The decade of the 1950s was a decade of turmoil in South Africa. In

the urban areas, a strong alliance was being forged between racially oppressed

groups and sympathetic whites. As a united front against apartheid, the

non-racial Congress Alliance, (2) formed from previously

organised racially-based and worker groups, defied unjust laws and conducted

campaigns against forced removals under the Group Areas Act and against

inferior "Bantu" education for African children. The alliance

organised bus boycotts, stay-at-homes, and rent strikes in the African

townships. Perhaps the most significant Congress campaign of the decade

was the campaign against the pass laws, and in particular, the extension

of reference books to African women. No other campaign was carried out

on such a massive scale or was sustained over as many years. No other campaign

struck at the very root of the apartheid system.

Protest against the pass laws was not an innovation of the 1950s. The

African National Congress (ANC) had been organising opposition to the legislation

since its founding in 1912. The significance of the campaigns of the 1950s

lay in the adoption of new strategies for bringing about fundamental change.

For the first time, anti-pass protesters employed techniques of mass action,

strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience on a wide scale, abandoning the

appeals, petitions and deputations that had characterised ANC protests

for more than forty years. Efforts at gentle suasion and pleas for patient

waiting were cast aside as remnants of a bygone era. The degree of popular

involvement in the anti-pass actions and the level of spontaneous activity

in the rural areas was unparallelled in any other period of South African

history. Finally, in the 1950s, the primary catalysts of the anti-pass

protests were not the traditional male leaders, but thousands of African

women, many of whom had never before been involved in political protests

or demonstrations.

In the urban areas, the women`s campaigns were primarily organised by

the ANC Women`s League and the nonracial Federation of South African Women.

In the rural areas, resistance was largely spontaneous. Although the Government

charged that the unrest was due to the work of "outside agitators",

the rural women were, for the most part, acting on their own initiative

and according to their own understanding of how the extension of the pass

laws could affect their lives. While women who worked in the urban areas

brought home new tactics, insights and information when they returned to

the reserves, they were contributing to a momentum that had gathered on

its own.

The militancy of the women, their level of organisation in the urban

areas, and the ease with which they discarded their expected subordinate

role came as a shock to many of the men and even to some of the women.

Although women were deeply involved in all of the Congress campaigns of

the 1950s, the leadership of the Congress organisations was dominated almost

exclusively by men. (3)

As the women`s campaigns gathered strength, the ANC National Executive

Committee pointedly acknowledged the role of women in the liberation struggle.

It was obvious, from the wording of its statements, that the importance

of women to the struggle had not previously been assumed. In its report

to the Annual Conference of December 17-18, 1955, the ANC National Executive

Committee remarked that the ANC Women`s League, which was formed in part

to "take up special problems and issues affecting women", was

not "just an auxiliary to the African National Congress, and we know

that we cannot win liberation or build a strong movement without the participation

of the women..." (4)

African women played a leading role in the resistance to pass legislation

because of the particular way in which influx control measures, implemented

through the pass system, affected their position in society as well as

African family life. On the basis of race, African women suffered the same

disabilities as African men. Because of their sex, however, they carried

a double burden. At the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy, African

women were predominantly employed in low-paying, unskilled jobs. Because

of the tenuous nature of their employment - largely in the domestic service

and informal sectors - African women were particularly vulnerable to removal

from the urban areas as "idle" Africans or "superfluous

appendages". Legal constraints made it far more difficult for African

women than men to acquire urban residency rights, accommodations in the

urban areas, and land in the African reserves. Influx control laws, and

by extension the pass system, were intentionally used by government officials

to bar African women from the urban areas and to confine them to the African


Life in the reserves was an existence of poverty and hardship for the

vast majority of the people. Enforced landlessness had transformed African

men from self-reliant peasants to migrant labourers in the white areas.

Influx control laws meant that their families were forced to stay in the

reserves, where the men could visit them once a year. The burden of raising

children under such conditions, which fell almost exclusively on the women,

became increasingly arduous. As the soil lost its fertility and landlessness

became more acute, the reserve economy deteriorated. The women`s role as

cultivators and providers eroded, and with it, women`s social status. Rather

than being major contributors to the families` livelihood, women became

increasingly dependent upon male earnings. However, these earnings were

neither large nor secure. In many cases, money from the "white"

areas came sporadically or not at all.

During the period that women were free from pass law restrictions, some

had been able to skirt the influx control regulations and join their husbands

in the urban areas. Some found menial jobs which, although low-paying and

insecure, were more lucrative than subsistence farming. These women knew

that the extension of passes to women would increase the effectiveness

of the influx control system. No longer would there be an exit from the

reserves, a way for women to earn money to feed their children or to live

with their husbands in the urban areas. As a result, when in 1952 the Government

announced that African women would be forced to carry passes, the women

responded with vehemence. Subjection to pass law controls would destroy

their last remaining hope - their freedom of movement. Unlike African men,

the women who resisted these laws had nothing further to lose. Protesters

in the rural areas were not risking the loss of urban residency rights,

houses or jobs. They could afford to be bold where men were apt to be hesitant.

The women could only gain by their militancy.

