The Rise of Women’s Trade Unionism in South Africa by Peter LaNasa

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


This essay discusses the rise of female unionisation in South Africa in the early and mid twentieth century. In this time period, women started working in industrial jobs in large numbers for the first time in the history of South Africa. Like any new practice or idea, there were many initial problems to work through. In this case, it was discrimination and a lack of acceptable working conditions. Through the leadership of women like Johanna Cornelius, Ray Alexander Simons, Emma Mashinini, and Lydia Kompe, women were able to successfully unionise against unfair employers.

Key words:

Unionisation, Communist Party of South Africa, Federation of South African Women, South African Congress of Trade Unions

The Rise of Women’s Trade Unionism in South Africa

Starting in the twentieth century, women began to become more active as industrial labourers in the South African economy. As their numbers gradually grew, they began to take issue with their unacceptable working conditions and decided to take action against them by means of unionisation. Sexual abuse, minimal pay, unfair demands, and societal perception of female inferiority could no longer be tolerated, and motivated the victimized women to fight for rights and respect in the work place. The leaders of the movement, including Johanna Cornelius, Ray Alexander Simons, Emma Mashinini, and Lydia Kompe quickly found that the most effective way to fight for their rights was through unionisation.

At the start of the twentieth century an increase in industrialisation in South Africa began to take place, and with this growth came an increase in the demand for workers. (Berger, 1992 47) And, although the growth was slow, the number of women (primarily White women at that time) participating in industrial jobs was increasing as well. By 1925 employment figures for private industry show that there were 15,273 women employed in industrial jobs. (Walker, 1982 58) While in these early years South African society was still far from accepting female unionisation as a legitimate idea, early activist undertakings of a woman by the name of Mary Fitzgerald set the tone for women’s trade union activism in the years that would follow. Known as the first female South African trade unionist, she was involved in several different strikes and sit-ins. (Fitzgerald SAHO) Although these demonstrations were on the behalf of men (there were not enough female workers in industry to effectively unionise yet), her leadership showed the women of the future that it was possible for women to be influential public figures. In 1911, she organised and led a group of women to participate in a tramway workers’ strike in Johannesburg. They sat on the tracks and were successful in keeping trams from leaving the station. In addition, she also was influential in a miners’ strike on the Rand in 1913. (Walker, 1982 59) These actions by Fitzgerald, although still in the very early period of the movement, serve as an example of what will be discussed in this paper. During and after World War I, as industrial needs expedited the hiring of more women into industrial jobs, it became clear that women would need to organise in order to earn basic workers’ rights. But before discussing their unionisation, it is important to understand the conditions that motivated women to do so.

The conditions that female industrial workers faced in South Africa in this time period were characterised by gender based exploitation. Women could not be in charge of anything, so they were almost always subordinates of men. Unfortunately, men often exploited this power in the worst of ways. Sexual abuse was prevalent in the workplace, and it was something women constantly had to put up with and endure if they wanted to keep their jobs. In South African Women on the Move, Lydia Kompe described the plight of women working the night shift for a factory. These women would be supervised by indunas (bosses or managers) that watched over them throughout the night. Often times these indunas would demand sexual favors from the female labourers, threatening to report them as lazy or have them fired if they resisted. (Barrett, 1985 107)

Unequal pay in comparison to men was another important issue to women in the labour force. Many women did the same work as men but were paid much less. The miniscule wages that women were paid hardly covered their living expenses. African and Coloured women were usually forced to live in townships, which required a very tiring and expensive commute to get to downtown Johannesburg. Their pay was so small that the majority of it was spent on travel from their homes to the work place. (Mashinini, 1991 15) Ma Baard, another woman that would eventually become a union leader, was also highly motivated by the desire for higher wages. She often told workers ‘No matter where you work, unite against low wages”¦unite into an unbreakable solidarity and organization.’ (Barrett, 1985 119) Desire for adequate wages motivated women to unionize.

