History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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Women’s Resistance Against the Pass Laws

During its long history of struggle, the ANC has always been in the vanguard of the struggle against racism, today known by the name 'apartheid". Some of these battles were won by the pioneers of the movement, others were lost, but all left a heritage of struggle upon which the younger gener­ations could build.

When the ANC was formed in Bloemfontein on 8 January 1912, the ink had hardly dried on the paper on which the two white races, the British and the Boers, had signed the 1910 Act of Union. In other words, the formation of the ANC was a direct response to the nefarious act, which alienated the black majority from power sharing. According to ANC documents, the gathering in Bloemfontein was an extraordi­nary one; it brought together people from every stratum of life and from every part of the country, including the then Protectorates of Bechuanaland, Swaziland and Basutoland. Former foes, who were still suspicious of each other, because of internecine and fratricidal strife between their forefa­thers, sat around a table and faced one another. The founders of the ANC made an appeal to the different groups to unite, in order to fight against the common enemy, which had turned black people into aliens in their own country, by forming the whites-only Union.

The ANC has stood the test of time because its roots, from the start, went very deep. It was formed by the masses, and the masses are its power. There are thousands of men and women whose names are unknown, but they are the ones who carried out its policy, who took part in its campaigns, who elected their leaders, who became the spokespeople for their cause. When I look at the ANC in retrospect, I appreciate how the organisation makes each and every member a valuable and indispensable part, so that the ANC belongs to the people; it is their shield and spear.

Thus, Mr Letlalo, who had joined the ANC in 1917, told us Africans had not been allowed to walk on the pavements in Pretoria, with the consequence that African women and chil­dren were injured daily. So, one day, together with a few other men, they defied this municipal regulation and walked on the pavement. They were arrested. During the court hearing, they stated the plight of black people, especially of women and children. The regulation was rescinded. From that victory, they went on to break the railway regulation, which made Africans travel in goods carriages instead of compartments. For that, too, they were arrested, but their campaign led to the railways introducing third class carriages, for Africans. These people govern by regulation. That is why Africans are always in trouble, because even when one thinks one is within the law, one ends up being caught up in the regulations by which these race laws are administered. It is a real nightmare for African people under apartheid. Right along the way, the ANC has fought one law after another.

But the longest, and most bitter, of the many battles the ANC has fought has been that against the Pass Laws. It is a fight that has gone on from generation to generation that has left many landmarks engraved with the names of men and women alike. The story I want to tell here is the one about the contribution of the women to the anti-pass law campaigns of my time, since their story is very special, and because no story of the liberation struggle can be complete without highlighting their particular participation.

It was no surprise that in the first year of the operation of the Land Act (which should have been called the Land Grab Act because it reserved 87 per cent of the country for the white population) one of the first major confrontations was with the women, when the regime attempted to extend the Pass Laws. But the women would have none of it! For instance, at Vrededorp (City of Peace!) near Johannesburg, women demonstrators fought pitched battles with the police, who were mounted on horses. Women, as well as policemen and horses were injured in the battle.

In Sophiatown, during the Women's Anti-Pass Campaign of the late Fifties some of us had the opportunity to get liv­ing testimony from Mrs Mary Mqhweto, who had taken part in that 1913 campaign; known as Auntie Mary, she was obvi­ously very old at that time, and living in the township. Her advice to us was: 'Unity begets bravery and strength'. It was from her that we learnt that the women of Johannesburg had co-ordinated their action with that of the women of Mangaung in the Orange Free State, who had been cheated by the chiefs into taking passes. But once they discovered the deception, they burnt their passes by the sackload in front of the local municipal offices. Because of this resistance, the regime retreated, shelved the attempt to impose passes on women. However, the women remained vigilant, and each time the regime made fresh attempts to impose passes ? as they continued to do ? the women were ready to protect themselves from this badge of slavery, the pass.

When I went to see my landlady in 1956, for the signing of the petition to Pretoria, because I knew that she would not be able to go ? she was no longer young, and she suffered from arthritis ? and when she saw my anxiety, she told me that she would call Mary Mqhweto so that she could give us tips about how the 1913 women's resistance had been suc­cessful. My landlady, Mrs Edith Senaoane, was a cousin of Mrs Mqhweto. It was not until 1953, when the Sophiatown branch was formed, that I found out that Mrs Senaoane as well as her sister, Matilda Kopo, were members of the ANC.

Auntie Mary told us that it would be a shame if women of our day, who were enlightened and educated, could not defeat the regime, whereas her generation had been successful, although they had not gone to school. She still hated the pass!

It goes without saying that the Pass Laws were one of the main pillars of apartheid. Indeed, when the Nationalist Party took power in 1948, one of the many harsh laws the regime added to the Statute Book was to tighten the Pass Laws on men and extend them to include the women. For their part, the women knew exactly what they were faced with; they knew they were faced with Afrikaner diehards and villains of racial segregation, who would stop at nothing. To these, the Africans have been seen as nothing else except tools of labour. To extend the Pass Laws was to pull down the wall, which protected the women from the humiliation of carrying these documents. To do so would be to dispel the belief that womanhood and motherhood deserved respect and honour in society, irrespective of race or colour.

Under the direction of the ANC, the Federation of South African Women, which was formed in 1954, and the African National Congress Women's League, called upon women throughout the country to resist this callous move. Women, in towns as well as in the rural areas, staged demonstra­tions against local chiefs, Native Commissioners, magistrates. In 1955, 2,000 women from the Transvaal went to the Union Building with a petition to the then prime minister Strijdom, who snubbed them, and to which the women responded by organising a demonstration to the same place by women from all over the country.

However, right at home, in Western Native Township (WNT), there was a bit of a hitch. Ida Mtwana, who had been President of the Federation as well as of the Women's League before Lilian Ngoyi, had sort of drifted away from womens' activities, and she had half of the WNT following her lead. After we had discussed this snag at the Federation Executive, Lilian proposed that, as I had worked with Ida longer than anyone else had done, and that since we both resided in the same region, I should go to tackle her to join the march. I was a bit reluctant to see Ida, because there had been reports that she was not satisfied about not being consulted on some issues concerning the organisation. Anyway, the thought of the anticipated success of the march subdued the fear of my going to talk to her. And, thanks to Lilian's tactic, Ida agreed that we should sink our differences and that she would join the march.