Resistance to the pass laws was the overwhelming, but not the only issue

of the 1950s. African women became involved in a number of campaigns focussing

on issues that affected their ability to care for their children and to

keep their family unit together. They protested the pass laws, "Bantu"

education, rent hikes, bus fare increases, forced removals of African communities,

government-owned beer halls that soaked up their husbands` wages and laws

that prevented them from selling home brew, an important source of income

for many women. In the rural areas, women resisted the Government`s "betterment"

schemes, which included the mandatory culling of precious livestock, required

women to fill and maintain cattle dipping tanks without pay, and enforced

soil conservation measures which dispossessed many families of arable land.

Although the disabilities imposed by apartheid laws were onerous for

every African, in many ways the burden fell heaviest on the women. In order

to comprehend the forces that propelled these women into action in the

1950s, it is necessary to understand the social and economic context of

their resistance. Perhaps the single most significant factor contributing

to their hardship was the deterioration of the economy in the reserves,

where the majority of African women were compelled to live. As a result

of this economic decline, an increasing number of able-bodied men were

leaving the reserves as migrant labourers. The outflow of labour from the

reserves and the destruction of the family unit intensified the hardships

borne by African women...

Passes for African women

In 1952, the same year that African women became subject to strict influx

control measures, the Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of

Documents) Act was passed. Under this Act, the numerous documents African

men had been required to carry were replaced by a single document - the

reference book - which contained information concerning identity, employment,

place of legal residence, payment of taxes, and, if applicable, permission

to be in the urban areas. The Act further stipulated that African women,

at an unspecified further date, would for the first time be required to

carry reference books. In October 1962, the Government announced that all

African women would be required to carry reference books as of February

1, 1963. After this date, it would be criminal offence for African women,

as well as men, to be caught without a reference book. Moreover, it would

be illegal for anyone to employ an African of either sex who did not possess

a reference book. (5)

The term "pass" was frequently used to describe any document

which curtailed an African`s freedom of movement and was producible on

the demand of police or local authorities. Thus, residency permits, special

entry permits, workseekers` permits, and reference books often fell into

the general category of the "pass". Strictly speaking, permits

were the documents issued to workseekers and special cases under the terms

of the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952. Reference books, a government

euphemism for the consolidated pass documents, were issued under the terms

of the Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act,

also of 1952. Ultimately, all African women in the towns, cities, "white"

rural areas and reserves were required to carry reference books, while

only certain women in the proclaimed areas were subject to the permit requirements.

The issuance of permits in the urban areas began a few years before the

issuance of reference books. African women declared that the permits were

simply forerunners of reference books and treated them with equal contempt.

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, workseekers 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?" (6)

The women`s campaign had begun. Throughout the Union, preparations were

made for the first nonracial National Conference of Women, to be held in

Johannesburg in April 1954.

The Federation of South African Women and the marches on Pretoria

in 1955 and 1956

One hundred and forty-six delegates, representing 230,000 women from

all parts of South Africa, attended the first National Conference of Women.


It was at this conference that the Federation of South African Women

was formed. Many of the delegates to the conference were members of the

various Congress organisations. Among the African leaders of the Federation,

a large number were trade unionists, primarily from the clothing, textile,

and food and canning industries. Some were teachers and nurses, members

of the small African professional class. Since fewer than one per cent

of African working women were engaged in production work in the 1950s,

the trade unionists, like the nurses and teachers, represented but a fraction

of all adult African women. The involvement of the trade unionists proved

to be critical, however. They contributed invaluable organisational skills

and mobilising techniques to the women`s struggle.

Although the Federation of South African Women included some individual

members, it was primarily composed of affiliated women`s groups, African,

Indian, "Coloured" and white political organisations, and trade

unions. According to its constitution, the objectives of the Federation


"To bring the women of South Africa together to secure full equality

of opportunity for all women, regardless of race, colour or creed; to remove

social and legal and economic disabilities; to work for the protection

of the women and children of our land." (8)

The "Women`s Charter", written at the first conference, called

for the enfranchisement of men and women of all races; equality of opportunity

in employment; equal pay for equal work; equal rights in relation to property,

marriage and children; and the removal of all laws and customs that denied

women such equality. The Charter further demanded paid maternity leave,

child care for working mothers, and free and compulsory education for all

South African children. (9)

Although the Federation acknowledged that the primary task at hand was

the struggle for national liberation, it warned that the struggle would

not be won without the full participation of women. Applying a distorted

version of "tribal" law, which had governed pre-industrial African

society, South African courts continued to regard African women as perpetual

minors under the permanent tutelage of their male guardians. Women`s property

rights were severely limited and control over their own earnings minimal.

The authors of the "Women`s Charter" did not hesitate to deal

with these issues. According to the Charter, laws governing African marriage

and property relations had "lagged behind the development of society

(and) no longer correspond to the actual social and economic position of

women". As a result, "the law has become an obstacle to the progress

of the women, and therefore, a brake on the whole of society". The

blame for "this intolerable condition" rested in part with "a

large section of our menfolk" who refuse "to concede to us women

the rights and privileges which they demand for themselves". The Charter


"We shall teach the men that they cannot hope to liberate themselves

from the evils of discrimination and prejudice as long as they fail to

extend to women complete and unqualified equality in law and practice...

freedom cannot be won for any one section or for the people as a whole

as long as we women are kept in bondage."

The demands laid out in the "Women`s Charter" were ultimately

incorporated into the "Freedom Charter", adopted by the Congress

of the People in Kliptown on June 25-26, 1955.

