Ellen Kuzwayo, the lone woman and the least flashy of the founders of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and a quiet moral force throughout the rise of the African National Congress from outlaw movement to governing party, died Wednesday in Johannesburg. She was 91.
The cause was complications of diabetes, her son Bobo told The South African Press Association.
Along with playing a role in fighting white oppression, Ms. Kuzwayo was also an early leader of the struggle of African women for equality with their men.
Her 1985 autobiography, "Call Me Woman," described her beatings by her first husband and her loss of their children to him when they separated, because by law and tradition she was a minor. With it, she became the first black writer to win South Africa's premier literary prize, the CNA Award.
After Nelson Mandela's inauguration as president in 1994, she became, at the age of 79, a member of the first multiracial Parliament and served for five years.
At her death, Ms. Kuzwayo still lived in Soweto, the vast, isolated satellite city of tiny tract homes and jammed squatter camps a few miles from Johannesburg, a product of the determination of South Africa's white rulers to eject from their midst all blacks not employed as their domestic servants.
After the 1976 Soweto riots, set off by police shootings of schoolchildren protesting the forced change to the Afrikaans language in class, Ms. Kuzwayo became the lone woman on the Committee of 10, which informally governed the township when residents resisted paying rent to the despised Urban Bantu Council, appointed by the white government.
As a result, she was imprisoned without charge for five months in 1977.
In her 1996 testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated apartheid-era crimes, she described her predawn arrest, hiding in the bathroom trying to bathe and dress as police horses trampled her yard, and instructing Bobo, then a teenager, to keep a sharp eye out so that the police did not plant evidence as they searched.
She later helped establish the Urban Foundation, which pressed the government to let blacks own their houses, and she was a longtime adviser of the Zamani Soweto Sisters Council, the umbrella body for women's self-help groups; the first president of the Black Consumer Union; and the general secretary of the Y.W.C.A.
Ms. Kuzwayo, whose name before her marriage was Nnoseng Ellen Serasengwe, was born June 29, 1914, in the Orange Free State, an Afrikaner-dominated farming region, into a family of ministers and teachers; her maternal grandfather graduated from a missionary college in 1879 and had been the headmaster of a multiracial boys school and a court interpreter.
At 22, she began attending local African National Congress conferences with her father.
She later inherited the 6,000-acre farm owned by her mother's family, but lost it in the 1970's when the area was rezoned for white ownership only.
In the 1940's, she joined Mr. Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and others in forming the breakaway African National Congress Youth League, a more militant offshoot of the Congress, and served as its secretary. Mr. Mandela later formed its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. He was convicted in 1964 on charges of treason and sabotage and imprisoned until 1990.
She became a teacher in 1938, but quit the profession in 1952 when the Native Education laws were supplanted by the Bantu Education Act, and missionary schools were closed.
"I did not have the strength nor the courage to teach the children of my community what appeared to be very poisonous to their minds," she said later. "The National Party gave them an inferior education so those children were going to remain the slaves of white people."
She became a social worker, eventually becoming a revered figure in Soweto, known as Ma K, giving advice to women's groups, churches and schools and earning a salary from the social work department of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Besides her son Bobo, she is survived by another son, Justice; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
One of her most common laments was the lasting damage that apartheid and the violent fight against it had done to South Africa's children. The film "Tsotsi," which won an Oscar as best foreign film this year, vividly shows the lives of young thugs on the Soweto-Johannesburg trains, and in 1996, Ms. Kuzwayo described to the truth commission the changes she had seen in young men like them.
In her early days as a social worker, she said, "Sometimes after sunset I would be going through Orlando Station to go to my home, and it would be dark, and if I saw a group of young men standing there, I just ordered them to take me home."
"They would be grousing that they should be doing something else rather than taking this old lady home, but they obeyed. Believe you me, today I cannot do that, because I don't trust the very children who ought to protect me because of the handling of the government of South Africa of those days. They turned our children into animals."
She herself was in a famous film about crime and injustice in South Africa, the 1951 version of "Cry, the Beloved Country," starring Sidney Poitier. She had a small role as a shebeen queen — the owner of an illegal Soweto tavern.