Her collegue in the anti-apartheid struggle, Hilda Bernstein, describes Florence Matomela as ‘a woman who gave out warmth and life like the African sun, full of lively energy and songs and cheerfulness of her infinitely energy and splendid personality’ and ‘Her ebullient personality and supreme courage and loyalty come from her absolute confidence in the future.’[1] Like Bernstein and many other activists of the era, participating in the resistance against the apartheid government was ‘an unrelenting struggle and unrelenting sacrifice’—especially for Matomela, giving her life for it. Like her colleagues, Matomela too suffered from harassment, imprisonment and banning orders from the Apartheid government in an attempt to subdue resistance. Nevertheless, for many other activist heroes like Matomela that confidence in the future of their nation is what led them to the highest sacrifice for a dream of freedom, for a free and democratic South Africa. Matomela is special because she represented the backbone of women leaders in the Eastern Cape, especially in Port Elizabeth which became one of the most organized centers of resistance. She dedicated her adult life to the Anti-apartheid struggle adjoining it with the Women’s Rights causes, taking executive roles in the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) and in the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). Moreover, she was pivotal in the organization of the prominent demonstrations of the 1950s, such as the Defiance Campaign, the creation of the FEDSAW, and the Women’s March to Pretoria.

Florence Matomela was born in 1910 in Port Elizabeth. She was an educator and mother of five children.[2] She grew in what was known as the Red Location, the word location being used to designate areas where black people lived, sharing that same status around Port Elizabeth with the White Location, Elundini, KwaFord, Boast Village and Masangwanaville.[3] The Red location was the predecessor of what became as New Brighton Township where Matomela passed most of her time as anti-apartheid feminist activist. The Red Location was an area historically plighted with little available housing. Many of the people could not afford their own houses and shared living spaces. The government refused to allocate money to provide state housing for Port Elizabeth’s black workers, and in some cases as many as 25 people occupied one house. [4] Living conditions were not healthy. There were not proper medical facilities, the people used river or rainwater to cook and bath, and because of a lack of bathroom facilities and other sanitary conveniences, many people were arrested for public urination. Furthermore, the forced removals of Africans from Korsten, Fairview and South End to New Brighton Township produced an outcry from the population. Between the 1940s and the 1950s the apartheid government faced one of the most politically coherent black communities in the country.[5] Matomela was among the children of families that survived in such a manner, as she grew older, she started to realize the reality of South Africa at the time, and the impact that organized demonstration cam have in the process of liberation.

Moreover, the 1950s were the decade that cemented Matomela as one of the prominent anti-apartheid women activist leaders. It was in this decade that she became one of the prominent leading activists the of the African Congress Women’s League (ANCWL), being the Cape provincial organizer of the ANCWL in the mid-1950s, and an executive member of the Federation of South African Women, becoming vice president in 1954.[6] In 1950,  rumors of new pass laws were leaked to the press. In that same year, demonstrations ensued in South Africa’s main urban areas, such as Langa, Uitenhage, East London, Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg.[7] In 1950, Matomela organized a protest in which demonstrators burnt their passes. Moreover, by the 1952 the Native Laws Amendment Act tightened influx control in the urban areas of South Africa, requiring all Africans not to remain in the urban parameters more than 72 hours unless they possessed the documentation that allowed them to stay. The only women allowed to remain where those that were the wives and daughters of legal African men.[8] In that same year, the Natives Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act was passed, stating that men must carry now a single reference book holding relevant information to Apartheid authorities, such as identity, employment, place of legal residence, payment of taxes, and permission in the urban areas.[9] The act also stated that ‘every native’ in the near future will need to carry their own pass including women in the legal language. Moreover, the document only used masculine pronouns, making the distinction not clear.[10]

The response to the Apartheid government’s influx control measures materialized in a cooperative campaign between the African National Congress (ANC), and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) known as the Defiance Campaign. Matomela along with other Port Elizabeth leaders, such as Ray Mhlaba, leader of the ANC in the Eastern Cape, got recorded by the secret police who infiltrated their meetings in preparation for the ANC’s response to the newly implemented laws of influx control.[11] They held meetings in Emlotheni in New Brighton. The police recorded Matomela’s speech as:

Malan is a Boer and the son of a thief; we do not demand much but we would also like the privileges that Malan, Donges and Swart and their wives have; Malan has applied apartheid in New Brighton railway station; we are going to break those laws in spite of the machines guns and bombs; we will not respect Malan and his unjust laws; Swart says he is the master of Justice, but I say he is the master of the unjust laws; every white man is a Satan and you must treat him as such; if you have never seen Satan in hell, look at the white man, then you can say that you have seen Satan.[12]

Matomela was radically appealing to women and volunteers to join the ANC, at the moment she was the president of the ANCWL in the Eastern Cape, and she used her confidence to pander to the masses of still doubtful Africans that had not joined the movement.