On my way to Ida's house, I passed Kate Mxakato's and successfully persuaded her to accompany me. Kate lived in WNT ? but she was not in Ida's new group. She was a militant woman and later became provincial secretary of the Women's League. We both convinced ourselves that seeing two people would make Ida see how we still believe her con­tribution valuable in the struggle.

I was very relieved when Ida agreed to join the march, and I there and then told her that I would be delivering leaflets and petitions to cover Western Native Township. With the help of the male comrades of the Congress Alliance thousands and thousands of leaflets were cyclostyled and distributed. These leaflets explained what the march was about, and called upon all women to organise their neigh­bours as well as all women on buses and in trains. The country was flooded with leaflets. It was accompanied by petitions, which were to be signed by women only, whether they were going to join the march or not. In these petitions there was an emphatic 'No!' to the proposal to extend passes to women, as well as a scathing attack on all racist laws. When all the copies were collected on 9 August 1956, there were over 100,000 signatures.

I do not know whether to claim that this was the busiest time for the women, because we seemed to be busy all of the time. It was just a year after we had been engaged in organising for the Congress of the People, and just before that there had been the campaign against the removal of Sophiatown, which kept us on our toes day in and day out, about which I wrote in an earlier chapter. But what made the organisation of the march difficult was that we had to go around carrying leaflets, and no one could be sure as to whether or not she would not be caught by the police. So we had to be on our guard all the time.

I remember that, two days before we went to Pretoria, I thought that there might be some women we might have missed because Sophiatown was so overcrowded. So, coming home from work in the afternoon, I decided to go to organise in the street in the north of the township. I was carrying some leaflets and petitions in a little suitcase. At the comer of one street I met two women who were carrying their babies on their backs. As I was talking to them, explaining about the march, a black SB passed near us, in a rush. I did not know whether to drop the leaflets I was holding, because I was trying to tell the women that, since they had babies, they could just sign the petitions. But the SB man said to me: 'Oh, Mrs Resha, I thought you were carrying equipment in your case for delivering babies, but it seems that you use it for leaflets as well!' I took no notice of him, and he left us alone.

As the women were signing the petitions, the one said to the other: ?You know, we can go to Pretoria with our babies; our mothers used to go to the fields and come back, carrying a large seroto (large grass carrier) of mealies on their heads, with their babies on their backs'. ?Yes', replied the other, and then continued, 'In any case, when we are arrested for pass offences, we will either have to go to jail and take our babies with us, or be separated from them'. There and then they asked me to put their names on the list of those who would be going to Pretoria the next day.

In the morning, I met them at the bus rank, and we took the same bus to Pretoria. Those two women were now the ones preaching about the evils of the Pass Laws to the oth­ers. I was happy, but I was also amazed by their determination, and I saw what conviction could do to a person. In Pretoria, they were even happier to see that there were many, many thousands of other women who had come with their babies, and that even women who were highly expectant had made the journey. Those are the women of South Africa; the women who are prepared to fight because they want health, happiness and security for their children.

This demonstration, which was well-organised beforehand, was planned for 9 August 1956, and Strijdom was notified, in advance, that he should be available to receive the women. The regime panicked, as usual, and tried, unsuccessfully to disrupt the march by putting various obstacles in the way. Transport was cancelled in many areas. Women from Natal, the Cape Province and the Orange Free State paid large sums of money to book carriages to take them to Pretoria. Many women from the Transvaal went to Pretoria overnight to avoid the disruption of the transport.

I remember that I was, with several other women from our area, part of a bus group who went to Pretoria. Our bus was stopped at a police roadblock, and two white policemen, both young men, climbed aboard. As they came in, we started to sing a hymn. This made them look at us in great puzzlement ? perhaps they thought we were going to a funeral. After a few minutes they allowed the bus driver to continue his jour­ney. While we felt jubilant, we were not absolutely sure that we had passed our last roadblock.

A few days before the day of the demonstration the regime had announced a ban on all gatherings of more than three people. It became a real problem then to walk together in a group, since even walking was technically a breach of the law. So we each took different ways and streets, never stop­ping, through Pretoria, as if we were just pedestrians in a large city. Everyone knew where the Union Buildings were; no one could get lost. By ten o'clock, 20,000 women had assembled in the grounds of the venue, around the statue of Louis Botha (1862?1919) on horseback, impressive in his wide-brimmed hat, looking across the city. To many women from the Transvaal, who had visited these grounds, the statue was familiar. But to many others, who had come from other provinces, one could see the curiosity in their faces as they read the name on the statue of the man who had become the first Prime Minister of the white union of Boer and Briton in 1910.

From the bottom of the gardens to the building itself must be about half a mile; we had to climb hundreds of steps and terraces, each of which was filled with gardens of the loveliest flowers. Because of the vastness of the crowds who were assembling, many people had to trample over the flowers in order to get to the Amphitheatre. Some, including myself, had sore feet from going up these hundreds of steps with our shoes on. But it was like a real invasion when the women surged forward and ever upward towards the building. I don't think that at that stage anyone even thought of the ban upon a gathering of more than three; this was a multi­tude of angry and defiant women of all races from every walk of life ? some were carrying babies on their backs. But each one of us held a petition denouncing the Pass Laws and all other racist laws. What was noticeable was the absence of uniformed police, while there were scores of Special Branch and many journalists.

Because of the volume of petitions to be presented (there were 100,000 in all) we needed a delegation of ten or eleven people to carry them all. But the representativeness of the delegation also had to be considered;for example, a representative from each racial group, and a representative from each province. Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph, respectively President and Secretary of the Federation, were to lead the delegation to the Prime Minister's office. I was not part of the delegation. Many of the nurses who were present had been asked to keep a watchful eye on the crowd. Anything could have happened because of the strain of going up the steps and because of the scorching sun.

