A stalwart of the African National Congress (ANC) and the liberation movement, Thembi Shange Nobadula was born on 23 December 1927. She was a woman who dedicated her life to the fight for racial and gender equality for all South Africans.
An organiser of the iconic Women’s March that took place on 9 August 1956, Nobadula was one of the 20 000 women who made their way to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng), marching in opposition to the discriminatory pass laws, which were being extended to women. At that time, both she and her husband, Fikile Nobadula, were already highly politically involved and had earned themselves enough attention to be on the receiving end of regular Special Branch raids.
However, when the Sharpeville Massacre took place on 21 March 1960, the event forced Nobadula and her husband to pack up and leave South Africa with their four children and her brother, Jerry Fana Shange. Leaving South Africa secretly in order to avoid arrest, the family crossed into what was then Bechuanaland (now Botswana) a few days after the massacre. Thus, began Nobadula’s life as a political exile.
Together with a group of other refugees, the family moved from Botswana to Tanzania. A life of exile often proved tough on many families, and Nobadula’s was no exception. While Fikile was able to secure passage to London, United Kingdom (UK), for himself and their three younger children, Nobadula stayed behind with her eldest daughter and brother. As a result, their marriage did not survive the nearly six years they endured living separately.
Working in the ANC mission in Tanzania, Nobadula was one of the ANC militants who was present at the launch of the Pan African Women’s Organisation (PAWO) in 1962, which established its headquarters in Algiers, Algeria, in 1963. In addition, seizing the opportunity which had been denied to her in South Africa, Nobadula acquired a number of secretarial skills while in Tanzania, including office management.
In 1965, Nobadula was able to move to London, (UK), where she became neighbours with Adelaide and Oliver Tambo while helping to establish the then-banned ANC in exile there. She assumed responsibility for her children and, despite their circumstances, managed to provide them a stable home. Employing the skills, she had learnt during her time in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, she was able to secure a job at the British Council – a job she held onto until her retirement.
A stable job meant that she could put her focus back into her activities within the ANC’s structures in London. After a few years, she was elected chairperson of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) in the UK. Working closely with the likes of Adelaide Tambo, Adelaide Joseph, Mary Turok, Hilda Bernstein, and Zanele Mbeki to name a few, the women grew the London branch into an effective mobiliser of international solidarity and built strong links with other groups like the emergent Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK, the Cypriot Women, the women in Palestine, and other Southern African liberation movements through PAWO.
A constant presence at both ANC and Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) meetings, Nobadula continued to be actively involved in the struggle for over 32 years. In 1986, she and Adelaide Tambo led the ANCWL (working hand-in-hand with the Metropolitan District of the National and Local Government Officers’ Association (NALGO), Haringey NALGO, and the London Anti-Apartheid Committee) in organising a celebration to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Women’s March. The event was an overwhelming success, with American political activist and scholar, Angela Davis, as the keynote speaker.
In 2013, Nobadula was awarded the inaugural South African Achievers Award in London, UK, in honour of her outstanding contribution to the struggle as a political exile.
A towering figure and inspiration to all who met her, Thembi Shange Nobadula died on 9 May 2021 at the age of 93.
- ANC. (2021). ANC mourns the passing of its veteran and stalwart, Mama Thembi Nobadula. [online]. Available at: https://www.anc1912.org.za/myanc-httpstcollmfss1k3k (Accessed on 27 May 2021)
- Kenvyn. D. (2021). In memory of Thembi Nobadula: fighter against apartheid. [online]. Available at: https://davidkenvyn.wordpress.com/2021/05/12/in-memory-of-thembi-nobadula-fighter-against-apartheid/. (Accessed on13 May 2021)
- Shout Africa. (2013). UK: South Africans celebrate their first Achievers Award in London. [online]. Available at: https://www.shout-africa.com/news/uk-south-africans-celebrate-their-first-achievers-award-in-london/. (Accessed on 13 May 2021)