South Africa celebrates Women’s Month annually in August and pays tribute to the more than 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956. The women marched in order to protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. The Pass Laws represented a system which was intended to control women even further and reduce women to passive beings, at the mercy of men.
Women’s month is being commemorated under the theme: “25 Years of Democracy: Growing South Africa Together for Women’s Emancipation.”
National Museum CEO, Sharon Snell, said “Women can no longer be left out of our history books. Bloemfontein has had its fair share of remarkable women and it is important that their stories be told.”
Visitors can view the ‘Remarkable Women of Bloemfontein’ Pop-up exhibition at the National Museum during Women’s Month.The exhibition honours 12 women of stature from Bloemfontein and is presented by the History, Collections and Design Departments of the National Museum.
Remarkable Women of Bloemfontein
- Rachel Thoka
Rachel Thoka (c. 1825-1940) was born somewhere in West Africa and later sold as a slave to a farmer, SarelGriesel. Griesel and his wife called her Rachel after the biblical Rachel. Together with the Griesels, she experienced the Great Trek and survived a Zulu attack on the banks of the Mooi River in Natal. As she saved the life of the three-year-old boy of Field Cornet Schoeman by hiding with him in a donga until help arrived, she earned the respect of the Afrikaner community and received the nickname Rachel ‘Mooirivier’. She trekked with Voortrekker leader Piet Pretorius and Paul Kruger (later president of the Transvaal) to Potchefstroom where she was employed by Paul Kruger’s family and married for the first time. She came to Bloemfontein much later where she was the servant of the well-known Krause family. After the Anglo-Boer War Rachel settled in the black township, Waaihoek, and after her first husband’s death, she married Abram Thoka. Rachel was an experienced midwife and the first black woman to work in Bloemfontein’s Cottage Hospital. As a community leader she led a protest march of Waaihoek women against the pass laws in May 1913. She died in Bloemfontein at the ripe old age of 115 years. In 2005 the Western Cape Honours Award the Order of the Disa, was posthumously awarded to Rachel ‘Mooirvier’ Thoka.
- Tibbie Steyn
Rachel Isabella (Tibbie) Steyn (1865-1955), wife of President M.T. Steyn, was a competent hostess and was known for the dignified and hospitable manner in which she welcomed high-ranking visitors to the Presidency. As First Lady of the republic of the Orange Free State, she supported her husband through the stressful months before and after the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War. With the British occupation of Bloemfontein in March 1900 and after President Steyn left the Free State capital to form a government in the field, Tibbie was placed under house arrest. After the peace settlement in 1902, she played an important role in the lives of Afrikaner people and the reconstruction of the Orange Free State after the war. With the establishment of the well-known women’s welfare organization, the Oranje Vrouevereniging (O.V.V.), she was elected first Chairperson in 1907. As the “sweetheart of her people”, she received special respect and recognition from her fellow Afrikaners and even foreigners. The fact that she is the only South African woman buried at the Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein is a clear indication of the respect her fellow citizens had for her.
- Sophie Leviseur
Sophie Leviseur (1857-1962) was the daughter of the first civilian merchant and founder of the Jewish community in Bloemfontein, Isaac Baumann. In 1877 she married the Jewish merchant Moritz Leviseur, who made a huge contribution to the cultural, economic and social life of Bloemfontein. Sophie played an important role in the community of Bloemfontein in her own right. This remarkable woman, with her strong will and definite opinions, was in many ways the driving force behind her husband’s community activities, although she exerted her influence in a subtle, indirect way. She was an expert on the early history of the Free State capital and her memoirs are an important historical source about the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Bloemfontein and the rest of South Africa. Sophie, who reached the ripe old age of 104, rightly earned the honorary title of “Ouma of the Free State” among later generations of Bloemfonteiners. She was buried in Johannesburg.
- Florence Fraser
Florence Fraser (1868-1928), known as the “Free State Nightingale”, received great praise from all over South Africa and in Londen. As a student at the Eunice Women’s Institute, she came to the attention of the Institute’s German music teacher. In 1884 Florence went to Germany where she trained as a coloratura soprano at Munich’s conservatory. In 1889 she returned to Bloemfontein where she regularly performed. In October 1894 Florence went to England and Germany for further music education and returned to South Africa in 1898. After the British occupation of Bloemfontein in March 1900, she collected funds for widows and orphans and entertained wounded soldiers with her singing. At her farewell party in Bloemfontein before her marriage in 1905, the mayor handed her an address in recognition for the unselfish way in which she used her talent for the benefit of the needy. After her wedding with Thomas Burnham-King of East London, she did not perform publicly anymore, but devoted herself mainly to charity work. Between 1918 and 1922 she was the President of the Presbyterian Church’s Women’s Association. She was buried in Bloemfontein in 1928 and these appropriate words appear on her tombstone: “Whose I am and whom I serve”.
