History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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Women at the start of the 20th century

It is only over the last three or four decades that women's role in the history of South Africa has, belatedly, been given some recognition. Previously the history of women's political organization, their struggle for freedom from oppression, for community rights and, importantly, for gender equality, was largely ignored in history texts. Not only did most of these older books lean heavily towards white political development to the detriment of studies of the history and interaction of whites with other racial groups, but they also focused on the achievements of men (often on their military exploits or leadership ability) virtually leaving women out of South African history.

The reason for this 'invisibility' of women, calls for some explanation. South African society (and this applies in varying degrees to all race groups) are conventionally patriarchal. In other words, it was the men who had authority in society; women were seen as subordinate to men. Women's role was primarily a domestic one; it included child rearing and seeing to the well-being, feeding and care of the family. They were not expected to concern themselves with matters outside the home - that was more properly the domain of men. Economic activity beyond the home (in order to help feed and clothe the family) was acceptable, but not considered 'feminine'. However, with the rise of the industrial economy, the growth of towns and (certainly in the case of indigenous societies) the development of the migrant labour system, these prescriptions on the role of women, as we shall see, came to be overthrown.

This is a particularly appropriate time to be studying the role of women in the progress towards the new South African democracy. The year 2006 was a landmark year in which we celebrated the massive Women's March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria 50 years ago. Women throughout the country had put their names to petitions and thus indicated anger and frustration at having their freedom of movement restricted by the hated official passes. The bravery of these women (who risked official reprisals including arrest, detention and even bannings) is applauded here. So too are their organizational skills and their community-consciousness - they were tired of staying at home, powerless to make significant changes to a way of life that discriminated against them primarily because of their race, but also because of their class and their gender.

We invite you to read, in the pages that follow, on the important role played by women in twentieth-century South Africa. A list of works for further reading and some appropriate documents are also included in this archive. Women, half the population after all, have been silent for too long in our history books, and although this need is now to an extent being addressed, there is still a huge gap in our knowledge on the role of South African women. It is high time that our young South Africans should put the record straight.

By the beginning of the twentieth century in South Africa all the previously independent African polities had been conquered and put under white settler control. Furthermore the economic independence of these African societies had been destroyed and African men had been drawn into a labouring class on the mines (in the developing cities) and on white-owned farms. The discovery of minerals (diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 and gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886) had unleashed huge changes in the developing South African economy, and these were to become very significant for thee role played by women, particularly black women. Black men in the Cape Colony still had the vote (although a black man could not become a member of parliament), but elsewhere in South Africa black people (whether male or female) had no vote, nor were white women enfranchised.

The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 (also called the South African War) had decimated the South African economy and left a deep divide in society, not only between black people and whites, but between Boer and British. Africans had aligned themselves with the British during this war, in the vain hope that after peace was signed they would be given a better deal. Instead the British had made some effort to reconcile with the Boers and ignored the claims of the Africans. A new white-controlled government was set up in 1901 and called the Union of South Africa.

What, then, was the position of women in South African society at the beginning of the 20th century? The answer is that black women in traditional African societies and similarly, white women in settler society, were subordinate to men. The position of women was inferior; the men took all the major decisions both in society at large and within the home. In other words South Africa was a patriarchal society.

Motherhood was women's primary role. They had to raise children, care for the home and see to the needs of the family. In African societies women were expected to undertake agricultural tasks as well to help feed the family. Others took in laundry to provide extra income while some entered the labour market as domestic servants. In settler society too, it was not considered feminine to work outside the home, although some women did so to supplement the family income and help put food on the table.

History books written at the time (and for a long while thereafter) were all about men. We read of the wars they waged and fought; how they constituted the labour force on the mines in the developing cities and the new government they set up in 1910 (without consulting any women). If women featured at all it was as victims of man-made wars (such as the victims in the camps). Women were not expected to be assertive and take matters into their own hands.

Two examples will illustrate the subordinate position of women at the beginning of the century. Black women, most of whom were still living in the reserves, had begun to form groups to take on some church-linked social roles in the community, but they were not accepted as members of the African National Congress (ANC) when it was formed in 1912. This acceptance only came in 1943. Black men realized the need to unite politically to form a common front against white oppression, but amazingly there was no place for their women in their plans to do so. Similarly, white South African women were not permitted to play any part in political decision-making in a male-run Union government. It was only in 1930 (many years after settler women elsewhere in the empire) that white women gained the vote. This law was only grudgingly passed, by an all-male, all-white parliament, after a concerted 20-year campaign by dedicated feminists.

