From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
Soon after my return to South Africa in 1955, I had a brief personal link with the Black Sash, an activist organisation of women voters, which therefore excluded black women since they had no vote. It seemed a little ironic that the women were white but their sashes were black. This racial barrier, however, was later removed.
The Nationalist Party government was intent on removing all coloured voters from the common voters' roll. The common coloured vote was entrenched in the constitution of South Africa, but for the Nationalist government there must be only one parliamentary vote, the white vote. This move had aroused widespread indignation and protest, amongst whites as well as coloureds. White women had established the Defend the Constitution League and embarked on a national campaign of protest, mounting demonstrations outside the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town and at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. For these occasions the women wore black sashes in mourning for the constitution of South Africa, so soon to be violated, despite all protest.
These women, standing in silent protest wearing their black sashes, came to be known as the "Black Sash", adopting it as the name of their organisation. For nearly thirty years they have stubbornly continued to stand in silence, in smaller groups now, but still undeterred by the refusal of the government to heed their protest against racial discrimination and injustice.
In June 1955 the Black Sash called on women voters to join them at the foot of General Botha's statue in the grounds of the Union Buildings for a three-day vigil in protest against the removal of the coloured vote. I joined them there on the second day and we spent two very cold June nights sleeping on mattresses on the grass, though almost smothered in blankets. I suppose there were about 100 women, not more, but the protest was significant because it was by white women protesting against unjust laws affecting coloured voters and not themselves.
I found these women determined and friendly but I knew that some of my friends and I were but cuckoos in this liberal nest, for we were totally identified with the liberation struggle and they were not. Nevertheless, we had to admit that this protest had reached the ranks of white women where we, with our radical multiracial emphasis in the Federation, had never been able to penetrate.
I wore a black sash for the occasion and on our return to Johannesburg even spoke briefly at a meeting on the City Hall steps where the protesters were welcomed back.
In August the Federation called a special conference, our own Congress of Mothers, in support of the World Congress of Mothers in Switzerland, where we knew our delegates, Lilian and Dora, would be speaking. I reported to our conference as a matter of interest that I had joined the Black Sash at the Union Buildings and described our nights of vigil there. I was not prepared, nor I think were any of us, for what followed.
Margaret Gazo, veteran of the ANC Women's League, spoke from the floor. “The white women did not invite us to join their protest,” she said, “but we must go to the Union Buildings ourselves to protest against the laws which oppress us and we shall invite the white women to join us. We too shall sleep there, for we shall not leave the Union Buildings until our demands have been granted.”
Her proposal was received with great enthusiasm but, as Secretary, I was torn between my joy at this defiant protest and my anxiety about just how it could be organised. How could we stay there indefinitely? My mind ran on babies and food ”” and "loos". I was thankful when finally a more realistic view prevailed and the protest was reduced to one day only. It was a momentous decision, for this would be the first time that black people would go to the Union Buildings in protest. After that every other conference discussion simply faded into the background.
We swung immediately into action, for 27 October, two months hence, had been decided on for our venture to Pretoria. We worked not only in the adjacent townships but went into the Transvaal at weekends, wherever it might be possible to organise women through African National Congress contacts to come to Pretoria.
Bertha Mashaba worked closely with me during all this intensive organising. She was a member of the executive of both the Federation and the ANC Women's League and worked in the offices of the African men's Clothing Workers' Union. At that time I was employed full time as Secretary of the Medical Aid Society, which served the garment workers of the Transvaal. My office was conveniently just around the comer from Bertha's so we used to leave together after work, with large packets of fish and chips, to set off for the townships in whatever car I could borrow from my friends. Weekends, too, saw us campaigning together in the more distant areas.
There was little response from white women other than those who were affiliated members of the Federation. However, we had obeyed our mandate, we had invited them, and a few did come. Organising with Bertha was fun. Tall, bespectacled, lively, she was not yet married so was free to accompany me. We knew all the back ways for me to slip illegally into black townships, though once I almost knocked down a black policeman in the dark, so close was my car. I had no permit to be where I was and I had a shock when I became aware of this dim figure beside my open window. "You nearly kissed him!" exclaimed Bertha and then proceeded to talk us out of this delicate situation with some explanation in Zulu, which I couldn't follow.