- Molly Fischer
Mention the name Molly Fischer and chances are that most people will never have heard of her. She was none other than the wife of the well-known struggle icon, Bram Fischer, and during her relatively short life (1908-1964) she was as committed to the liberation struggle as her famous husband was. Molly and Bram met in Bloemfontein in 1927 and also got married there in 1937. She was a qualified teacher and, among others, taught at the Housecraft School in Bethlehem during the early 1930s. Like Bram, Molly became a committed and active member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA; later SACP), but much of her activities aimed at furthering struggle interests happened behind the scenes. For example, she volunteered in crèches set up for black children, established ‘refugee homes’ for destitute black children and educated poor black mothers on how to make ends meet. Molly was also a loving mother to her and Bram’s three children, namely Ruth, Ilse and Paul. Throughout her life she unflinchingly supported her husband in his political activities and notably during the time of the Rivonia Trial of the early 1960s when Bram was a senior member of the defense team. Molly tragically died in a car accident en route to Cape Town when Bram lost control of his vehicle near Ventersburg. After her death Nelson Mandela aptly described Molly as “an absolute pillar of strength for her husband and the struggle”.
- Emily Mogaecho
One of the most prominent ‘block men’ (ward councillors) of Bloemfontein’s black community during the 1920s and 1930s was John Dixon Mogaecho. Although not as well-known, his wife, Emily, also played a significant role in the life of her community for many years. The Mogaechos’ house and shop at the corner of Moiloa and Choane Street in Batho were, and still are, Batho landmarks. Emily was a staunch member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Batho, which was affiliated with the American Methodist Episcopal Church in the USA. Emily was a well-known member of the Orangia Women’s Manyano, the women’s league of the local AME Church. During the 1950s she visited the mother body in the USA as a representative of her Manyano. Early in her life Emily had shown a passion and talent for gardening and flower arranging. Because of her flair for floral craft, Emily was responsible for the flower arrangements in her church. Her talent for plants and flowers was also evident in the beautiful garden she had laid out at her house. She became famous for her flower arranging skills and during her long life she taught many local women how to arrange and grow flowers. Emily passed away in 1990.
- Rahab Kgomo
Matlhaodi Rahab Kgomo was the fifth child of Mr Andrew and Mrs Motlhokung Kgomo. She attended school in Mangaung where after she was trained as a nurse and worked in hospitals in Kimberley and Thaba Nchu. In 1947 during the British Royal Visit, Rahab after leading an athletic procession, was presented with a cup and saucer by the Royal family. A devoted Christian and faithful member of St Patrick’s Anglican Church, she became a member of the White Cross Society [a temperance society promoting Christian purity and abstinence] and served as a Lay Minister. An avid cyclist, she played tennis on regional, provincial and national level and won a number of championships and trophies over the years. Rahab passed away in 2018.
- Constance Tshabalala
Constance Tshabalala (née Boniswa), the daughter of Sienah Mothlale and Joseph Mothlale, was born on 19 July 1961 in Bloemfontein and relocated to Cape Town at the age of one and a half years. Living with her family in the neighborhood of Elsies River, later declared an all-Coloured township, she experienced forced relocation under the notorious Group Areas Act and the harsh realities of apartheid segregation and separate facilities and amenities within the larger City of Cape Town. Living in Gugulethu N.Y. 50 no 6 on the outskirts of the city, she attended Fezeka High School – a hotspot of student activism during the 1970s and 80s. During this period Constance became politically conscientized and formally joined the youth struggle against apartheid. As a youth activist she participated in numerous protest campaigns and experienced life-on-the-run, being sold-out by informers, and witnessed petrol-bombings and necklacing. A radical girl among boys, she soon attracted the attention of the security police and as a result suffered detention without trial, torture, assault and deprivation. Upon her release, she relocated to Bloemfontein where she resumed her political activities and even attempted to go into exile. Throughout the 1980s and into the 90s, despite police intimidation and the possibility of renewed detention, she remained intimately involved in the freedom struggle. Looking back today, as a single mother and following the passing of her husband, she continues to struggle for freedom from poverty and unemployment and for opportunity.
