Mail & Guardian
Lilian “Lily” Diedericks is known as an exceptionally politicised trade unionist, shop steward, South African Communist Party member and founder member of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw).
Diedericks was born near the railway line in the infamous Red Location in 1925, the oldest section of New Brighton township in Port Elizabeth. In 1940, Diedericks and her family, classified as coloured, were forced out of their home by the apartheid government when the area was zoned for blacks only. These township areas became a key site of community protest and apartheid struggle from the 1940s, strongly affecting Diedericks’ upbringing and political consciousness.
Diedericks has little formal education: “I only passed Standard 3 [Grade 5], but I make use of what my mother taught me at home”. Her motto remains that you do not make excuses, but “as long as God has given you the strength, the breath, make use of it”.
The character of politics in Port Elizabeth was different to the rest of the country: while the movement in most cities was led by the middle class and professional elites of the ANC, there it was working class leaders who directed the political scene. The South African Communist Party (SACP) had run study groups for workers for decades, raising their political awareness.
A new political dynamism was led by younger, working-class activists, both men and women, such as Diedericks and her close friend Raymond Mhlaba. These new leaders had to overlap trade union leadership, the work of the SACP, and membership of the growing ANC.
In the 1940s and 1950s, certain key trade unions played a critical role in the women’s movement. They had a large base of organised working-class women, often highly politically aware, who had been officially excluded from most political organisations. Unions were thus a unique training ground for women leaders, who were extensively drawn into broader political struggles: Diedericks and contemporary female leaders Frances Baard, Lilian Ngoyi, Ray Alexander Simons and Hilda Bernstein are proof of this, and they would be cosponsors of the inaugural conference of Fedsaw in 1954.
After a protest against the mayor of Port Elizabeth in 1956, Diedericks was arrested for treason, along with numerous other women. They were summarily flown to Johannesburg for imprisonment at the Fort, and the case dragged on. The women were only acquitted in 1961. Diedericks was also banned by the apartheid government from 1967 to 1968.
Speaking in 2007, former President Thabo Mbeki stated that when remembering the 1956 Women’s March against the oppressive apartheid laws and the sterling role women played in liberating our country, South Africans must continue to salute the unsung heroines of the struggle, such as Diedericks.
Today in her 90s, Diedericks remains fiercely outspoken in political forums, berating the “entitlement” of South Africans who wait for houses and handouts from the government without acknowledging their own strength and power to make change.
Diedericks’ leadership role in Port Elizabeth i n the 1950s is unsurpassed in today’s Eastern Cape political landscape, according to historian Janet Cherry. The Lilian Diedericks Municipal building in Port Elizabeth is named after her. One of the few surviving figures behind the 1956 Women’s March, Lilian Diedericks lives in Gelvandale, Port Elizabeth. — Romi Reinecke