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Founder of the Rural Women’s Movement has helped thousands.
After witnessing her mother’s eviction from her marital home by the paternal side of her family, a girl of 10 in rural KwaZulu-Natal began to find her calling – to help women in her community.
More than 60 years later aged 73, Sizani Ngubane is being honoured for her work as a women’s and indigenous activist. She is the only African nominated for the 2020 Martin Ennals Award, also referred to as the Nobel Prize for defenders of human rights defenders.
The Martin Ennals Foundation will host Ngubane and the two other nominatees from Yemen and Mexico in Geneva in February next year. A jury comprising members of 10 prominent human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, will announce the winner on February 19.
Growing up in the 1950s during the apartheid era, Ngubane developed a political awareness of her place in the world as a black person before she was 10. Her father was a migrant worker in Johannesburg so she lived with her mother who was a maid in the city in KZN. As the eldest child, she took care of her four siblings.
When her mother bought her a radio and she heard about what was going on in the country her passion to fight the regime was ignited. “I was six when I told my mother that when I grow up, I want to go to other places and learn how other women in Africa tackle their challenges so I could share the information with women here (in South Africa).”
Soon after that one of her father’s brothers forcefully evicted her mother and the children while her father was working in Johannesburg.
They moved into her mother’s aunt’s home in a nearby community and she accompanied her mother to see the local headman to ask for land to be allocated to them.
“He said, ‘Mama Ngubane, I wish your daughter was your son. I would have allocated you a piece of land now. But unfortunately I cannot allocate land to you because your boys are still too young.
“I remember how sad my mum looked. It was 64 years ago and my mom died five years ago, but when I think about it tears start rolling down my face uncontrollably.”
After years of serving as an ANC member, Ngubane set up the Rural Women’s Movement in 1990 to help women battling land issues and rights violations. Through her organisation, she has helped thousands of women.