History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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Soweto and mounting pressure on the apartheid state, 1970s

The Day Our Kids Lost Faith. 1976. © Bailey's African History Archives

During the 1970s, and particularly in the late 1970s after the Soweto uprising of 1976, there was increasing pressure, both internal and international, on the apartheid state. The riots also played an important role in the revival of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), both of which had been banned in 1960 and were operating underground. The government had to cope with economic sanctions, military pressure from Cuba and the countries of the Eastern Bloc and diplomatic estrangement from overseas.

In this heightened resistance against the state, women once again played an important role not only within South Africa but as part of the banned ANC operating from outside the country's borders. Some, such as Lindiwe Sisulu even joined the armed wing of the ANC. After her release from detention she joined Umkhonto we Sizwe, underwent military training and later specialised in Intelligence.

Women and the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s

The Black Consciousness Movement, led by Steve Biko, was a new source of resistance that had arisen in the late 1960s among students who formed the student body the South African Students Organisation (SASO). The movement increased in significance when the Black People's Convention (BPC) was established in 1972. A number of women, such as Baleka Kgositsile, Winnie Mandela and Mamphela Ramphele were active in both the Black Consciousness Movement and the ANC underground. Mamphela Ramphele was also involved in child welfare and founded the Zanempilo Community Health Centre near King William's Town. Later, after her banishment to rural Northern Transvaal, she set up the Isutheng Community Health Programme.

1970'S - Steve Bantu Biko with his son, Samora. Steve Biko was the Black Conscience leader, political activist and student leader. (Photograph by Drum photographer © Baileys Archive)

In 1975 a group of politically active women headed by Fatima Meer, established the Black Women's Federation (BWF). Meer became the first president and other executive members were Sally Motlana, Theresa Hendrickse, Kate Jonkers, Deborah Mabelitsa, F. Skhosana, Winnie Mandela , Ann Tomlinson, Merina Nyembezi, Vuyi Moloto, Jeanie Noel and Virginia Gcabashe. A year after the formation of the federation, Fatima Meer was banned. The government also banned a meeting that was to be held by the federation and other anti-apartheid organisations in Durban in protest of Meer's banning.

In 1976 in the aftermath of the Soweto riots, Winnie Mandela set up the Black Parents' Association (BPA). Both the BWF and the BPA allied themselves to the Black Consciousness Movement. When Biko died in 1977 while being held in detention, a storm of protest arose in the country and there was also increased international condemnation of the regime. All the black consciousness organisations were banned in 1977, including the women's organisations.

The Indian Council revamped as the SAIC: Reaction

The National Indian Council set up by the government in the 1960s had been scorned by prominent Indian leaders although it continued to function or some years. The Soweto riots of 1976 had prompted Vorster to make some limited concessions to the political position of Coloureds and Indians. In 1978 legislation provided for a revised body of 40 elected and five nominated members of the Indian community to be called the South African Indian Congress (SAIC). Once again there was only limited support for the idea, most Indians expressing the feeling that universal franchise in a unitary state is what they were holding out for. Progressive Indians, among them women such as Amina Cachalia, Fatima Meer and Ela Gandhi (who had been elected as vice-president of the revived Natal Indian Congress) were opposed to this new form of apartheid and anti-SAIC committees were formed to resist the measure. In 1981 when the Council's election took place only 10% of the Indian voters cast their votes.

Women and labour issues: The trade unions in the 1970s

In the 1960s the country's industrial economy had matured and by the 1970s black workers were becoming increasingly restless about exploitative working conditions. A number of strikes were held (particularly in Natal) in 1973 and between 1973 and 1975 many new trade unions were formed. Women such as Linda Komape and Emma Mashinini were prominent in trade unionism, fighting for the rights of women in the workplace. By 1977 the effects of worldwide criticism and withdrawal of foreign capital led to an economic recession. To counteract widespread worker dissatisfaction Vorster appointed two commissions of enquiry in 1977: the Wiehahn and the Riekert Commissions. Wiehahn recommended that black trade unions should be legalised and that certain forms of job reservation should be scrapped. Riekert made a number of suggestions on allowing urbanised black workers residential rights. Between 1979 and 1982, as a result of the legalisation of black trade unions, unionisation of black workers doubled. Black trade unionism was set to become a powerful force in South African politics, which is still the case in South Africa today.

Last updated : 03-Mar-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011