Sophia Williams - de Bruyn

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Sophia de Bruyn (Williams)

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About Sophia Williams - de Bruyn

Sophia Williams-de Bruyn THE LAST OF THE MATRIARCHS

By Khubu Meth


The only surviving leader of the 1956 march, Sophia Williams-de Bruyn - then barely 18, together with Lilian Ngoyi, Rehana Moosa and Helen Joseph - led 20 000 women in protest against the infamous pass laws. Even before the march Williams-de Bruyn had been a champion of the cause of equality for women.

Today, as deputy speaker of the Gauteng legislature, she continues her struggle to work for the betterment of the community. In recognition of her work, she was appointed commissioner on the Commission for Gender Equality.

Williams-de Bruyn was born in 1938 in Port Elizabeth. Her introduction to unions started when, as a young girl, she worked at a textile factory to earn pocket money. She never returned to school and instead continued working at the factory where she later became a shop steward. She became an executive member of the Textile Workers' Union in Port Elizabeth, working alongside people like Raymond Mhlaba, Vuyisile Mini and Govan Mbeki.

She was a founder member of the SA Congress of Trade Unions. Because of her interactions with the political movements of the day, she was appointed full-time organiser of the Coloured People's Congress in 1955.

She married Henry Benny de Bruyn, who was already working for the ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe.

By 1963, her husband was in exile in Lusaka. She joined him six years later and went on to complete her A and O levels while working as an administrator for the ANC. She continued studying and by 1977 had obtained a teacher's diploma. In 1980 she was one of the founder members of the ANC education council which set the curriculum for the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania to give young ANC members a world-class education. Williams-de Bruyn was later tasked by the ANC to help build the capacity of the South West Africa People's Organisation's Institute for Namibia.

She has received numerous awards and was the first recipient of the women's award for exceptional national service. She was also presented with the Mahatma Ghandi Award in recognition of her contribution to democracy in SA.


Sophia Williams-De Bruyn (born 1938)

is a former South African anti-apartheid activist. Born in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, Williams-De Bruyn rose from working in the Van Lane Textile factory to become an executive member of the Textile Workers Union in Port Elizabeth. She was a founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Union (SACTU), the predecessor of the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU). In 1955, she was appointed as a full-time organiser of the ‘Coloured People’s Congress’ in Johannesburg.

On August 9, 1956, she led the march of 20 000 women on the Union Buildings of Pretoria along with Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph[1] and Albertina Sisulu to protest the requirement that women carry pass books as part of the pass laws. She is the last living leader of the march. The recipient of numerous awards, she is currently a provincial legislator in Gauteng Province for the ANC.



Sophia Williams-De Bruyn is a living legend of the South African liberation struggle, who has contributed immensely to the dismantling of Apartheid. She participated in the major political campaigns of pre-1994 while still a student and has never looked back, she says.

She is the only surviving member of the four leaders of the historic women’s march to Pretoria which took place on 9 August 1956. The march was against the carrying of the notorious pass that limited the movement of black people within the country. Despite the intimidation tactics of the Apartheid regime, the march was supported by more than 20 000 defiant women who translated the slogan “within’ imbokodo” into action.

It was not only the sheer number of women that participated in the historic march to Pretoria that made it quite a unique and significant event, but also the participation of women from other racial groups in solidarity with the toiling black women. This day has remained in the psyche of the nation for generations and is currently celebrated in post-apartheid South Africa as “Women’s Day”.

Tireless worker for human rights: Williams-De Bruyn’s selfless contribution to the liberation struggle was not confined to the dismantling of apartheid. She also played a major role in the struggle for economic justice through her participation in the workers’ struggle led by the militant South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) of which she was a founder member.

SACTU had a close relationship with the African National Congress (ANC) and in many ways played a major role in directing the burgeoning organisation’s focus towards the plight of the working people. When SACTU was disbanded due to the repression of the Apartheid government, the core of its cadres in exile worked tirelessly to form the giant labour federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Like a true activist, she bemoans the fact that the current generation of cadres concentrates more on paying attention to issues such as deployment and cancerous jockeying for position – a luxury in her generation. She says that, at the height of the struggle against apartheid, her generation did not know the word “deployment”. Instead, ANC cadres always rose to the occasion when they were given assignments. Every task that was geared towards defeating the state, whether it was painting slogans on the bridges of certain suburbs in Johannesburg or canvassing for the signing of the Freedom Charter and distributing leaflets informing people about the Freedom Charter, it all counted equally.

Scholar of note: During that same year She was recommended, together with other middle-management staff, to be interviewed for a Civil Service Training Course. She successfully met the criteria and was selected to begin the preliminary course at Eskom. The main training courses were undertaken at the Civil Service Training College in London, at the International Training College in Paris, France, and the Bundes Akademy in Bonn, Germany. She did her attachment at No 10 Downing Street, London.

