, whereas other prisoners had charged. In return they were taught how to steal from supermarkets. As a result of these interactions, van der Heyden’s Afrikaans improved greatly in prison. One prisoner, a diamond smuggler, sent letters to van der Heyden’s parents when she was released, and as a result van der Heyden’s lawyer visited. They were allowed one visit by one person and one letter every six months.

As Scanlon has noted, women prisoners were generally kept indoors and given sexually-stereotyped ‘women’s work’.[20] Betty van der Heyden and September worked in the tailoring shop, sewing uniforms for the warders, while Doris van der Heyden and Dorothy Alexander did crocheting and tatting. Van der Heyden earned about R13 over her entire ten years. At one point they were prescribed pills in the form of purple hearts, allegedly to help them stay awake and study. But they traded the pills for sandwiches with one of the women warders, later learning that the pills were addictive.

After about four months at Worcester, they were moved to Kroonstad in the Free State, 1215 kilometers from Cape Town. There they suffered the worst treatment; deliberate humiliation was policy. Upon arrival, their clothing was removed, and they had to take clothes from a pile heaped in a corner. The items were dirty and ill-fitting, and there were no belts, shoes or socks, so they went around barefoot. The prison had signs saying ‘Poqo’—an isiXhosa word meaning ‘pure’ or ‘alone’ and adopted as a Pan Africanist Congress slogan—but used in the prison for all the black prisoners. They arrived after lunch but had not eaten. Although those classified as coloured were supposed to have bread, their plates were filled with pap, with a piece of blue soap in the middle of the pap. They didn’t eat that lunch.

Their routine was unvaried. They got up, washed and had breakfast of pap and bad coffee. In the middle of the pap was a green blob, which was salty but did not taste bad; they were later informed that it was a sexual depressant. Then they were locked in the yard until lunch. Sometimes they spent hours in the yard, sometimes the whole day. Generally no one watched them, and they had only occasional work, sometimes sewing men’s shirts, sometimes washing.

At Kroonstad they met ANC women, such as the well-known activists Francis Baard and Dorothy Nyembe. Some ANC women said that the NLF people were the regime’s pets because they didn’t have to carry passes or live in homelands and, initially, some even thought they were spies. The NLF women countered that the coloureds had also suffered forced removals. However, this didn’t carry weight with the ANC women, who, in van der Heyden’s view, saw Cape Town as a Garden of Eden. Van der Heyden recalled that Baard called the NLF ‘armchair politicians’. Baard’s memoir mentions ‘four coloured girls from Cape Town ... they got a long sentence so they stayed after me.’[21]

The NLF women were divided into pairs; each pair shared a cell with two ANC women. In this way the women began talking across political and sectional lines. Van der Heyden learned to understand Xhosa although she had difficulty speaking it. The African women were keen to learn English, so van der Heyden set up an informal class, although only three students remained in it for the whole course. Once they put on a well-received nativity play, which they enjoyed doing. In the yard they talked, sang and learned Xhosa dances.

While at Kroonstad prison, van der Heyden learned that her father had died in May 1965; she hadn’t even known he was ill. The prison guards were so eager to break the bad news that they told Dorothy Alexander, instead of her. Numb, she carried on as usual. This was misinterpreted as being strong, she said.

They remained at Kroonstad for perhaps a year—time got telescoped. Then, possibly because of overcrowding, they were transferred to Nylstroom (now Modimolle) prison, in Limpopo Province, 1580 kilometers northeast of Cape Town, where they spent the remainder of the first five years.

Unlike Kroonstad, the matrons at Nylstroom were civil. They had expected terrorists, but became more tolerant when they realized they wouldn’t be jumped. Van der Heyden felt that they were ignorant people, but not bad. Betty van der Heyden and September were in one cell, and Doris van der Heyden and Dorothy Alexander in another. The women prisoners did the laundry for all the prisoners and administrative staff. The Red Cross visited in 1967. Betty was the leader of the female political prisoners and negotiated for them with the prison administration, raising the poor quality of food and lack of fresh fruit, amongst other issues.[22] At some point a colonel visited. Soon after, again perhaps due to overcrowding, they were transferred to Barberton prison, in Mpumalanga Province, 1760 kilometers northeast of Cape Town.

Van der Heyden had applied to study at Kroonstad. It took two years to get permission. She began a University of South Africa BA course at Nylstroom. She finished about two years at Nylstroom, took a year off to study Latin, before completing the final year at Barberton and receiving a degree in English & Psychology. She had wanted to do a degree in English and History, but this was not allowed; presumably the authorities felt international history might be too political. Nor was she allowed to continue for an Honours degree. The women faced many obstacles to studying in prison: they couldn’t go to the library; their books didn’t arrive on time, their literature was confiscated and they needed three references for their essays but often had only two.

Van der Heyden spent her last five years at Barberton prison, while her three comrades were released from Barberton after their five-year sentences were completed. It was hard being left on her own, but it was also a big relief, since she had recruited the three women and felt a responsibility to them while they were in prison; Dorothy Alexander, especially, suffered many health problems.[23] Once they were released she had only her own self to worry about, and she contented herself with her own company, reading and thinking. ‘You can survive by living in your mind,’ she explained.

