Vesta Smith (affectionately known as Ma Vee) was born in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) on 20 July 1922. Her father worked as a clerk at Robinson Deep Mine where she spent her early years with her four sisters. Her mother was a seamstress.
The family’s stay in Vrededorp did not last long as the government’s policy of forced removals soon compelled them to resettle in Noordgesig, a designated Coloured area geographically adjoining Soweto. Smith was eighteen years old.
As an ANC volunteer, Smith attended the 1955 Congress of the People in Kliptown and joined the ANC Women’s March, against passes, in August 1956 – two events which would make a lasting impression on her political life. She remained active in the ANC until it was banned and continued to work with its support structures.
Smith also served on the Executive Committee of the Black People’s Convention (BPC). She was denied a passport by the South African Government from 1972 until the unbanning of the ANC in 1990.
In June 1976 Smith joined the Soweto students’ protests against Bantu education and provided shelter, hiding leaders of the uprising. Her activism brought her to the attention of the security police who acted against her and her family.
In 1980, Smith was arrested in terms of the Prohibition of Illegal Gatherings Act, held for four months as an awaiting trial prisoner and then given a five-year suspended sentence. She was prohibited from attending gatherings and speaking publicly from 1980 until 1990.
Smith was a founding member of the United Democratic Front (UDF). She was co-chair of the Anti-President’s Council Committee and participated in door-to-door work to dissuade people from voting for the President’s Council. She was co-chair of the Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW) and was a member of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). In 1986 she was detained together with her three sons and held at the Johannesburg Prison for 10 months under the State of Emergency Regulations.
Smith spent her adult life serving the community, working to develop the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) and assisting detainees throughout the 1980s. She joined the LRC in Johannesburg where she remained until her retirement in 1995. Her contribution to ensuring that those involved in bringing an end to Apartheid had access to legal representation, was a combination of her respect and support for people who faced the tyranny of Apartheid’s forced removals. In August 2012, the LRC commemorated women's month by honouring Vesta Smith for contributing her life to the realisation of democracy in South Africa at an event in Cape Town. The Minister in the Presidency for National Planning, Trevor Manuel, delivered the keynote address titled "Social Activism and the Law" at this function.
Smith worked at the Christian Institute with Dr Beyers Naude and Horst Kleinschmidt until it was banned. She also worked at the South African Committee for Higher Education as an administrator before joining the LRC.
She was well respected in the community of Noordgesig and was an active member of her church.
Bannings, detentions and harassment by the system never broke her spirit and belief in a future, free from Apartheid. Instead, she resolutely intensified her fight against institutionalised racism. She was a brave woman committed to her country and the principles of a non-racial, non-sexist and united South Africa.
Furthermore, she was a role-model for many female activists who played a role in dismantling Apartheid.
In 2008, the South African Government conferred a National Award, The Order of Luthuli in Silver on Vesta Smith for her contribution to the struggle against Apartheid and for her tireless involvement in community affairs.
Vesta Smith passed away on 9 September 2013.