Our protest was wide. There were many laws, which oppressed black women, both as women and as mothers. We were not going to petition; we intended to demand the repeal of unjust laws. We would try to see the various Cabinet ministers and tell them so. Our first plan, indeed right up to a few days before 27 October, was to hold a large protest meeting on the public road, which runs between the Union Buildings and the terraced slopes below. From there we would send our delegates to the offices of the various ministers whom we intended to challenge.
Only three days before the protest, we were informed that the Pretoria City Council had refused permission for our meeting to be held. This was a heavy blow, for we knew by this time that many women would be converging on the Union Buildings. To stop them was unthinkable. We consulted a lawyer in Pretoria and came up with an ingenious scheme whereby each woman must sign her own letter of demand and bring it to the Union Buildings herself. It would not matter how many women came at the same time, as each would be there on her own business and there would be no common purpose.
Then the next blow fell. The Transportation Board refused to grant licences for the buses, which the women had applied to hire to bring them from the townships to the Union Buildings. There was only one alternative ”” public transport involving two bus journeys and a train journey for almost every woman, more than doubling their travelling time.
Women in many areas had to be informed immediately that they must rearrange their journeys and raise the extra money they would need for the train fares. Telephone communication with women in the townships did not exist so it meant driving from area to area. Fortunately I had taken a week's leave from my office to cover the demonstration and I could spend the whole day contacting some of the women's groups, while Robert Resha, ANC Transvaal Secretary, who worked with us, went to the rest with the urgent message. "Your buses are cancelled. You must come by train."
The ANC branches rallied to the support of the women, calling public meetings the same night to raise the extra money in the traditional way of throwing coins onto a platform during the singing of freedom songs. In one black township, Brakpan, £400 was raised at one meeting and the men went themselves to the railway station to purchase the train tickets.
When I came home that night I drafted a letter of protest for each woman to sign when she reached the Union Buildings. There was no time for any committee discussions but I knew what the women would want to say. At the office of the Indian Youth Congress, ally of the ANC, the young men worked nearly all night to roneo 2,000 letters for the women to sign.
At daybreak on the morning of 27 October I drove into Orlando Township in Soweto to fetch Lilian Ngoyi. She and Dora Tamana had returned from their eight-month long international tour only a few weeks before. It was bitter for them to come back from the many lands where, for the first time in their lives, they had been treated as human beings and honoured leaders of their people. Now they had returned to the land of their humiliation, but it was the land of their birth. At the airport, Lilian had dropped to her knees on the tarmac and kissed the ground.
As I drove to Orlando I saw, high above me, on the railway embankment, a train packed with women, singing, their arms out of the windows in the Congress salute, telling the world they were on their way to Pretoria. Afterwards I learnt how the railway booking clerk had tried to stop the women, refusing to issue tickets to Pretoria. The women had then boarded the trains at the next station without tickets. They had made up their minds to go to Pretoria, and there they would go.
Our rather vague plan had been for the women to sign their protests at the gate below the terraces, where I had camped with the white Black Sash women only a few months before. Then they would walk up those many terraces and stone steps to hand in the protests to the organisers at the top and come down again. I visualised it as a colourful stream of women coming up and flowing down those gay flower-edged terraces. The women had their own ideas, and, as on future occasions, they made their own decisions. When I reached the top, I found them all there, sitting quietly in the amphitheatre, resting peacefully.
It had been a long and tiring morning for them. Babies were unstrapped from their mothers' backs and fed, umbrellas went up against the hot sun. Two thousand women were sitting where no black women had sat before. It was a triumph. Their signed protests had all been handed to their leaders and now they could rest. "We have not come here to beg or plead but to ask for what is our right as mothers, as women and as citizens of our country..."
We protested against the whole spectrum of unjust laws. We protested against ghetto housing and forced removals. We protested against passes, especially the passes so soon to be issued to African women, against Bantu education, black poverty, in fact everything which goes to make up the horror of the racial segregation which formed the background to our demands.