A major task of the Federation in succeeding years was the organisation

of massive protests against the extension of pass laws to women. Together

with the ANC Women`s League, the Federation organised scores of demonstrations

outside Government offices in towns and cities around the country. The

first national protest took place on October 27, 1955, when 2,000 women

of all races marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, planning to meet

with the Cabinet ministers responsible for the administration of apartheid

laws. The Minister of Native Affairs, Dr. Verwoerd, under whose jurisdiction

the pass laws fell, pointedly refused to receive a multiracial delegation.


Less than a year later, the Women`s League and the Federation of South

African Women organised a second major demonstration - this time focussing

exclusively on the pass laws. On August 9, 1956, 20,000 women from all

parts of South Africa staged a second march on the Union Buildings. Prime

Minister Strijdom, who had been notified of the women`s mission, was not

there to receive them. In lieu of a meeting, the women left bundles of

petitions containing more than 100,000 signatures at the Prime Minister`s

door. (11)

Outside the Government building, they stood silently for 30 minutes,

their hands raised in the Congress salute.(12)

The women concluded their demonstration by singing freedom songs, including

a new one composed especially for the occasion:

Wathint` abafazi, Strijdom!

Wathint` imbokodo uzo kufa!

Now you have touched the women, Strijdom!

You have struck a rock

(You have dislodged a boulder!)

You will be crushed!

African women fought the pass laws as they had fought no other issue.

Passes were the symbol of their deepest oppression. It was through the

pass laws that the influx control system was enforced. It was influx control

that turned their husbands into migrant workers and made them into widows

in the reserves. Passes deprived them of the basic right to live with their

husbands and to raise their children in a stable family unit. Throughout

the 1950s, an average of 339,255 African men were convicted each year for

pass laws violations. If passes were extended to African women, that figure

would more than double. If mothers were arrested as well as fathers, the

women asked, who would care for the children?

The call-to-action flyers of the Women`s League and the Federation described

in vivid detail the plight of the African people under the pass laws. A

flyer printed in 1957 carried the following challenge: "Who knows

better than any African woman what it means to have a husband who must

carry a pass?" The flyer continued:

"Passes mean prison; passes mean broken homes; passes mean suffering

and misery for every African family in our country; passes are just another

way in which the Government makes slaves of the Africans; passes mean hunger

and unemployment; passed are an insult..."

The extension of passes to women constituted an "attack on ourselves,

our mothers, sisters, children and families", the flyer concluded,

an attack that would be fought with all the women`s strength. (13)

Other documents were written in a similar vein. The petition left with

the Prime Minister on August 9, 1956, described how the pass laws had brought

"untold suffering to every African family". Generations of women

had experienced the meaning of the pass laws as they witnessed their husbands

become victims of "raids, arrests, loss of pay, long hours at the

pass office, weeks in cells awaiting trial, forced farm labour". They

had seen their men subjected to "punishment and misery - not for a

crime, but for the lack of a pass". The extension of passes to women

would mean the further destruction of family life, that children would

be "left uncared for, helpless, and others (would be) torn from babies

for failure to produce a pass". The petition concluded with a warning

to the Prime Minister:

"(African women) shall not rest until ALL pass laws and all forms

of permits restricting our freedoms have been abolished. We shall not rest

until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom,

justice and security." (14)

Male reactions to the women`s campaigns

Few of the men were prepared for the women`s militancy. According to

Mary Benson, Walter Sisulu, former Secretary-General of the African National

Congress, witnessed the march of 20,000 women on the Union Buildings in

Pretoria. Afterwards, he asked in zest: "How could they dare?"


Moses Mabhida, a leader of the African National Congress and an executive

of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), felt that because

of traditional male attitudes which perpetuated the subordinate status

of women, "the society didn`t expect women to participate in the way

they did". (16)

Benson writes that the men were taken aback because women were protesting

on a scale and with a spirit they had not begun to achieve. In her view,

the women`s militancy and the men`s reticence could be explained by the

different circumstances of their lives under the apartheid system. To illustrate

her point, Benson quotes Lilian Ngoyi:

"Men are born into the system, and it is as if it has been a life

tradition that they carry passes. We as women have seen the treatment our

men have - when they leave home in the morning you are not sure they will

come back. We are taking it very seriously. If the husband is to be arrested

and the mother, what about the child?" (17)

In spite of their hate for pass regulations and all they connoted, African

men had grown used to carrying the pass documents. For men, passes were

just one more aspect of the despised apartheid system. For women, the carrying

of passes imposed a new restriction on their freedom, a freedom that men

had never had. Women had more to lose by acquiescing to the new system

and more to gain by fighting it.

If the men were slow to recognise the women`s contribution, they had

staunch supporters of their efforts. Albert Lutuli, President-General of

the African National Congress, paid tribute to the women in August 1956.

"When the women begin to take an active part in the struggle as they

are doing now, no power on earth can stop us from achieving FREEDOM IN

OUR LIFETIME", he declared. (18)

In November 1956, the South African Congress of Trade Unions wrote to

the Transvaal Provincial Conference of the Federation of South African

Women, strongly supporting the women`s actions:

"It is the women of South Africa who have demonstrated to all progressive

forces the true meaning of militancy and organisation and we in the trade

union movement are determined to follow your courageous example."