In the pages that follow you will learn why and how South African women of all races began to break out of the confines of stereotyped gender conventions and gradually became more assertive and demanding, taking an increasingly significant role in our history.

Organizing women for a common goal in the 20th century

It is difficult to pin down the particular issues that South African women faced then in 1956 or today. Issues that concerned women in the 1950s can be described as 'bread and butter' matters, such as housing, food prices, and permits. In modern day South Africa, women are faced with a wide range of issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, unemployment gender discrimination as well as poverty. It is against this background that women then organised themselves within the community to take up these challenges. One such community-based structure was the Alexandra Women's Council (AWC), which was established in the mid-1940s. The AWC became active in issues relating to squatter movements, and in 1947 it demonstrated against the Native Affairs Commission, which wanted to remove squatters in Alexandra Township. Following the Second World War rapid urbanisation took place as more people moved into the cities in search of work in factories or in the mines. The influx of Black people increased to 23.4 per cent in 1946 from 18.4 per cent in 1936. As a result, the need for housing also grew. As government prevented Black people from permanent residence in the cities, they began to build squatter camps or informal settlements on the outskirts of urban areas. The reaction of the government was to clamp down on these squatter camps and remove people to locations, far from their places of work. Women took it upon themselves to fight these removals because it affected their livelihoods such as the shebeens. Women who could not find employment in the factories or as domestic workers began to brew beer and sold it to a large number of migrant workers who could not afford to buy the western beer, or to those men who still preferred the traditional African beer. Relocating these men meant a loss of customers. In the Western Cape, the women of Crossroads squatter camp established the Women of Crossroads Movement to fight similar issues as the AWC was fighting.

Apart from forming movements such as the AWC and the WCM, there were other movements, which grew into political movements. For instance, Thursdays in South Africa was regarded as a holy day where women from different ethnic and social backgrounds met for a prayer. These prayer groups paved the way for new structures around micro finance and economic support. They organised stokvels and savings clubs for women. Ordinary women who did not belong to any political organisations in the 1950s started these structures. There was one organisation that was established by two women who were politically active at that time; the Zenzele Club started by Josie Palmer (Mpama) and Madie-Hall Xuma. Although it was started by political figures, its members were attracted by the issues of survival that it raised. Zenzele Club encouraged women to make a living from knitting. It was through such organisations that FEDSAW rallied women for a common goal. Although the issues that women fought for remained unsolved, the march in 1956 was a victory in its own right. More women became active in politics and some paid the price of long-term imprisonment while some pose a threat to the government and were assassinated.

It was not only African women who formed social structures like the ones described above. Luli Callinicos in her book, A Place in the City: The Rand on the Eve of Apartheid, describes how Afrikaans women formed 'wives clubs' to support the Afrikaner cause of 'Broederbond'. Callinicos writes that as early as the 1930s Afrikaans women were regarded as the main bearers of their culture. They were also the "transmitters of the mother tongue and the bearers of Afrikaner culture in the home" (Callinicos; 1993:117). White women's organisations such as the Black Sash, mobilised women structures such as these for a political cause. Although this was a challenge because of cultural barriers that bound most Afrikaans women, there were some such as Bettie du Toit who rose above those restrictions and fought for the emancipation of South African people across racial lines.

South African women, across racial lines, have been the source of courage for the entire community. In appointing women into government President Thabo Mbeki stated "No government in South Africa could ever claim to represent the will of the people if it failed to address the central task of emancipation of women in all its elements, and that includes the government we are privileged to lead." (Mbeki, 2004) Currently women in Cabinet make up 33 percent of positions a far cry from when Helen Suzman stood alone as a woman Member of Parliament. She made her presence felt by openly opposing the policies of the National Party and urging the government to open discussion with the Liberation Movements. Women of South Africa across all spheres of life have contributed in the making of South Africa. Today, the contribution that women made in our history is not only visible in our society but in the steps of the Union Buildings.

Last updated : 18-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Mar-2011