Mary Moodley, or Aunty Mary as she was known, was born on 14 March 1914 in Jaggersfontein, Orange Free State (now Free State). She was the second eldest of 10 children born to Tom Anderson, a miner of Danish descent, and Katherine Anderson, a descendant of a slave from the St Helena Islands. Her parents and family experienced immense racism by the largely Afrikaner community. She became politically aware as result of her father’s protection over his wife and children from the racism that they were exposed to. Mary also had gratitude and was sensitive to the history of slavery that her mother’s family endured.
During the early 1920s, her father attained employment at the Modderbee Mine in Transvaal, and the family relocated to Benoni. Mary started her primary school education in Modderbee, but this ended when her mother suddenly passed away. She had to leave school in order to care for her younger siblings. Mary then received employment as a manufacturer of garments. She joined the Garment and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa (GAWU) and mobilided her fellow colleagues to join the Union.
In 1934, she married David Watson, and they had three children: Joyce, Cynthia and Boetie. Her eldest daughter, Joyce, often accompanied her to meetings, protests, and demonstrations. David passed away after 10 years of their marriage. At the age of 35, Mary met and married William Alexander Moodley and they relocated from Modderbee to Benoni. They had four children: Douglas, Vernon, Veronica and Lionel. Mary’s home in Benoni became a central hub for young people, activists, friends, and the homeless. She was a regular churchgoer and always ready to share her meagre earnings.
Aunty Mary was a member of the African National Congress (ANC), a founder member of the South African Coloured People’s Congress (SACPO), and trade union organiser on the then East Rand. Mary started as a shop steward for the ‘Number 2 Branch’ of the Garment Workers’ Union of South Africa (GWUSA). She mobilised the predominantly white and African colleagues at her workplace and later assisted in founding of the South African Clothing Workers’ Union (SACWU), an affiliate to the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). Her union activities also allowed her to become closely associated with the New Age newspaper. In 1952, Mary encouraged her daughter, Joyce to join the New Age. Joyce worked alongside Ruth First, who was a reporter and journalist.
In 1952, Mary and Joyce accompanied Ruth First, to Bethal and Ermelo to inspect reports of farmworkers being severely beaten and sometimes even killed on farms. The New Age exposed the black workers’ experiences of slave-like labour conditions on the Potato Farms in Bethal. The workers received support from SACTU and the ANC launched a countrywide potato boycott. Mary was among the activists who mobilised door-to-door and approached shopkeepers to refrain from buying and stocking potatoes. The boycott was successful and called off in September 1959. This success led to the rise in confidence for more boycotts.
Mary supported the Congress Movement’s transitions to radical strategies and mobilised and partook in the Defiance Campaign. She grew a close relationship with Oliver and Adelaide Tambo and often accommodated them following meetings or pamphleteering. Towards the end of June 1952, 146 volunteers were arrested; in July, 1 504; during August, 2015; and in September, 2 058. Mary was also arrested during this period, for participating in the Defiance Campaign. The campaign grew momentum until October but rioting erupted and the number of ‘defiers’ began to fall in November. An additional 2 334 were arrested by mid-December – 8 057 in total.
Mary decided to be a ‘Freedom Volunteer’ and acquired the task of publicising the Congress of the People (COP) and collecting demands for the Freedom Charter in her workplace, union, and amongst the communities of Daveyton, Benoni and surrounding areas. On 25-26 June 1955, Mary was amid the representatives that met in Kliptown. The COP epitomised a fundamental historical moment in the establishment of a new order that centralised on the will of the people. There was a gathering of 2 844 representatives from all over the country. The Freedom Charter declares that ‘’South Africa belongs to all who live in it” and that “all shall be equal before the law”. The Charter embodied the hopes and aspirations of all progressive South Africans.
Mary was also a member and grassroots organiser for the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and was a volunteer and participant in all of its activities. She was one of the 146 delegates, who represented 230 000 women from all over South Africa, that were present at the founding conference and pledged their support. On 9 August 1956, Mary joined the 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings.
On 21 March 1960, the Sharpeville massacre was a turning point. The government later implemented the Unlawful Organisations Act on 7 April 1960, and both the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned. The Congress Alliance tried mobilising against the banning of the ANC and called for a meeting in Newclare – this was banned. Mary and Dr. Ansary organised a protest meeting in Benoni, the security police were infuriated by this. There was a rise in number of people who were arrested under the State of Emergency: by 6 May 1960, 18 000 people were arrested and detained since the proclamation of the State of Emergency. Mary was among those detained and was imprisoned at the Women’s Prison, at the Old Fort in Johannesburg and was released after a month. She then went underground and started organising in secret.
Between 1960 and 1963, Mary assisted many people out of the country and into exile. She and Joyce assisted Reggie September, Dr. Malinga, and Hilda Bernstein, amongst others, to leave the country. They drove comrades up to the Botswana border and made certain that ANC people received them on the other side. During 1964, both Mary and Joyce were detained under 90 Day Detention Act and were held and experienced atrocious conditions at the Women’s Prison at the Old Fort. Joyce was released after 90 days, but Mary was held for another 90 days. Mary was charged with supporting known communists and transporting them out of the country. She was given a suspended sentence.
When released, Mary received the first of three 5 year banning orders. The banning order restricted her to Benoni, prohibited her from attending any political gatherings and meeting with any other banned person. The 15 years of banning, the loss of her son, and the exiling of her daughter, negatively impacted on her health. This situation made it difficult for her to go, for medical treatment to the hospital outside the magisterial area of Benoni. Consequently, Aunty Mary and her husband required a permit from the local authorities to go to the hospital. Yet, she still mentored and influenced emerging activists from the Benoni Students’ Movement, such as Azhar and Feroz Cachalia.
On 21 October 1979, Mary passed away in Benoni. Sydney Mafumadi, Prema Naidoo and other close comrades of Mary ensured that her funeral was an act of defiance against the apartheid regime. Her coffin was draped with the ANC flag and grievers sang freedom songs – in accordance with her death-bed request she made to Naidoo. Today there is a Women’s Shelter and Clinic in Actonville, Benoni which is named after Mary Moodley.
Bannings, Bannings. Chapter twelve from the Digital Imaging South Africa, [online], Available at www.disa.ukzn.ac.za [Accessed on 7 August 2012]|Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, (2000), Women Marching Into the 21st Century: Wathint' Abafazi, Wathint' Imbokodo, p.34
Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. 2019. “Mary Moodley - A Dedicated Community Organiser, Unionist and Activist”. [online: 8 September 2020].