History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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Josie Mpama (Palmer)

The 1913 Women’s anti-pass campaign in the Orange Free State

When the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, there was already a foundation for pass system. However, over time men and women resisted the imposition of passes as it severely restricted their freedom. In the Orange Free State particularly Bloemfontein passed the laws to regulate black people in 1893. For example Law 8 passed in 1893 included the carrying of residential passes by male and female.

In the location of Waaihoek black people drew up a petition which they submitted to the Town Council complaining about the harshness of the laws passed to control them. While the council responded to some of their requests, the one requiring women to carry residential passes remained. On 2 October 1898, women were so frustrated by the carrying of passes that a number of them in the location drew up a petition to PresidentMarthinus Theunis Steyn protesting against being made to carry passes. 

 In 1906 the government published new rules for the enforcing the passes and police were given instructions of how to enforce the regulations. By October 1906 the effects of enforcing the residential pass were being felt in Waaihoek. White farmers also pushed for more stringent measures to control black people. As a result a new pass law aimed at black in rural areas was put in force. 

Despite this, the government moved to pass more laws forcing more people to carry passes. For example, in 1907 a new law was passed in Bloemfontein requiring domestic servants to carry a Service book where details on their employment were written. These books were to be carried at all times and produced when demanded. Any person found without the book more than three times could be taken away from the municipality where they lived.  In 1908 a special Native Administration commission was established to investigate labour needs. It recommended the passing of even stricter pass laws and that families in rural areas should be automatically made servants.

Part of the South African Native Convention’s Appeal:

“...any law which compels women to carry passes can have no justi­fication on the ground of utility, expediency, or on any other ground whatsoever, as it is degrading, harsh, arbitrary, vexatious, and leads to the committal of voice, and is no protection to the respectable and law-abiding native women”¦.”

Resistance to pass laws

Residents continued to protest against the new regulations by appealing to the government. They also wrote to the African People’s Organisation (APO), a political organisation representing Coloured people. In response, APO complained in March 1906 about the cruel way in which the government treated women who were found without passes. It highlighted how women were taken away from their families if authorities felt they had broken laws that forced them to carry passes. This complaint was repeated by APO in May 1908 when it said:

“In the first place we would point to the harshness of the regula­tion which provides that women whose husbands are already in posse­ssion of passes must take out monthly passes for themselves. A similar regulation imposes on girls on their attaining the age of 16 years the necessity to take out a monthly pass and to enter service...”

An organisation known as the Orange River Native Congress appealed to the Municipal Association for sympathy about the suffering of women as a result to the passes. In August the executive committee of the Orange River Native Congress met the Governor to discuss a number of complaints by black people including the giving of passes to women.

Events leading up to the formation of the Union of South Africa presented a chance for dealing with the problem of pass laws and other issues. The newly formed South African Native Convention (SANC) under the leadership of Walter Rubusana agreed to send a delegation to London to appeal to the king. Meanwhile the organisation sent long appeals to the Colonial Secretary against the giving of passes to women. Despite all the efforts done to persuade the government to remove pass restrictions for women, there was no positive response.

Black women who had borne the brunt of the pass laws decided to act. Drawing inspiration from the first meeting of the South African Natives National Congress (SANNC) in their town in February 1912, they sent around a petition to towns and villages in the Orange Free State.  In March, the Minister of Native Affairs wrote to John Dube the President of the SANNC telling him not to send a delegation of women to Cape Town to meet with him. The minister claimed that the issue women were raising was a problem of the Orange Free State. But greatest fear was that the protest would ignite countrywide protests by black people.

Despite his plea, on 3 April 1913 a delegation of six women together with Walter Rubusana met the Minister of Native Affairs. Among the women were Mrs. A. S. Gabashane, Mrs. Kotsi and Katie Louw. They submitted a petition of over 5000 signatures and the government promised to look into their complaint. In the petition women stated that the pass laws and other regulations “lower the dignity of women and throws to pieces every element of respect to which they are entitled...”  They further complained that the laws were designed to make women feel inferior. Newspaper headlines in the Orange Free State called women who were protesting “Women Terrorists”. 