The unfair demands placed on the female workers also contributed to their motivation to unionise. The hours that many women were forced to work were brutal (shifts could be up to twelve hours) while they were still required to take care of all of the maintenance of the home. While at work, male supervisors would yell at them to work faster constantly, showing no sympathy for what they were going through. An excerpt from Emma Mashinini’s autobiography demonstrates the ill treatment that the women experienced. After preparing her children’s bread, clothes, and other needs the night before, she would leave for work at 5am, finally arriving at the factory by 7am.

There would be nothing for you at the factory””no tea, no coffee. The tea-break was at a certain time, and if you had brought something from home that would be when you would eat, in that ten minute tea-break later in the day. And if you had brought nothing, your tea-break would be exhausted while you were walking to the canteen and queuing there. By the time you got your coffee and sat down, five minutes had gone, and you would have to swallow everything and then run to back on time. (Mashinini, 1991 15)

However, it was not just tangible issues that motivated women to unionise. They also came together to fight the overriding cultural belief that women were not meant to be perceived as equals to men. In this time period, it was a widely accepted norm that women were not supposed to be public figures or be involved in organisations. Lydia Kompe gave an example of this in South African Women on the Move when she described what was expected of women in the home. They were often treated as objects by their husbands, who expected them to carry out all chores regarding the home and children, even if the wife worked just as much as the husband. (Barrett, 1985 107) In addition, women were not ever allowed to lead men. Put simply, men were in charge, and women were subordinates. This idea contributed to a lack of rights and respect for women in the work place. Women believed it was imperative to fight to quell that way of thinking.

Unionisation was one way to upend that societal norm as it forced women into the public spotlight and obligated men to start looking at them as equals. The treatment of women in the work place, from the daily discomfort, to sexual abuse, to lack of adequate pay was unacceptable. As more and more women joined the work force and experienced these injustices, power in numbers allowed them to unionise and make great improvements in these conditions from the 1930s and on.

One of the first truly effective efforts at female unionisation took place in what was known as the Garment Workers Union. In the 1920s and 1930s, many poor Whites were flocking to the cities, looking for work outside of agriculture. The demand for these workers was high due to the conditions of economic expansion, and soon the garment industry was full of women. The existing union for garment workers at the time was the Garment Workers Union (GWU), and soon it was dominated by women that were driven to fight for more rights in the work place. By the early 1930s the union considered itself strong enough to exert pressure on unfair employers, and began to take action. The women began to organise street and factory meetings, demonstrations, and rallies. In addition, they made the very bold move in 1931 of striking over a deadlock between employers and employees on wage negotiations. Over two thousand workers came out, and they were able to force the employers to compromise. (Walker, 1982 63)

The GWU’s continued success in achieving better working conditions and wages for women gave them increased confidence. They used the momentum gained from the 1931 strike to launch yet another strike in 1932, only this one was even more ambitious. While the loyalty and dedication of the union members was commendable, the outcome of this strike was much less positive. The length of the strike depleted the union’s funds, and an arbitration committee sided with the employers, setting the union back considerably. (Walker, 1982 63) Although this particular strike was a failure, the overall actions of these women of the GWU were very effective. By negotiating higher wages for female workers and raising awareness of their plight, the GWU was able to greatly improve the lives of many working women.

After the strike of 1932, one woman would emerge as the leader of these militant workers. Johanna Cornelius, an Afrikaner member of the GWU, was arrested while participating in the strike of 1932. The police violently broke up the strike, attacking women with batons and clubs in the process. After Cornelius had been locked in a jail cell for several hours with another fellow protester, the police told her that they were being released due to the protests of a crowd outside threatening to storm the prison if the two girls were not released. (Gasa, 2007 188-189) Upon her release, Cornelius gave a speech calling on workers to demand a living wage and freedom. (Cornelius SAHO) This speech propelled her to leadership within the union, and by 1934 she was elected president. During this time period, she and some other GWU executives were sponsored by the Communist Party of South Africa to visit Soviet Russia. (Walker, 1982 64) As mentioned earlier, while women like Johanna Cornelius were certainly fighting for higher wages and better treatment in the work place that was not all. They were also fighting against the overall perception of women in South Africa and what they could accomplish. In this trip to Russia, the minds of these women were opened to several ideas that they had never been previously exposed to. It was a major learning experience for the women involved, who prior to the trip had not had the slightest idea who Lenin was. (Walker, 1982 64) They learned a lot about communism and the ideals of an equal society. The ideas that these women came back with empowered them and contradicted the unfair societal perception of women that their culture had. Her leadership in fighting for better wages for women and broadening the knowledge base of female leaders was very influential to the overall movement.

The Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU) was another union that was very influential in furthering the progress of women’s industrial labor rights. The founder, Ray Alexander Simons, dedicated her life to the trade union movement. Born in Latvia in 1913, Simons became politically active by the time she was thirteen years of age. She moved to South Africa in 1929 and immediately got involved in the organisation and unionisation of workers. (Simons SAHO) While she was involved in many different organisations that fought for women’s and racial equality, her efforts within the FCWU most directly affected the plight of women in industrial jobs, particularly in the fruit canning industry.

Simons founded the FCWU in 1941, and it soon became a great success. (Lockwood, 1978 2) While the union was not limited only to women, its membership was a majority female due to the fact that the industry included mostly women workers. Also, it was not racially biased, accepting both Black and White people. (Simons SAHO) The union was not only successful in raising the wages and improving the working conditions of the food and canning workers, but also very effective in politicising thousands of Black women. This exponentially increased the power and influence of the women’s trade union movement.

Simons’ relentless organisation of people to fight unfair labor practices inspired her followers. Oscar Mpetha, a member of the FCWU, said in a speech regarding her banning by the government that ‘Until Ray came we were slaves. If Ray dies we must die. Hand in hand

Simons pictured bottom right. Image source

and with all our hearts we must try to get Ray back.’ (Gasa, 2007 198) This inspiration led the union to a lot of success in winning rights for its members. In 1956, a branch of the union executed a protest against the requirement that all African women carry passes from the Labor Bureau to work, refusing to enter the work facility. The action caught on, and soon the managers were forced to take the women back without the dreaded documents. The union was also very dedicated and concerned with the issues of health, housing, and childcare. (Gasa, 2007 200) This focus was very meaningful to the female workers, who often struggled so much in balancing family life with work.

Direct union action was not the only benefit that the FCWU brought to the movement. The union also served as a training ground for politicising young women in order to add more power behind the push for women’s equality in the work place. One of these young women was Liz Abrahams. She grew up in a family of eight children in the Western Cape, and by the age of fourteen was working in a fruit canning factory in order to supplement her family’s income. As Abrahams grew older, she became more and more involved in the FCWU, eventually achieving positions on the organisation’s executive committee. She went on to become influential in a wide range of organisations, including the Federation of South African Women and the South African Congress of Trade Unions. (Abrahams SAHO) The work the FCWU did in politicising young women made a significant impact on the power of the movement, developing young leaders to fight for women’s rights in the work place. (Gasa, 2007 202 and Walker, 1982 119)

Another woman who rose through the ranks to lead unions was Emma Mashinini, who used her bold personality to stand up to worker exploitation. An African woman from Johannesburg, she lived a tough life from the very beginning. Her family endured the forced removal from Sophiatown in the 1950s and relocated to Soweto, one of the new townships that were formed. She married at a young age, and focused on raising her family until she was twenty-seven, when she realized she needed to find work. She was able to find work as a garment worker in the clothing industry. (Russell, 1989 181)

Mashinini quickly adapted to the hardships of labor, and soon began assuming leadership positions. She became a team leader and factory supervisor, and got involved with the GWU right away. After several years of involvement, she was finally elected to serve the national executive of the union. During her nineteen years of involvement with the GWU, the main fight was always over wages. Mashinini was always at the forefront of these arguments, unable to hold her tongue when it came to standing up to management. She often told employers ‘It is the salary you give us that makes life impossible.’ (Mashinini, 1991 25-27) She and the other garment workers courageously engaged in many strikes, and were able to win higher wages for themselves and their peers.

