South African History Online (SAHO) has over the past four years developed a series of programmes to mark the role of women in the struggle for freedom and equality. Our aim is to develop a comprehensive and easily accessible online history and archive on the role played by women in South African history, with a listing of historical and contemporary documents, biographies, organizations, campaigns etc. Another objective of the project is starting a dialogue with academics, archives, universities and workers in the public sector to see how we can collectively build this online monument. This initiative will remind us that we need to look continuously at the legacy of the past – not just to find answers for the future, but also to inspire generations of women to come.
Twentieth century South Africa was a divided society. Harsh, repressive laws limited the movements and opportunities of Black, Coloured and Indian people as an all-white government ensured that privilege was maintained by the white minority.
In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party rose to power with their policy of apartheid and implemented laws that far more rigid and ruthless than before. The various races were forbidden from mixing socially and were forcibly moved to separate living areas.
Those most outraged by the system of discrimination became anti-apartheid activists and in so doing risked imprisonment, torture and exile. Much of the 20th century in South Africa was characterized by this struggle for justice and racial equality. This was compounded by the struggle for gender equ ality, both in South Africa and the world over. The system of patriarchy and the ‘women’s work’ stereotype had to be broken before women, particularly Black women, could achieve equal status with men.
Women in South Africa played a prominent role in the struggle for equal rights long before any formal women’s organizations came into being. As early as 1912, in what was probably the first mass passive resistance campaign in our country, Indian w omen encouraged Black and Indian miners in Newcastle to strike against starvation wages, and in 1913, Black and Coloured women in the Free State protested against having to carry identity passes, which White women were not required to do.
In 1918, Charlotte Maxeke started the first formal women’s organization (Bantu Women’s League) which was created to resist the pass laws. In the 19 30s and 19 4 0s there were many instances of mass protests, demonstrations and passive resistance campaigns in which women participated. By 1943, women could join the ANC and by 948, the ANC Women’s League was formed with Ida Mtwana as its first president.
The women’s struggle became more militant in the 1950s. Thousands of Black, Coloured and Indian women took part in the Defiance Campaign in 1952, which involved the deliberate contravention of petty apartheid laws. In 1954, the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW or FDSAW) was established, which brought together women from the ANC, the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), trade unions and self-help groups for the first time. A Women’s Charter was drawn up which pledged to bring an end to discriminatory laws.
On 9 August 1956, FEDSAW organized some 20 000 women to march to the seat of government, the Union Buildings in Pretoria to present a petition against the carrying of passes by women to the prime minister, J G Strijdom. This was the famous Women’s March celebrated as Women’s Day on 9 August each year. The women’s anti-pass campaign, the Women’s Charter and their famous march to Pretoria became benchmarks in the struggle and continued to inspire decades of women until democracy was finally realized in 1994.
Women in South Africa have never constituted a homogenous group. There were and still are huge discrepancies between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, but at many times in the struggle, women of all races and classes worked together, as can be seen in the formation of the Garment Workers Union in 1928 and FEDSAW in 1954. The bonds among women, the experiences they have in common – of childbirth, child care and other interests, will always unite them.
What is also striking in our history is how many women in the 20th century rose above disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve success in many fields. Others came from privileged backgrounds but chose to join the struggle. The online archive, created in celebration of the 1956 Women’s March, honours some of those women. It seeks to share the many stories of women’s social and political struggles in South Africa and focuses on these in the context of the 20th century.
The 1956 Women’s March, Pretoria, 9 August
‘Strijdom, you have tampered with the women,You have struck a rock.’So runs the song composed to mark this historic occasion
By the middle of 1956 plans had been laid for the Pretoria march and the FSAW had written to request that JG Strijdom, the current prime minister, meet with their leaders so they could present their point of view. The request was refused.
The ANC then sent Helen Joseph and Bertha Mashaba on a tour of the main urban areas, accompanied by Robert Resha of the ANC and Norman Levy of the Congress of Democrats (COD). The plan was to consult with local leaders who would then make arrangements to send delegates to the mass gathering in August.
