Full feature on the History of Women’s struggle in South Africa will give a broader view of the role played by women in the struggle for freedom.

It is often overlooked that women played a very important role in the struggle against apartheid. Today when we think of the leaders of the struggle we tend to think about Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Albert Luthuli and other prominent men. It is not often that people remember to look at not only the wives of some of these men, but also other women who got deeply involved in fighting apartheid. Black women faced three forms of oppression in South Africa during apartheid - racial, social and sexual. For this reason they had more to struggle against, and many women are still resisting oppression as a result of their gender today, either in the workplace or at home. In this unit we will look at:

  • some specific instances where women took a stand against apartheid
  • some women's organizations and
  • some prominent women.

Women take a stand against passes

A pass was a document that black people were forced by the government to carry with them at all times. If somebody did not have a pass they would not be allowed out of the area where they lived (and into an area designated for whites only) to seek or do work. With a pass they could move around and look for a job for a defined period. If they had not found a job by the time the pass expired, the law compelled them to go back home. A black person without a pass was by law unemployable. People moving around without passes could be and were often arrested on the spot, and were often harassed by the police. For more information and an image of an actual passbook, click here.

Before apartheid began in 1948 there were cases of women fighting racial oppression in South Africa. One important such process was on 23 September 1913 (see our Women's Chronology) when women in the Free State, organized by Charlotte Maxeke, fought against carrying passes. At this time women in the rest of South Africa did not need to carry passes, but because there were many black women working in the Bloemfontein area, the government ordered them to do so. As they were not prepared to accept this, they started protests and marched to the offices of the mayor and the administrator. When this resolved nothing they drew up a petition and sent it to the Prime Minister. The pass laws on women were subsequently relaxed in 1914, but could still be re-introduced. The women continued to protest until 1920 when it was specified that only men need carry passes. This was a huge victory for women.

Over the years immediately following the pass protests, women did not play a prominent role in struggle politics. This was not really out of choice, but also because the African National Congress (ANC) was reserved for male membership. This began to change when in 1943 the ANC decided to allow women to join, but they had to wait another 5 years for the ANC Women's League (ANCWL) to be created in 1948. This means that in the same year that apartheid was introduced, women members of this significant black political opposition organization began to play an active role in the struggle in South Africa.

The first campaign where many women were involved was the Defiance Campaign of 1952. This was a campaign against apartheid laws, and people were asked to publicly break these laws, thus offering themselves for arrest. The idea was to so clog the apartheid criminal-justice system that reform would be inevitable. An example would be for a black person to use a 'white' bus, bench or toilet. White people who took part would, for example demand to travel in the section of a train reserved for blacks only. Women all over South Africa joined in the campaign and many ended up in prison as a result of their actions.

In 1955 the apartheid government again brought up the issue of passes for women. Once again women decided that they would not just accept the pass laws without resisting, and in October about 2000 women demonstrated against passes. The government continued to introduce the law and it was decided to hold a march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria and meet the Prime Minister. The march was held on 9 August 1956, and about 20 000 women participated. This makes it one of the largest political protest marches in South African history. 

The second march was not successful in stopping the pass laws, but did give women a voice and show how strong they were. We still remember the role of women today, and 9 August is South African Women's Day. Women continued to play an important role after this day, and many joined the ANC in exile, others died in detention and still others continued to lead women's organizations inside South Africa.

Women's organizations

Women had a choice to join open organizations (often still controlled or dominated by men) or those specifically for women. In some cases women formed their own organizations so that they could articulate and deal with their views on issues (not necessarily only those that impacted on women) and thus facilitate greater say in the methods of the organization. Examples of these can be found in the Women's organizations section of our Imbokodo special project.

A very important women's organization formed to fight apartheid was the ANC Women's League (ANCWL). This was formed in 1948 and resulted in women becoming much more actively involved in the ANC and its campaigns. The first official president of the ANCWL was Ida Mntwana. In 1955 the ANCWL made sure that women's demands were included in the Freedom Charter and in 1956 it organized the march on the Union Buildings. In 1960, when the ANC was banned, the ANCWL was also affected as many leaders went into exile. It continued to function inside South Africa for the next few years through regional branches and under different names.

In 1991 the ANCWL moved back into South Africa and set up a National Women's Coalition to draw up a Women's Charter. The Charter was completed in 1994 and influenced the Bill of Rights. It is largely thanks to this group that women in South Africa today are so well protected by the law and play an important role in politics.

An interesting organization to look at is the Black Sash. Six white women formed the Black Sash in 1955 and were against the government's attempts to take the vote away from Coloured people (black people had always been excluded). The organization got their name after they started wearing black sashes (pieces of material) over their shoulders during marches and demonstrations to symbolize mourning. They were mourning the death of the constitution that was meant to protect people and their franchise. Members of the Black Sash also became involved in opposition politics and humanitarian issues such as unemployment and poverty. The Black Sash still exists today, but now it focuses only on poverty and helping the poor.

Specific women

Although many women played an important role in South Africa, there are some women who stand out for the role they played. We are only going to look at two women, although there are many more who you can find out about.

Albertina Sisulu married ANC leader Walter Sisulu in 1944 soon after moving to Johannesburg and becoming politically active. In 1948 she joined the ANCWL, and in 1954 she was a founding member of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). From 1958 onwards she moved in and out of prison and faced banning orders, while her husband was sentenced to life imprisonment and two of her children went into exile. She however carried on with political work inside South Africa. While in jail in 1983 Albertina Sisulu was elected president of the newly formed United Democratic Front (UDF). In this capacity she supported people during rent and consumer boycotts and visited the American president George Bush in 1989. After the unbanning of the ANC she again became involved with the ANCWL.

Helen Suzman grew up in Johannesburg and studied and lectured in Economic history. In 1953 she decided to move into politics, and chose to fight apartheid from within the system. She initially joined the United Party, but later formed the Progressive Party and for decades was the only representative of the party in parliament. Here in the whites-only parliament Suzman fought for all South Africans' rights and the freedom of expression. She criticized apartheid policy, gave her support to those fighting apartheid and even visited Robben Island. She was awarded the United Nations Human Rights Award twice and was given other honorary awards. In 1989 she retired from politics.

Many other women; Black, White, Indian and Coloured, also played an important role in changes in resisting apartheid, changing the system and in developing post-apartheid South Africa. 

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