After her long involvement with the GWU, she decided to resign and focus on starting a new union for Black shop workers. Although it was initially difficult to get the ball rolling, the union became a huge success. Called the Commercial Catering and Allied Workers’ Union, by the mid 1980s it had over seventy thousand members. Before the union was established, the shop workers had no power in the employer-employee relationship. The union forced management to meet with the workers and negotiate terms for everything. (Russell, 1989 183) Also, the union was able to achieve much higher wages for their workers. Finally, through the work of Mashinini and the power of the union she established, women’s maternity rights were recognised. Although they were not paid while on maternity leave, women were able to have a child without fearing that they would lose their job. This was a huge feat for women, as it allowed them to raise families without losing their jobs. (Russell, 1989 187-188)

Female leaders also had to fight gender discrimination within the unions. Lydia Kompe was an African woman born on a farm in the northern Transvaal. (Barrett, 1985 98) Due to the poverty of her family, Kompe went to work in Johannesburg when she was about twenty-three years old. She found work in a factory and soon became involved as a member of the male-dominated Metal and Allied Workers’ Union. She eventually managed to become a shop steward and was a leader of a significant strike in 1976. The strike ended up being a failure, and she was not allowed to return to her job afterwards. However, she soon found employment in being an organiser for the union itself. (Russell, 1989 193) Within this job she ran into many instances of sexism, which she often was able to successfully put an end to. For example, when she first started working for the union, the men she worked with demanded that she go and buy the food that would be for lunch and prepare it. After carrying out the chore a couple of times, she began to refuse, and demanded that she be treated with equal respect. (Russell, 1989 193) It was in countless instances like this that Kompe slowly made an impression on the perception of women and their status in society.

However, Kompe did not just work with men. She also unionised women and greatly improved the daily life of these workers. In 1982 she started organising women cleaners, who to that point had been very neglected. At that point in time men supervised the women that worked the night shift. As discussed earlier, this situation caused sexual abuse to be very common. Women would often be required to carry out sexual favors in order to keep their jobs. (Russell, 189 194-195) Kompe’s work with these women earned them freedom from these unnecessary burdens.

The combination of economic growth and migration of women into urban areas in the early 1900s led to a consistent increase of women employed in industrial jobs for several decades. These women were subject to sexual abuse, minimal wages, unfair demands, and a societal perception of female inferiority that tried to keep them from recognising their rights as industrial workers. However, once their numbers began to reach a significant level, women realised that they could fight for their rights through unionisation. Women such as Johanna Cornelius, Ray Alexander Simons, Emma Mashinini, and Lydia Kompe emerged as leaders of the movement, winning rights for women through organisation and changing the perception that women were supposed to be inferior to men.

• Barrett, J. (1985). South African women on the move. London: Zed Books.
• Food and Canning Workers Union, (1983). Calendar. [image] Available at: [Accessed 30 Oct. 2014].
• Lockwood, E. (1978). The Question of African Trade Unions. Washington, D.C.: Washington Office on Africa, pp.2-3.
• Mashinini, E. (1991). Strikes have followed me all my life. New York: Routledge.
• Russell, D. (1989). Lives of courage. New York: Basic Books.
• Berger, I. (1992). Threads of solidarity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
• Gasa, N. (2007). Women in South African history. Cape Town: HSRC Press.
• South African History Online, (2014). Johanna Catharina Cornelius South African History Online. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Nov. 2014].
• South African History Online, (2014). Lizzy Adrian (Nanna) Abrahams South African History Online. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Dec. 2014].
• South African History Online, (2014). Mary Fitzgerald South African History Online. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Oct. 2014].
• South African History Online, (2014). Ray Alexander Simons South African History Online. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Oct. 2014].
• Walker, C. (1982). Women and resistance in South Africa. London: Onyx Press.

Last updated : 17-Nov-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 12-Jun-2015

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