This article was written by Skylar Jayes and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project


The Federation of South African Women founded in 1954 and was a federation of affiliated women’s organisations that opposed the apartheid government. The African National Council (ANC) Women’s League, the Coloured Peoples’ Congress, the Congress of Democrats, and the Food and Canning Workers’ Union were major affiliates that helped run successful protests, giving women a voice. Though FEDSAW was unable to recover after going underground in the 1960s, their mission set the stage for other women’s organisations in the 1980s.


Federation of South African Women, Ray Alexander Simons, Hilda Bernstein, Pretoria, Nursing Amendment Act

The role that women played in the fight against apartheid in South Africa is often forgotten. For centuries the South African Indians, Coloured, and Blacks were oppressed, which ultimately left many with little more than a house without electricity in a rural area. Women played a large role in changing the state of South African and it is important to highlight some of those who never forgot their vision of what the future South Africa could be. The Federation of South African Women(FEDSAW) was an organisation that started to bring women together during the 1950s to demonstrate their opposition to the South African government. Coming together with a central understanding of motherhood gave FEDSAW the capability to unite organisations of all different races. The mission these women undertook was a difficult one. Not only was the South African government threatening to make FEDSAW illegal, like it had done to other anti-apartheid organisations, but FEDSAW’s male comrades, who were apart of the African National Congress, objected to FEDSAW’s actions. Much like other anti-apartheid organisations of the time, FEDSAW went underground in the 1960s and was unable to re-launch themselves in the 1980s (Britton 23). However, the principles and powerful coordination of FEDSAW would live on and birth future organisations that would represent the women of South Africa. During apartheid, the Federation of South African Women brought women together, based on their common identity of motherhood, to demonstrate their opposition to many of the apartheid acts, such as the pass laws and the Nursing Amendment Act, despite the countless obstacles the South African Government implemented.

In 1954, two members of the Communist Party of South Africa, Ray Alexander Simons and Hilda Bernstein, founded the Federation of South African Women (Andrews). Simons, a trade union leader, and Bernstein, a member of the Johannesburg city council, initially founded FEDSAW as an individual membership organisation. However, after much debate, it soon became a federation of affiliated organisations (Walker 171). Simons explained that the ‘opposition to individual membership is due to a fear that if our organisation becomes a mass organisation, it will draw women away from the ANC and perhaps lead to divided loyalties’ (Walker 171). FEDSAW wanted to ensure that it would unite the anti-apartheid mission, rather than create differences within. The African National Council (ANC) Women’s League, the Coloured Peoples’ Congress, the Congress of Democrats, and the Food and Canning Workers’ Union were major affiliates of FEDSAW (Govender). Lilian Ngoyi was the national president of the ANC Women’s League and played a critical role in FEDSAW, creating strong ties between these organisations (Walker 240). The ANC Women’s League encouraged many of their members to join FEDSAW, which brought Whites, Indians, Coloured, and Blacks to the FEDSAW movement (Britton 33). Though these women all played different roles in the anti-apartheid movement, they all had the same goal, to end apartheid. FEDSAW adopted the Women’s Charter at their foundation conference unite FEDSAW to the anti-apartheid mission (Hassim 103). The Women’s Charter illustrated that all women would “strive for the removal of all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminated against” women and that women and men will ‘join hands to remove social evils and obstacles to progress’ (Women’s Charter). It also addressed women’s desire for equality, education, and the ability to give their children a better life (Women’s Charter). FEDSAW created the Women’s Charter as a tool to bring women together based on a shared desire for change.

