Anti-Pass Campaign

History of Pass Laws in South Africa The Women's Struggle in South Africa

The pass system was one of the issues which impacted significantly on Blacks and unleashed an emotional as well as political reaction. In the OFS dissatisfaction was rife about the proposed introduction of passes for Black women.

The SANNC became involved in this matter immediately after its establishment and addressed a petition to the Prime Minister which stated all grievances to the pass system. This petition was circulated in the OFS. Supported by the OFS Native Congress, a mass meeting of Black women was held in Bloemfontein to choose delegates who would hand over the petition to the Prime Minister. Signed by hundreds of women, this petition was handed over to the Minister of Native Affairs.

The 1913 Women's Bloemfontein anti-pass campaign

On 28 May 1913, a group of women from the urban Waaihoek Location protested against the pass laws by taking a passive resistance stance, and refusing to carry permits. The term 'pass' was used to describe any document that curtailed an African's freedom of movement and this had to be produced on demand by police or local officials.

These permits had been introduced as a means of limiting 'informal' employment such as laundry work, illegal beer brewing and prostitution, which forced women to look for domestic work in Bloemfontein. The permits were also introduced as a measure to protect the increasing number of 'poor whites' in the labour market.

To protest against these permits, which required them to prove 'formal' employment each month, women had initially sent a deputation to the governor-general. They presented him with a petition of over five thousand signatures, and staged demonstrations. As the Natives Land Act had also been introduced that year, tensions were high, and both the African Political Organisation (APO) and the newly formed ANC encouraged the efforts of the Waaihoek women.

Therefore, after efforts to make their voices heard, a mass meeting of women was held in Waaihoek, and it was decided that the women would intentionally break the law as a sign of protest. Two hundred women marched to see the mayor, but when confronted he claimed that his hands were tied. In response, the women tore up their passes, shouted remarks and provoked arrest. Eighty women were then arrested.

The next day there was another march, which took on a more volatile nature, with women brandishing sticks and shouting ‘We have done with pleading. We now demand!' Before this protest, women who did not comply were evicted and sent back to the reserves, with allegations of sexual abuse by both White and Black constables.

However, after this demonstration unrest soon spread to other towns in the province, and hundreds of women were arrested. Civil unrest continued in the province, as the OFS was the only province to enforce passes for women, but eventually the permit requirement was withdrawn in 1918, after Charlotte Maxeke lead a deputation to Prime Minister Louis Botha to plead the women’s case.

Maxeke, the first Black woman graduate, was educated in the USA, and instrumental in this Anti-Pass Campaign as a leader of the Bantu Women’s League (BWL). This organization was formed in 1913/14 as a branch of the ANC, as women at the time could not be members of the organization.

Last updated : 18-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 29-Jun-2011