The ANC and the Women’s League

From the book: My Spirit Is Not Banned by Frances Baard and Barbie Schreiner

One day when I got up to go to work it was very cold, and it was raining outside. It was in the middle of June, in the winter. Was - and another woman. I became the fifth woman there and together we started to organize the other women to come together for the Women's League. That was a section of the ANC for the women only, to deal with problems and issues that affected the women especially, so that the women could organize on their own about their own problems. It worked like the ANC. We had branches, which were small committees, and then we had provincial committees. Then there was the national committee and the president, which we all elected.

For a long time the women were not proper members of the ANC. They only changed that in 1943 when the women were allowed to join properly. That was when the Women's League started. So it was a very big thing for us to organize the women like that.

We used to go out in the evening mainly when everyone is home from work, and we walk from house to house in the location and talk to the women. We knock on the door, and when they open we tell them we are from the Women's League and can we talk to them. We talk about the problems they have -maybe it's high rent or no money for food. The women were always worried about their sons and their husbands being arrested for pass all the time. And they are worried maybe they will lose their houses. Also there were things that the people as a whole did not like, things that were very strong in there lives like housing and jobs and passes (some people could not get jobs because their passes were not right) and we used to talk to the women about these things too.

The women had lots of problems. It is always the women who are trying to feed the family and look after them, and there is too little money and so on. We tell them how we want to do something about these troubles, and how they must join us so we can be strong and go to the authorities on all these things. After a while we had a group of women behind us who all wanted to help. Then we started to have big meetings. We would tell the women that there was going to be a meeting at the hall and they should come. Sometimes we used to have pamphlets to tell them about the meeting, or else we used to make an announcement about the women's meeting at the general meeting on Sunday.

There were a lot of women who did join us and they brought a lot of complaints about all the things that they wanted made better, and we had a lot of work to do. We used to take up complaints about everything we didn't like in the location, and we used to go and see the superintendent often about our problems to tell him to fix this thing or that thing. Sometimes we were successful with our complaints, and there were a lot of things we had improved. One of the first things we dealt with was the single men's quarters. We went to see the superintendent about it and he told us it was an old building and it was too small. He said that there were many people coming to town to look 'for work and many of them came there looking for somewhere to sleep. He said there were too many people and not enough space, but there was nothing he could do about it. We asked him if they couldn't build a bigger place, but he said that was not for him to answer; he had to take that to his superiors. But after a time they did build another hostel and those people were given a place to stay there.
But us women, even when we did things like this, we never used to work by ourselves, because we were part of the ANC as a whole. We used to have our own meetings, just the women,' and talk about what we wanted to do and how to do it. Then' we would go to the general meeting and tell them, 'Such and such" a thing is so and so, and we want to do this and this.'

And we would tell them exactly what we wanted to do to put this thing right. We would discuss it all together at the general meeting and decide on it, and we would get a mandate from them. We couldn't do things by ourselves; we had to work together so that everyone knew what we were going to do, and everyone agreed.

We women had a .lot of problems at that time which the men didn't have to worry about. I remember there was one thing, which we all used to worry about. If a woman's husband died they used to chase her out of the house, or tell her to get another husband, because only married women can have houses. I had a case with one woman who came to me one day. Her husband had just died and they chased her out of the house she lived in. She came to me and told me how they chased her out. I went and spoke to them and said, 'But how can you let a woman go out of her house and yet she's got children? Where must she go?'

Then they tell me, 'No, she must go back to the kraal; there will be a husband waiting for her there. It was very silly what they said and what they did.

There was another thing that they used to do to women who had lost their husbands. They used to call these women who didn't have husbands any more, and they call all the old men and the men who can't work any more. They used to take those men's hats and put them in another room, and then they tell the women to pick out the hat that each one likes there. .
So the woman would go and take a hat without knowing what was happening. She looks at the hats, and naturally she chooses a nice hat, a nice clean new hat. But maybe the owner of that hat is a person who had one eye, or a one-legged somebody, and then that person is to be your husband. The police tell you that you must marry the owner of that hat or else you will lose your house. They make you marry there and then, and they demand what money you have, even if it is only ten cents, to pay for the certificate. And then you have a husband and you can keep your house.