We speak from our hearts as mothers, as women. Life cannot be stopped. We must love and marry and find a home. We must bear children in hope and in pain. We must love them as part of ourselves. We must help them to grow; we must endure all the longings and sufferings of motherhood. Because of this we are made strong to come here, to speak for our children, to strive for their future.
We, the voters and the voteless, call upon you, the Ministers responsible for these Acts, and upon the government and the electorate of South Africa to hearken unto us.
Four women had been chosen as leaders for the day, Lilian Ngoyi, the African, Rahima Moosa, the Indian, Sophie Williams, the coloured and I, the white. We reflected the multiracial membership of the Federation of South African Women. We took those piles of protests and left them outside the doors of the ministers' offices, when our knocking brought no response. I suppose we had really expected no less, in view of our unacknowledged letters announcing the forthcoming visit. It made no difference to us. We had recorded our protest for all time.
Back in the amphitheatre, Lilian could not make a speech. That would have turned that assembly of women into a meeting, forbidden by the Pretoria authorities. She announced curtly that we had delivered the protests but that the ministers had all run away. The women stood to sing "Nkosi Sikelele" and then it was over. The stream of women flowed down the terraces again to make their way back to the station, a long walk ahead for many of them. Taxis were few and costly and the regular buses neither near nor adequate.
The uniformed police had discreetly kept away from the demonstration or perhaps only out of sight. A few plain-clothes detectives from the security branch took photographs but made no attempt to interfere with the women. Two or three ANC members, there out of curiosity, were the only other men to be seen. It was a women's affair.
In the townships, African men were waiting to welcome the women home. They gathered in crowds at the railway stations and the bus stops, even with their own local bands, in demonstration of their pride, in tribute to the courage of their women. That night I too went to a party. It was certainly not for me and I don't remember the occasion, but Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, the ANC leaders were there. From them I had an unforgettable welcome, and felt immensely rewarded for the weeks of organising.
The Nationalist Party press was incensed at our success in getting so many women to the Union Buildings, for that was really the essence of our triumph. We had not very confidently expected the ministers to be waiting to see us: we did not expect our demands to be met. But together we had presented them and at the Union Buildings itself.
We were accused in the press of having succeeded only through trickery, presumably referring to each woman bringing her own signed protest, and there were some snide remarks about the "white master-mind" behind it all. (I suppose that referred to me!) Yet no action was taken against any of us, nor could any action be taken, because we had seen to it ourselves that we kept within the law. It was a protest, not an occasion for defiance. I felt, as I know other women did that we had a tremendous moral obligation to see that all the women returned safely to their families.
That year in December, I went to Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, to the annual conference of the ANC. I was there when Lilian Ngoyi was elected to the national executive committee, a great and rare reward to this woman for her dedicated and courageous leadership of women over the past three years.
It was a moving experience and a great privilege for me to attend the conference of the ANC, to see these representative and responsible African men and women from all over South Africa. Dedicated to the cause of freedom and justice for their people, they were gathered together to plan for the coming years, ready to face years of hardship, even suffering and gaol, if need be, and to build on what had already been achieved.
The President of the Transvaal region of the Federation, Josie Palmer, became our first casualty in the Transvaal. She was banned in 1955, immediately after the October protest and ordered to resign from the Federation and other organisations. We wrote angrily to the Minister of Justice about the banning of our leader, assuring him that our work would go from strength to strength, regardless of such attacks upon our leaders.
Part of our Union Buildings protest had been against the threatened issuing of passes for African women and thus, when I was invited to write an article on "Women against passes" for a journal closely connected to the Congress movement. I gladly accepted it.
Facing this new threat, [I had written] the African men and women have determined that the indignity of the pass system shall not be extended to African women. In every part of the country, in every town and village, the determination is clear. The question is not ‘shall we carry passes or not?’ but ‘what shall we do when we are told to carry passes?’ This question demands an answer from the liberation movement. The struggle against the pass laws is not a matter for African women alone. It is not a matter for the African people alone. It is part and parcel of the liberatory movement.