In May 1913, the police arrested large numbers of men and women for pass laws violations throughout the Orange Free State. This came after brief period of where the enforcement of pass laws seemed to have been relaxed in the province. The number of women was particularly high in Bloemfontein with four times higher than the previous month. Georgina Taaibosch an outspoken woman who refused to submit to oppression was arrested for the first time. In other parts of the province such as Winburg two women were charged in May while in Jagersfontein eight women were arrested.

Following these arrests, black African women convened a meeting in Waaihoek where they talked about their anger at the government for their harassment. They resolved not carry passes if the government did not relax the existing laws and order the police to show maturity in treating women. From there a group of 200 women marched into town demanding to see the mayor. When they did not find him they sent a delegation to meet him the following day. The mayor told them there was nothing that he could do about their plight.

Women did not become discouraged; they took their fight to the local police station where they protested. They tore their passes and threw them to the ground preferring to be arrested than suffer indignity. As a result, 80 women were arrested and charged for violating pass laws. This sparked an even bigger demonstration the following day.  A crowd of about 600 women headed by Mrs Molisapoli marched and chanted slogans towards the magistrates court where their comrades were being tried. When the police attempted to keep them off the steps of the court a violent rebellion nearly broke out.

The accused women refused to accept that they were guilty and pay fines. They stated that they would rather go to jail.  Eventually, the magistrate dismissed their charges allowing them to go free.  This was not the end of the women’s fight against pass laws. On 16 June when the police attempted to arrest a woman for pass violations in Waaihoek location, she was rescued by two other women. When the police arrested three of them the following day, a large group of women and followed the women to the police station, gathered outside and protested. As a result of this event 34 women were arrested and charged with public violence. They refused to accept that they were guilty and chose to go to jail to serve their two month sentence.

Also in June 1913, a group of between 200 and 800 women gathered on the City Hall and told the Mayor that they would no longer carry passes. The government began arresting women in large numbers and by July women sent a petition to the Mayor to negotiate abolishing passes for girls over the age of 16 and unmarried women.

In addition to protests and petitions, women organised themselves and formed the Orange Free State Native and Coloured Women’s Association in Bloemfontein. The organisation was led by Catharina Symmons and Katie Louw. The association raised funds to assist those women who were in jail, and to pay for their medical bills. Between September and October 1913, the Orange Free State women’s Anti-pass Campaign began spreading to other parts of the country, something which the government feared.

Despite pressure applied by the women against pass laws in 1913, the government refused to remove them. Thus, women continued in the following years to apply pressure on the government yielding a positive result. On 27 January 1914 the Executive Committee of the Orange Free State Native and Coloured Women's Association sent a petition to Governor General Gladstone. Women pleaded with him to persuade the Prime Minister and Minister of Native Affairs to relax the pass laws.

As a result on 3 March 1914 the Prime Minister proposed that all pass laws should be looked into. Members of Parliament from the Orange Free State supported a strict enforcing of the pass laws while some from the Cape disagreed. The Women’s petition was tabled for discussion in parliament on 29 May 1914. However, by mid 1914 the campaign began to lose momentum and eventually ended. The SANNC and APO took up the issue of passes against women in the subsequent years.

The general unrest of the 1920s, the African mineworkers strike, the white mine workers strike in 1922 and the pressure applied by women in the preceding years forced the government to relax the pass laws. This relative freedom of women remained in force until it 1955 when the Apartheid government that had come to power in 1948 began forcing women to carry passes.

After visiting women in a Kroonstad jail, Sol Plaatje wrote, “... they are determined to fight the pass laws no matter where they might be...They are fighting for the freedom of women in the Free State...They don't care even if they die in jail.” It was this courage that inspired future a generation of women to fight against the pass system. In a similar way as the women in 1913, women in 1956 mobilised themselves and fought against this unjust system. 


References:
• Wells, J. C,  The History of Black Women's Struggle against Pass Laws in South Africa, 1900-1960, (1993), Witwatersrand University Press.
•  Chanock, M., (2001), The Making of South African Legal Culture 1902-1936: Fear, Favour and Prejudice, pp.411-416.

Last updated : 08-Aug-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 06-Aug-2013

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