Joyce Piliso-Seroke was born in Crown Mines, Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) on 11 July 1933. She completed her matric at Kilnerton High School in Pretoria. She holds a BA degree and a diploma in Communication. Upon completion she went to the University of Fort Hare and worked towards a University Education Diploma.
She gave up teaching to pursue social work after a year. She was offered a scholarship by the Institute of Race Relations to do a postgraduate course in Social Policy and Administration in Swansea, South Wales, a course designed for students from developing countries.
On her return to South Africa, Piliso-Seroke worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). The YWCA had programmes and projects for women and one of the major challenges for the organisation was that large numbers of African women were subjected to the 1891 Bantu Code, which made them perpetual minors and lifelong wards of men – their fathers, husbands and, in the absence of these the closest surviving male relatives, including sons. The YWCA petitioned the Department of Bantu Administration and chiefs for the abolition of this law but to no avail. When this failed, the YWCA’s Women Empowerment Programme encouraged women to draw up simple wills to safeguard their property.
Piliso-Seroke soon became the national secretary and travelled abroad extensively, addressing international YWCA conferences in Africa, Europe and the United States where she spoke about the ravages of apartheid. In 1975, she was appointed to the Executive Committee of the World YWCA in Geneva, Switzerland, a position she held until South Africa erupted in protest in 1976. She and the Executive Committee, including the president, Oshadi Phakathi, visited Soweto to assess the situation and were detained at Orlando Police Station, Soweto, Johannesburg for four days.
She was later re-detained and held at the Fort, Johannesburg. After her detention, she became vice president of the World YWCA from 1983 to 1995. She co-ordinated programmes and projects in eight YWCA regions in the country, networking with women’s organisations and activists on campaigns such as the Women Against Oppression Campaign.
The Special Branch confiscated Piliso-Seroke’s passport. Realising that she could no longer travel abroad to address YWCA groups and anti-apartheid movements, she co-produced two documentaries with her friend, Betty Wolpert, a South African residing in London. Both documentaries were shown and documented abroad.
From 1992 to 1993, she served on the Transvaal Board of the National Co-ordinating Council for Returnees, spearheading YWCA programmes for returning exiles countrywide.
In 1996, she joined the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As a member of the Human Rights Committee, she helped people understand the effects of the harsh past in order to bring about unity and reconciliation. She was part of the TRC hearings held countrywide to investigate gross human rights violations and to establish support structures within the communities for victims of such violations.
Piliso-Seroke was appointed chairperson of the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) on 1 March 1999 and was reappointed in October 2002 for the next five years. She was also a member of the Eskom Development Foundation.
She served on the board of READ Educational Trust and of the Women’s Development Foundation which spearheaded the establishment of a ‘Memorial’ next to the Apartheid Women’s Jail, at the Constitution Hill commemorating the first Women Parliamentarians in 1994.
In 2006 she was presented with the Father Trevor Huddleston’s ‘’Naught for Your Comfort” Award and in 2008 for her contribution to freedom, development, reconstruction and the struggle for gender equality in South Africa Piliso-Seroke was conferred the National Order, The Order of the Baobab in Gold.
In 2014, Joyce Piliso-Seroke was admitted to the Order of Simon of Cyrene, the highest award given by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to laity for distinguished service.