Dorothy Nyembe

Dorothy Nyembe

Today I am profiling Dorothy Nyembe, formerly Gardiner Street.
This woman was a force to be reckoned with!


dorothy nyembeDorothy Nomzansi Nyembe, known as “Mam D”, was born on 31 December 1931, near Dundee in northern KwaZulu-Natal, and she died in Umlazi on 17 December 1998.

Dorothy attended mission schools until grade 11, and at the age of fifteen gave birth to her only child.

Growing up in rural Apartheid, she was deeply motivated to bring change to the situation of all black South Africans.

She joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1952,  and immediately took an active role in the Defiance Campaign. Dorothy was one of the organisers of the Women’s in March on 9 August 1956, and she led the Natal contingent to Pretoria where 20 000 women marched to oppose pass laws for women. 

In December of that same year, she was one of the 156 people arrested and charged with high treason for participating in the Defiance Campaign, but the charges against her were dropped.

When the pass laws continued to apply, anger among women in the Cato Manor township outside Durban took the form of campaigns against the municipal beer halls. Dorothy had already been a community leader in the protests against forced removals in Cato Manor, and now took on a key role in the beer hall protests.

Brewing traditional beer in the townships was one of the only viable sources of income for women, which led the government to make home brewing illegal as well as set up their own municipal beer halls in the city. Not only were men spending the family income in these infamous beer halls, but the revenue they generated supported the apartheid machinery. The women were outraged. 

In 1959, brutal police raids aimed at smashing up home brewing led to tremendous anger, riots and killings by the police at Cato Manor. Dorothy called for a total boycott of the beer halls. In huge demonstrations, women armed with sticks marched into the beer-halls, attacking men who were drinking, and wrecking the facilities, despite the presence of police. The drinkers fled.

One vivid account recalls that the women were very powerful. Some came half dressed (in traditional dress) with their breasts exposed, and when they got near this place the police tried to block the women. When they saw this, the women turned and pulled up their skirts. The police closed their eyes and the women passed by and went in.

dorothyIn 1961, she was recruited in Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the ANC. She was arrested and banned for five years, yet even in her isolation she continued to defy the government, fighting for racial and gender equality.
After her release, she was again arrested in 1968 and sentenced in 15 years in jail accused of assisting and harbouring members of Umkhonto weSizwe.
Omar-Badsha-Dorothy-Nyembe-celebrating-after-been-release-from-a-15-year-prison-sentance-1984-copyThese longs years were spent in prisons for women, far from Dorothy’s family. Her work involved washing the clothes of the male convicts.
Dorothy fought for better conditions for prisoners, and went on a hunger strike to protest the abysmal treatment of women in prison.


When she was released in 1984, she went on to work on developing women’s leadership and education, and advocated for women’s social issues. In 1992, she was awarded the Chief Albert Luthuli Prize for her commitment to the struggle, and in 1994 she became a Member of Parliament.


At her funeral at Umlazi, outside Durban, shortly after Christmas, one respectful man ruefully reflected that he still carried the scar where Nyembe had hit him during the beer-hall protests. 


dorothy nyembe statue
Her statue was unveiled in November 2016 in Umlazi E Section, near the Glebelands Hostel.aption
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