But, thanks God there were no mishaps. Before we could settle down in the Amphitheatre, we were met with stink bombs. Everyone had to put her hand on her nose. What a welcome! Nevertheless, the delegation was determined to press on. By the time it went up, I could see clearly the anger on Lilian's face. The magic sweat she once talked about which she had during the Cape Town ship incident in 1954, was rolling down her temples. It was at this moment that the Union Buildings came to a standstill. When I cast my eyes up to this pompous building, with its two domes (signifying the union of the Boers and the British) the veran­dahs of the building were covered with hundreds of pink faces, giving the impression of hanging like linen on a drying fence. The workers inside had abandoned their desks to come to witness a spectacle that had never been seen since the formation of the Union ? black women in occupation of the Amphitheatre: a no-go area for an African even as gar­dener or sweeper. The Amphitheatre, I had been told, is the holiest of places for the Boers ? only their President or Prime Minister stands there when giving important announcements about war and peace.

The secretary to the Prime Minister told the delegation that his boss was unavailable. The women, in their anger, dumped the petition outside his office. Yes, the 'Lion of the North', as Strijdom was called, had lost his courage to face this army of angry women.

Lilian asked the crowd to observe a thirty-minute silence in protest. During this period not a cough, not a child's cry, was to be heard. It was like a calm lake whose waters were undisturbed by even a breeze. A thirty-minute silence is unprecedented in my experience. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard Lilian call for it. Yet, because of our anger, the time seemed to pass almost in a flash. Following that silence the women burst into a taunting revolutionary song, which had been composed by the Natal women at a previous conference: 'Heyi Strijdom! Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo uzokufa' (Strijdom beware! Now that you have touched the women, you have struck a rock, and you will die). It was only one of several songs that were composed against him. For instance, in Sophiatown, they sang 'koloi ena haena mabili, sutha sutha wena Strydom. Haosa, suthe, etla uhata' (This wagon has no wheels. Clear off, clear off, Strydom. If you don't, it will crush you!).

Before the day was wound up with 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika', Lillian's voice echoed from the walls of the Union Buildings as she cried out: 'A ... frika!' The atmosphere seemed electrified by the power of her voice, and the crowd responded:

'Mayibuye!' (May it Return!). By this time, many of the women, myself included, were weeping quietly. Yes, the women had done it! Women from the ghettoes of the loca­tions, from the farms, from the villages, young and old, had dared to invade the very citadel of oppression in order to express their indignation and detestation for apartheid laws.

To see how heartless and thoughtless the leaders of the white regime could be, the following day they issued statements complaining bitterly about the damage done to the flowers at the Union Buildings terraces and grounds, the cost of which they put at hundreds of pounds. They also complained of the litter that had been left behind. It was most thoughtless of a repressive regime to cry for flowers; it did not cross their minds what a sacrifice it had been for the women, who had left their sick, their old, their homes, their young, to travel, under difficult conditions, risking arrest, to get to Pretoria.

Although the leadership of the ANC were concerned about the risks involved, when the idea of the march first came up, it now declared the 9 August as 'South Africa Women's Day' in order to honour the gallantry of the women. That day has since that time been added to the calendar of the ANC struggle against apartheid, as one of the landmarks of our history.

Rebuffed in its frontal assault, but true to its nature of working by trickery and deceit, the regime through various means known to it alone, now directed the South African Nursing Council to demand 'identity numbers' from all nurses and student nurses. This directive was communicated to all hospitals, throughout the country, by the Nursing Council, from Pretoria.

Nurses were, on the whole, always regarded as conservative. And perhaps that was the reason why the regime chose them as the first to be issued with passes. However, in this the regime was to be mistaken. The nurses immediately called big meetings to discuss this demand for 'identity numbers', and they soon co-ordinated their activities with the Federation of South African Women.

During one of these meetings of the nurses, it was decided that one nurse should be chosen as a guinea pig to go to the pass office to ask for her 'identity number'. I was chosen to do this job.

The bureaucrats in the first two offices to which I went did not know what I was talking about;finally, they directed me to the highest official, whose name, too, was Strydom. He told me that I could have my 'identity number' only if I had a pass. So that was it ? the regime was trying to cheat the nurses into carrying passes.

The Federation of South African Women immediately organised for a protest demonstration to the very big Baragwanath Hospital. A letter was sent to the authorities, asking them to receive a delegation of women. However, the night before the protest demonstration we heard that female doctors (they were all white; there were no black doctors at that time at Baragwanath) at the hospital had been told not to come to work the next day. Then, the morning of the demonstration, my husband, who had been out early, came back to tell me that the bus company had cancelled taking the women from our area to the hospital.

Our response was to book all taxis at the rank to take us; they took about eight people at a time. When we arrived at the hospital, Helen Joseph was already there with a few women, and with hundreds of policemen present. Helen told us that buses carrying women from the eastern areas had been stopped by police roadblocks. We then went to Colonel Pienaar, who was in charge, and told him that if he let the women come to the demonstration we would send only six or seven women to meet the authorities. Strange enough, he agreed to lift the roadblocks; but he warned us that the women should remain on the opposite side of the road. Within a short space of time busloads of women joined us.

What the delegation saw when it went in to meet the authorities was unbelievable. Policemen were in evidence in all the hospital corridors; hosepipes were held in readiness; the casualty department, usually packed with patients, was completely empty. Finally, the police even went in with the delegation that went to meet the Superintendent, the Matron, and other officials.

Our delegation, of which I was a member, bitterly criticised what it regarded as war preparations at the hospital. Our statement pointed out that the 'identity number', which the Nursing Council had asked them to demand from nurses, meant that nurses had to carry passes. The statement elaborated on the dangers of the pass, which would affect not only nurses, but the whole administration at the hospitals or clinics. The hospital authorities told us that they did not make the laws, but said that they would pass our memorandum to the Nursing Council.

By the time the delegation came out, scores of nurses had forgone their tea time and had crossed the demarcation line to join the women to thank them for their protest. Within a few months the Nursing Council dropped their demand for 'identity numbers' from nurses.

There were endless protests and demonstrations in every province in the country to the authorities after the Pretoria march. Some went to Native Commissioners in Johannesburg, finally to city councillors. The protest to the city councillors, like the others, were prepared well in advance by the women from the West Rand and the East Rand. Unlike the Prime Minister, the councillors agreed to meet the delegations.

