Josephine ‘Josie’ Palmer (Mpama) was born in 1903 in Potchefstroom, Transvaal (now North West Province), to Georgina Garson and Stephen Bonny Mpama, an interpreter for the Potchefstroom resident magistrate. She grew up in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) but moved back to Potchefstroom in 1921. ‘Palmer’ is the anglicised version of her father’s Zulu name, ‘Mpama’. She would later adopt the surname ‘Mpama’ when she moved to a Black township to be with her husband, Edwin Mofutsanyana, a leading member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) – which later became the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1953 – and the African National Congress (ANC), using both surnames throughout her life.
Mpama became involved in politics when she became one of the first Black women to join the CPSA in the late1920s, becoming the Potchefstroom Branch Secretary shortly afterwards. It was during this time that she led the 1928 campaign against residential permits in the Potchefstroom area after the local municipality tried to impose a system of lodger’s permits for Africans. The subsequent protests, with Mpama at the forefront, revealed her to be a formidable leader. Her involvement as an organiser of the 1929-1930 anti-pass campaign further assisted historians in understanding why women in this area became so highly politicised.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Mpama wrote for the CPSA’s journal, Umsebenzi, in which she drew attention to the plight of Black workers. Importantly, she also highlighted the connection between workers’ struggles and the oppressive political system that governed the country at the time.
The CPSA sent her to study for one year at the Lenin School in Moscow, Russia. By the 1940s (before the CPSA was banned in 1950) Mpama was a member of the party’s Johannesburg committee, becoming the first Black woman to play a significant role in the organisation. In 1944, she began working with the National Anti-Pass Council and in 1947, at the International Women’s Day meeting in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng), it was decided that a racially all-inclusive women’s organisation be set up, resulting in the formation of the Transvaal All-Women’s Union with Mpama as its Secretary.
Mpama played an important role in the formation of the non-racial Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) – an organisation which aimed to unite women from all walks of life regardless of race or political affiliation – in April 1954. Later, while she served as the President of the Transvaal branch of FEDSAW, Mpama was served with a banning order just before the historic 9 August 1956 anti-pass Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Gauteng – a march that she had played a role in organising. Furthermore, she was detained during the 1960 State of Emergency following the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960.
Mpama’s militancy was noted in a letter from Clements Kadalie, who was the most renowned Black trade union leader in South Africa in the 1920s. Kadalie wrote that although he did not think that the time was right for trade unionism on a large scale, Mpama, on the other hand, did.
In 2004, Mpama was posthumously awarded the Government’s National Order of Luthuli in Silver for her lifelong commitment to the liberation struggle and the rights of workers.
A leading figure from the 1930s until she died in 1979, Josie Palmer Mpama was a pioneer of women’s’ activism during the struggle. Her unwavering enthusiasm to fight against the plight of exploited Black workers and women in the country made her a role model for many other women activists.
- Mail & Guardian. (2016). 60 iconic women – the people behind the 1956 women’s march to Pretoria (21-30), [online], Available at: https://mg.co.za/article/2016-08-25-60-iconic-women-the-people-behind-the-1956-womens-march-to-pretoria-21-30/. (Accessed on 27 August 2020)
- NHMSA. (n.d). Josephine ‘Josie’ Mpama, [online], Available at: https://www.nhmsa.co.za/sculpture.html?tag=josie_mpama. (Accessed on 27 August 2020)
- SAHO. (2019) 2. Potchefstroom: A fighting location, [online], Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/2-potchefstroom-fighting-location. Accessed on 27 August 2020)
- The Presidency. (n.d). Josie (Palmer) Mpama (1903-1979), [online], Available at: http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/national-orders/recipient/josie-palmer-mpama-1903-1979. (Accessed on 24 August 2020)