These women were able to come together based on a common maternal identity, characterizing their efforts to free the nation for their children (Britton 23). Ruth Mompati, one of the founding members of FEDSAW explained that there were ‘no differences between (them) as mothers”¦(they) all wanted to bring up (their) children to be happy and to protect them from the brutalities of life’ (Britton 23). A motivational poster FEDSAW created includes the demands that they submitted to the 1955 Congress of the People, which illustrated their unity as mothers (FEDSAW 1955). These demands addressed issues such as maternity leave, maternity homes, childcare, universal education, proper housing, access to healthier food, child labour, and medical care (FEDSAW 1955). Many of their demands were written in a similar manner as mother requesting something for her child, which is precisely how these women looked at changing South Africa (FEDSAW 1955). Though some sources illustrate this identity of motherhood as a strong element that brought these women together, it is not often addressed. This could be a result of FEDSAW wanting to be recognized primary as an organisation of women from many influential organisations combatting apartheid, rather than an organisation formed solely on the commonality of motherhood and feminism, which could be perceived as feeble and defective (Magubane). Women from political organisations, trade unions, and community organisations came together to protest issues that affected them directly, regardless of their intention to change the future (Govender). The goal was to organize women around the central issues that passes had been extended to them, however they would soon take on other missions (Govender). Their demands would extend to a range of political and civil rights, including the right to vote, the right to an education and child care, and equality in relation to marriage, parental responsibilities and employment (Andrews). These demands were adopted from the Freedom Charter, a document that was accepted at the Congress of the People in 1955 (Hassim 103). FEDSAW also fought against the Group Areas Act and the Population Registration Act as well as Bantu Education (Britton 23). FEDSAW based their argument against the Bantu Education on that fact that Black children had to know their place in South African by being educated in their own language, focusing primarily on future generations (Britton 23). The apartheid government primary oppressed the black majority; FEDSAW focused their energy on fighting for the persecuted black majority (Andrews).

The Federation of South African Women brought together strong women’s organisations and everyday women that both had a strong desire for change in South Africa. This diverse make-up within FEDSAW illustrated their discontent and desire for a country they could call their own through different means. Berstein stated in 1985 that they, ‘emerged as primary catalysts for protect and challengers of the apartheid regime’ (Britton 11). One of the most influential aspects that FEDSAW is often remembered for is their use of protests. Having women protest ‘provided the base for one of the most militant and disciplined political movements of the decade,’ for women were leaving their homes and children to take to the streets to demonstrate their desire for change (Govender). The Federation of South African Women organized massive demonstrations to illustrate their opposition to apartheid. With a centralized goal of protesting the extension of passes to women, FEDSAW organized a massive protest to illustrate their opposition to the government. FEDSAW, the ANC Women’s League, the Coloured People’s Organisation, the Indian Women’s Organisation, Women of the Congress of Democrats all came together and invited other women’s organisations to take part under the banner of FEDSAW (Mompati 311). To find women who would take part, FEDSAW leaders would get on a train in Johannesburg and travel late at night to places like Zeerust, arriving there at midnight (Mompati 311). After having approximately three meetings with different women to discuss their participation, they would return to Johannesburg that same night, all paid for out of their own pocket (Mompati 311). On 9 August 1956, twenty thousand women from all over South African mobilized and staged a massive demonstration in Pretoria (Govender). This was an extraordinary number of women present, despite the lack of transportation infrastructure, the repression of the state, and the resistance women faced at home (Britton 23). Male comrades discouraged this attempt, despite the fact that organisations run primary by males were organizing similar forms or resistance; regardless FEDSAW was not stepping down (Britton 23). The ANC was not very supportive at the beginning and actually felt that the women would mess up what they had accomplished. They did not believe that FEDSAW would be able to organize a meaningful crowd or enough women to make a difference (Mompati 311). FEDSAW’s founders, Simon and Bernstein, had both been banned at the time and were not allowed to attend (Andrews). FEDSAW was able to display how the women of South Africa were ready for change, regardless of the costs. They chanted in unison, ‘you have tampered with the women, you have struck a rock’ to implicate they had no intentions of backing down (Govender). This phrase became synonymous with the South African women’s struggle and would ring out for years to come (Andrews). FEDSAW demonstrated that it was capable of staging a ‘demonstration of major proportions and could reasonably claim to be taken seriously as a political organisation’ (Walker 196). The passion that FEDSAW and the women of South Africa displayed that day resulted in the designation of Women’s Day in South Africa on August ninth by the Congress Alliance that same year (Walker 196). However, FEDSAW’s goal was not to gain recognition from their massive demonstrations, but to also highlight the needs of smaller groups of women that were being oppressed during apartheid.

