Elizabeth Mafekeng was born in 1918 in Tarkastad and attended school until Standard 7. Living conditions in her birthplace forced her to leave for Paarl in Cape Town in early 1930s. Mafekeng left school at the age of 15 to support the family. Her first job was at a “canning factory where she cleaned fruit and vegetables for 75 cents a week.” She married a fellow factory worker in 1941.Up to the time of her banishment in late 1959, they had eleven children and lived in a cottage on Barbarossa Street, Paarl. She worked in the industry until Pass Laws were introduced.
Mafekeng joined the trade union 1941, became a shop steward and then served, between 1954 and 1959 “as President of the African Food and Canning Workers Union (AFCWU) and branch secretary in Paarl.” Mafekeng was known as “Rocky” among the workers in Paarl. A striking woman, she always began ”her speeches with a song or two, singing in a clear, rich and well-organised voice.” Her speeches were “fiery, militant and witty.” In order “to connect the workers” struggle for liberation to their struggle for better working conditions, she joined the Paarl branch of the African National Congress (ANC).
She thus became actively involved politics to fight the injustice brought about by these laws. She first rose to the position of National Vice-President of the ANC Women's League and later elected into the National Executive Committee of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in the 1940s.
In 1952 Mafekeng participated in the African National Congress (ANC) led Defiance Campaign and South African Congress Trade Unions' (SACTU's) 1957 'Pound a day' Campaign. Mafekeng also served as the President of the militant South African Food and Canning Workers Union and the Paarl branch secretary of the African Food and Canning Workers and Union.
In 1957, she became the Vice-President of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL). She also served on the regional committee of the National Executive of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and was one of the founder members of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW).
In 1955, she skipped the country without legal papers to represent the Food Workers Union at a trade union conference held in Sofia, Bulgaria. She was met by the police brutality upon her return from the conference. Police sought to know what was her business at the conference.
In 1959, the Government banished her from Paarl, Cape Province (now Western Cape) to a remote government farm in the Kuruman district. She refused to take her 11 children to that desolate place. On the night of her deportation the union leadership organised a large number of workers to bid her a safe journey.According to M Blumberg [in The Mafekeng Affair. Africa South 4(3) April – June 1960, p 40]:
Two policemen and Mr Johannes Le Roux, the Paarl Native Commissioner, made a call on Mrs Elizabeth Mafekeng in the middle of the morning of October 27th . They presented her with a piece of paper banishing her from Paarl to Southey Farm, Vryburg District, [now North West Province], a distant and desolate spot of dust, about 700 miles away. The document signed by Mr De Wet Nel, Minister for Bantu Administration, was issued under the Native Administration Act and said that it was ‘injurious for the peace, order and good administration of Natives in the district of Paarl’ if Mrs Mafekeng remained there. She was given five days (later extended to twelve) to say goodbye to her family, make arrangements for their care, (and) wind up her work ... There was, of course, no trial, no public hearing and no possibility of appeal.
Mafeking’s banishment occurred as a result of the activities she engaged in on the night prior to her arrest. On 2 October 1959, Mafekeng was arrested for ”leading an anti-pass demonstration in Paarl, (but) the charge came to nothing in court.” Mafekeng’s union was the most militant in the country and nine union officials prior to her had been immobilised by the state. A few weeks before she received her banishment order, she and Liz Abrahams, the Acting General Secretary of the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU), went “ to Port Elizabeth to assist workers in organising the campaign against proposed wage cuts by Langeberg Ko-operasie management.”
Rather than being banished to Southey and to ”a future of nothingness,” Mafekeng fled to Lesotho with her two-month old baby, Uhuru, and sought refuge at a Roman Catholic Mission at Makhaleng. She was granted asylum and lived in a two-room home with her nine children in the small village of Mafeteng.
Her order was withdrawn on 7 September 1967.
She got onto a train and started waving farewell. She quietly walked through two coaches and jumped off the train unnoticed. She was whisked to Lesotho and sought political refuge in there to avoid deportation.
With the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1990, she returned to Paarl. The FCWU built her a home in Mbekweni Township in Paarl. Elizabeth Mafeking died on 28 May 2009, at the age of 90, due to ill health.
The Western Cape Government, posthumously, conferred Mafekeng with the Western Cape Provincial Honours Awards in honour of her contribution to the liberation struggle.
Gerhart G.M and Karis T. (ed)(1977). From Protest to challenge: A documentary History of African Politics in South Africa: 1882-1964, Vol.4 Political Profiles 1882 - 1964. Hoover Institution Pres: Stanford University.|Shope G.N. (2002). Malibongwe. Celebrating Our Unsung Heroines, p. 28.|FAWU Tributes: Elizabeth Mafikeng [Online]. Available at: fawu.org.za/ [Accessed 23 August 2010]|
Contribution by Professor S. Badat on Banishment, Rhodes University, 2012. From the book, Forgotten People - Political Banishment under Apartheid by Professor S. Badat