On the day of the protest there were hardly any police near the City Hall, except for the Special Branch detectives. The uniformed police were posted mostly at the outskirts of the city to stop the crowds of women from entering the city on their way to the City Hall. But the police were unable to stop between 2,000 and 3,000 women from entering the city centre, because, after their experiences of getting to Pretoria in 1956, the women had developed tricky ways of eluding the police, to such an extent that one newspaper reported: 'The women outwit the police!'

Yes indeed, the women had outwitted the police. By ten am a huge crowd of women were squatting silently outside the City Hall. Unlike at the Baragwanath protest, no police or Special Branch went in with the delegation to meet the city councillors. But the arrangements inside the meeting hall were enough to prove the attitude of these gentlemen.

I was part of this delegation of seven. We were seated near the door, on the east corner of the long table, facing the coun­cillors on the west corner. The distance between us could easily have been between eight and ten metres. This made communication between them and us virtually inaudible. As a result, time was lost because some of them kept asking us to repeat what we had just said; we had to shout at the top of our voices. It was clear that this was a deliberate tactic on their part in order to waste time and to discourage us. And there is nothing as annoying as being asked to repeat what you have just said when the time fixed for the appointment is in your mind. We all complained bitterly about this when we left the hall, of course, among ourselves. Ruth Matseoane was carrying her baby, less than a year old, and the baby was restless. Of course the baby could not know that his mother carried him there to fight for his future.

We told the councillors that the women were against the extension of passes to them, and hammered it to them on the squalor of the locations. We told them about high rents and low wages, dark streets and crowded trains, and the plight of the African youth ? of our children, who were turning into tsotsis because of arrests under the Pass Laws. These laws, we said, were the main cause of unemployment among African youth. Their reply was that the laws of the country had to be obeyed. They promised to pass our complaints to the government. Of course, nothing was done to remedy our complaints.

As we left, a whisper went out to all the women to leave in the same manner as they had come, and to assemble in Freedom Square, Sophiatown, for a rally. Thankfully, that day ended without incident.

Meanwhile, reports were coming in from other areas and provinces about womens' protests. In Pretoria, a huge crowd of women on their way to the police station were dispersed with tear gas and baton charges. Many were injured. In Natal, women stopped men from patronising municipal beer halls; they chased and beat their men with sticks when they resisted. The women destroyed cattle dipping tanks and burnt beer halls. Mrs Luthuli, together with Mrs Dube and Dorothy Nyembe led a group of women to the Paramount Chief of Zululand to tell him that they were against passes for women.

Other prominent women in the campaign in Natal included Florence Mkhize; her aunt, Bertha Mkhize, the provincial president of the ANC Women's League; and Dr M. Chuene. Dorothy Nyembe was a prominent woman in Natal. During the late Sixties she was arrested and served fifteen years for alleged participation in ANC underground activities. Mrs Dube was the wife of Dr Dube, first President of the ANC, while Mrs Mkhize was one of the 156 charged during the Treason Trial. Dr Margaret Chuene studied medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, and acted as locum in the surgery of Dr Conco when he was in Pretoria as one of the accused in the Treason Trial. She soon got embroiled in the Women's Anti-Pass Campaign, and was arrested, together with other women, in 1958. I had a picture, which I have lost, showing some of the women from Natal who were arrested at that time. In it Dr Chuene is seated next to a woman dingaka (traditional doctor). I remember us remark­ing how strange it was that these two women, who would not normally agree with each other, in their work, should work together in politics. Because of police persecution, Dr Chuene escaped into Swaziland, where she remained for several years. I am not certain of her whereabouts now.

In the Orange Free State, the leaders included Mrs Mohlakoana and Mrs Mafora. Here, women again burnt passes, as they had done in 1913. They had again been cheated by chiefs who said they would not be given permission to register their marriages and christen their children if they had no passes. There was a song composed for the women of the Free State: 'Liea chesoa koana Free State lipasa' (In the Free State passes are burnt). From the women of the Cape came the slogan, 'We do not want passes, even if they are trimmed with gold!' Many women were arrested all over the country. In Johannesburg, at one meet­ing, one old woman said, 'I don't know why the government says we must carry passes, because we have already got them. Yes, these passes are stamped even if a woman rebels by pretending that she has a headache or a toothache'. There was laughter, because everyone could read between the lines, as the Sesotho proverb tells us: Lelefung hoa tseoa (Of course, there is laughter, even in mourning.)

The anti-pass campaign by the women had reached new dimensions. In rallying the women to resist the Pass Laws, Lilian Ngoyi used to remind the women of an old African proverb: Mangoana o tsoara thipa ka bohaleng (The mother grabs the sharp edge of the knife to protect her child). This proverb is familiar to all Africans in South Africa. It originates from an old African myth.

The story of the bravery of a woman, expressed in the proverb, goes like this. Long ago, in some part of South Africa, there was a Black Mamba snake that lived in the tops of trees in the bush. It had killed several herdboys, who had passed through the bush, while tending their flocks, driving them to pastures. There was much wailing in the community each time one of the boys was struck and killed by the vicious snake. Because of the wailing of the women, men had gone out on two or three occasion^, armed with sticks and assegais to hunt this killer snake. But, on each of these occasions the poor men got so frightened that they raced back home, even before reaching the spot where the snake was supposed to be.

One day, a woman who had lost both of her sons, decided that she would die rather than have the remaining boys of the village become victims to the snake. Early in the morning she cooked a large pot of porridge; she then filled a large clay watercarrier with this porridge. This waterpot had a large, u-shaped opening at the top. She put this waterpot on her head, which she balanced with a khare (a woven ring of grass or cloth), which also protected her form being burnt on the head. She then set out for the woods, timing her departure so that she was well ahead of the flocks following slowly behind, being driven by the herdboys.

The snake, as usual, struck at the passing figure. But this time its target was hot porridge. It fell into the waterpot, and drowned. The whole village came out to see the dead snake that had tormented them for so long. That is how the myth and the idiom came about because of the bravery of that woman.

That is why the tenacity of the Women's Anti-Pass Campaign went on unabated from 1956 to 1960. It became what one could call a crusade throughout the length and breadth of the country. African women had already witnessed what the Pass Laws brought to their menfolk and to their families, and they saw themselves as having been directly affected. At the same time the people of Pondoland, Sekhukhuniland and Zeerust were revolting against the Bantu Authorities, a history brilliantly related by Govan Mbeki in his book The Peasant's Revolt (1964).