The National Executive Committee of the African National Congress, after

paying tribute to the women`s anti-pass campaigns, criticised the men for

not playing a more active role in that struggle:

"The National Executive Committee regrets that men, who are even

more affected by the pass laws, play the role of spectators while women

were vigorously campaigning against the system. Men are called upon to

enter this campaign unreservedly. The tendency of regarding this as a women`s

struggle must be forthwith abandoned." (20)

The National Executive Committee also directed the men to be more supportive

of the women and their efforts. It was the duty of the men to:

"...make it possible for women to play their part in the liberation

movement by regarding them as equals, and helping to emancipate them in

the home, even relieving them of their many family and household burdens

so that women may be given an opportunity of being politically active.

The men in the Congress movement must fight constantly in every possible

way those outmoded customs which make women inferior and by personal example

must demonstrate their belief in the equality of all human beings, of both

sexes." (21)

By 1959, four years after the beginning of the women`s campaigns, the

men in the African National Congress had become ardent supporters of the

women`s efforts. For the Annual Conference of the African National Congress,

held in December of that year, the men made a special banner which read,

"Makabongwe Amakosikazi" - "We thank the ladies".


The local campaigns: women revolt in the towns and cities

Just as they had forty years before, the women`s anti-pass protests

of the 1950s began in the Orange Free State. The first actions were taken

against the permit system. In June 1952, in the mining town of Odendaalrus,

residents of the location were told that African women who had not registered

with the local authorities would be liable to arrest for violation of the

Urban Areas Act. If women could not prove that they were employed, they

could not remain in the Odendaalrus area. The authorities were acting illegally.

While women could be issued residence permits or permits of identification,

under the terms of the Urban Areas Act, only African men were required

to register their service contracts or status as workseekers. African women

were exempt from these regulations. (23)

Few of the residents were aware of this fact. When the authorities tried

to enforce their decree, rioting broke out. Stones were thrown. The car

of the location superintendent was burned. Police fired into the crowd,

killing one man and critically wounding a woman. Two days later, the location

residents went out on strike, most of them failing to appear for work.

Police from eight near-by towns raided the location with sten guns, pistols,

batons and tear gas, rounding up participants in the disturbances. By the

end of the week, 71 men and women had been detained. Forty-four women and

three men ultimately stood trial. (24)

By 1954, the issuance of residence permits to African women was taking

place in towns and cities throughout the Union. In February, a crowd of

700 women gathered outside the administration building in the New Brighton

township of Port Elizabeth, demanding that the manager of Native affairs

take back all the residence permits he had issued. When he refused, l00

women burned their permits, declaring that no more New Brighton women were

willing to carry them. (25)

In October 1955, while 2,000 women were marching on Pretoria, 1,000

were protesting in front of the Native administration building in Durban.

In Cape Town, hundreds of women marched through the streets in protest

of the permit regulations. The Minister of Native Affairs, Dr. Verwoerd,

chose this moment to announce that reference books would be issued to African

women beginning in January 1956. In response to the Government`s actions,

the African National Congress resolved in December 1955 to launch a massive

campaign against the pass laws. The goal of the campaign would be to educate

people throughout the country concerning the implications of the pass system,

and in particular, its effect on African women. In a letter to a provincial

official of the African National Congress, Secretary-General Oliver Tambo

described the extent of the African National Congress effort:.

"A systematic intensive organisation must be undertaken; house

to house, yard to yard, location to location, factory to factory, in the

towns and likewise in the country." (26)

In early 1956, the Government began issuing reference books to women

in the remote rural areas, intentionally shying away from the larger towns

and cities where the influence of the African National Congress was strongest.

The authorities focussed on the most vulnerable women - those in the reserves

and on the white farms, and domestic servants isolated in the white urban

areas. Only after the majority of African women had reference books would

the Government attack the African National Congress strongholds. The African

National Congress was not blind to the Government`s tactics. At the annual

Conference of the African National Congress (Transvaal) in November 1956,

President E.P. Moretsele warned that.

"plans are afoot to introduce reference books on the farms and

country dorps. The plan of the Government is perfectly clear. Alarmed by

the resistance it is encountering in the cities and being aware of the

weaknesses in the countryside, they have decided to isolate and encircle

the areas where resistance is most effective. At present the passes are

being introduced to women in the countryside and thereafter the cities

will be attacked with all viciousness and brutality for which the Nationalists

are famous." (27)

It was not until March 1956 that the first reference books were issued.

The first recipients were again women in the Orange Free State, this time

in the town of Winburg. In April, hundreds of Winburg women marched to

the magistrate`s court and charged that many of those who had taken reference

books had been tricked into accepting them. They proceeded to dump a sack

containing 141 reference books on the ground and burned them. All of the

women were arrested. Although it was not yet mandatory for women to carry

reference books, it was illegal to destroy them. (28)

Protests spread throughout the country. Twelve hundred women demonstrated

in Germiston, 2,000 in Johannesburg, 4,000 in Pretoria, and 350 in Bethlehem.


