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

Women’s Workplace Oppression in 1970s South Africa

Abstract: Black, Coloured and Indian women faced harsh oppressions in the workplace during the apartheid era of South African government. Together, the women rallied against their exploitation through the creation of trade unions and increased legal rights as apartheid came to an end.

Key words: Women, factories, apartheid, exploitation, 1970s, oppression, trade unions, pay, urbanization.

‘Women carry a double burden of disabilities. They are discriminated against on the grounds of both sex and race. The two kinds of discrimination interact and reinforce each other. Colour bars retard the progress of the whole race... Equality can become a reality...only when both women and men have become full citizens of a free society’ - Elizabeth S. Landis


In the quote above, Elizabeth Landis, an activist and author, sums up the feelings of oppressed South African women during the apartheid era. Being ‘full citizens of a free society’ was the dream of many, but equality and progress were far out of reach. But a multi-racial movement of men and women fought to abolish discrimination. Women especially were at the forefront of the mission to make equality a reality in South Africa. In the 1970s, the roles women played were changing dramatically under the immense political, domestic and economic pressures of apartheid. The government, consisting only of White South Africans and overwhelmingly male, was pushing apartheid forward in full-force. Each day, the government stripped away the rights and dignity of Blacks, Indians, and Coloureds, the three racially oppressed groups within South Africa. Apartheid laws were crushing the economy within the politically-disenfranchised regions of the country. By the 1930s, shops were closing and the once lively Coloured, Black and Indian neighbourhoods were cast under an increasingly dismal glow (Gasa). As apartheid progressed, other nations became increasingly aware and concerned of its effects at the time and the repercussions it would cause not only South Africa, but the global economy and its and other states political futures. In the 1960s, countries across the globe were coming together to try and help South Africa recognise the dangerous road they were travelling with apartheid, but even after the United Nations met time and time again to try to sanction or reason with South Africa, no positive results were achieved.

The United Nations published another statement in 1977, saying that the Code of Conduct the U.N. had tried to enforce in South Africa was ‘not worth the paper it was written on’ (United Nations Centre Against Apartheid). It became clear that apartheid would run its full course before coming to a long awaited end, and it would affect each and every person in South Africa. Apartheid would not end easily, quickly, or without sacrifice. Blacks in general, who made up the majority of South Africans, were hit the hardest, but women had the double burden of race and gender going against them. Women especially would lead the fight against exploitation by exposing and rallying against their daily trials. Their hardships, and later their success are seen most prevalently in the workforce. In the 1970s in South Africa, textile factories most heavily employed women, and due to this, women were incredibly oppressed there.

Urbanizing Women and Domestic Work

Beginning as early as the 1920s, ‘women of all racial groups slowly began to gravitate to the towns and were drawn into the labour market’(SAHO). This included domestic work for wealthy white families as well as business and industrial jobs. As the First World War was ending and countries across the globe were struggling to pick up the pieces, women were becoming crucial to families economic success. Blacks, Coloureds, and Indians faced slightly varying treatment, but all were oppressed under apartheid. The unstable economy and frequent appropriations meant that families who had once tended to their farms and lived simple lives now had nothing to sustain themselves. As the men of the house were drawn to the cities out of financial desperation to support their families back home, women took charge of supporting their homesteads both logistically and emotionally, which was a heavy burden. Money was increasingly scarce though, and something had to change. With many men out of the picture, factory jobs were opening up to women.

Inequalities in Factories:

© Paul Weinberg / South Photos / Africa Media Online

In 1978, a survey reviewing the pay of female South African workers was published in The Black Sash, an influential South African magazine, and looking back, it exposed horrifying truths. It discussed ‘employment statistics, wages and discrimination between Black and White, men and women, training schemes, promotion, benefits, education, pregnancy, trade unions and worker representation’ (Black Sash). The shocking results of the survey showed in statistical numbers how little Black women were being paid in factories in comparison to other lines of

work, other races, and males. The women had ‘no pension or provident fund’and were subject to ‘termination if they became pregnant’(Black Sash). It also mentions that the literacy rate of the women in factories was essentially zero and states that many factories consider time off for lunch to be in their terms ‘unnecessary’. Not to mention that the numbers for wages were shockingly low for the type of physically, emotionally, and time intensive work they were performing. Women in factories still struggled to make enough money to live comfortably, and few were able to provide more than basic necessities for their families, if that. In addition, the treatment they received at work was less than ideal.

In the 1970s, women also found themselves more sexually exploited in the workplace than ever before. It was no secret that women working in the factories braved daunting conditions for little pay and daily mistreatment, but sexual misconduct had rarely brought up as one of those issues until late in the 1960s. After decades of oppression in the workplace, women in factories began to come together to fight these exploitations.In Dunlop, which in the 1970s thrived as a major factory region of South Africa, a group of women were forced into sexual acts by their boss. He threatened that they must go along with his advances because if they refused or worse, reported it, they would be fired (Gasa). Fear alone kept many women quiet for far too long, but amidst the rise of gender equality and the idea of a liberated and strong woman, they plotted as a group to take down their boss. Cleverly, they banned together and ‘successfully laid a trap for a training officer who was demanding sexual favours from employees’, with the hard evidence exposed, he became one of the few men who actually paid a price for the exploitation of their female factory workers (Gasa). This paralleled a historic South African strike by a group of female garment workers in 1931 who had ‘complained of pressure to go out with the foreman or the boss in order to keep their jobs’(Gasa). One of the reasons that women had so few ways of crawling out from under their exploitation and oppression for so long was that women in the 1970s were still considered ‘to be legal minors’and were targets of even more oppression because they lacked so many rights of their own (Gasa). Men in management positions would often abuse them or solicit sexual favours in exchange for simply letting the women keep their jobs. This kind of abuse has been often, and rightfully, referred to as slavery.