Once again, women played an important role in these struggles, and many were arrested and sent to prison, including a chieftainess, Malinoha, who was sentenced to death, although her sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Lilian Ngoyi had met her during her organising visits to Sekhukhuniland. She had a twelve-year-old daughter at the time she was sentenced to death.

The atmosphere in the country was so charged and full of resentment that it precipiated spontaneous actions in many areas. For instance, in Sophiatown, early one morning in 1958, two women came to my house and told me that women were assembling in Freedom Square for a protest march to the pass office in Market Street in the centre of the city. I was at that time chairwoman of the ANCWL in Sophiatown, with Kate Molale as secretary. I took no time to see what was happening, and ? to my greatest surprise ? I found the square already full of women.

We met briefly with Kate to see if we could persuade the protesters to hold off until we had reported to the branch executive, since the rule was that the auxilliary bodies of the ANC were to report all their activities to the 'mother' body ? in this case, the branch executive ? for guidance. But the mood of the women was beyond our estimation; they wanted to hear nothing of that. It was one of those times when the masses march ahead of the leaders instead of vice versa. Some women were suggesting the burning of the beer hall in Western Native Township. We stood firmly against that idea, supporting rather the march to the pass office, which, we pointed out, was in the programme of the ANC.

Once everybody had accepted that the 'rule of law' of the ANC was supreme, and that it had to be observed no matter how angry or how militant we were, we at once made arrangements to get to the pass office. Those not so young and the ones carrying babies were to take buses, while the rest were to walk to the city, a distance of between three and a half to four miles.

The time was about eight o'clock in the morning, yet the Special Branch were already on the scene in their cars. They drove slowly on the road while we walked on the pavement. Time and time again they pointed fingers at us, but we took no notice of them as we hurried in order to join the group who had left by buses. As we walked through the white residential areas of Westdene and Brixton, women domestic workers cheered us ? some even joined us! We had passed the Bridgeman Maternity Hospital on the right, and the Radio South Africa Tower on the left, so that we were now facing Vrededorp, the scene of the 1913 encounter between women protesters and the police. The enthusiasm and excitement was growing as we were halfway to our destination.

However, at that very moment we noticed scores of police and vans blocking the road about 200 yards ahead of us. The spot where the police had placed their road blocks was a great disadvantage to us in that, on the left, was a fenced-in cemetery that stretched as far as Vrededorp, while there was another white residential area on the right. We stopped to plan how to get out of that bottleneck. We ruled out being dispersed by teargas because of the white residential area, and thought that it was likely that the police would baton-charge us, or just arrest us. Finally, as all traffic was by now at a standstill, we decided that we would not turn back if the 'disperse' order was given, but surge into the road and mix with the rest of the traffic. The aim was that everyone should then find her own way to the pass office.

When we were a few yards from them, the police, hailing us through a loudspeaker, ordered us to stop. Then Colonel Pienaar, holding a little stick under his armpit, came for ward with a black policeman. The latter pointed at me, and said: 'This one!' I hardly knew what that was supposed to mean. The Colonel told us that our procession was illegal, because we did not have permission for it, and that we were blocking traffic. He then went on to say that he would give us two minutes to disperse. Then, suddenly, he handed the loudspeaker into my right hand and asked me to repeat to the women what he had just said to me.

My mind was still occupied with my identification by the black policeman, and also by the decision we had taken when we had spotted the police. However, thanks to the astonishing human brain/click' went another wavelength. I looked down, shuffled my feet, and produced an artificial cough, as if to clear my voice. 'The Colonel is a miserable fool,' I said, inwardly, 'but what an opportunity to remind the women of our resolution,' said another voice within me. And there I went, speaking in a mixture of Xhosa and Sesotho. 'Makosikazi, amaphoyisa athi asina mvume ya lo mqodi. Kodwa nonke niyazi apho siya khona. Lea tseba moo reeang teng phambili. Pele basadi' (Women, the police say we have no permit for this procession. But you all know where we are going to. Forward women). As I said the last word, I pushed the loudspeaker into the hand of the black police­man, and slipped under his arm into the road. An African in a car opened the back door, and I jumped in.

I did not know what orders the Colonel gave, but, as the traffic began to start moving, through the back window of the car I could see the police surging forward, trying to catch the women. Others had their batons out, as if beating up the women. It was a real pandemonium. But I soon lost sight of these events, because the cars started to move fast. There were no words spoken between me and the other occupants of the car and I hardly knew them. However, I hoped that other women might have escaped, like I had done.

I waited at the bus rank in town for a good fifteen min­utes, but nobody came. So I walked to the pass office in Market Street, which was about 300 yards away from the bus rank, hoping to join the women who had left in buses earlier on from Sophiatown. When I got there, I found the place had been sealed off by the police. I walked straight towards them, and tried to pass through. From where I stood I could see the backs of women in the yard, and also some policemen. One policeman pushed me back, saying 'Can't you see the place is sealed'. I took about four paces backwards. Then, deciding to be polite, I came forward again and said to them, 'Gentlemen, I am going with these women'.

'You can't get in; these people have been arrested,' said another.

'Well, arrest me then, because I am going with them,' I replied.

'Mosadi' (woman) he said, 'can't you understand English? You get away from here if you don't want trouble.'

'I told you to arrest me, as you have arrested them,' I repeated, to which he replied, 'No! No! You F... off.'

I gave up, but I got a chill in my spine, and felt hot in the face. Tears just rolled out of my eyes from anger and disappointment. I turned my back away from them, and stood there, thinking, 'My God! How could this happen! My comrades are arrested, and I don't know what happened to the group, which was intercepted, on the way. And it seems that I am the only one who is out of trouble. What are the comrades going to think of me!'

I walked slowly to the ANC office, which was a few yards across the street, but there was nobody; it was still very early. I therefore decided to go back and take the bus to Sophiatown, thinking that perhaps I might see the remnants of the group I had marched with; but there was no sign of them.

