Dorothy Adams was born in 1928 in Wellington, 72 kilometres north-east of Cape Town. Wellington had been declared on the farm of Champagne in 1840, and it grew as the result of the wine making industry, tannery and fruit production. The family of Dorothy was directly associated with the introduction of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) in South Africa. Dorothy’s great-grandfather, Francis MacDonald Gow, was a West Indian-born photographer and minister of the AMEC. He arrived in Cape Town with his American wife, Sarah, and established a church and subsequently became a member of Cape Town’s growing Coloured elite.

Gow was involved in the struggle for the prevention of the secession of the Ethiopians from the AMEC, and as a result he became a leading figure in the church. He educated three of his children at the Wilberforce Institute in the United States, where other notable South Africans (such as Charlotte Maxeke) also studied. His sons Edward, Levi and Francis went on to become preachers in the AMEC, and one of them, Francis, became its first African-born Bishop. During the nineteenth century, the AMEC evangelized extensively in Africa, and in the 1880s. Adams grandfather, Edward George Gow, had moved to Wellington with his wife in the early twentieth century as a minister of the AMEC.

At the time that Dorothy was born, the town was predominantly Coloured in its population outlook. Many of the workers were employed on the surrounding farms and in the local shoe factory. Dorothy’s father, Frederick Adams, worked in the factory, and her mother Rachel Gow, was employed as a cook in the same vicinity. Her mother and both of her parents were actively involved in the activities of the AMEC. Thus, religion had a profound influence in her early life.

Adams was educated in Wellington up to standard six (Grade 8), and then at the Athlone Training College in Paarl up to Standard eight (Grade 10). This was followed by two years of studies of basic teacher training where she qualified by the age of 17. Over time, Adams became disassociated from the church, notably as the apartheid government introduced the Group Areas Act through the church. She was disappointed by the failure of her church to reject apartheid segregation in the church. She then turned to politics.

As an educator she became a member of the Teacher’s League of South Africa (TLSA). Later at the age of 35, she became a member of the Non European Unity Movement  (NEUM) and the National Liberation Front (NLF). Furthermore, most of the TLSA leaders were men, although over 40 per cent of teachers were women. This was partly because the men tended to have higher qualifications, while the women, according to Adams, “Were usually my level, which was just standard eight [Grade 10] plus two years’ teacher training. In those days, you know, education was a preserve that was male, and even then only for a very few males.” As a result of her opposition to Apartheid through these organisations, on September 1963, while teaching at Pauw Gedenk Primary School in Wellington, she was arrested allegedly for sabotage. Adams was detained under the notorious 90 Day Detention law.

Adams identified the inaction of the TLSA’s leadership as a major factor in her own decision to join African Peoples' Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA): Some of the teachers felt this is a teacher’s association and now you are bringing in people who are not teachers and they don’t have the same interests. So there was an unsettled feeling among the teachers and a lot of that detracted from any progress because we had meetings about it all the time. APDUSA was now going to be their salvation because anybody could join, and anybody who wanted could take part, and you could all be APDUSA. Following APDUSA, a core group, known as the Yu Chi Chan Club (taken from the title of the booklet on guerrilla warfare by Mao Tse-Tung), recruited new members, included Dulcie September, and spread to other areas. According to court records, groups were established in Athlone, Maitland, Cape Town, Elsies River, Kimberley, and Wellington. Although the exact membership of these branches is unknown, the numbers were small. The Cape Town branch had six members, the Maitland group only had three members and Adams group in Wellington also had only three core members. “We would meet the three together with any other person that any of us had thought might be interested,” according to Adams. Groups set out to study methods of insurrection throughout the world and distributed literature on subjects such as “secret communications” among prospective members. Elizabeth van der Heyden claims that Adams was one of the few women to head a group: Predominantly it was male. It was mostly men, but it wasn’t a matter of you are in that position because you are male, you are a woman therefore you must be there. I mean Dorothy Adams was very active in the Wellington group. And we were mainly men, but I think that was because of the mentality of the society at that time – women stayed at home. Furthermore, in December 1962, the Yu Chi Chan Club was disbanded and replaced by the NLF – “in line with all the National Liberation Fronts that were mushrooming all over the world” – as a result of the growing number of APDUSA members who had begun to show an interest in studying revolutionary practices. The NLF operated on a cell structure, with each cell comprising no more than ten members. Its stated aim was to “drown the regime in the sea” and to build a socialist country. Members were told to penetrate other political organisations and they were expected to refrain from having romantic attachments. The NLF operated by establishing a number of front organisations, such as the South African Students Bursary and Loan Fund, which obtained bursaries for students from Germany and Sweden. According to Adams: The whole question of public meetings seemed to have become irrelevant now, because all that happened is that whoever spoke out [was] then served with a banning order… So we decided on this organisation that could look at how we can deal with the problems productively and look at the successful revolutions: Cuba, Algeria, China. But also there would be no public meetings, it would have to be cells, and the cells would operate in their area, and that they would have a representative in that area who will meet with other representatives. p>After her release in November 1963, Adams refused to testify in court against her 11 co-prisoners who were also members of the TLSA. Consequently, she was arrested again and charged, but the case was dropped by the state.  She then returned to Wellington, where she was served with a five year banning order in August 1964. Her banning made it difficult for her to work and earn a living, and she was put under constant surveillance by members of the Security Branch. She was also threatened with another banning order.

Adams with assistance of the Quakers - a religious movement, secured a work permit which enabled her to leave the country for exile in the United Kingdom. She worked for the Quakers in London for about 20 years. While in exile, she became closely associated with exiled members of the Unity Movement, such as Dora Taylor and I.B Tabata.

In 1976 she was granted British citizenship and in 1986 she married Frank Williams who was a peace campaigner. In 1989, Adams, who was now based at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, commenced working with Albie Sachs researching issues around a new constitution of the post apartheid South Africa.

As political changes geared towards dismantling apartheid gathered pace, Adams, together with her husband Frank Williams moved to South Africa in 1991. She later found work at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 1999 Adams and her husband moved back to the Wellington, South Africa. In 2006 Frank passed away and Adams moved to a nursing home in 2007.   

Dorothy Adams died in May 2011. She is survived by her sister Florence.


• Helen Scanlon, (2007), Representations and Reality; Portraits of women’s lives in the Western Cape 1948-1976, (Cape Town, HSRC).

• Williams, C, (2011), Dorothy Williams obituary, from the Guardian, 11 May, [online], Available at [Accessed 17 October 2012]

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