Matomela took a pivotal role in the Defiance Campaign of 1952; she was one of the great organizers and applicators of the Programme of Action, adopted in 1949 by the ANC, which overtook more radical tactics of defiance to exert pressure in the government. Along with Raymond Mhlaba, Vuyisile Mini and Govan Mbeki, Matomela formed part of the greater group of well-trained members, from the ANC and SAIC, who defied discriminatory laws to be arrested in an attempt to overblow jails and over-extend the judicial system. [13] In a midwinter morning of June 26, 1952, Matomela and her group reunited to defy while singing ‘What have done, we African people?’, but by five o’clock sergeants were waiting for the people to be apprehended. [14] Nevertheless, Matomela organized and led a batch of volunteers that defied the curfew regulations and entered the ‘Europeans Only’ section of the New Brighton Railway Station.[15] She was arrested and spent six weeks in prison for civil disobedience. Later that year, in September, she was one of the thirty-five ANC leaders arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act as the government tried to crush the campaign. She was given a nine-month suspended sentence.[16] That same year she was also banned for six months, being confined to New Brighton.[17]

Moreover, in April 1953, Matomela, at the time, the Eastern cape leader of the Women’s League, along with Frances Baard, local leader of the Food and Canning Worker’s Union (FCWU), and Ray Alexander, the general secretary of the FCWU, gathered and issued a convocation to create a national federation of women in South Africa.[18] No records exist of the meeting, but it is said that 40 women were part of it and pursued the advantages of an umbrella body that would coordinate a national women’s strategy to fight for issues like food and transport costs, passes and influx control. When 78 leading women, black and white, agreed to a letter of invitation calling on women in the country to attend a conference to promote women’s rights, and with the help of Hilda Bernstein and Ray Alexander, the FSAW was launched on April 17, 1954 in Johannesburg’s Trades Hall.[19] Matomela was part of the first batch of women leaders, and assumed the role of vice president along with Gladys Smith, Lilian Ngoyi, Bertha Mkize. The presidency was assumed by Ida Mtwana. Furthermore, following that year, in 1955, she formed part of the Congress of the People in where the Freedom Charter was signed, which had parts from the Women’s Charter by FEDSAW. Matomela’s participation in the Congress led her to form part of the 156 detainees of Treason Trial of 1956, but her charges were later acquitted.[20]

Moreover, in the same year, the Federation of South African Women started organizing, with the help of prominent local leaders, the Pretoria Women’s March to the Union buildings that sought to unite women in the fight to end apartheid and discrimination against women, especially that towards black women. The march materialized in August 9th, 1956.[21] It was on that day that more than 20,000 women of all races and from all over South Africa gathered at the seat of Government at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to demand the repeal of the pass laws.[22] Among her sisters Matomela sang: ‘Strijdom you have struck a rock; you have touched the women!’.[23] They stormed the buildings arriving without being deterred by the ban on the march, and Matomela did not also care about hers, being banned in 1955 for two years which supposedly confined her to New Brighton.[24] She reunited with other prominent women leaders, such as Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophie Williams, and Rahim Moosa and Francis Baard. The women, seeing that Strijdom was not in the building, stood in silence for 30 minutes, raising their arms in the Congress salute, and following it by singing the anthem of free Africa, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika![25]

In 1962, Matomela was served with a banning order confining her to New Brighton and prohibiting her from attending meetings for five years.[26] Matomela asked the Magistrate to explain her the boundaries of New Brighton and was told that the municipal Surveyor would soon define the boundaries to her, since she had to attend Livingstone Hospital once a fortnight for medical treatment for her diabetes, needing insulin for her kidneys.[27] The New Age’s article that informed us of this event also quotes Matomela’s response to her new ban to the Apartheid government: ‘I have had my share of bans and arrests, such small talk does not frighten me, I shall struggle until we reach our goal—FREEDOM FOR ALL AND OPRESSION FOR NONE!’[28] The Federation of South African Women, which was banned and subsequently underground, responded by saying ‘The order is deliberately designed to debar her from normal human relationships with men and women of other races, who prohibited from entering the place to which she is confined, and also form association with other African men and women who do not live in New Brighton. She is prevented from earning any sort of livelihood.’[29]

Moreover, Matomela was among those heavily affected by The Suppression of Communism Act that let the government punish anti-apartheid activist with extension of sentences, and further charges. In October 18 of 1963, the security police of Port Elizabeth arrested Frances Baard and Florence Matomela using the 90-Day Detention Law promulgated by the General Law Amendment Act.[30] Frances Baard was a colleague of Matomela and a renown anti-apartheid feminist activist, at the time, Eastern Cape president of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), and Matomela was a member of the Federation’s Executive Committee. While imprisoned, Matomela was kept in solitary confinement, sometimes without access to the insulin she needed for her diabetes.[31] Later, both were then convicted  in October 1964 for furthering the aims of the ANC, which was also banned by the Suppression of Communism Act. Baard and Matomela were given  5 years imprisonment for the crime.[32] The Suppression of Communism Act would reappear in Matomela’s life, in 1966 she was trailed for an extension for sentence along one hundred sixty-two political prisoners, and was transferred to the East London Prison to face further charges. [33][34] In the final years of her life she was suffering of diabetic comas while being imprisoned.[35] She was released in June 1969, then again banned to New Brighton where her health deteriorated. She was not told right away that her husband had died during her imprisonment—the shock was too great, and she died immediately after her release from prison.[36]

