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Elizabeth Sophia Honman (Posthumous)

The Order of Luthuli in

Elizabeth Sophia Honman (Posthumous) Awarded for:
Her excellent contribution to the national liberation struggle in general, and the struggle of workers’ rights in particular as well as her contribution to women’s rights struggles, and the realisation of a non-racial, non-sexist, free and democratic South Africa.
Profile of Elizabeth Sophia Honman

Sophia Honman was born on 15 July 1910 in Transvaal (Gauteng). She was also popularly known by her assumed name Bettie du Toit. On the eve of the Great Depression of 1929, while 18 years old, Honman moved to Johannesburg and started working as a domestic worker in a doctor’s house, taking care of the children.

When she was 19, the doctor took her to work at a hospital, where she worked for three years and learned caring for patients. Her profession is often described as a nurse. It was during this period that she met, and started working with, unionists such as Johanna and Hester Cornelius.

In 1935, still in her early 20s, she and four other Afrikaans young women were defended by Basner when prosecuted after an enthusiastic brawl with strike-breakers at a textile mill. They refused to pay fines of a pound each, and opted for 10 days in the Johannesburg Fort – the first white women to do such a thing.

Honman worked side by side with other unionists, such as Ray Alexander, JB Marks, John Gaetsewe and Mark Shope in organising workers for better wages. By 1933, she had joined the Friends of the Soviet Union, of which she became assistant secretary.

In the same year, through Dr Max Joffe, she joined the Young Communist League, serving as secretary for the organisation between 1934 and 1936. She subsequently joined the South African Communist Party. In March 1936, she left for the Soviet Union to study at the International Lenin School and the Communist University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow.

Upon her return, she intensified her trade union and political work. It was in 1938, after her return from the Soviet Union, that she started using the name “Bettie du Toit”. It was also during this time that she met Govan and Epainette Mbeki in Durban.

In December 1952, the Minister of Justice, CR Swart, issued an order for her to resign as secretary of the Food, Canning and Allied Workers Union as well as the National Union of Laundering (Laundry) and Clothing and Dyeing Workers Union in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act, 1950. In 1952, she was banned under the Act.

She was the first union official to receive such an order and was also prohibited from attending any gathering for two years, an order extended by a further five years in March 1959. In 1963, she went into exile to Ghana, where she worked in radio. Her working life ended when she became blind while living in that country, forcing her to move to London.

There is a plaque in her memory in the Garden of Remembrance at the Craighall Park Catholic Church, Johannesburg. She passed away at the age of 92 on 31 January 2002 in Johannesburg, having lived in a non-racial, non-sexist, free and democratic South Africa since 1994 – a society that she fought for and dedicated her entire life to.