I got off the bus at Toby Street, the first stop inside Sophiatown, and walked into Victoria Road. My street, Bertha Street, was the next one along. Before I reached Bertha Street, I met a man who worked for a burial society at the corner of Victoria Road and Bertha Street. He told me that all the typists had gone to the Newlands police station to demand the release of the women who had been arrested on their way to the pass office that morning. Without further question, I dashed to the police station.

At the police station I found another crowd of women; they were being addressed by the same Colonel Pienaar. I arrived just as I heard him say 'And I am going to give you two min­utes to disperse'. There then followed a police baton charge. As the police station was separated from Sophiatown by a main road, the police pursued us all the way into the township. Here we regrouped again. I told the women what had happened to the march in the morning, and that all the women who had gone to town in the buses had been arrest­ed. Someone revived the idea of burning some of the beer-halls. Others thought that it would be better to go to our homes to organise food for those arrested and also to find out where small children were left uncared-for.

When I got home, the first thing was to have a cup of tea and bread, as I had left for Freedom Square in the morning without breakfast, thinking that I would come back swiftly. But, a few minutes later I heard the banging outside of car doors. Two policemen walked in. One was the policeman who had pointed me out on the march, and to whom I had hand­ed the loudspeaker. Without even saying 'Good Afternoon', he stated, 'Mrs Resha, but why do you want to lose us our jobs? We have been looking for you all over. Come with us to the police station; the Colonel wants to speak to you.' My response was, 'Tell the Colonel he has a car; he can come and talk to me here'. We argued for some time, with me asking if they had come to arrest me. But they kept saying that the Colonel merely wanted to speak to me. I then suggested that I would come on foot, but they refused; they said that the Colonel was waiting for me, and that he was very busy. So I went into the khwela khwela (police van).

I left a note for my husband, to say that I had gone to the police station ? the children were still at school. When I entered the charge office, the eyes of every policeman, white and black, were on me as if I had committed the highest crime. In a few minutes the black policeman came out with the Colonel. The latter looked at me with a flushed face, then nodded and said, 'Ja! this is the woman. Put her with the others'. To my statement, 'If you are arresting me, what is the charge?', the answer from the policeman at the desk was 'illegal procession'.

As I entered the huge cell, I found hundreds of women who had been picked up from the march. There were cheers and clapping as I entered. We then all sat down on the cement floor. The cell was stinking; it had an open toilet hole in the centre of the floor. The women told me that, when we had parted on the road, they had been surrounded and ordered into the vans. I then told them about the fate of the women who had left in the buses.

At six o'clock food started to come in from our friends. The women were really hungry; most of them had left very early, with only a cup of tea. By 7:45 pm my husband came, carrying my overcoat, in the pockets of which he had nicely stuck the first and late editions of the Johannesburg Star. I returned the overcoat after taking the papers, telling him that my travelling rug was sufficient. We then started reading the papers. Everybody in the cell listened silently. Our demonstration was reported in the late edition. There was also a report on a similar demonstration by the women of Alexandra Township, reported to have been over a thousand strong, who had been packed into police vans, giving clenched fist salutes. These women had been arrested at the police station at Alexandra Township, where they had gone to protest and demand the release of the women arrested at Sophiatown. This demonstration was led by Florence Mophosho, and others.

Florence Mophosho lived in Alexandra Township. She was a self-made woman, who earned her living as a factory work­er. And, like many other African women, she did bric-a-brac jobs in the townships to augment her wages in order to sup­port her children and her mother. I had first met her at an ANCWL Conference at Germiston in 1953, at which confer­ence the Transvaal Women's League had adopted Congress colours ? green blouses, black skirts, gold chiffons. This uni­form was later adopted by the Women's League nationally, as well as by the Federation of South African Women. Florence was a magic organiser, and she contributed immensely to the stability and prominence of her branch, which was one of the strongest in the Transvaal.

She had a lovely voice, and she composed many Freedom Songs. For instance, after the arrest of Nelson Mandela, in 1962, she composed the song 'Mandela ke senatla' (Mandela you are a giant! We stand by you, Mandela!). In the mid-Sixties she had to escape into exile, due to the harassment of the police. For several years she was the ANCWL representative on the Secretariat of the Women's International Democratic federation (WIDF), which had its headquarters in the then German Democratic Republic. Later, she was stationed at ANC headquarters in Tanzania, where she was production editor of the Women's Section Bulletin, Voice of Women. She later became a member of the ANC NEC in exile. Florence was a brave woman; she bore the pains of a long illness with great dignity, and died in 1986. The news of her death was reported at a meeting celebrating South Africa Women's Day, a day which, through her militancy and of others like herself, became an historic date in the calen­dar of the liberation struggle.

In our cell the women were in a jubilant mood; we sang freedom songs and made speeches until the early hours of the morning. Of course, some women were worried about the children, but morale was very high. The following day the ANC arranged for bail for all the women. Finally, we all appeared in the Johannesburg Magistrates court, where we were defended by the firm of Mandela & Tambo. The sentence was either one-month imprisonment or £60 fine each. All the women (except one or two, whose husbands paid the fines because of problems of small children) went to prison.

My case was the last to be heard. I was charged with two offences: (a) leading an illegal procession; (b) escaping from custody. What! escaping from custody? I had told my solicitor, Mr Godfrey Pitje (who was articled to Mandela and Tambo) how I had been separated from the other women during the pandemonium created by the police while we were on our way to the city. And I had also told him the actual words I had used in the two languages when the Colonel asked me to repeat what he had said during our march. So my solicitor pinned down the black policeman who was the chief witness. He neither knew in what language I spoke (whether Xhosa or Sesotho), nor could he even remember the words I had said. So, in other words, his evidence was not credible. But a white policeman witness had heard me say 'forward, women!' Apparently he knew Sesotho very well, because all white children are brought up by black women, who speak our languages to them. At the Pretoria Hospital, I discovered many doctors knew Sepedi, though they wanted us to interpret for them. The second charge that of escaping from custody was dropped.