In Durban, a deputation of more than 300 women marched to the Native

Commissioner`s office.(30)

Seven hundred Port Elizabeth women deposited more than 4,000 protest

forms with the Native Commissioner - all of which were promptly turned

over to the police. (31)

The people of Evaton were in the sixth month of a bus boycott to protest

fare increases when the women`s protest began. Rather than break the boycott,

200 women marched seven miles to the Native Commissioner`s office, where

they left 10,000 protest forms. (32)

On 9 August, while 20,000 women were descending on the Union Buildings

in Pretoria, thousands of women were demonstrating in other parts of South

Africa. In Cradock, 300 women assembled in front of the magistrate`s office

while a deputation presented the magistrate with a memorandum. Later in

the day, a meeting of more than 1,000 people was held in the location to

protest the pass laws. In Queenstown, women congregated outside the magistrate`s

court, while a deputation met with the Native Commissioner. An African

policeman who witnessed the Queenstown demonstration later gave evidence

in court. After providing the particulars of the meeting, Native Detective

A. Moxambuza remarked:

"Passes not popular amongst Africans. I myself have a wife and

children, and if wife were to face same dangers of arrest as average African

male, I would be most unhappy. I am aware that when first suggested that

African women would carry passes, this caused resentment and heat amongst

African women and their men-folk."

Throughout 1957 and 1958, as supporters of the African National Congress

and of the Federation of South African Women protested in the towns and

cities, the rural areas in the western Transvaal were in utter turmoil.

In close proximity to South Africa`s major mining and industrial centre,

the Witwatersrand, the Lefurutse reserve of the western Transvaal was a

source of migrant labour for South Africa`s industries, farms, and mines.

Prior to the extension of reference books to African women, the reserve

had been an area without previous disturbances. By the end of the ordeal,

the reserve and surrounding district had become a virtual military camp.

Thousands of refugees had fled the area. Whole villages had been destroyed

and deserted. The people who remained were subjected to nightly terror

by police and the "bodyguards" of collaborating tribal authorities.

The disturbances began in March 1957 when the Reference Book Unit came

to Zeerust, the largest town in the Marico District. Only eight women,

from an African population of 4,000 bought reference books. The vast majority

refused to purchase the new documents. (33)

The Reference Book Unit moved on to Dinokana, the village of Chief Abraham

Moiloa. The Native Commissioner had presented the chief with an ultimatum

-- either he tell his women to accept reference books or be deposed. (34)

In the years preceding the issuance of reference books, Chief Moiloa

had fallen from favour with the South African Government. He had delayed

in signing the Bantu Authorities Act, which parodied tribal Government,

making chiefs and headmen instruments of the white regime, rather than

leaders who acted with the consent of their people. (35)

In 1955, the chief had been requested to persuade the villagers of Braklaagte

and Leeuwfontein to abandon their homes and move to a new location. The

area surrounding the two villages had been declared "white",

and the Government was determined to move all "Black spots" within

it. Chief Moiloa`s half-hearted efforts at persuasion had failed completely.


It was rumoured within government circles that the chief actually opposed

the removal policy, the Bantu Authorities Act and the introduction of "Bantu

education" for African children. (37)

Although Chief Moiloa informed his people about the reference books,

he refused to order the women to buy them. When the Reference Book Unit

arrived, only 76 out of 4,000 Diokana women purchased the books - less

than one in 50. Most of the 76 were school teachers, employees of the Government

or wives of men who had been threatened with dismissal from their jobs

if their wives did not cooperate. (38)

Government retribution was swift. Chief Moiloa was summarily deposed

and ordered to leave the reserve. (39)

In the towns and cities of the Witwatersrand, the Bafurutse workers

heard that trouble was brewing. Within days, thewomen had returned home

and organised boycotts against a white trader sympathetic to the Government`s

efforts and against government schools where teachers had taken out reference

books. Out of 1,200 students, less than 150 continued to go to classes.

All of the boycotters were expelled and blacklisted. Their names were circulated

by the Native Affairs Department to prevent them from continuing their

education elsewhere. Ultimately, Dinokana`s only school was forced to close

down permanently. (40)

The following weekend, 150 Bafurutse men arrived from Johannesburg.

A meeting was held and a decision made: all of the reference books were

to be destroyed. The women went from door to door, collecting the documents.

On Sunday, the reference books were brought to the public square and burned.

Several thousand people gathered around the blaze, singing as the passes

went up in smoke. (41)

That evening, as the men made their way to Zeerust to catch the train

back to Johannesburg, they walked into a police cordon. One hundred men

were arrested. Toavenge the arrests, the women in the village began to

burn the huts of people loyal to the Government. The loyalists included

a school principal, members of a church whose leader had advocated the

acceptance of reference books, policemen and other employees and beneficiaries

of the South African Government. (42)

On Monday, large-scale arrests began. By the end of the week, the jail

in Zeerust was full. The unrest that began in Dinokana quickly spread throughout

the reserve. The women of Lekgophung took matters into their own hands

and told their chief to be absent when the Reference Book Unit arrived.