I had no idea that one day I should defend myself in court on a charge of high treason on this very extract from my article as a document "advocating extra-parliamentary, unconstitutional and illegal action, including the use of force and violence". I would never have thought that I had gone too far in this article, nor I am sure did anyone else in our organisation. I might even have thought that I had not gone far enough.
From January 1956 onwards, the government pass-issuing units began their work, at first confining themselves to very remote areas, to farms, even villages, where African women might still be unaware of the dangers of the passes.
The very word "pass" strikes horror into the hearts and minds of the African people, for the pass controls every aspect of their lives, houses, work, and movement. The penalty for failure to produce a pass on demand is immediate arrest. By this means the white rulers, even before the Nationalist government, have exercised complete control over the black people. But under the Nationalist government the pass tyranny has been intensified.
The pass was, and is, the most powerful weapon of white domination over black. Officially it is now called a reference book, a more cosmetic name, but to Africans it remains the "dompas", the hated badge of slavery. For whites, Indians, coloureds, there is only the identity book, which does not have to be produced on demand, and which carries no gaol penalty for failure to do so.
In 1956 women in the towns and cities already knew how the pass system had brought harassment to their men. They had lived under the shadow of gaol, prison farm labour, the constant terror of arrest, a life of fear, of not knowing whether it would be this day or the next that the pass might prove to be irregular or even just left at home. Then it might be days, weeks, before a man could reach his family and his home again.
African women feared, with good reason, that if they, too, carried passes, they would be exposed to those dangers and the added agony of young children left alone, helpless. Their fears were well grounded. In 1980, twenty-five years later, in Johannesburg alone, 3.500 African women were arrested for pass offences.
In the rural areas there was little or no resistance by women to passes. They did not smell out the lies about the so-called benefits the passes would bring ”” easy identification on death was one of them! The passes were issued slowly to the women as the pass units went crawling from place to place. The small towns were next in line, but it was here that the resistance started.
When the women in Winberg, in the Free State, discovered how they had been deceived, they rebelled. Lilian Ngoyi and Robert Resha had been sent by the ANC to support the women's protest. Inspired by Lilian's dynamic leadership, the women collected their passes in bags and told the location superintendent to take back his rubbish. Then according to Lilian, a bottle of paraffin appeared, somehow, from under someone's blanket ”” and the passes went up in flames. The Winberg women paid dearly for their defiance. They were arrested and charged with burning the passes, a criminal offence. Yet their example inspired many other women and led to epic resistance in several centres ”” Lichtenburg, Uitenhage, Zeerust, Standerton and many other towns. However, despite this, the passes were drawing nearer to the large cities.
The Cape region of the Federation had followed our Pretoria example with their own multiracial march through the city of Cape Town, while Durban had also held both multiracial and African protests against the passes for women. Two thousand men and women attended the Federation mass meeting. "Transvaal Women's Day", held on 11 March 1956. Men and women alike were still excited about the Pretoria protest of the previous October and feeling was running high about the passes. Although most of the countrywide demonstrations and deputations to Bantu Commissioners' offices had come from the initiative of the ANC Women's League, the Federation had been very active in organising multiracial demonstrations in Johannesburg.
The news that women had been tricked into taking passes in the rural areas seemed to bring the anger of the African people right into the meeting on 11 March. I was not surprised nor even apprehensive this time when a proposal, indeed a demand, came that the women must go back to the Union Buildings, this time to Strijdom himself, the Prime Minister. Now it must be a national protest drawing women from all over South Africa. I knew that organising women on this scale would drain the resources of the Federation, but the defiant mood of the meeting was infectious and we left the hall talking of 20.000 women this time. Thursday 9 August was to be the great day. We always had to plan demonstrations for a Thursday, the traditional "Nanny's day off', so as to draw in domestic servants, though I doubt that we had much success in this area. Domestic servants at that time lived mostly in the backyard rooms of their employers" homes, as they do even today, separated from normal home life and society. Those who lived in hostels could be contacted through township campaigning, but most African domestic workers came from rural areas, leading solitary backyard lives in the towns and cities. It was their very isolation that was to make the domestic servants such an easy prey, so amenable to pressure from their white madams that they must take the passes and not protest.