- Junia ‘Zero’ Tlhobelo
Black women’s tennis in the Free State capital, Bloemfontein, can be traced back to the establishment of the Oriental Lawn Tennis Club – the first such club – in the township of Waaihoek in 1892. Within the scope of three decades, the black community was not only home to 14 lawn tennis clubs but their players also went on to play in both interprovincial and national championships in subsequent years despite the constraints of poor facilities and racial oppression. Amongst the small number of players that achieved a national profile was the late GobuiwangJunia (‘Zero’) Tlhobelo who passed away ten years ago. Junia was the first born child of Jeremiah and Lydia Tlhobelo. After attending school in Mangaung, she worked as a domestic servant for a family on the Tempe Military base outside Bloemfontein before assuming a period of employment at the University of the Free State. Her tennis career started in 1956 and she soon was nicknamed “Zero” because of her dominance on the court. Junia played tennis on regional, provincial and national level andheld the women’s singles title of the South African National Lawn Tennis Union in the 1960s. Playing at the Bantu Social Institute (now the Caleb Motshabi Social Centre) in Batho, Junia continued to play the game for more than 30 years. After her active playing days, she also coached the new generation and continued to enjoy the ‘love game’.
- Amy Barlow
Amy Barlow (née Slamat) was born on 8 September 1891 in Colesberg. This woman, described by The Friend newspaper in its obituary as ‘well-loved for her generous spirit’, married ‘one of the Free State’s few remaining Indians’, Tommy Barlow. Indeed, noted Die Volksblad, Tommy was, according to the 1946 census statistics, officially the only Indian resident of Bloemfontein. This marriage, given the socio-political context of the republic of the Orange Free State with its anti-Asian legislation and orientation, turned this act of love into a challenging undertaking. In terms of the legislation of the time Indians were neither allowed to reside, trade or overnight in the republic. Amy and her husband, therefore, faced the prospect of raising a family (nine children) under the most uncertain of conditions and thus became an almost immediate part of what was nationally called the ‘Indian Question’. She was also a teacher and involved in the church affairs of the St. Phillip’s Anglican Church in Bloemfontein.
- Mother Emma
During the autumn of 1874 an Anglican nun, known as Sister Emma, and five so-called Associates of the Anglican Church (Church of England) came from Oxford in England to establish a congregation of Sisters in Bloemfontein, then the capital of the Orange Free State republic. Sister Emma’s task was to start a congregation of Sisters who could look after the needs of local girls, the sick, the so-called “natives” (black people) and “half-castes” (coloureds), and also “those not yet within the Fold [sic] of the Lord Jesus”. Thanks to her pioneering spirit, Sister Emma managed to establish a boarding school and convent for girls under difficult circumstances. Sister Emma, who later became Mother Superior, was for many years associated with the boarding school and convent known as St. Michael’s Home, or simply ‘the Home’. At ‘the Home’ Mother Emma and her helpers created a safe haven for Bloemfontein’s neglected and marginalized. Mother Emma was supposed to stay in Bloemfontein for only five years and then return to England but, instead, she decided to remain. She spent her final years in Kimberley where she passed away in 1887. “I wouldn’t have anything different from what it is” were her last words.
- Dolores Maritz
One of Heidedal’s most renowned and beloved residents is Dolores Maritz, also known as Aunt Dolores. She was born in Sophiatown, the well-known Johannesburg township that was demolished by the apartheid regime during the 1950s. She lived there with her grandmother for a short while, but she relocated to Bloemfontein to stay with her other grandmother. During the 1920s and 1930s most of Bloemfontein’s coloured residents lived in Cape Stands, Bloemfontein’s oldest so-called ‘coloured location’.
Dolores spent most of her childhood years in Cape Stands where she lived with five other children in her grandmother’s house in Rapulana Street. Dolores’ grandmother sold vetkoek to make ends meet. At the age of sixteen Dolores went back to Johannesburg where she found employment at a men’s clothing factory. She mastered the art of tailoring so well that she was soon promoted from being a ‘table hand’ to a proper tailor. Dolores spent most of her married life in Heidedal where she also raised her family. In later years she became well-known for her charity work in Heidedal, notably her involvement in the Age-in-Action Club which keeps elderly residents involved in handcrafts and other community activities.