Although it was unheard of for women to give orders to a chief, the chief

obeyed them. When the government officials arrived, the women informed

them that they did not want passes. The authorities left without issuing

a single reference book. (43)

In the village of Supingstad, the women suddenly discovered that they

had urgent business elsewhere. When the Reference Book Unit appeared, the

village was deserted. In Braklaagte and Borakalalo, the books were refused

without ceremony. The Reference Book Unit returned to Motswedi three times

without issuing a single book - in spite of the chief`s command that the

women cooperate. (44)

Only a handful of books were accepted in Leeuwfontein, where villagers

speaking against the books were arrested. (45)

In Gopane, the chief applied pressure, and approximately one-third of

the women purchased reference books. When the village men came home for

the Easter holidays, they were livid. The chief had no right to take action

on an issue of such importance without consulting them. The reference books

had to be destroyed. Immediately, police reinforcements were sent from

Pretoria. A mobile column of police armed with automatic weapons entered

the village with orders to arrest some 20 women suspected of burning their

reference books. A crowd of more than 200 women surrounded the suspects

and challenged the police to arrest them all. Two hundred and thirty-three

women were arrested, and 400 offered themselves for trial. Mired in confusion,

the case was finally abandoned. (46)

In the white farming district surrounding the reserve, the acceptance

of reference books was predetermined. Unlike workers in the urban areas,

farm labourers lacked protective support networks. They could not organise

trade unions or form community organisations, uniting in their efforts

to protect their rights. They could not initiate economic boycotts against

discriminating or otherwise unfair merchants who, more often than not,

were their own employers. Unlike the more fortunate peasants in the reserves,

farm labourers did not possess the means of production; they had no land,

tools or livestock of their own. They were completely at the mercy of their

employers for their economic security and well-being. When reference books

were introduced into the farming area near the Lefurutse reserve, the farmers

frequently transported their female workers to the Reference Book Unit

and waited while they purchased the books. In many instances, girls as

young as 12 and 13 were issued reference books, even though they were three

and four years under the minimum age of 16. Their employers then confiscated

the books, informing the girls that if they ever left the farm, they would

be hunted down by the police and put in jail. Without knowledge or means

to challenge their employers` actions, these girls were often tied to the

land for life. (47)

As time wore on and relatively few women purchased reference books,

the authorities increasingly resorted to coercion. Medical services became

restricted in the reserve. Civil marriages could not take place if both

partners could not produce reference books. Married men who attempted to

pay their taxes were turned away if their wives had not purchased reference

books. Unless their wives complied with the authorities, these men were

liable to arrest, imprisonment, fines and compulsory farm labour for non-payment

of taxes. (48)

Women pensioners who had not purchased reference books were no longer

allowed to collect their pensions in the villages. Instead, they were forced

to make the long journey into Zeerust to pick up their payments. Suddenly,

the bus service in Dinokana was discontinued. Villagers who had to travel

to Zeerust were compelled to walk more than 30 miles to Zeerust and back.

The Dinokana post office was closed down. No more telegrams could be sent

or money received from relatives working in the cities. (49)

Collaborating chiefs, whose wives were usually among the first to take

out reference books, refused to let women defiers reap their crops. Their

land and farm implements were confiscated. (50)

Although it was not yet mandatory for women to carry reference books,

those caught without them were subject to stiff - and illegal - fines.

The chiefs claimed that the fines were "for Congress offences - African

National Congress crimes", although many of the villagers did not

know what a "Congress offence" or the African National Congress

was. (51)

Women who could not pay the fines fled to the hills, abandoning their

homes and leaving their fields and animals untended. Throughout 1957, the

police mobile column moved from village to village, criss-crossing the

Lefurutse reserve. In its wake were mass arrests, night raids, and brutal

beatings of those who protested the issuance of reference books. In terror,

the villagers left their houses at night and slept in the bush. The mobile

column became a virtual army of occupation, camping in the villages, commandeering

animals for food and women for domestic service. (52)

In November 1957, the mobile column began to extend its protection to

pro-government chiefs - against their own people. Contingents of "bodyguards"

were organised, composed of government sympathisers and police. Village

men were forcibly impressed into their ranks. Once they were associated

with the "bodyguards", these men could not safely return to their

villages. Their only hope of protection was to remain with the para-police

units. Communities were thus divided internally, and violence spread. The

"bodyguards" conducted nightly raids, searching for pass-burners,

whipping and clubbing the villagers. Women were severely beaten, their

bodies covered with bruises and deep gashes made from the sharpened edges

of strips of tire. (53)

Rather than intimidating the people, the police tactics intensified

their anger and will to resist. Women were brought to the Zeerust jails

by the hundreds, singing "Open wide the doors of the prison, Commissioner.

The women of Lafurutse are ready to come in". (54)

In response to harassment by police and government sympathisers, villagers

engaged in acts of sabotage and counter-attack. In Leeuwfontein, 14 to

15 huts were burned and the chief forced into hiding. Many of the homes

belonged to members of the Zion Church women who, together with the chief,

had agreed to participate in the Government`s removal scheme. (55)

In December, riots broke out in Witkleigat. For some time, the "bodyguards"

had made a practice of meeting the buses coming into the village and screening

the passengers as they descended. They habitually beat people who had paid

fines rather than go to jail and those awaiting trial who were out on bail.

The "bodyguards" also attacked men whose wives had not taken

reference books, parents of those who had fled, and villagers who had helped

the families of detainees. (56)

At Christmas time, when the Witkleigat men returned from the cities,

they were attacked by the "bodyguards" as they stepped off the

buses. For the first time, the passengers fought back. A crowd gathered

and marched to the home of the pro-Government chief. The chief had fled,

leaving his house and car to be burned, his wife beaten, and his "bodyguards"

killed. The mobile column from Pretoria arrived on the scene. Ninety people

were arrested and charged with murder. By the end of the month, the homes

of 36 government collaborators had been burned. Rioting spread to other

villages. Large-scale, indiscriminate arrests were made throughout the

reserve. In early January, police shot and killed four Africans in Gopane.


