Dorothy Adams

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Biographical information


A teacher and activist, member of the Non European Unity Movement and the National Liberation Front.

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
Location of birth: 
Wellington, Western Cape
Date of death: 
May 2011

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. All of his sons went on to become preachers in the AMEC, and one of them, Francis, became its first African-born Bishop.

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 she became a member of the Non European Unity Movement  (NEUM) and the National Liberation Front (NLF). 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.

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] 

Last updated : 29-May-2014

This article was produced by South African History Online on 26-Oct-2012

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