Mary Margaret Ngalo was born in Cradock, Transkei (now Eastern Cape Province) to Tom and Leah Plaatjie. As the niece of Reverend Canon James A. Calata, who was Secretary-General of the African National Congress (ANC) for many years, Ngalo entered politics at a young age. She joined the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and was actively involved in the organisation’s activities. It was in Cradock that she also met and married fellow ANC member, Zenzile Ngalo.
Soon, she joined the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL). As she played an active role in the fight for women’s rights in the Cradock area, it was not long before she was elected Branch Secretary of the ANCWL, a position she held until she was forced to leave the country in 1961. She was influential in encouraging many to join the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), an organisation which sought to unite women from all walks of life regardless of race or political affiliation, in the fight against apartheid.
In 1956, she was involved in the historic women’s march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in opposition to the pass laws. In 1957, she was arrested during the Beerhall Boycott, a protest initiated by the ANCWL which urged men to stop drinking at beer halls and instead to spend their money on their families. For her involvement, Ngalo was charged and sentenced to one month in prison with her eldest son, who was at the time still a baby.
Her husband (along with other ANC activists from Cradock like Eric Vara, Lennon Melane, and Reverend Calata) was arrested in Port Elizabeth during the 1960 State of Emergency. The ANC had instructed many of its members to leave the country to acquire the skills needed for the new phase of the liberation movement. After the Emergency ended and the ANC was banned, her husband managed to escape from South Africa with other ANC militants. During this time, she was forced into hiding as the security police searched for her. However, with the help of the ANCWL, she was able to flee the country in 1961 with her three children to join her husband who was now stationed in Tanzania as an ANC official.
While in Tanzania, she quickly resumed her political activities. She and other women formed the ANC Women’s Section, the external arm of the ANCWL, to which she was appointed Secretary. Thereafter, the family was sent to Cairo, Egypt, where she was appointed to the Women’s Bureau of the Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO) in 1968. In January 1972, she attended AAPSO’s fifth conference held in Cairo and later that same year in July, she attended the tenth anniversary of the All Africa Women’s Conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Sadly, this would be the last time that she would take part in a major event in the women’s struggle for equality.On 16 March 1973, Ngalo unexpectedly died, leaving behind her husband and children. She was buried in Cairo on 18 March 1973. Her funeral was attended by many prominent figures, including members of the Egyptian government, public organisations, and representatives of the AAPSO Women’s Bureau and the ANC Women’s Section, which was represented by Florence Mophosho.
- Mail & Guardian. (2016). 60 Iconic Women – The people behind the 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria (41-50), [online], Available at: https://mg.co.za/article/2016-08-25-60-iconic-women-the-people-behind-the-1956-womens-march-to-pretoria-41-50/. (Accessed on 29 June 2020)
- SA History Online. (2019). Women’s resistance in the 1960s – Sharpeville and its aftermath, [online], Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/womens-resistance-1960s-sharpeville-and-its-aftermath. (Accessed on 29 June 2020)
- Sechaba. (1973). Obituary- Women’s leader and freedom fighter Mary Ngalo, [online], Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/archive-files3/SeSep73.pdf. (Accessed on 29 June 2020)