Massive exodus from the villages began. By January 1958, people were

leaving by the thousands, abandoning huts, fields and cattle. They went

to the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, to the Witwatersrand, even

to Cape Town, a thousand miles away. In a single week in February, one

thousand refugees fled to Bechuanaland, and more than one thousand left

for other parts of South Africa. (58)

Among the involuntary refugees were political "agitators",

banished to remote parts of the Union where frequently they could not speak

the local language. In March 1958, the Minister of Native Affairs announced

that African National Congress membership, slogans and salutes were henceforth

illegal in certain African areas, including the Lefurutse reserve. Africans

could not enter the reserve without written permission from the Native

Affairs Department. Migrant workers returning from their places of employment

were required to take out permits in order to enter their own "homeland".


The penalty for breaking these regulations was a fine of up to R300

or three years` imprisonment, plus three years` imprisonment without the

option of a fine. A person who raised his hand in a Congress salute could

thus be sentenced to six years in prison. (60)


By 1960, an estimated 3,O2O,28l African women - approximately 75 per

cent of the adult female population - had accepted passes. (61)

Although it was not yet compulsory for women to take out reference books,

they were subject to severe disabilities if they did not have them. Women

without reference books could not rent houses in the urban areas, or they

lost those that they had. They could not register the births of their children

or be married according to common law. Without a reference book, women

could not receive old age pensions or maintenance grants. They were not

issued driver`s licences. Teachers and nurses without passes were dismissed

from their jobs. Some women claimed that their rent money was not accepted,

and they could not get licences to sell beer until they had produced a

reference book. (62)

In 1958, many employers began to make the possession of reference books

a condition of employment, even though there was no law requiring African

women to register their service contracts or to carry reference books.


The last anti-pass demonstrations took place in March 1960...

On April 8, the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress

were banned under the terms of the newly-passed Unlawful Organisations

Act. Already weakened by the arrests of their leaders, the remnants of

the African National Congress and of the Pan Africanist Congress went underground.

As outlawed organisations, they could no longer convene mass meetings and

demonstrations. The days of anti-pass protests were over. On October 26,

1962, the Government announced that all African women, aged 16 and over,

would be required to carry reference books as of February 1, 1963. By that

time, the African National Congress Women`s League had been outlawed, and

the Federation of South African Women had effectively ceased to exist.

Much of their leadership had been banned, banished or imprisoned.

The women`s

anti-pass campaign had lasted for more than a decade. Protests and demonstrations

had shaken towns, cities and villages across the country. Tens of thousands

of women had participated in the resistance, forcing the Government to

delay for eleven years the mandatory extension of reference books to African

women. The women had fought the pass legislation with unprecedented militancy.

They had resisted the implementation of laws which threatened the very

core of their existence - their position in society, their ability to provide

for their children, and their capacity to create for their husbands and

children a stable and secure family life. The women had clung to their

last remaining freedom - the freedom of movement - with a tenacity unparallelled

in other struggles. Unlike African men, who had lost this freedom generations

before, the women still hoped to avoid the inevitable. Although they were

defeated in their immediate objectives, the repeal of pass laws affecting

women, the women had won a major victory.

They had gained their rightful

place in the struggle for national liberation, a place at the forefront,

on footing equal to that of men. They had shown that men could not hope

to liberate themselves if women were relegated to a subordinate status.

For without the women, the men did not know the day and the

From "Notes and Documents", No. 6/83,

March 1983

The earliest alliance was formed between the African

National Congress (ANC) and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), which

together organised the Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws in 1952. In

1953, the South African Coloured People`s Organisation (SACPO) and the

Congress of Democrats (COD) were founded. The latter was composed primarily

of white supporters of the Congress movement. The nonracial South African

Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) ws founded in March 1955. On June 25 and

26, 1955, these organisations came together in Kliptown for the historic

Congress of the People. It was at this Congress that 2,884 deleqates of

all racial groups from all parts of South Africa adopted the "Freedom


In December 1956, Lilian Ngoyi, national president

of both the Federation of South African Women and the African National

Congress Women`s League, became the first woman ever to be elected to the

National Executive Committee of the African National Congress.

"Report of the National Executive Committee

of the African National Congress", African National Congress Annual

Conference of December 17-18, 1955. Document 13(c) contained in Thomas

Karis and Gwendolen M. Carter, eds., From Protest to Challenge, A Documentary

History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1964, 4 vols. (Stanford:

Hoover Institution Press, 1973), Vol. 3.

Muriel Horrell, ed., Laws Affecting Race Relations

in South Africa, 1948-1976, p. 175.

"Strong Protest against New Pass Law", Advance, Cape Town, January 8, 1953

Ken Luckhardt and Brenda Wall, Organize or

Starve: the South African Congress of Trade Unions (London: Lawrence

and Wishart, 1980), p. 301; "Report of the Second National Conference

of the Federation of South African Women", August 11-12, 1956, reel

19B of the Carter/Karis Collection of South African Political Materials,

housed at the Centre for Research Libraries, Chicago, Illinois.

"Constitution of the Federation of South

African Women". Reel 19B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.

