Alzina Zondi’s fight for freedom

The anti-apartheid activist who died this year dedicated her life to the struggle by working in the ANC’s underground networks and organising women’s protest against the pass system.

Alzina Zondi, who died on 19 June, fought most of her life for liberation, describing herself as a “South African politician”. Inspired by her family’s participation in the 1906 impi yamakhanda (poll tax uprising or Bhambatha Rebellion) and the desire to combat inequality in a segregated South Africa, she became a leader among women and trade unionists. She was arrested many times before she went into exile in 1976.

Zondi was born in Inadi, outside Pietermaritzburg, in 1922 to Sarafina Nokumila Mchunu and Johan Zondi. She grew up listening to her mother’s war songs and the accounts of her father, who participated in the impi yamakhanda and fled to Pietermaritzburg with his father after the death of Bhambatha. She schooled at KwaMzimba Roman Catholic Primary and Durban’s Ekuzamani High School, after which she taught cooking and dressmaking. 

Circa 1975: Portraits of Alzina Zondi kept in family albums.

One day, she decided she would seek out and learn from the trade unionist Moses Mabhida. She tracked him down, joined the union movement, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and the African National Congress (ANC) in Lamontville. She then quit teaching to do full-time union work in which she helped to develop the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) in Durban. She fondly remembered the atmosphere of Lakhani Chambers, the regional offices of the ANC and SACP, where she served ANC president Albert Luthuli tea while updating him on women’s protests. 

While many have pointed out how women were relegated to supplementary roles in the struggle, including serving tea, Mabhida assigned Zondi to work with Sactu’s Stephen Dlamini. Zondi became a Sactu leader and helped form a domestic workers’ union. She sold the progressive newspapers New Age and Fighting Talk in Cato Manor with her friend, Ethel Sizile Shabalala Duma. These activities attracted the attention of the Special Branch and officers began to watch her and visit her home. Zondi attended the Congress of the People in 1955 to see the launch of the Freedom Charter.

8 August, 1991: Alzinah Zondi in a picture marked Salvation Army Hostel Hostel.

She became one of the leaders among women in then Natal, working alongside some of the better-known women activists, including Bertha Mkhize, Dorothy Nyembe and Henrietta Ostrich in the women’s protests of the 1950s. She organised a Durban contingent of women who travelled to Pretoria for the 1956 protest against the extension of passes to women. She also became an executive member of the Federation of South African Women and, up until her exile from South Africa, refused to take a pass.

She participated in the major Congress campaigns of the late 1950s – the potato boycott, the urban beerhall protests in Durban and the rural protests against passes, the Bantu Authorities Act and betterment planning. With Nyembe, Gladys Manzi, Frida Mhlongo, Florence Mkhize and others, she organised the 1959 women’s protests at eMatsheni in Victoria Street. She remembered leading women in song, singing upon their arrest, “Chief Luthuli and Dr Naicker, you are the ones who will stand for us in parliament.” 

In New Hanover she was arrested for malicious injury to the Etsheni dip in late July 1959. She was again arrested for destruction of government property in Pietermaritzburg’s Zwartkop location in early September. The migrant labourer and trade unionist Johannes Phungula introduced Zondi to women from the Ixopo district on the streets of Durban. She visited the villages of Ixopo with Phungula, mobilising women to protest against apartheid legislation. She organised busloads of rural women to attend the Natal People’s Congress in September 1959, called for by the Congress Alliance to help harness the power of rural women’s protests.

3 September 1992: Left, Alzina Zondi pictured in a photograph marked ‘Airport, Dar-es-Salaam’, presumably taken while she worked there for the ANC in exile.

Moving into exile

After the Sharpeville massacre, the state of emergency and the banning of the liberation movements, Zondi continued to organise through the trade unions while under constant police surveillance. In 1963, she received her first of several banning orders under the Suppression of Communism Act. But despite being banned, she remained active in the ANC’s underground struggle in Durban.

She became one of the women members of the Durban underground network where Joseph Mdluli was a leading figure. Zondi worked to provide secure venues for meetings and safe houses for infiltrated operatives. When security police arrested a number of underground operatives in late 1975 and early 1976, the Swaziland command of Umkhonto weSizwe feared the police would force other cadres to testify against them. Jacob Zuma arranged for Zondi, Phungula and others to leave the country. The Swazi command had obtained information that the security police intended to force Zondi to testify against Dlamini because they had worked together. Mdluli’s death in detention furthered her resolve. 

Undated: Alzina Zondi.

She clandestinely met with her daughter, Makhosazane, at the home of a woman they trusted to tell her about her impending departure. She then returned to an area she knew well, Hlokozi, where she hid with inyanga, Cyprian Mkhize, until she could leave the country. Phungula hired someone to drive him, Henry Chiliza, Eleanor Khanyile and Zondi to the Swaziland border, but the driver feared arrest and abandoned them at the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. From there, they walked at night and slept in the bush during the day. Zondi remembered the terrors of crossing a river and the sounds of wild animals. After four days, they arrived in Swaziland. Mabhida and Thomas Nkobi deployed Phungula and Chiliza to Mozambique while Zondi and Khanyile remained in Swaziland.

In exile, Zondi managed a transit house in Fairview, Manzini, and worked closely with Mabhida and Zuma. “With the Soweto uprisings, a lot of youth came from Soweto who needed a lot of support. We were kept busy,” she remembered. She worried constantly for her safety and that of her comrades, with several scares and the loss of friends and comrades. In the wake of a non-aggression pact with South Africa, the Swazi government gave her notice to quit the country immediately. She moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where she continued her work with the ANC. She later worked in another Tanzanian city, Morogoro, then in Lusaka, Zambia, and Harare, Zimbabwe, before finally returning to a free South Africa. 

Undated: Second from left, Alzina Zondi at the St James Catholic Church in Lamontville, south of Durban.

‘I want people to feel the freedom’

Late in her life, Zondi relished in the celebration of South Africa’s history. She remained in contact with other struggle veterans and was active in the ANC Women’s League. In 2005, an 80-year-old Zondi flew from Durban to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown. She told the press of her trip: “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. This is our history … It was cold that day, but nothing could stop me from joining the crowds.” 

In 2016, she received the first accolade that acknowledged her contributions to the South African struggle – the eThekwini Municipality’s Living Legends Award. Earlier that year, two ANC councillors in the municipality had been convicted of murdering shack dweller and women’s rights activist Thuli Ndlovu.

Zondi remained dedicated to the quest for freedom in postapartheid South Africa. She wrote: “I want people to feel the freedom. Better education for our youth. More women’s groups and empowerment to women. Better economy to improve the standard of living for all. Better housing and homes for all.” 

Undated: A more recent picture of Alzina Zondi.
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