Sophia Williams-De Bruyn
Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, “Aunty Sophie” to some, is a living legend of the struggle against apartheid. She was born in Villageboard, a racially mixed area of Port Elizabeth, in 1938. Her father was a community leader, serving as a commissioner of oaths, and many would come to him for aid with their grants and pensions.
The young Sophie was touched by their plight: many could not read and write, and her mother opened their home and table to them while her father wrote their letters. Her political awareness began at home, by seeing the powerlessness of people under the apartheid regime.
As a young girl, she started working at a textile factory to earn some money. She joined a union, and was popular with her fellow workers due to her eloquent language and negotiating skills. She was a natural leader and representative to deal with management, and became a shop steward. She left school and continued working at the factory.
Williams-De Bruyn rose to the executive of the Textile Workers’ Union in Port Elizabeth, which brought her alongside leaders such as Raymond Mhlaba, Vuyisile Mini and Govan Mbeki. An advocate for economic as well as political justice for all South Africans, she was later a founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions.
The growing ANC sought an alliance with the like-minded Indian and Coloured People’s Congress in major urban centres. During the alliance strategy meetings Williams-De Bruyn’s talent as a speaker and organiser shone through, and in 1955 the ANC appointed her as a full-time organiser of the Coloured People’s Congress in Johannesburg.
One year later Williams-De Bruyn, just 18 years old, joined Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa in leading 20 000 women in protest against the pass laws. The leaders of the march represented each of the four main racial groups classified by the apartheid government, standing united in their opposition to the state forcing black women to carry passes.
She describes the strategy of the march as well thought out, and the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) took the decision to be fully involved. The success of the march was unprecedented in its mass mobilisation and seamless execution.
Williams married Henry Benny de Bruyn in 1959, who was part of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. He was forced into exile in Lusaka in 1963, and they were separated for six years before she joined him there. She remained tireless in exile, working as an administrator for the ANC, secretary for the ANCWL, and completing her studies. By 1977, she had her teacher’s diploma, and was deployed to a key position in the ANC Education Council, working in Tanzania and Namibia.
They both returned to South Africa after the ANC was unbanned, and her husband served as South Africa’s ambassador to Jordan until he passed away in 1999.
Williams-De Bruyn continued to work for the betterment of communities after liberation. She served on the ANC national executive committee and as deputy speaker of the Gauteng legislature from 2005 to 2009. She then moved to national parliament, and was also a commissioner for the Commission for Gender Equality.
On August 9 2016, speaking to a large crowd at the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Women’s March in Pretoria, Williams-De Bruyn (78) said the following:
“It is for the youth to take the baton that we have already handed over to them, and to fight the ills and the injustices in our country right now: the increase of the abuse of women and children, and the inequality, poverty and increasing gap between the rich and the poor.” — Romi Reinecke
A lifetime of service: Sophia Williams-de Bruyn, an iconic figure in the 1956 march, and later, a provincial legislator.