On the first day of the hearing I had agreed that I did not need an interpreter. But, seeing the hostility of the prosecu­tion, I suddenly told the magistrate that I wanted one. The case was not adjourned, but the magistrate sent for an interpreter. While I waited in the witness-box I had fears that the prosecutor might trick me with legal terms. Before he passed sentence, the magistrate spoke to me in a very polite tone, unlike the prosecutor. 'Mrs Resha', he said, 'I know you are a midwife, but I want to know what is your educational stan­dard.' I told him, but I was suspicious about this polite ques­tion, because of the usual belief of whites in South Africa that the educated Africans were the ones misleading others. Finally, my sentence was the same as that passed on the other women.

Many women came to my case. On some days, among them was my old colleague, Albertina Sisulu. I was very pleased, because when you are about to be sent to prison, it is so encouraging to get that solidarity from friends and colleagues. My husband also attended because they had some adjournment from the Treason Trial that time.

By the time I went to prison to serve my sentence, all the Sophiatown women had been discharged. This was because their case was the first to be heard; they stayed in jail for two weeks and then the ANC paid the remaining fines in order to get them out. My case was heard a few days before the Alexandra women were sentenced, so when I came to jail, they had been there for three or four days. I think all this was done for the convenience of the courts or the number of inmates at the Fort, because all the women were sent there, and not to other prisons. So I ended up in the Fort, the Johannesburg prison, which is situated behind the General Hospital where I used to work.

This was the first time I had gone to jail to serve a sentence, because, when I was first arrested in 1958 with Kate Molale and Violet Molwantwa, we were remand prisoners.

Nelson Mandela came to see us after the end of the first week. When he came again, at the end of the second week, he told us that the ANC had decided to pay the remaining fines so that we could be released. Indeed, we were all released after two weeks. Although it was dark outside, because it was a wintry day, we found quite a large crowd gathered outside the prison. Many were relatives; others were friends from the Movement. Above all, we were happy to be welcomed upon our release by some of the top leaders of the ANC, including Moses Kotane ? 'Malome' (uncle), as he was called by everyone in the ANC.

The ANC Womens' League is not a separate organisation from the ANC: its programmes are guided by it. But women do take initiatives when directly affected by apartheid laws. In 1958 women were deeply involved in the work of solidarity and popularising the defence of the leaders charged with treason. This in itself was a national campaign; therefore, it had some influence on the decision to bail out the arrested women and also having their fines paid. As I wrote earlier, in some areas the actions of the women were spontaneous and taken without proper planning. The women themselves realised this, because leaving small children uncared for is a problem where there are no nannys.

My children were very happy when we got home with my husband. My eldest daughter, Nosipo, who was then nine years of age, was a bit showy, telling me how she had looked after her younger sister, Masechaba, who was six years of age. I got a bit stuck when they asked me if I would go to jail again. So, in order to calm them down, I said that they had seen people arrested every day, so that the whole thing depended upon the police. Anyway, I was happy with myself, because after the experience of those two weeks, my dread for jail seemed to have subsided. I felt the necessity and the correctness of our cause as an oppressed nation was worth more than temporary setbacks like imprisonment. Some of the women told us that they had been arrested because they had been eating fish and chips in the street. Yes, many people have been arrested for this kind of nonsense, called drunk by the police. Yet there were no restaurants where Africans could have their lunches in the City, and they could not go twenty-three miles away to the locations, since most lunch times was one hour only.

South African prisons are never short of political prisoners. In 1958, after the women of Sophiatown and Alexandra township had been disciplined ? as had been happening in many other parts of the country ? another group of women from Soweto, among them Mrs Sisulu, Mrs Mandela, Mrs Nokwe and Mrs Molefe, were the next inmates; they had staged a big demonstration at the Orlando police station, against the pass laws. The cycle of detentions continues.

The freedom song which was composed for the women of the Orange Free State, when they burnt their passes, got additional words: 'Malibongwe igama lamakhosikazi (Praise be to the Women). The women had now become the spear­head of the struggle; they had become a formidable force within the ANC. And, once again, the ANC saw fit to honour the women by issuing Awards of Merit to all the women across the country who had been imprisoned during the campaign. I have added my certificate to this book because it is, indeed, the most precious document I possess. Perhaps I value it so highly because none of us expected such an hon­our and because any professional certificate without freedom is nothing.

Although Robert and I shared many a secret, there are things that he never divulged to me. Especially matters discussed in the NEC. To prove my point here, the issuing of Certificates of Merit to the women protesters in 1958 was a decision of the NEC, of which Robert was a member. But I never knew anything about it until the day the awards were issued at our branch meeting. It really took all the women by surprise when the chairman announced that the secretary was going to read the names of people who were to receive awards.

What was touching about the awards was the choice of words written in them. When you are in the struggle, you really never think that you are doing anything extraordi­nary, but simply that you are working side by side with your comrades-in-arms for the realisation of those ideals dear to you all ? freedom, justice and equality for all South Africans. The issuing of the awards was therefore a great encouragement, which picked up the morale of the women to redouble their efforts in the struggle. And (as I said earlier on) it proved that our menfolk recognised the importance of the participation in the struggle of the women. Precisely because African women suffer a double oppression ? as a black person as well as a woman ? their struggle is central.

Women were fighting against the Pass Laws because of instinctive self-protection from insecurity, degradation and humiliation, which was epitomised by these laws. And, from what they had experienced as mothers, wives and sweet­hearts of passbearers, they were fighting to protect their families from being plunged into disarray. Last, but not least, they were fighting to protect their children from being turned into the street? wandering, hungry orphans when both parents were picked up and locked up in jail or sold to white farmers for slave labour.

This Women's Anti-Pass Campaign engendered a highly-charged atmosphere among the African population right across the country, against all apartheid laws. At ANC branch, regional and provincial gatherings, there were sys­tematic calls for men to get rid of their passes in order to link up with the campaign by the women. These demands led to the annual National Conference of the ANC in 1959, unanimously adopting a resolution to that effect. The date set by the conference was the 31 March 1960. On that day, men and women would stage mass demonstrations to local authorities, that is, pass offices, municipal offices, Native Commissioners, with passes packed in bags, and destroyed by burning them there.

The resolution further stipulated that every member of the ANC should organise at their places of work, in buses and on trains. The provinces and branches were to have fulltime organisers to travel to remote areas of the country, rural areas and farms to spread the gospel. There was certainly a mammoth job to do; but three months of brisk organising was quite reasonable. Because funds were essential to the campaign, women organised parties, raffles and stokvels. Some of the organisers abandoned their jobs to work fulltime on the campaign; so they had to get allowances to keep their home fires burning. The ANC was to make the biggest onslaught against the Pass Laws.