"Our Aims", from the Women`s Charter,

First National Conference of the Federation of South African Women, April

17, 1954. Reel 19B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.; "Women

Act in Transvaal", Advance, July 8, 1954.

Helen Joseph, Tomorrow`s Sun, A Smuggled

Journal From South Africa (New York: The John Day Co., 1966), p. 73.

Without reading the petitions, the Prime Minister

handed them over to the Security Police. They were later presented as evidence

in the Treason Trial of 1956-61. Mary Benson, South Africa, the Struggle

For A Birthright (Minerva Press, 1969), p. 185; Anthony Sampson, The

Treason Cage: The Opposition on Trial in South Arica (London: Heinemann,

1958), p. 26.

Benson, op. cit., p. 184; Luckhardt and

Wall, op. cit., p. 302; Joseph, op. cit., p. 93; United Nations

Department of Public Information, The Plight of Black Women in Apartheid

South Africa (New York: United Nations, 1981), p. 24.

"Repeal the Pass Laws... A Great Demonstration

to Parliament" - flyer issued by the Federation of South African Women

and the African National Congress Women`s League (Cape Western), June 13,

1957. Document 24, contained in Karis and Carter, op. cit.

"The Demand of the Women of South Africa

for the Withdrawal of Passes for Women and the Repeal of the Pass Laws".

Petition presented to the Prime Minister on August 9, 1956. Reel 19B of

the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit

Benson, op. cit., p. 182

Luckhardt and Wall, op. cit., p. 305

Benson, op.cit., p.l83

Karis and Carter, op. cit., p. 74, quoting New Age, Cape Town, August 16, 1956

Luckhardt and Wall, op, cit., p. 306

"Resolution in Support of the Federation

of South African Women and the African National Congress Women`s League",

National Executive Committee of the African National Oongress. Reel 3B

of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.

"Report of the National Executive Committee

of the African National Congress Conference of December 17-18, 1955. Document

13(c), contained in Karis and Carter, op. cit., p. 237

Luckhardt and Wall, op. cit., p. 305.

"Passes for Women Leads to a Riot", The Clarion, Cape Town, June 26, 1952; "Odendaalrus Municipality

Acted Illegally", Ibid., June 31, 1952


"Women Burn Passes", Advance,

March 4, 1954

Letter from O. R. Tambo, Secretary-General of

the African National Congress, to a Provincial Secretary of the African

National Congress, January 8, 1956. Reel 3B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.

"Presidential Address by E. P. Moretsele",

African National Congress Transvaal Annual Conference of November 3-4,

1956. Document 17 (a), contained in Karis and Carter op. cit.

Karis and Carter, op. cit., p. 74; Benson,

op. cit., p. 183; "Protests and Petitions against the Extension

of the Pass Laws to Women and Pass Burning by Women". Reel 7B of the

Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.

Benson, op. cit., p. 183& In Durban,

a deputation of more than 300 women marched to the Native Commissioner`s

office. 30 &"The African National Congress Anti-Pass Campaign".

Reel 3B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.

"The African National Congress Anti-Pass

Campaign". Reel 3B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.

"Protests and Petitions..." op.


Benson, op. cit., p. 183; "Protests

and Petitions..." op.cit.

Hooper, Charles, Brief Authority (London:

Collins, 1960), p. 146; "Chief Told: `Your Women Accept Passes or

Else`", The World, April 13, 1957.

"Chief Told..." op.cit.

Hooper, op. cit., p. 149

Ibid., p. 146

Ibid., p. 276

Ibid., pp. 151-52

Ibid., p. 152; "Chief Moiloa Turns

Down `Advice`: May be Deported", The World, April 20, 1957.

Hooper, op. cit., p. 157

Ibid., p. 165; "Chief Moiloa Turns

Down..." op. cit.

Hooper, op. cit. pp. 166-67

Hooper, op. cit. pp. 166-67

Ibid., pp. 174, 296

Ibid., pp. 176-77

Wall, Mary Ann, The Dominee and the Dom-Pass (Cape Town: Insight, 1961), p. 28

Hooper, op. cit. pp. 177-78

Ibid., pp. 201, 203

Ibid., pp. 204-05

Ibid., p. 176

Ibid., p. 349

Wall, op. cit., p. 53

Ibid.,p. 5

Hooper, op. cit., p. 219

Ibid., pp. 317-18

Ibid., p. 308; Wall, op. cit.,

p. 45.

Hooper, op. cit., pp. 329-31, 335

Ibid., p. 361

Ibid., pp. 374-75; Horrell, A Survey

of Race Relations....1957-1958, op. cit., pp. 14-15

Hooper, op. cit., p. 375

United Nations, "The Role of Women in the

Struggle..." op. cit., p. 22

Ibid.; "Must Women Carry Passes?

We say No!" African National Congress Women`s League leaflet. Reel

3B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.; "The Fight against

Passes is On!! We Call upon All Men and Women!!" Flyer for National

Anti-Pass Conference (African National Congress), Saturday 30 May. Reel

3B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.

Luckhardt and Wall, op. cit., p. 307.

In 1959, the Native Labour Regulations Act of 1911 was revised so that,

for the first time, the regulations were applicable to African women as

well as men. As of January 9, 1959, no one could legally employ an African

man or woman who had not registered with a local or district labour bureau.

Horrell, Laws..." op. cit..