I drew up a very detailed campaign plan soon after the March meeting, but like any long-term plan, it tended to fall apart at times and I would have to redraft it. It provided for a national tour and for weekend journeys to the northern and eastern Transvaal, and also for weekday visits to townships adjacent to Johannesburg. For these, at night, Robert Resha usually drove and I kept a good supply of scarves to tie over my head, keeping my coat collar turned up to hide my white neck and ears from the headlights of any following cars. I learned not to expose my white face by turning my head.
We implemented our campaign plans carefully, detailing duties to various committee members: I spent as much time as I could in Indian and coloured areas. I knew I would not have to organise the white women affiliated to the Federation. They were few in number, but they would go to Pretoria. We formally invited the women of the Black Sash and the Liberal Party and some other white women's organisations and a few did eventually join us on 9 August.
J.B. Marks, a dedicated veteran ANC leader, impressed by our week-by-week plans, called me the "General" dispersing my forces before the battle. I had other helpers too, not members of the Federation, individual white women who would assist with typing and other work, though they would not identify themselves openly with the protest nor with us. I exploited this help to the full because we needed it badly.
As always, the Federation campaigned on a shoestring budget. I borrowed cars and begged petrol until I could afford to buy my own small Ford, "Congress Connie". We begged gifts of paper and stencils for leaflets. Somehow we always managed to get what we wanted, day by day, despite the fact that the Federation, like the ANC, never had enough money.
I happily gave my own time and it was always more important for me to be using my resources for the liberation struggle than to spend it idly on entertainment or holidays. It was not sacrifice. I was doing what I wanted to do. The fact that I could contribute more in money than the black women was of no significance. We all gave according to what we had and I am sure we never stopped to think who gave what. This was true of all ANC organisers too, for they gave their time and lived on sparse budgets themselves.
I had no family ties, no husband and no children, so there were no other calls on my private life. This simply meant, as in the case of black single women, that I had more time to give. Yet to be totally without a family is not to be envied.
Once again, Robert Resha, Bertha and I went campaigning in the Transvaal and on the East Rand and the West Rand, in "Congress Connie" this time. She was a gallant little car, bouncing noisily over rough roads, hailed loudly by township children with shouts of "Africa!" as we approached, often when we were trying to be inconspicuous! She carried me right around South Africa on a tour as 9 August drew nearer.
Bertha and I took leave from our jobs at the beginning of July and we became four when Norman Levy joined us. He, like me, was a member of the Congress of Democrats, a white organisation formed in the 1950s to work for change. The purpose of our tour was, of course, to find out what the response to the call to Pretoria on 9 August would be and to address as many women as possible in support of it.
To Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Cape Town. Port Elizabeth, East London. Ladysmith, Durban ”” a 4.000-mile journey. We found friendly hospitality for us all in the main centres, but sometimes had to sleep in "Congress Connie" on the longer journeys. When we neared the Hex River Valley, we stopped at the top of the mountain to wait for the dawn and so that Bertha could see that picturesque descent into the valley between the great mountains on either side. But Bertha, tired from the long journey, was asleep. Every time we tried to persuade her to look at the glorious scenery she smiled sleepily, said, “yes, it's lovely” and went back to sleep again, burying her head under a blanket. Eventually we gave up and left her to sleep the rest of the way.
It was a long and intensive tour. Between us we must have addressed some forty meetings, large and small, private and public, always calling on women of all races to come to the Pretoria protest. We were welcomed enthusiastically as the Federation stock was very high after the first protest to Pretoria and we found excitement and determination everywhere. Only once, in Cape Town, did we experience any hostility. It was when Norman and I, as whites were not made welcome by a small but vocal dissident group of anti-white Africanists at a meeting. Robert, however, handled the situation superbly. While he was speaking, I watched the tense black faces gradually soften and then he began to sing, leading the whole audience in a freedom song. He then turned to me and said; "Now you can speak."