Then, ten days before the ANC Anti-Pass Campaign was due to begin on 31 March, the PAC announced that it was launching its own Anti-Pass Campaign on 21 March. This time, an invitation was extended to the ANC, who turned it down: the two campaigns were different; the ANC had had the Defiance Campaign in 1952.

Despite the short-circuiting of this campaign because of the Sharpeville massacre, which I mentioned earlier, the ANC once again displayed its maturity and faced its responsibility by viewing the situation as a national tragedy. Five days after the massacre Chief Luthuli, President of the ANC, after deliberating with his executive, called for a Day of Mourning and Prayer for the victims and their relatives. He further asked people to stay at home as a protest against the killing and maiming of unarmed men, women, and chil­dren by the racist regime.

Consequently, on 26 March, Chief as Volunteer-in-chief publicly burnt his pass, and directed all other men to do the same. For these actions, Chief had three charges laid against him: (a) burning his pass; (b) disobeying a law by way of protest; (c) inciting others to do the same. The case eventually came before the court in June, but with repeated adjournments, it dragged on until the ending of the State of Emergency at the end of August. Chief was finally found guilty on the first two counts. For burning his pass he was sentenced to six months imprisonment without the option of a fine, suspended for three years because of his health. For disobeying a law by way of protest he was sentenced to one year in prison or a fine of £100. The fine was paid by friends.

On 28 March, as the campaign of pass-burning spread like wild-fire across the whole country, the regime specially passed the Unlawful Organisations Act, under whose provisions both the ANC and the PAC were banned. In terms of this Act, the maximum penalties for 'intimidation', laid down in the Riotous Assemblies Act for people who went on strike, or who boycotted, were increased to five years in prison, or ten lashes, or a combination of any two of these. The regime also declared a 'State of Emergency (which lasted until the end of August of that year), under which thou­sands of people of all races were detained, and newspapers banned.

The ANC had been banned in some areas before, but, never since its foundation in 1912, had it been pronounced an illegal organisation. Despite the fact that, since its inception, its leaders had been banned, banished, imprisoned, and were now facing the highest charge in the land; it was becoming stronger and stronger. It was the genuine voice of the dispossessed, voteless black masses, who were being denied fundamental human rights in their motherland. So, in reply to this callous move by the regime, the ANC announced that it would continue the struggle underground, and that the will of the people would not be dampened by what was clearly an act of desperation by the regime.

The banning of the ANC in 1960 came as no surprise to the membership in general. The leadership had anticipated this move for some time, because of their analysis of speeches by ministers here and there. It was because of these state­ments that the ANC had ordered the branches to master the 'M Plan', that is, mass organisation from house to house, street by street, and the formation of an elaborate system of cells which would be able to function, undetected, in case the organisation had to go underground. That was from the early Fifties. When the ban came, the cells were stream­lined, and reduced to a maximum of seven people in each one. The new instructions to the cells were (a) that they knew only what they were supposed to know; (b) to keep time very strictly; (c) members of a cell to observe strict discipline. As a result, members of the same branch did not know who was in which cell, a design also intended at eliminating informers.

Still, the money-dangling regime did manage to buy informers to infiltrate the cells. The infiltration became so serious that there was talk that it reached the High Command, hence the Rivonia arrests. In his defence speech at that trial, Nelson Mandela restated the assertions in the underground document the ANC had issued after the ban:

The ANC has decided not to obey the decree. The African peo­ple are not part of the government and did not make the laws by which they were governed. We believe in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that "the will of the people shall be the basis of authority of the government, and for us to accept the banning was equivalent to accepting the silencing of the Africans for all time. The ANC refuses to dis­solve, but instead goes underground".

With real, effective opposition put out of action, the regime unleashed a reign of terror against its opponents. The use of spies and informers reached such levels that those who committed this treachery went about as if they were doing a prestigious job. Leaders of liberation movements were incarcerated in prisons, without trial. Some were tortured and killed. Others were put under house arrest, or served with perpetual banning orders. Because of the crippling effects of these measures, many leaders were forced to go into voluntary exile to continue the struggle.

Perhaps at the time when the regime persecuted the black people, the white voters saw it as a sign of strength of government. They did not realise that oppression of one section of the population could not be insulated from affecting the rest; it was injury to all South Africans. Indeed, within a very short time the whites were to taste the fruit of their own folly.

Thereafter, the regime issued a decree to the effect that all white employers, be it in industry, on the farms, or in private houses, would face a fine or imprisonment if they hired or kept Africans without a pass. This was, of course, an inge­nious way of forcing African women into carrying passes. There was, clearly, terror and panic among the whites after this decree was passed. This was particularly discernible within the ranks of white women householders, the majority of whom kept up to six domestic workers. There were no con­tracts signed between the parties, and salaries depended upon what employers chose to pay. In all, salaries of domes­tic workers amounted to tips. But the work was of such a nature that each white family enjoyed a comfortable life from cradle to grave, just as it had been during the times of slavery.

In order to beat this ultimatum and the threat to their way of life, the 'Madams' (as white women insisted on being called) loaded their workers into their posh cars and drove them to the nearest pass offices to see that they took their passes. The domestic workers were very bitter, because no consent was sought from them by their employers; they related how they were abused and insulted by pass office officials, how they were herded in like cattle into a dipping tank, their headcovers ripped off for one-minute pho­tographs. Many had hardly had time to comb their hair, since they had to leave their homes at five in the morning to be on time to prepare breakfast for their madams. Of course, the regime knew the vulnerability of domestic workers, so it used their employers as a springboard to introduce passes to women by the back door. White women were the ones to pull the noose to strangle members of their own sex, who, except for their skin colour, shared so much in common with them.

The women's campaign depended very heavily on the elab­orate engagement of couriers. Young women very effec­tively constituted a network which criss-crossed the country from the cities to the rural areas and from province to province: women like Tozi Mqota, Kate Molale, Karabo Sello and many others carried out this task brilliantly at great personal risk.

 

Last updated : 17-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 31-Mar-2011

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