At Barberton van der Heyden again met Dorothy Nyembe, who had previously been at Kroonstad and Nylstrom and was now serving a fifteen-year sentence, and Henrietta Motsoeneng. In van der Heyden’s last year, Amina Desai arrived at Barberton, and the two women became friendly.[24]

Van der Heyden spent just over five years at Barberton. At some point they were moved to the former white side, where Stephanie Kemp and other white women political prisoners had been kept. They had a library and a bath. Van der Heyden did washing and organized the library. After a Red Cross visit, their conditions improved. She and her section were allowed to make a rockery outside the prison. A lonely Albino wardress with pink eyes talked to them about her problems and wanted to hear their stories. But she was moved when they became too friendly.

Life after prison

Van der Heyden was released on 12 April 1974. Her siblings had gone overseas after their release from prison, but she wanted to remain in South Africa, despite her banning. She briefly worked as a salesperson in a boutique and a clerk in a petrol station. In 1978 she and Fikile Bam had a daughter, Tina. In 1979, after her banning order expired, she began working at the Scandanavian-funded South African Prisoners’ Education Trust, where she coordinated prisoner education outreach until 1986. She maintained her friendship with Desai and stayed at her house in Roodeport when she travelled for her prison education work. She was a member of the United Women’s Organisation, which was formed as a loose Western Cape association in late 1978 and formally launched in April 1981. But she left in 1983 after it affiliated to the United Democratic Front—putting it in the ANC and Congress Alliance camp—because she felt that the entire executive had not been consulted. In 1986 she returned to her first love of teaching at Heathfield High School and later at South Peninsula High School.[25]


[1] Drew, interview with van der Heyden, 8 June 2018; Scanlon, Representation & Reality, p. 202.

[2] Drew, interview with van der Heyden, 8 June 2018.

[3] Scanlon, Representation & Reality, p. 205.

[4] Augie Matsemela, interview with Neville Alexander, 5/9/1988, BC 1538 A2.2, pp. 57-8.

[5] The Student, n.d. [1957], BC1538, D3.5 1/2; Neville Alexander, Unsworn statement, p. 1657, State versus Neville Alexander and 10 Others, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 14 of 18 (1).

[6] Drew, interview with van der Heyden, 8 June 2018; Elizabeth van der Heyden, Unsworn statement, pp. 1517-8, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 13 of 18; Scanlon, Representation & Reality, pp. 204-5.

[7] Dulcie September Biography, n.d., courtesy Michael Arendse; Dulcie September, Examined, pp. 1560, 1583, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 13 of 18 (5).

[8] APDUSA, Draft constitution,; Robin Kayser and Mohamed Adhikari, ‘“Land and Liberty!” The African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa during the 1960s,’ in South African Democracy Education Trust, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 1 (1960-1970), Cape Town: Zebra, 2004, pp. 319-39, 322-3.

[9] van der Heyden, Unsworn statement, p. 1518, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 13 of 18; Scanlon, Representation & Reality, pp. 206-7.

[10] September, Examined, p. 1562, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 13 of 18 (5); van der Heyden, Unsworn statement, pp. 1519-20, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 13 of 18; Alexander, Unsworn statement, p. 1663, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 14 of 18 (2).

[11] Alexander, Unsworn statement, p. 1663, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 14 of 18 (2).

[12] van der Heyden, Unsworn statement, p. 1520, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 13 of 18.

[13] van der Heyden, Unsworn statement, pp. 1520-22, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 13 of 18.

[14] Alexander, Unsworn statement, pp. 1702-3, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 14 of 18 (4).

[15] September, Examined, p. 1564, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 13 of 18 (5).

[16] Drew, interview with van der Heyden, 10 July 2018.

[17] Drew, interview with van der Heyden, 10 July 2018. Information on van der Heyden’s prison experiences are from this interview unless otherwise noted.

[18] Verdict, 15 April 1964, State versus Alexander, BC 1538 D5.1.1, 17 of 18.

[19] Scanlon, Representation & Reality, p. 210; Mbatha, ‘Narratives of women,’ pp. 91, 106.

[20] Scanlon, Representation & Reality, p. 210.

[21] Frances Baard and Barbie Schreiner, My Spirit is not Banned, Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1986, <accessed 17 April 2020>.

[22] Red Cross visit to the Nylstroom Prison, the Northern Transvaal, 5 October 1967.

[23] Dick, ‘Learning’ pp. 45, 47.

[24] Barberton Times, October 8, 2014; Mbatha, ‘Narratives of women,’ p. 105, discusses Nyembe and Desai at Kroonstad.

[25] Mahomed et al., Conversations; Drew, interview with van der Heyden, 10 July 2018.

  • Research for this article was funded by the British Academy, and the author is grateful to the Academy for its support. Thanks to Omar Badsha and Shaheed Mahomed for their comments.
  • Hilda Bernstein, For Their Triumphs and for Their Tears: Women in apartheid South Africa, London: International Defence & Aid, 1975.
  • Archie L. Dick, ‘Learning from the Alexander Defence Committee archives,’ in Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally, eds., Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements: History’s schools, Routledge, 2018, pp. 42-54.
  • Justin Lawler, ‘History of Women in Prisons during Apartheid,’ South African History Online, 2014,
  • N. P. Z. Mbatha, ‘Narratives of women detained in the Kroonstad Prison during the apartheid era: A socio-political exploration, 1960-1990,’ Journal for Contemporary History, 43, 1, 2018, pp. 91-110.
  • Helen Scanlon, Representation & Reality: Portraits of women’s lives in the Western Cape, 1948-1976, HSRC, 2007, chap. 8, pp. 200-25.