The Women’s March was a spectacular success. Women from all parts of the country arrived in Pretoria, some from as far afield as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. They then flocked to the Union Buildings in a determined yet orderly manner. Estimates of the number of women delegates ranged from 10 000 to 20 000, with FSAW claiming that it was the biggest demonstration yet held. They filled the entire amphitheatre in the bow of the graceful Herbert Baker building. Walker describes the impressive scene:
Many of the African women wore traditional dress, others wore the Congress colours, green, black and gold; Indian women were clothed in white saris. Many women had babies on their backs and some domestic workers brought their white employers’ children along with them. Throughout the demonstration the huge crowd displayed a discipline and dignity that was deeply impressive (Walker 1991:195).
Neither the prime minister or any of his senior staff was there to see the women, so as they had done the previous year, the leaders left the huge bundles of signed petitions outside JG Strijdom’s office door. It later transpired that they were removed before he bothered to look at them. Then at Lilian Ngoyi’s suggestion, a masterful tactic, the huge crowd stood in absolute silence for a full half hour. Before leaving (again in exemplary fashion) the women sang ‘Nkosi sikeleli Afrika‘. Without exception, those who participated in the event described it as a moving and emotional experience. The FSAW declared that it was a ‘monumental achievement’.
The significance of the Women’s March must be analysed. Women had once again shown that the stereotype of women as politically inept and immature, tied to the home, was outdated and inaccurate. And as they had done the previous year, the Afrikaans press tried to give the impression that it was whites who had ‘run the show’. This was blatantly untrue. The FSAW and the Congress Alliance gained great prestige form the obvious success of the venture. The FSAW had come of age politically and could no longer be underrated as a recognised organisation – a remarkable achievement for a body that was barely 2 years old. The Alliance decided that 9 August would henceforth be celebrated as Women’s Day, and it is now, in the new South Africa, commemorated each year as a national holiday.
Passes for African Women
The Government`s first attempts to force women to carry passes and permits had been a major fiasco. In 1913, government officials in the Orange Free State declared that women living in the urban townships would be required to buy new entry permits each month. In response, the women sent deputations to the Government, collected thousands of signatures on petitions, and organised massive demonstrations to protest the permit requirement. Unrest spread throughout the province and hundreds of women were sent to prison. Civil disobedience and demonstrations continued sporadically for several years. Ultimately the permit requirement was withdrawn. No further attempts were made to require permits or passes for African women until the 1950s. Although laws requiring such documents were enacted in 1952, the Government did not begin issuing permits to women until 1954 and reference books until 1956. The issuing of permits began in the Western Cape, which the Government had designated a “Coloured preference area”. Within the boundaries established by the Government, no African workers could be hired unless the Department of Labour determined that Coloured workers were not available. Foreign Africans were to be removed from the area altogether. No new families would be allowed to enter, and women and children who did not qualify to remain would be sent back to the reserves. The entrance of the migrant labourers would henceforth be strictly controlled. Male heads of households, whose families had been endorsed out or prevented from entering the area, were housed with migrant workers in single-sex hostels. The availability of family accommodations was so limited that the number of units built lagged far behind the natural increase in population.
In order to enforce such drastic influx control measures, the Government needed a means of identifying women who had no legal right to remain in the Western Cape. According to the terms of the Native Laws Amendment Act, women with Section 10(1)(a), (b), or (c) status were not compelled to carry permits. Theoretically, only women in the Section 10(1)(d) category – that is, work-seekers or women with special permission to remain in the urban area – were required to possess such documents. In spite of their legal exemption, women with Section 10(1)(a), (b), and (c) rights were issued permits by local authorities which claimed that the documents were for their own protection. Any woman who could not prove her (a), (b), or (c) status was liable to arrest and deportation.
Soon after permits were issued to women in the Western Cape, local officials began to enforce the regulations throughout the Union. Reaction to the new system was swift and hostile. Even before the Western Cape was designated a “Coloured preference area”, Africans were preparing for the inevitable. On January 4, 1953, hundreds of African men and women assembled in the Langa township outside Cape Town to protest the impending application of the Native Laws Amendment Act. Delivering a fiery speech to the crowd Dora Tamana, a member of the ANC Women’s League and a founding member of the Federation of South African Women, declared:
We, women, will never carry these passes. This is something that touches my heart. I appeal to you young Africans to come forward and fight. These passes make the road even narrower for us. We have seen unemployment, lack of accommodation and families broken because of passes. We have seen it with our men. Who will look after our children when we go to jail for a small technical offence — not having a pass?