That is how they used to insult us. It was too insulting. But that's what they used to do. Of course, when my husband died they never-said anything. They knew we were always fighting them and we would expose them, so they were too scared to chase me out of the house when he died.

At the time that I joined the ANC in Port Elizabeth, and we started working with the women, the ANC was becoming very' strong there. A lot of women joined us and we had a lot of support, so the Women's League became very strong too. The people were suffering with low wages and no houses and trying to feed their families. They had a lot of problems and they joined the ANC to make these things better. Every Sunday we had the meeting where the people could come and talk about their problems. And every Sunday somebody used to give a speech, each time about a different issue. And different people spoke each time. After that person had spoken you could ask them questions about things that weren't clear perhaps, or things that were worrying you. That way we used to learn a lot about the problems we faced and what we could do about them.

I used to go to those meetings nearly every Sunday and listen to what they were saying so I could learn more. Sometimes when there was no one to look after the children I used to take them with me. My husband Lucas, he would never look after the children. I mean, he was a person who was never at home. He would go out and visit people and sit and talk to them, and sometimes he used to sleep at work and not come home in the evenings. And he would never come to the meetings. He did not understand what the meetings were about and he was not interested. I didn't talk politics to him either because he would not understand. It was strange, but I know I was also from there, so I couldn't say it was bad, because even myself, I understand things as they are now, but there was a time when I didn't understand either. But he never tried to stop me going to meetings.

Soon after I joined the ANC they asked me if they could have meetings at my house sometimes. You see, during the week they used to have small meetings at people's houses where about 10 or so people would come for the evening. They asked me, and I said yes. Fortunately my husband, even though he was not a member, didn't mind if we had meetings at our house. He would go out, or sit in another room or something.

So sometimes during the week about 10 people would come to my house. Then somebody, either from Cape Town or one of the local people, would come or talk to us. They used to teach us about political issues and how to organize people better. We learnt a lot at these meetings about how to organize and how to teach other people and how to deal with problems in our areas. It was very good to be able to talk in a small group like that and work things out. When we wanted to organize the women too we would call them to our houses in the evening when they had come back from work. Then we would talk to them about things that were wrong and take decisions on these things, the same as at ANC small meetings. We would take the decisions from these meetings to the branch meetings and we would discuss them there. So, from all these meetings, and talking with many people, we learnt many things, and after I had been a member of the ANC for a while I began to understand things much better, and I began to see clearly for myself what is bad and what is good.

But some of the women couldn't come to the meetings. Sometimes you would be talking to a woman, telling her about the organization, and then she would say, 'My husband doesn't want me to go to the meetings . . .’ You know what men are ”” some of them didn't understand what was happening and they would refuse for their wives to go. They would say, 'Well, you must look after your children, look after your house. I have no time for what you are trying to do.'

Most of the women came to meetings anyway, but some of them did have that struggle with their men. And then too, the men would be worried about their wives and they would say to us, 'But you have your meetings in the evenings. How will this woman come back in the evenings alone?'

Then we tell them that we make it our duty to escort them home. We always come home in groups from the meetings. We go with one woman to the gate of her house and we say goodbye, and we leave her there. Then we go with the next one to her house. We always made sure that everyone got home safely.

Sometimes when we had been to a big meeting at the hall in New Brighton we would be wearing our ANC uniforms. Then you would see us coming home in a group! Hawu! It looked so good, all these women in uniforms, green, yellow and black, the same as the ANC flag. Black for us, the black people of the country, green for the green pastures, and yellow (it was not actually yellow; it was gold) for the gold underneath. And we would sing too. Hawu! We were so proud in those uniforms.

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