SEP1956 - Anti-Pass Campaign - On August 9, 20 000 women of all races, some with the babies on their backs, from the cities and towns, from the reserves and villages, took a petition addressed to the Prime Minister to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. He was not in. The petition demanded of Strydom that the passs laws be abolished. Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophie Williams and Radima Moosa - the delegates to deliver the petition to the office of the Prime Ministers in front of the Union Buildings. (Photograph by Drum Photographer Baileys Archive) Image source

FEDSAW was determined to represent their sisters, mothers, and friends, even if the issue at hand was not affecting the majority, as the passes laws were. The demonstration in 1958 against the Nursing Amendment Act illustrated this. Women protested outside of the Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg (Govender). The Nursing Amendment Act fined any individual that permitted a White person to be ‘under the supervision or control’ of any non-white person, which implied that any non-white person would be unable to further in rankings in the medical environment (Amulree). A little more than 300 women protested; the enormous showing of force by police prevented many from coming out (Walker 215). Though the demonstration was seen as a failure due to the lack of participation, the South African Nursing Council announced shortly after the protest that identity numbers for African women would not be enforced at that time. (Walker 215). It is evident that the Nursing Amendment Act did not directly affect all involved in FEDSAW, however this did not mean they were not going to display their full opposition.

FEDSAW did not only voice their opinions through protests, but through informing Whites of the oppressive actions towards Blacks, Colours, and Indians and giving the oppressed a voice under FEDSAW’s name. FEDSAW attempted to make a difference by speaking to White housewives by illustrating how they were all mothers, White, Black, Indian or Coloured (Magubane 1015). They urged White housewives not to force their domestic workers to take out their passes and spell out the consequences of the pass system (Magubane 1015). They tried to convince these women by expressing the ‘deleterious impact on African children’ and also ‘prevailed’ them to answer the question if ‘in the name of humanity (could they) as woman, as a mother, tolerate this?’ (Magubane 1015). FEDSAW used tools such as these to speak to individuals about changing apartheid and making a difference in South Africa. They were not afraid to speak up, even to elite individuals, regarding their opposition to the government.

FEDSAW gave women of South Africa a voice to express their opposition to the actions of the unjustified South African government. In 1984, The Times wrote that the wives of the South African Prime Minister and the minister in charge of black affairs were supposed to receive the Freedom of the City for their efforts in Soweto (Hornsby). However, FEDSAW was horrified and strongly protested against this, which prompted the Mayor of southwest Johannesburg to drop the plan to give these women the grant. In a letter to the Mayor, FEDSAW identified these women as the ‘first ladies of apartheid,’ who had done nothing for the women of Soweto (Hornsby). FEDSAW granted the women of Soweto a voice in circumstances where they would have had none (Hornsby). However, FEDSAW did call upon everyday women to stand up with them against the apartheid government, which is what FEDSAW is known for.

As an organisation fighting apartheid, the Federation of South African Women encountered many obstacles by both the government and men fighting the same fight. Charged with treason in 1956, the leaders of FEDSAW were jailed, banned, exiled, and imprisoned in attempts to silence the organisation (Govender). Though FEDSAW was never banned, the government still punished FEDSAW’s leaders for their involved in the organisation (Govender). After the government banned the African Nation Congress and other political organisations in the 1960s, FEDSAW came under tremendous pressure and feared they would soon follow (Andrews). As a result, FEDSAW worked underground in the 1960s and 1970s in order to protect themselves from the vicious government. This did not always protect them from the government that still attempted to prosecute FEDSAW. A search warrant of the United Democratic Front for 1985, issued under the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977, gave police ability to seize any documents, minutes, correspondence, and videocassettes that displayed evidence of or was associated with FEDSAW. The pressure of the apartheid government on FEDSAW was inevitable due to the state of the government and what the government was inflicting on other anti-apartheid organisations at the time. However, it was the implications of FEDSAW’s male comrades that was shocking and unexpected. Many men that were politically active at the time still believed that women should not take part in politics and that it was not their role. The men were not afraid to state their opinions on this matter and attempt to hinder FEDSAW’s demonstrations (Govender). Their male comrades politically criticized FEDSAW due to the belief that they were mobilizing on behalf of feminism rather than on the basis of nationalism and the overall struggle (Magubane 980). This was due to the way that the ‘women’s interests and needs (were) addressed in the course of the struggle’ and the belief that women’s concerns were subordinate to the efforts attain socialism in South Africa (Magubane 981). In 1959, Lilian Ngoyi, an executive member of the ANC and FEDSAW, raised these concerns at the ANC conference, for she felt it was time to publically dispute the opinions of her male comrades (Govender). She addressed her male comrades regarding the anti-pass campaign by stating, ‘it is important to understand the struggle against passes is controlled direct by the African National Congress. The struggle of the women is merely part of the general struggle of the African people’ (Walker, 229). FEDSAW was not afraid to stand up for themselves to their comrades. FEDSAW faced this obstacle exclusively because they were a women’s organisation. However, it also gave them recognition and even great acclamation when they succeeded.