When we were campaigning we had an agreement with Robert that he was never to speak first at any meeting, because none of us could hope to make any impact on an audience after this gifted speaker had finished. There never seemed anything more to say. On this critical occasion, Robert had insisted on speaking first and we realised that it had been necessary.
Robert Resha was without doubt one of the finest public speakers in the ANC. Prominent in the Youth League, a member of the ANC national executive, he was nevertheless always ready to join us on our organising expeditions, a tireless friend. To hear Robert speak at a meeting was almost like watching an orchestra being conducted. He drew out the emotions of his audience until he had their full attention, then he ended quietly with a freedom song in which all could participate. He was a man of his people, a true African patriot ””journalist, sportsman, musician; he was all these and also a proud Xhosa from the Eastern Cape. Short, powerfully built, his strength seemed inexhaustible as he drove thousands of miles with us around the countryside, so often easing our way or solving our problems. Yet beneath that friendliness and charm, lay a deep pool of passionate, sometimes aggressive anger at the injustice of the system under which he and his people lived.
Only once was there a dispute between us during those months of campaigning together and that was on this tour. Yet even then it wasn't really a serious matter. The ANC wanted Robert to remain in Cape Town a day or two longer, while Norman, Bertha and I went on without him to Port Elizabeth. He was needed, as an ANC executive member, to sort out some local difficulty. Despite our objections, he had to stay.
The rest of us must, I think, have been very tired by our long journey at this stage and, unreasonably, we took his absence badly, feeling that Robert ought to have continued with us. I suppose it was partly the need for him to share the driving of the 600 miles to Port Elizabeth and also because we felt we might need him on our arrival there to introduce us to the ANC leaders. Childishly we decided to punish him by not meeting him at the airport; the ANC could do that. I remember that he joined us again during an ANC meeting, obviously disappointed that we had not met him, but wearing the tie I had given him for Christmas. I don't know about the others, but I recall feeling very ashamed of my pettiness.
In Port Elizabeth we found women already organising for Pretoria. ANC officials complained laughingly that the women had taken over the Congress office and turned the men into clerks and typists. We really hardly needed to address any meetings there, preparations were so far advanced, but a packed hall awaited us and we all spoke, to a great welcome. We left, confident that there would be a great delegation of African and coloured leaders from the town, despite the crippling rail fares of £10 a head for a third-class ticket in an overcrowded compartment.
"Congress Connie" behaved magnificently: not one puncture in all those thousands of miles. Four adults, plus bags and food for long journeys, were squashed into this small car. We divided our duties. Norman and Robert handling all luggage for the boot and the roof carrier, while Bertha and I scientifically stowed away hand luggage and food containers inside the car sc that there would still be room enough for our legs. One of us was always supposed to stay awake to talk to the driver so that there should be no falling asleep at the wheel, especially during the long night drives, which we made in order to get as much working time as possible during the day.
We were far better prepared for this August protest than we had been the year before. We could avoid the obstacles that had nearly prevented the women from ever getting to the Union Buildings. All transport plans were limited to routine public transport, so that we did not have to apply for licences for private buses. The bus company did, however, agree to increase the number of buses on the normal route from the railway station to the point nearest to the Union Buildings. Women from other areas were advised to arrive in Pretoria the night before the protest. Overnight accommodation would be found for them.
We conducted a tart correspondence with the Prime Minister, advising him of our coming and requesting him to receive our representatives, African, coloured, Indian and white. We had a curt reply saying that he would be prepared to meet African women only, not a multiracial deputation. This we rejected indignantly: the Federation was a multiracial organisation and this was a multiracial protest.
In the week before the protest, reports began to come in from all quarters showing a massive response by women. Even the media began to speak of 20,000 women from all over South Africa. The senior Congress leaders became apprehensive, doubting our ability to handle the situation. Lilian and I were summoned to a secret meeting of the Congress leadership, mostly banned people and asked if we knew what we were doing. Had we realised the enormous responsibility of gathering thousands of women together in the face of possible police interference? What would we do if all the leaders were arrested?