© Paul Weinberg / South Photos / Africa Media Online

Women's Efforts:

As women became more involved and aware of the hardships they were facing, they began to be refuse to conform to the norm. Women began to form trade unions, which became a ‘significant motivating factor in women's resistance against gender inequality and social injustice’ (, a fight to which many women dedicated their tears, hearts and blood. Women were serious about confronting their struggles and holding accountable the people responsible for their exploitation head on. In an effort to find strength in numbers, unions began to arise out of the most heavily oppressed areas. Unionswere a big part of the history of the 1970s in South Africa; overall, they are noted to have played a ‘role in dismantling apartheid legislation and practices in the workplace’, which remains one of their most notable achievements. But this was by no means a quick process. During the apartheid era, unions fought hard to see gradual progress in helping employers understand the value of negotiating with their employees to come to a resolution via the trade unions. However, it is important to note that one of the reasons it took so long for women to begin to form legal unions was because of the legal oppressions they faced from the apartheid government. For a long time, unionisation of African women working in South Africa was legally banned under apartheid. The Weinhahn Commision,in 1979, investigated ‘how to regulate labour legislation’ and decided that the solution ‘was not to banBlack trade unions as this would drive them underground’ but rather to allow them with some restrictions and mandate they register the union with the state (South Africa History Online). Ultimately, these laws were reversed due to the Wiehahn Commission’s findings of the 1970s, thus officially ‘allowing multi-racial unions. The Garment Workers Industrial Union was once again able to accept African workers (Garment Workers Industrial Union).

The General Factory Workers Benefit Fundand the Textile Workers Industrial Union were two hugely important unions formed in South Africa.The General Factory Workers Benefit Fund was formed in the early 1970s during the Durban Strikes of 1973, which ‘signalled the beginning of a turning point in the long struggle of Black, Coloured and Indian workers to build non-racial trade unions and to open up the possibility of mass struggle against the apartheid regime’ (South Africa History Online), when it was still illegal for Black, Coloured, and Indian workers to ‘belong to a registered trade union’(The General Factory Workers Benefit Fund). So the committee functioned as a cover for what was really ‘trade union activities’(The General Factory Workers Benefit Fund), meaning that they still congregated together to fight for equal treatment and rights, but could not be labelled a union under the present laws. The Textile Workers Industrial Union was formed after the Durban strikes as well. It was mainly formed by Indian women working in factories, but any progress for one disenfranchised group brought progress for all disenfranchised people. It sought to encourage the female workers ‘to get involved with drawing up demands for a new agreement’(Textile Workers Industrial Union), which would focus largely on pay and increased benefits. Specifically, they called for new laws to be created which would have included a 60 percent increase over three years, and major improvements in working conditions, including paid public holidays and reduced working hours’(Textile Workers Industrial Union). While neither group was entirely successful in creating major change, they both brought some sense of security for many working women to have a place to turn.


There is still a lot of progress to be made in South Africa today, largely due to industry being untransformed in South Africa and owners of companies still attempting to take advantage of workers. The government has enacted laws to better protect workers and women but these are often ineffective.Quality education and healthcare are still too far out of reach, and cost of living in comparison to wages is too high. There continues to be a discrepancy in the textile factories, especially between those who run the companies and those who perform the work on the ground level. For example, in 2008, a group of garment factory workers staged a walk out following a recommendation from their union, the South Africa Clothing and Textile Workers Association. They were angry because they felt betrayed by the company they worked for. The Union had negotiated with the company for a legal pay raise for the employees. The owner of the company found a loophole in the agreement and avoided the increase in pay by contracting the factory positions to a third party. The women went on strike and were subsequently fired. The court case rose to the national attention, and the government judge ultimately concluded that the company was right in firing them because they had fairly warned them not to strike. The official statement of the verdict is as follows:

The fact that the employees were initially advised by SACTWU to participate in the unprotected strike is of no assistance to them. They participated in the strike with full knowledge of its consequences. Ultimatums given to them which provided them with sufficient time to reflect on their conduct were ignored. There is evidence too that the premises of Bertrand were invaded by them and they were involved in the intimidation of a number of workers who had disassociated themselves from the strike. In light of the above, I find that the Labour Court was correct in concluding that the dismissal of the second to further appellants was procedurally fair. The Labour Court was also correct in rejecting the reinstatement claim by the appellants. Their conduct was clearly wanton and brazen and ignored advice by Bertrand and its lawyers as well as their own union SACTWU to desist from same. (The Labour Appeal Court Of South Africa)

Cases like these show that women in South Africa are still combating discrimination and fighting for equality into the 21st century.They seek equality in education, employment opportunities and healthcare that will provide them with the means to support their families and futures. There

continues to be a huge disconnect between the needs of the people and the government’s response to those needs.


Historically, women in South Africa were forced into the least desirable factory jobs, and even to this day are being paid too little and working in the least safe conditions. They struggled daily just to get to work and even more to bring home enough food and income to support their families. Their lack of access to education, displacement from their homes, and high cost of living in comparison to their wages prevented much economic mobility. As women became tired and frustrated of their constant exploitation they came together to form unions in an effort to take on the government and company powerhouses. However, the women’s factory unions often conflicted with management and the contractors who ran the sites, and very little progress towards change was seen. The women begged for a minimum wage that was a true ‘living wage’, meaning one that would allow not for a luxurious life by any means, but simply for a lifestyle where they would not be concerned about putting food on the table and a roof over their heads. A life that would not be filled misery and penury. Healthcare for their families and good education for their children were distant dreams. For women, apartheid laws not only penalised the most oppressed racial groups for their mere existence, but exploited them even further. Women in factories faced the harshest of these realities because they had so few legal rights and choices in both their personal lives and in the workplace.


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