Her Story
In Conversation
Creating a Portrait
A Heroine:
"I felt a lump in my throat when I looked at this large army of women: dignified women, courageous women. I felt so humbled to be part of such bravery."
In Prayer and Protest
Profile of an Icon
Sophia Williams De Bruyn
The 1950s are a blot in South Africa’s history. The decade represents the enforcement of the Group Areas Act, the Immorality Act, the Land Tenure act, the Bantu Education Act – legislation that strips basic civil rights from the majority of the South African population. There is more.
Profile of an Icon
Sophia Williams De Bruyn

The 1950s are a blot in South Africa’s history. The decade represents the enforcement of the Group Areas Act, the Immorality Act, the Land Tenure act, the Bantu Education Act – legislation that strips basic civil rights from the majority of the South African population. There is more. The Population Registration Act restricted the movement of black people and led to an abusive enforcement of the law. There was a tipping point, of course – but mass resistance was met with force. Something needed to be done. Sophia Williams De Bruyn took her place at the head of 20 000 women and made a stand.

She is fine-featured, a petite woman. It’s difficult to imagine her as an activist, a broad-shouldered leader of the masses. Her power is not in her physicality. Her gaze is winsome, her manner is kind, she speaks with articulate deliberation, but underneath all of that, it’s pure guts. Make no mistake – the woman bares an iron will.

Arm in arm, defiant, Williams De Bruyn marched at the head of the throng with the other leaders – Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa. Williams De Bruyn was barely 18.

“They came in a disciplined manner, courageously climbing the steps of the Union building,” Williams De Bruyn remembers. “Indian women wore their saris, the ANC Women’s League wore their black, green and gold, there were those in their everyday wear, and there were those from rural areas in traditional dress. Imagine that colourful array of women climbing those steps…”

Williams De Bruyn is the last surviving leader of that march on apartheid. She was born in a neighbourhood called Korsten, Port Elizabeth, in 1938. “But that doesn’t exist anymore,” she says. “They pulled the houses down, it’s an industrial area now.”

The Korsten community relied on Williams De Bruyn’s father to write their letters to the white administrative bureaucracy regarding grants and pensions. The clerks had no patience for the attempts of the largely illiterate community and it was Henry Williams who became their voice. Mr Williams had no idea that his young daughter would take kind-natured community service to the next level.

The labour force of the Port Elizabeth Van Lane textile factory were made aware of her strength and courage early on. “My activism started when I was still at school,” she says. “During the holidays I would work at the factory for pocket money. But I soon became a voice for the workers because they couldn’t articulate their issues and they would use me to go to the bosses. I became more and more involved – it was part-time work until I left school. Then I became permanently involved and was made a shop steward and elected to the executive of the Textile Worker’s Union.”

Williams De Bruyn’s work with the union brought her close to leaders like Vuyisile Mini and Govan Mbeki. Her momentum gathered, driving her deeper into the struggle against injustice and apartheid. She was a founder member of the militant South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and organised the Coloured People’s Congress to assist the ANC in grappling with apartheid legislation. Sophia Williams De Bruyn cultivated a presence and a powerful style of leadership, understated but firm.

Imagine confronting Prime Minister Strijdom in 1956. You are a part of a marginalised, mistreated race group, often ruled with violence. You are 18 years old. “Ironically, I didn’t feel scared,” she says. “I think I felt more excitement, and yes, I felt proud, and I felt very encouraged. There was safety in numbers.”

The women had a contingency plan in case of resistance. A second layer of leadership was lined up behind the linked arms of Joseph, Ngoyi, Sisulu and Williams De Bruyn. Should the police harass the frontline leadership the plan was for the second tier to cover them and lead the 20 000-strong mass to also bend and pray. “The group would cover the situation in prayer. The police would have to arrest the whole group,” she explains.

While the group stood at the steps of the Union Building, respectful of its manicured lawns and pampered gardens, the leaders entered the halls in search of the prime minister. But Strijdom had no mind to receive this defiant act.

“Lillian Ngoyi returned and announced to the mass that we had gone to see Strijdom and that we had delivered the petitions,” Williams De Bruyn remembers. But Strijdom wasn’t present, he avoided the women. “He’s not here, he ran away from you,” Ngoyi said to the crowd, “He was scared of you and he ran away.”

And with that the women burst into song. It was started by a single woman and spontaneously picked up by the rest. “It wasn’t a song that was composed before,” Williams De Bruyn says. “It started there and everybody sang.”

The women of the 1956 march achieved what they had set out to do. “At that time you couldn’t just walk around the Union Buildings, especially not black women,” she explains. “Ordinary people could not walk in there, lounge around, have a picnic, rest there. It was never heard of. And so that day was complete. You know, we entered the Holy Grail and it was cheeky to have dared to enter the domain of the Union building.”

By 1963, her husband, Henry De Bruyn, was in exile in Lusaka. She joined him several years later. While in exile, Williams De Bruyn realised the need to attend to the unfinished challenge of completing her formal education, which she had sacrificed for the early struggle. She enrolled for evening studies and graduated with a diploma in education.

Never one to languish, by 1980 she was one of the founder members of the ANC Education Council in Lusaka, and was responsible for the education and training of ANC cadres. Then she was deployed to the United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN) to assist in building the capacity of SWAPO cadres in administration and secretarial skills.

In 1984 Williams De Bruyn established a project that contributed to the preparation and development of ANC members in exile. Many of these individuals now hold senior positions in government, parastatals and the private sector.

The early 1990s presented a transient period for the ANC as it merged its exiled members with an administrative base on home soil.  Williams De Bruyn held senior administrative and human resource positions until accompanying her husband as the first Ambassador to Jordan.

With the incredible respect garnered through a lifetime dedicated to the party, it was no surprise that Sophia Williams De Bruyn was appointed Deputy Speaker in the Gauteng Legislature in 2005. She went on to serve as a human resources manager and a commissioner at the Commission for Gender Equality and represented the National Executive Committee of the ANC Women’s League

Today, as Williams De Bruyn remembers the march, she sits with perfect posture, hands clasped, resting on her lap. For a moment she seems distant, as if she is reliving the past. She turns to speak. “I don’t think words can express how I feel,” she says.

“I remember that – as we the women who were sitting there, were positioning ourselves – I felt a lump in my throat. I looked at this large army of women. Dignified women. Courageous women. And I felt so humbled to be a part of such bravery, an act that encouraged the greater struggle. The song we sang that day, Bathindi Bafasi, it warned that if you strike a woman, you strike a rock.”

We apologise for the omission of Rahima Moosa as a leader in the march on parliament in an earlier publication of this essay.

Play video
In Conversation
Sophia Williams De Bruyn reminisces with Adrian Steirn about the great women's march to the Union Buildings in 1956 and recounts the dignity, bravery and courage of these women who changed the course of South African history.
A Portrait
A series of behind-the-scenes images reflecting the 21 Icons team at work.
Williams De Bruyn kneels amongst the roses in the gardens of The Union Building in Pretoria – the very place upon which she marched almost 60 years ago. In her hands she holds a book of prayer, which is symbolic of their plan to kneel in prayer should the Union officials attempt to break up the protest.