Lilian replied that if that happened, other leaders would take our places. The women would know what to do and we had confidence in them. What we did not disclose was our ultimate plan that if the police marched on us, armed, to arrest the women, we would kneel and lead the women in prayer and song, for we knew that thousands of women would then kneel behind us. This was not cynically designed as a strategy. We knew that this would be a natural reaction for thousands of women whose religious faith was as much a part of them as their dedication to the struggle for freedom and justice.
On the eve of the protest day, Lilian and I went to Pretoria to be with the women there and to be sure of being there ourselves the next morning. Seventy women were coming from Port Elizabeth and there would be groups from many other centres. Most of the delegates slept on their blankets in a large township hall, although I think very few slept much as they sang for most of the night.
Once again, the Indian Youth Congress had roneoed thousands of protests until the supply of paper ran out. They had given us more than 14,000 copies and I thought it might be enough. Secretly, I doubted whether we could reach that stirring target of 20,000 people. I was wrong. As the women gathered together, now for the second time on the green grass below the terraced gardens of the Union Buildings, I could see only a solid packed mass lacing us as we stood, the leaders for the day, at the top of the first stone steps.
We walked together down the centre pathway that the women had left free for us. We turned at the end of that pathway and the women fell in behind us, following us up the steps and across the terraces, their protests in their hands. There were thousands who had no protests, but that no longer mattered. I could see that we were many, many more than I had ever thought possible. The 20,000 had become a reality. They stood together, women of all races, from all parts of South Africa, in that huge amphitheatre of the Union Buildings.
When it was over the women walked back to the bus terminus in twos and threes, singing now, never forming a procession, babies on their backs, baskets on their heads. They reached the buses as African men queued after work for their transport home, but when they saw the women coming, in their green blouses and skirts, they stood back. "Let the women go first." they said. It was a great tribute from weary men.
With so many women coming from all over South Africa to the protest, it was a golden opportunity to organise a Federation national conference in Johannesburg. The national executive committee members in Johannesburg undertook the arrangements for the conference, which was to be held the day after the protest.
There were over 400 delegates and altogether almost 1,000 people in the hall. All were eager to welcome the "Pretoria" women and to hear them plan their future path, for the battle of the passes was not yet over, despite that astounding protest. The conference was spectacular, the women in triumphant mood, yet ready for sober discussion of Federation matters.
Presenting the report of the Federation's work in the Transvaal, I could not help feeling proud of our achievements. In two years, we had grown to the point when we could stage, first a protest of 2,000 from the Transvaal, and then 20,000 from all over South Africa. We had won recognition from the other regions and from other quarters too and established the position of women as a vital element in the liberation struggle. Our path had not been our deliberate choice; it had been taken always in response to the pressure of events. The Federation was indeed the child of its time.
The other regions, too, had campaigned against unjust laws, against passes. They had joined us in our campaigns and we knew that in every other centre there had been anti-pass demonstrations on 9 August, in support of the Pretoria protest. Like us, they would continue to grow.
The conference decided that the headquarters of the Federation should move from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Lilian Ngoyi was elected National President and I became National Secretary. I was then even prouder of our Transvaal region, for this was a recognition of what we had achieved, even though we realised that our future course would not be easy and there would be much to be done.
The conference adopted the draft constitution and laid to rest an early difference with the African National Congress over the membership of the Federation ”” whether it should be composed of affiliated bodies or of individual members. I think we were always too busy in the Transvaal to be greatly concerned over this. We seemed to be progressing very well as a federation, but the former national executive in the Cape thought otherwise and favoured individual membership. The ANC had objected to this and would affiliate its many thousands of women in the ANC Women's League only on the basis of affiliated organisations or groups. There was, however, no real support at the conference for individual membership and it was settled and written into the constitution that the Federation of South African Women would be composed of affiliated organisations or groups.
Years later historians and researchers, some with a feminist bias, resenting the dominance of the African National Congress, were to criticise this decision. My view was and still is, that in the heavy and growing pressure of the times, the Federation could not have stood as a unitary women's organisation. It needed the strength of its affiliated organisations, particularly that of the Women's League of the African National Congress.