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Lydia Komape-Ngwenya (1935 - )

The Order of Luthuli in

Lydia Komape-Ngwenya (1935 - ) Awarded for:
Commitment to worker’s rights, the empowerment of rural women and the liberation of our people.

Profile of Lydia Komape-Ngwenya

Lydia Komape-Ngwenya was born in 1935 in Matlala in the Northern Province. She was one of seven children. Her family was part of the congregation of a mission farm where her father was a deacon. Her parents supported the family by farming mission land; however, the community of mission “tenants” was deprived of their ploughing land. Losing the farming land had a devastating impact on the well-being of her family, which saw a dramatic change in her family’s circumstances. The older children had to leave school and look for work to help support their younger siblings. Komape-Ngwenya left school after completing Standard Seven (Grade Nine). She moved to Johannesburg to look for work, where for decades she struggled against the pass laws. She was in and out of jail and was forced to keep lowly paid jobs because of the risk of arrest.

Komape-Ngwenya worked at the multinational-owned Heinemann Electric factory near Alexandra. The Metal and Allied Work-ers’ Union (Mawu, now amalgamated into the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa), started organising the factory in 1974, when Komape-Ngwenya became a key recruiter. The workers signed up and elected Komape-Ngwenya as one of their shop stewards. After a strike in 1976, the workforce was dismissed and selectively re-hired. Komape-Ngwenya and the other shop stewards were excluded.

In 1977, Mawu employed Komape-Ngwenya as a full-time organiser. A year later, she was asked to start a branch of the Trans-port and General Workers Union (TGWU), which until then had only operated in KwaZulu-Natal. She was one of the few women full-timers in the new emerging independent unions and fought a constant battle against being treated as the “tea girl”. Komape-Ngwenya remained a member of the TGWU until 1985, and participated in the formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions in 1982. She was instrumental in establishing a women’s committee in the federation and saw to it that the TGWU extended its membership base to include cleaners and security guards, whom she regarded as being the most exploited workers. She was especially concerned about the plight of women night-cleaners, who were being subjected to abuse by ex-ploitative supervisors. Her views on the importance of women standing up for themselves were always strong.

In 1985, she left the union to become a full-time fieldworker for the Transvaal Rural Action Committee (TRAC). TRAC supported rural communities threatened with forced removal.

Komape-Ngwenya had always maintained her link with rural people and the impact of the loss of the family’s farming land had made her passionate about rural land rights.

Her support for these communities, especially the women, contributed to the dramatic reprieves from removals. Women played a key role in the struggle against removals. In Kwa-Ngema, the women drew a line in a field and lined up behind it, holding farm implements. They told the officials that if they crossed the line, they would attack them.

Komape-Ngwenya played a key role in supporting women in the strategies they adopted and implemented. This was not an easy process. Not only were the women fighting a racist government under the structures of the then state of emergency, but also the restrictions and prejudices of a male-dominated rural society. Once it became clear that they were playing a role in resisting the removal, they were allowed to speak, but only on their knees. Komape-Ngwenya also played a crucial role in this difficult and uneven process of transformation on all fronts. In 1990, women from the rural communities who had worked together to fight forced removals and farm evictions joined forces to form the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM). Komape-Ngwenya was the founder of the organisation. She has been particularly active supporting the RWM in her home area of Rakgwadi, near Marble Hall.

In 1994, Komape-Ngwenya was elected onto the African National Congress list for Parliament. She became a Member of Parlia-ment and has played an active role in her home constituency. People with land problems from far and wide come to her for help. In Parliament, she was a member of the Land Portfolio Committee and the Agriculture Portfolio Committee until 1999.

Lydia Komape-Ngwenya could have opted for a life of servitude under oppressive rule against women. Instead, she confronted injustices with dignity. She is still active in promoting awareness concerning the plight of rural women. She remains an active member of the Water and Forestry Portfolio Committee. She also serves on the Status of Women and Gender Committee.