Due to the Federation of South Africa Women’s lack of structure and organisation when it went underground and core members were banned or imprisoned in the 1960s and 1970s, it would need to be re-launched to once again become to influential and prominent organisation that it once was. Fatima Meer and Winnie Mandela, who were former federation activists who formed the Black Women’s Federation in 1975, attempted to revive FEDSAW in the 1970s (Hassim 61). The goal was to ‘harness the energies of the resurgent women’s organisation to the nationalist cause’, bringing together the strengths that this groups still had to offer, despite the pressures of the apartheid government (Hassim 46). This revival of FEDSAW sought to unite women’s organisations that ideologies aligned with the ANC (Hassim 45). The reinvigorated FEDSAW was based on the Women’s Charter, which had been adopted at the founding conference of FEDSAW in 1954 (Hassim 103). This re-launching promoted ‘unity in the ranks of women opposed to apartheid and supportive of the ANC, and reactive women activists at home,’ finally giving those that had been afraid of the oppositional apartheid government a chance to stand up for what they believed in (Hassim 103). For this reason it was paramount that these national women’s organisations reside inside the country, in order to bring the women of South Africa together. The thirtieth anniversary of FEDSAW was intended to be the revival of the organisation, however it sadly would not be the case (Hassim 103). In 1984, The Women’s Section Internal Sub-Committee did urge the ANC to guide the formation of a national women’s structure, the internal women’s organisations were not ready for unity and FEDSAW did not gain the national presence that it needed (Hassim 103). The widespread political repression of the time also prohibited the revival of FEDSAW and unity of women’s organisations of the time (Andrews). The efforts however to re-launch FEDSAW remained active till the first democratic elections in 1994, yet it never accomplished the plans that had posed this re-launching (Andrews).

Though the Federation of South African Women was not successfully re-launched, its existence greatly influenced other women’s organisations during the final stages of the apartheid’s rule. The Pretoria protest in 1956 helped give ‘new organisations guidance with respect to organizing strategy,’ illustrating how FEDSAW would continue to live in spirit well after its decline (Magubane, 976). In 1981, during the United Women’s Organisation opening proceedings, Dora Tamana, a FEDSAW veteran, stated ‘the unbroken history of struggle was uncovered and became familiar to this new generation of women, the appeal and relevance of the ideas of their mothers became increasingly popular’ (Magubane 976). The mothers behind FEDSAW passed their mission to their children, allowing the next generation to take on what FEDSAW was unable to finish. Pamphlets in the 1980s commemorated FEDSAW’s actions in the 1950s by stating ‘Inside South Africa the tradition, the policies and the experience of FEDSAW are alive and influential.’ The thirtieth anniversary of FEDSAW was still a celebratory time where the UWO and the Women’s Front organized a joint rally where old and new generations of resistance came together and struggles and lessons recalled from the past gave inspiration and direction for the future’ (Magubane 976-977). Many women were trained by their experiences in FEDSAW and were able to take part in new women’s organisations that were being born in the 1980s (Magubane 977). This illustrates that though FEDSAW was no longer the strong structure it had once been it was still very much alive. It is not the name FEDSAW that is was truly mattered when it started, but rather the mission that they were taking upon themselves, which was very much still alive.

The Federation of South African Women experienced many hurdles, however their common motherly recognition encouraged them to stand up for their beliefs as long as possible under a government posed everything against them. FEDSAW gave the women of South Africa a voice, despite the opposition of the government and their fellow male associates. In a country where they had nothing to lose, they were willing to risk everything. This devotion to create a country for their children is what ultimately gave FEDSAW the strength that would allow their name to live on. FEDSAW did not desire to be a powerful organisation whose name echoed after any demonstration or action they assembled. Rather, FEDSAW was built to highlight the desires of the women of South Africa, which is why they would be proud of the role they played in developing many organisations for women that are still prevalent in South Africa today.

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