In response to Matomela’s death, Hilda Bernstein, wrote a memoir criticizing the Apartheid government for being the direct cause for Matomela’s health deterioration, saying: “Not long ago we read of the death of Florence Matomela; and marked one murder to the white supremacists, who killed her as surely as they killed Ngudle and Salooje, Mini and Mayikise, Lenkoe and Kgoathe”. She continues to state that her death was labeled due to natural cause, “Their natural causes apart from beatings and torture, include illnesses that can be controlled or cured in any civilized country today; and a lifetime of poverty, of insufficient food and of hardship also adds up to ‘natural causes’.”[37]

Nevertheless, Matomela’s contributions to the Anti-Apartheid struggle did not go unnoticed, nor her strong character to lead others. She was a leader that organized the Eastern Cape’s ANC Women’s League in the Eastern Cape and formed part of the Executive Committee of the Federation of South African Women. Furthermore, her leadership in the protests of the pass-laws, the Defiance Campaign, the formation of the FEDSAW, the creation of the Women’s charter, her participation through the FEDSAW in the Congress of the People, the Women’s March to Pretoria and the Treason Trials, attest to her will to say to adversities: ‘Never mind the wind and the rain, we’ll fight’—cementing as one of the prominent Women leaders and activists of South Africa. [38]

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project


[1] Hilda Bernstein, For their triumphs and for their tears: Women in Apartheid South Africa (London: International Defence and Aid Fund), 62.

[2] Vuyisile Msila. A Place to Live: Red Location and its History from 1903 to 2013(Stellenbosch: African Sun), 62.

[3] Msila. A Place to Live, 67.

[4] Msila. A Place to Live, 56.

[5] Msila. A Place to Live, 167.

[6] South African History Online, “Florence Matomela”. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/florence-matomela

[7] South African History Online, “The Turbulent 1950s—Women as defiant activists”. https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/turbulent-1950s-women-defiant-activists

[8] SAHO, “The Turbulent 1950s—Women as defiant activists”.

[9] SAHO, “The Turbulent 1950s—Women as defiant activists”.

[10] Meghan Healy-Clancy. “Women and Apartheid”. Oxford Encyclopedia of African History. https://oxfordre.com/africanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190277734.001.0001/acrefore-9780190277734-e-184?rskey=gnRy5h&result=12

[11] Ray Mhlaba. Raymond Mhlaba’s Personal Memoirs: Reminiscing from Rwanda and Uganda (Pretoria: HRSC Press), 82. https://books.google.com.mx/books?id=FI-5R1Pf6pEC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

[12] Mhlaba. Raymond Mhlaba’s Personal Memoirs, 82.

[13] SAHO, “The Turbulent 1950s—Women as defiant activists”.

[14] Bernstein, For their triumphs and for their tears, 62.

[15] Mhlaba. Raymond Mhlaba’s Personal Memoirs, 84.

[17] New Age, “Florence Matomela Confined to New Brighton”(Midrand:TNA Media),6. https://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/new-age-vol8-no27-apr-1962

[18] SAHO, “The Turbulent 1950s—Women as defiant activists”.

[19] United Nations Department of Political and Security Council Affairs. Unit on Apartheid: Women Against Apartheid, No.38/75, 1. http://disa.ukzn.ac.za/sites/default/files/pdf_files/rep19751100.037.051.001.pdf

[20] UN. Unit on Apartheid, 1.

[21] UN. Unit on Apartheid, 1.

[22] UN. Unit on Apartheid, 1.

[23] UN. Unit on Apartheid, 1.

[24] New Age, “Florence Matomela Confined to New Brighton”,6.

[25] UN. Unit on Apartheid, 1.

[26] New Age, “Florence Matomela Confined to New Brighton”,6.

[27] New Age, “Florence Matomela Confined to New Brighton”,6.

[28] New Age, “Florence Matomela Confined to New Brighton”,6.

[29] New Age, “Florence Matomela Confined to New Brighton”,6.

[31] Bernstein, For their triumphs and for their tears: Women in Apartheid South, 62.

[32] Cherryl Walker. Women and Resistance in South Africa (New York: Monthly Review Press), 272. https://books.google.com.mx/books?id=xX-vhZQ1QpIC&lpg=PP3&pg=PA191#v=onepage&q=Florence&f=false

[34] UN. Unit on Apartheid: Women Against Apartheid, No.38/75, 6. http://disa.ukzn.ac.za/sites/default/files/pdf_files/rep19751100.037.051.001.pdf

[35] UN. Unit on Apartheid: Women Against Apartheid, No.38/75, 6.

[36] Walker. Women and Resistance in South Africa, 273.

[37] Bernstein, Women in the Front Line: Hilda and Rusty Bernstein Papers: B3.1.5

[38] Walker. Women and Resistance in South Africa, 273.