The final course in Civil Service Training Management, was completed in Windhoek, Namibia, where she was attached to the Prime Minister’s office and at the Civil Service Commission of Namibia in 1994.

Diplomat Abroad: Her late husband Henry Benny De Bruyn who was deployed in the department of International Affairs headed by Thabo Mbeki, at that time, was recalled from Italy in 1994 where he was based as the Chief Representative of the ANC in Rome and the Vatican. He worked at Shell House in the DIA and in 1995 when the ANC’s different structures integrated into government Henry Benny De Bruyn was appointed by Foreign Affairs as the first Ambassador to Jordan. She accompanied him as his spouse and they were highly respected and loved by the diplomatic community. They returned in November 1998 before his contract had ended because of his illness. He passed away in June 1999.

Accolades and awards: The contribution of Williams-De Bruyn to gender equality did not go unnoticed as she was appointed by the President to serve as a Commissioner on the Gender Commission. She also serves on the Sarah Baartman Eminent Person’s Group which comprises a group of men and women who were appointed by the previous Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture to advise on the Sarah Baartman situation. This committee’s focus has, since the return of the late Sarah Baartman, been extended to include any other similar issues. In appreciation of her service to the nation, in June 1999 an award in Class Silver was presented to her by former President Nelson Mandela for meritorious service in the interest of the general public.

Again, in August 1999, she was presented with the Ida Mntwana Award Silver for exceptional service rendered to the women of South Africa. And if this were not enough, President Thabo Mbeki also unveiled the portrait of the four women who led the historic march to the Union Buildings.

In August 2001, she was the first recipient of the Women’s Award for exceptional national service which was presented to her by the Minister for Intelligence Services, Dr LN Sisulu. At the same ceremony she received a Commendation Certificate for having demonstrated devotion and loyalty to South Africa through rendering exceptional service and thereby setting a fine example for others. In recognition of her immense contribution to the establishment of democracy in South Africa, she also received the Mahatma Gandhi Award presented to her by President Mbeki in October 2001.

With all this rich history and a wealth of experience in the political arena, it is no surprise that Sophia Williams-De Bruyn was appointed Deputy Speaker in the Gauteng Legislature following Mary Metcalfe departure from the same position in February this year. She chairs a number of Committee’s and is also tasked with providing oversight role on administration to ensure strategy implementation and that the affairs and concerns of Members of the Legislature (MPLs) are addressed both politically and administratively.

It seems there is no stopping her. Once she sets her energies into a task, you can rest assured that there’ll be positive results and the Legislature is set to gain from her wealth of experience

It was, however, in the ANC as an exile where her contribution was felt. From being a part-time secretary of the SA Coloured People’s Congress, which was an essential component of the Congress Alliance, she rose to the position of secretary of the ANC’s Women League (ANCWL) that was based in Zambia. She also served on the ANCWL Secretariat while at the same time carrying out “special” administrative functions for the late OR Tambo at the ANC headquarters in Lusaka.

Fast-tracking the stuggle: It was also in exile that Williams-De Bruyn realised the need to attend to the unfinished challenge of completing her formal education, which she had left in abeyance. She enrolled for evening studies. This, she says, was a real challenge, as she had to balance her many responsibilities with her studies. With the undying support of her family and the ANC she was able to complete her “O” and “A” levels. Three years later, she went on to study for a Teacher’s Education Diploma, which she completed successfully in 1977.

While in exile, she was not daunted to take on new challenges to fast-track the struggle of oppressed South Africans as illustrated by the number of projects in which she was involved and headed.

In 1980, she was one of the founder members of the ANC Education Council in Lusaka, which was responsible for the education and training of ANC cadres at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College. During the same year she was deployed by the ANC to the United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN) to assist in building the capacity of SWAPO cadres in Administration and Secretarial skills.

In 1984 she was requested by the ANC to establish a Secretarial Project in Mazimbu. The project ran successfully and contributed a great deal in building the capacity of ANC members in exile and who are today holding senior positions in Government, Parastatals and even in the Private sector.

The early 1990s presented a stiff challenge to the ANC which was then in a transient state as it was migrating from its offices in exile and at the same time establishing itself both administratively and politically inside South Africa. Again, the organisation called upon her to come from Lusaka to South Africa to assist as the head of administration in preparing its first legal conference inside the country at NESRAC.

When the ANC was established administratively in South Africa, Williams-De Bruyn was appointed assistant administrator to the deputy secretary-general, a post she performed to the best of her ability until 1993 when she was appointed by the ANC National Working Committee (NWC) as the head of human resources at Shell House.

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