Women’s March Interviews
In the year, 2000, four young oral historians interviewed fourteen women who participated in the 1956 March. Here are extracts from three interviews
(Q: Indicates interviewer’s question)
Interview One: Dorothy Masenya (DM)
(Interviewed in English)
Q: What motivated you to, finally, say “I’m taking the government with its horns? I’m facing the bull with its horns?” What motivated you to take part in the March itself?
DM: Well I felt as an African woman I should to do something. I’m Black when I feel to be. What will I have done for the nation, yes?
Q: So you felt you were concerned?
DM: I was very concerned, directly, because this would come down even with our descendants.
Q: How did the women get to Pretoria?
DM: Yes, we all converged, other people from other centres, Johannesburg. They were coming by trains and thing like that Springs, East Rand and things like that… In fact old people; older people were given lifts by the patronage from Johannesburg and other countries. But we were a big force. Also from Lady Selbourne. We had a very big force to join the others. We met somewhere in town there … Did we meet at Boom Street? Boom and Andries but not very far from the hospital there that.
Q: Can you just give us briefly what was the mood? How did you feel?
DM: (laughter) We because now, really, we had never carried passes. We were all enthusiastic to get there and see this Boer bass and tell him that we are not going to carry those things. So there were the ladies oh Mrs Moodley, Helen, Lilian Ngoyi, oh they were very many I remember ….oh ja Bertha Mashaba,… Amina Cachalia. Yes she was young lady….We had so many things to talk about really. As I say, in fact we wanted to see whether were these were we gong to be arrested, or where would they find a prison to fill up this entire mob. You see that was the big idea o a bona [you see]if they arrest one we all walk in and no turning back. We are all just there for ….So instead, really they gave us a way out. Nobody was arrested on that day.
Interview Two: Caroline Motsoaledi (CM)
(Interviewed in Northern Sotho and translated into English)
Q: Can you explain a little bit about the March, how it was organized, how did you organize the women, where did you get transport money to Pretoria?
CM: We use to convene meetings now and then at Mzimhlophe. Many people organized at their own branches. We were using trains for transport, to Pretoria. We walked to the Union Building we sat in the garden. Our leaders went inside the building to submit memorandum to Strijdom but they did not find him. There was no one to receive and read the memorandum. Our leaders called us into the courtyard.
Interview Three: Magdalene Matshadi Tsoane (MT) and Rahaba Mahlakedi Moeketsi (RM)
(Interviewed together in Northern Sotho and translated into English)
Q: How did you feel as you were mixed according to race?
RM: I can say I was happy to work with different people but the people I have enjoyed most were the Indians. I have many friends in India. People like Amina Cachalia were there.
MT: We also worked very closely with people like Lilian Ngoyi and many more. During the march we were together with Ma-Moeketsi and others. I was always with Ma-Moeketsi.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the South African Federation of Women?
RM: I am the one who was the member of that organization. I was working with many white women in this organization. We use to attend meetings in Johannesburg.
Q: Were you not afraid for your children during the 1956 March?
RM: No, we had our children on our backs during the March. Many women had their children with them during the March. Some were carrying the white children with them, those who were working for whites.
Q: Tell us about the songs you sung.
MT: We were singing the song, which says ‘Verwoerd, the black people will kill you and we do not want Bantu Education'(“Verwoerd, batho ba bantsho ba tlo go bolaya and gape ga re batle Bantu Education). And the song was saying: ‘If you strike a woman, you strike a rock'(‘Wathint’aBafazi, waThint’iMbokodo’)
Q: Can you sing one song for us?
RM and MT: Yes it goes like this [Singing] “Forward we go to Pretoria, Forward we go to Pretoria”.(Yona ere: “Pele re aya Pretoria, pele re aya Pretoria”.)