Lillian Diedericks was born in 1925 in the oldest part of New Brighton township, Red Location (near the railway line), in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape. Her family, classified as Coloured, were forcefully removed from their home by the apartheid government in 1940 when it became a Black only zone. Although she did not complete school, having only acquired formal education up to standard three (grade five), one of her biggest strengths was her ability to speak fluent English, isiXhosa, and Afrikaans, which assisted her in her activism. This linguistic ability enabled her to address different groups of people in their language, mobilising and conscientising them about the political situation at the time.
During the 1940s and 1950s, a lot of underground political work was taking place in Port Elizabeth, particularly within the townships. This would have an effect on Diedericks’ political consciousness, resulting in her fully submerging herself in the liberation struggle. However, the political landscape in Port Elizabeth differed slightly to that of other parts in the country. While in most cities the struggle was led by the professional elites and middle class of the African National Congress (ANC), in Port Elizabeth it was the working-class leaders who took charge of the political scene. Here the South African Communist Party (SACP) had for decades run study groups for workers as a way to increase their political awareness. However, younger, working-class activist leaders made up of both men and women started to bring about a new political dynamism; Diedericks along with her close friend and struggle stalwart, Raymond Mhlaba, were a part of this new leadership.
Trade unions in the 1940s and 50s played an important role in the women’s movement. Many political organisations had excluded women, so the next best thing for politically-conscious women was the trade unions. As a result, certain trade unions had a substantial amount of working-class women, most of whom extremely politically aware. As a consequence, unions became training grounds for women leaders– women such as Lillian Ngoyi, Ray Alexander Simons, Frances Baard, Hilda Bernstein, and Diedericks. These five women would go on to become the cosponsors of the Federation of South African Women’s (FEDSAW) inaugural conference in 1954.
FEDSAW launched on 17 April 1954 in central Johannesburg, with Diedericks as one of the founding members. It intended to unite South African women to secure equal opportunities irrespective of race. One hundred and forty six delegates representing 230 000 women from all over the country attended the inaugural conference. A Women’s Charter draft was presented, calling for the empowerment of both men and women of all races, for equal employment opportunities and equal pay for equal work; equal rights with regards to marriage, property and children, and most importantly the elimination of all laws and practices which deprived women of such equality.
On 9 August 1956, Diedericks was among the group of five women (alongside Helen Joseph, Sophia de Bruyn, Lilian Ngoyi and Rahima Moosa) who valiantly lead a procession organised by FEDSAW, of 20 000 women of different races and ages to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in opposition to the discriminatory pass laws of 1950, which stipulated that Black people (including women for the first time) needed to carry passes – special identification documents – to limit their movements and therefore restrict their freedom. More than 100 000 signatures were signed on the petitions, which were left at the office doors of then Prime Minister JG Strijdom.
Diedericks and the other women played a considerable role in changing the perspective surrounding the role that women could play in the struggle. Up until then, women were largely seen as subordinate to men and were not considered to be of much importance in the active fight against the apartheid government. The fact that these women were able to mobilise themselves and coordinate an impressive protest as big as this was was in no way a small feat. Some of the women had travelled from all over the country to join the demonstration, and there were even women with babies on their backs. Their brave defiance was a collective stand against the racial and sexist injustices they were facing and their actions certainly contributed towards apartheid’s demise. It was also during this demonstration that the protest song Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’ imbokodo (you strike a woman, you strike a rock), composed specifically for the event, was sung. In 1994, this iconic day in history was deemed to become National Woman’s Day.
However, although Diedericks was on the frontline of this significant occasion in South Africa's history, her involvement was mistakenly omitted during the 60th anniversary celebrations of the march in 2016 when former President Jacob Zuma unveiled statues of Joseph, de Bruyn, Ngoyi and Moosa at the Women's Living Heritage Monument in Pretoria, leaving Diedericks out.
Following a protest against the Port Elizabeth mayor in 1956, Diedericks was arrested, along with several other women, for treason. The women were immediately transported to Johannesburg to be jailed at the Fort Prison but were only acquitted in 1961. Diedericks was further banned by the government from 1967-1968.
In addition to actively fighting the apartheid government, Diedericks also assisted the families and children of those who were involved in the struggle by helping to look after them and provide food. For example, when Mhlaba was imprisoned on Robben Island, Diedericks stepped in and helped take care of his son. She did this for many other families.
In 2014, Diedericks was among five women who contributed to the liberation struggle who were celebrated in a year-long exhibition held at the Red Location Museum in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. In August 2017, on Women’s Day, Zuma announced that the government would be erecting a statue of Diedericks as a way to honour the struggle hero for her activism and the role she played in helping women during apartheid South Africa, giving her the recognition she had been denied the year before. In April 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa again honoured her by awarding her with National Orders, which is the highest and most prestigious award that the country bestows on individuals (either citizens of South Africa or foreigners) who have contributed towards advancing democracy and who have dedicated themselves towards improving the lives of South Africans. Diedericks was specifically awarded the Order of Luthuli. She also has the Lilian Diedericks Municipal building in Port Elizabeth’s CBD named after her.
One of the few surviving heroines from the historic 1956 women’s march, Diedericks still lives in Port Elizabeth, in Gelvandale. Well into her 90s, she continues to fight for women’s rights in the country and to pave the way towards a gender-equal society. Her belief in every individual’s power to create change serves as a testament to her activism career. Furthermore, historians like Janet Cherry hail Diederick’s leadership during the 1950s as unmatched in today’s political landscape in the Eastern Cape.
- Gillham, S. (2018). Top honours for PE women, [online], Available at: www.heraldlive.co.za/news/2018-04-20-top-honours-for-pe-women/ . (Accessed on 8 April 2020)
- Mail & Guardian. (2016). 60 iconic women – the people behind the 1956 women’s march to Pretoria (21-30), [online], Available at: mg.co.za/article/2016-08-25-60-iconic-women-the-people-behind-the-1956-womens-march-to-pretoria-21-30/ . (Accessed on 8 April 2020)
- Mudzuli, K. (2013). Lessons from the 1956 women’s march, [online], Available at: sandtonchronicle.co.za/10653/lessons-from-the-1956-womens-march/ . (Accessed on 10 April 2020)
- Naidoo, R. (2014). Remembering the voices of the women of 1956, [online], Available at: www.brandsouthafrica.com/people-culture/people/remembering-the-voices-of-the-women-of-1956 .(Accessed on 10 April 2020)
- Nicolaides, G. (2017). Statue of one of 1956 women’s march leaders Lillian Diedericks to be erected, [online], Available at: www.ewn.co.za/2017/08/09/statue-of-one-of-1956-women-s-march-leaders-lillian-diedericks-to-be-erected. (Accessed on 7 April 2020)
- O'Reilly, A. (2016). Iconic marcher fears being forgotten, PressReader, The Herald, [online], Available at: www.pressreader.com/south-africa/the-herald-south-africa/20160810/281492160707052. (Accessed on 16 April 2020)
- PressReader. (2016). Lillian Diedericks, Mail & Gurdian, [online], Available at: www.pressreader.com/south-africa/mail-guardian/20160826/282209420277221. (Accessed on 10 April 2020)
- Jordaan N. (2011). Exhibition honours struggle heroines, [online], Available at: https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/the-herald-south-africa/20111124/281547992702165. (Accessed on 15 May 2020)
- The Presidency. (n.d). Mama Lillian Lily Diedericks, [online]. Available at: www.thepresidency.gov.za/national-orders/recipient/mama-lillian-lily-diedericks (Accessed on 8 April 2020)