History Detective

Lydia Kompe and the Black Sash during Apartheid Case Case 27

Episode Summary

Welcome back to Season 4 where we meet Lydia Kompe, member of the Black Sash during South African Apartheid.

Episode Notes

Welcome back to Season 4 where we meet Lydia Kompe, member of the Black Sash during South African Apartheid.

Guess what? The music is back! Listen to the end to hear the original song Rise Up.

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Link to the Apartheid 101 episode. Interview with William Palk from the History School History Recap Podcast.

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The History Detective Season 1 & 2 Album is  now available on Spotify and all of your music streaming services.

Accompanying teaching resources for season 1 and 2 episodes can be found on my Amped Up Learning Store or on my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Contact: Twitter @HistoryDetect, Instagram @HistoryDetective9, email  historydetective9@gmail.com

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All  music written and performed by Kelly Chase.

Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and then I explore how that story might be reimagined through song. This is Case 27: Lydia Kompe.

If you listened to my bonus episode called Apartheid 101, where I interviewed William Palk from the High School History Recap podcast, I asked him who would be a great person from South Africa’s Apartheid history to feature on my next season of History Detective. William definitely delivered, he suggested Lydia Kompe, who was a member of the Black Sash and who formed the Rural Women’s Movement in the mid-1980s. If you missed that episode, I will pop a link to it in the show notes. But for now, let’s find out about the amazing Lydia Kompe.

In the introduction, I mentioned that Lydia was a Black Sash member, so let’s start by finding out a little bit about the Black Sash organisation, and quite frankly, I could probably do an entire episode on them, so I will try to be concise. The Black Sash was an organisation that began in 1955 and was started by six middle class white women in South Africa. Under the Apartheid government, the Senate wanted to amend the constitution to exclude black and mixed-race people from being able to vote. The women rallied support and protested this amendment by wearing black sashes and draping a black sash over a giant copy of the constitution. The black sash represents mourning and the women used it to symbolise the death of the constitution. The women were worried that if the National Party government started to tamper with the constitution, they would be difficult to stop. Unfortunately, their attempt failed, but the women kept petitioning the government and meeting on mass to address issues of inequality.

The organisation, which actually started with a different name- they were called the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League- was initially only open to white female voters, and by the end of the 1950s, there were more than 50 branches of the Black Sash.  However, in 1963, the membership was broadened to all South African women. Now the Black Sash have grown to become one of South Africa’s longest serving Non-Government Organisations or NGOs in the field of Human Rights and political accountability. 


In the mid 80s, Lydia Kompe played an important part in the Black Sash. The group had established branch called the Transvaal Rural Action Committee, TRAC, and Lydia became a full-time organiser for this committee. But before I go on, I would like to back track a little to give a little background on Lydia.

Lydia was born in that period we call “Between the Wars”, 1935, in a rural town called Matlala, which is in the province that is now called Limpopo. If you are looking at a map of the South of Africa, it is in line with the bottom part of the island Madagascar and about 900km inland. At the time there was a series of policies called the Betterment Policies. Basically, they were racially based laws that gave the government complete control of the lands. The Native Commissioner could grant permission to occupy lands and control what the people could do with their land. Lydia’s family were victims of this Betterment Proclamation and lost farming access to their lands and so their livelihoods were jeopardised.

When she was 15, after finishing the equivalent to Grade 9, she had to drop out of school and move to the city of Johannesburg, which is about 400 km from Matlala. She found a job as a domestic worker. During this time, she was arrested several times protesting the Pass Laws. Just a recap on the Pass Laws Act of 1952. The law required black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry passbooks called dompas. Inside the passbook had a host of information such as their fingerprints, a photo, details of employment, tax payments, and employers’ reports on their performance and behaviour. Government officials could expel people from an area based on the reports in the passbook. It was also illegal to be without a passbook and the penalty was to be put in jail. And that is why Lydia was arrested.

Lydia’s first foray into unions was in 1974 with the Metal and Allied Workers Union. In an interview in 1986 she reflected on her time there. “I was the only woman organiser and the metal industry is mainly men. At first, I accepted that I would be exploited by male colleagues being asked to make their lunch, do the shopping… then I decided not to take it and organised a rotation. They would say things like, ‘you, being a woman can’t help us with our problems’ or ‘where is your boss, why don’t you send him along?’ Some of them say they will get their men to join if you agree to sleep with them”. So, you can see that not only did she have rigid racism rules to deal with, but also deeply entrenched sexism. She developed strategies to overcome these difficulties and became recognised as an excellent organiser and recruiter for the union. In 1976, when she was elected as a shop steward, which is the person who deals with the management on behalf of the workers. She helped to organise a strike and was dismissed from her job. But after this dismissal, the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union hired her full time. 

For the next 10 years, Lydia worked to establish several other unions including, a union for transport workers and she was very vocal in advocating for the rights of female workers including defending the rights of women night cleaners. 

This is when she began to work with the Black Sash and her work with women increased. In 1983 the Black Sash had established TRAC the Transvaal Rural Action Committee to defend the rights of rural South Africans, particularly women. FYI, Transvaal is the name of a former province in South Africa. TRAC helped women who were victims of forced removal from their lands. Lydia then helped to set up the Rural Women’s Movement. In an interview about her work, she said, “my priority lies with the empowerment of women. Rural women are the most disadvantaged people in our society. They are born and brought up in this system, in which women are regarded as inferior. It takes a long time, even if you explain the Constitution, for them to understand that they have rights.”

In a 1992 article cowritten with Janet Small she reiterates, “the unique combination of patriarchy, apartheid and capitalism resulted in severe oppression. Rural women’s lives are physically oppressive largely because of the underdevelopment of the countryside and psychologically oppressive because of their inferior economic and social status.” 

The Rural Women’s Movement brought together 500 existing women’s groups and gave a voice to those women who were suffering from both forced removals from their land and domestic violence. 

When apartheid ended in 1994, and the new government were to be elected, Lydia ran for parliament and she was elected as a Member of Parliament. Upon her election into parliament, she became a member of the Committee for Agricultural and Land Affairs. One of the Acts that she played a significant part in drafting was the Land Restitution Act. The goal of the Act was to provide a solution to the people who had been dispossessed as part of the betterment policies.

She was also a member of the Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of the Quality of Life and Status of Women, and as a part of this she worked hard to pass the Maintenance Bill that recognised customary marriages so that if a woman’s husband died, she would not be dispossessed of their property.

I could go on, listing the incredible achievements that Lydia Kompe attained in both her career as a unionist and as a Member of Parliament. She was an incredibly hard-working woman who faced adversity from so many angles, but she rose up to create a better South Africa for future generations of women.

Now I would like to play you a song that I wrote which was inspired by Lydia Kompe, it is called Rise Up.

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.

Bitter dreams and sweet, sweet tears

You kept us to chained to fear

And these bodies are not yours to take

They’re ours to liberate


Together we rise up

Together we stand

Together we stay

Hand in hand


This ink that wrote the rules

And this paper is just plain cruel

You claimed the land beneath our feet

But we never claimed defeat


Together we rise up

Together we stand

Together we stay

Hand in hand


Together we rise up

Together we stand

Together we speak

Hand in hand

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Next time on History Detective, we will meet the some people who are generally missing from the Cold War narratives, you guessed it, women. We are actually going to meet Women Strike for Peace who were a group of women who protested against the use of Nuclear Weapons during the Cold War.