Women’s Revolts in Natal: 1959

Most people credit the abolition of apartheid to many organisations and leaders, such as the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela. It is, however, unlikely that most would think of the women who retaliated against the oppression in honour of their families and well-being. Colonialism and apartheid affected women in different ways than they affected men. For one thing, women were subjected not only to racial discrimination but also gender discrimination. However, their contributions in Natal, South Africa were much greater than could have been expected.

South Africa had an abundance of natural resources- gold, metal, diamonds, and fertile farm land””but these resources were controlled by White men. According to apartheid laws, these men were able to decide who to hire and they were also given the role of determining a worker’s wage. This meant that the people in charge were able to keep profits high by not paying their workers sufficiently. Generally, men were ‘on contract’ workers, or migrant labourers, who were forced to travel elsewhere to work. Most of these men were gone between six to twelve months of the year, leaving their families at home. Unfortunately theses Black men were subjected to extremely unhealthy work conditions, paid minimally, and they were forced to pay high taxes. Yet, they were somehow expected to financially care for their families. Thus, women too suffered from few opportunities to work in the city and from low remuneration to their husbands. A woman describes this struggle in a Drum article in 1959. She says, ‘We do not get enough food. Our husbands pay more than £2in taxes. The employers do not pay them anything’ (Drum, 1959). Women were then faced with the burden of taking care of the home.

The African women were left in charge of providing for their families, as the men worked as migrant labourers. Regardless of how necessary it was for the women to work, it was often times extremely difficult for them to find jobs, and when they did they were often underpaid and mistreated. In fact in September of 1959, a conference was held to discuss the hardships and obstacles that women were faced with, regarding labour (Nkosi, 1959). Often times, when women were working, they did so in agricultural fields. Women who lived on White-owned farms and reserves were often forced to work as unpaid labourers. Though they may have had a trade, they sometimes had to pull their children out of school so that they could also work. If the women refused any of their assigned tasks then they would be kicked off the farms (Nkosi, 1959). Women were faced with the burden and responsibility of taking care of the children and home, while their husbands worked for such little pay. Sadly enough, most children were suffering from diseases, which stemmed from the fact that they were malnourished.

The frustration of the brave South African women reached the point of a riot in Cato Manor in 1959. According to the scholar Yawitch, the women in Cato Manor in KwaZulu-Natal were angered by these circumstances of segregation and pass laws and, in an attempt to demonstrate their frustration, they rallied together and rose up against the government. The governmental disorientation was a result of Cato Manor’s history. It was a settlement, which was a part of the city of Durban, unique in its creation, as it was formed through spontaneous migration. The lack of government planning and control in Cato Manor led to an accumulation of a population within the city that the government considered illegal. Interestingly enough, women formed a large percentage of this population (Walker, 1982). Few women actually had the legal permission to work and so they made much of their money brewing and selling beer. In 1958, the government attempted to assert its dominance through the implementation of shack-removal schemes and the clearing of slums, which resulted in strife among Cato Manor’s large illegal population. Ultimately municipal labourers entered Cato Manor and destroyed all the illegal beer stills angering the women of Cato Manor.

In 1959, the women participated in a series of uprisings, now referred to as the Cato Manor riots and outside of the city, the Natal Revolts. They rioted against the establishment of beerhalls and the City of Durban. These both endangered and competed with women’s customary roles as the producers and providers of beer for the men of their communities, which simultaneously served as the women’s source of income (Yawitch, 1978). Interestingly enough, not only did the government criminalize the production of beer at home, but they also put high taxes on beer. So after a long day of work, men would often pay extra taxes for the luxury of drinking beer. Florence Mkhize, an activist, explains this situation saying, ‘The husbands used to earn very little money”¦ They would spend the last money they had in the beerhalls’ (Walker, 1982). The criminalization of the women’s beer stills took a double toll, as they prevented women from making an income and the high taxes at beer halls took whatever was left of the men’s money. The resentment among the women eventually resulted in their participation in a march on Booth Road Beerhall on 17 June 1959, during which they chased out male customers and destroyed the beer (Yawitch, 1978). They organised a successful boycott of the beer halls and established picket lines to make sure that no men broke them (Walker, 1982). But, this was only the beginning of what was to come as ‘the rioting spread rapidly to other Durban beer-halls and a large proportion of the Corporation’s property was destroyed’ (Yawitch, 1978).

According to Yawitch, Natal’s small size, homogenous population, and frequent interactions between the rural and urban portions of the city further rallied the province’s female population to protest in a unified manner. In fact in the same way that the urban women lashed out against beerhalls, the rural women attacked and destroyed dipping tanks, which they viewed as the embodiment of their socioeconomic struggles. ‘By 13 August it had been reported that 75% of all dipping tanks in Natal had been destroyed’ (Yawitch, 1978). The rural women were forced to maintain the dipping tanks without payment. One woman justified the reasoning behind the destruction of dipping tanks in a Drum article:

One of the 600 women arrested in the New Hanover district, for example, said that the destruction of a dipping tank by women should be looked upon as a “letter to the authorities, which they will read.” (Drum, 1959).

This woman’s statement in the article demonstrates the fact that the women tried other methods of protest before establishing their more radical method-destroying governmental property. Regardless, the large population of rural and urban women, who were demonstrating against the social inequalities, were able to make a great impact on the situation and the view points of the men of Natal.

The women’s retaliation had a significant impact on Black and White men’s perception of African women. They typically viewed women as traditional and subordinate. Black men were radicalised and shamed by the imprisonment of their women, as it highlighted their lack of participation in the resistance.On the other hand, White men feared that the rioting of African women would destabilize and jeopardize the entire social structure as it stood (Yawitch, 1978).

The women of Natal refused to stop fighting for what they believed in, even though they were subjected to violent attacks by the police. On 27 August 1959 Naicker produced an article called ‘We’d Rather Die Than Give In’, in which he highlights their perseverance. In fact, one woman declared that ‘It is better for us to die than submit to these conditions’. By the time the article was written, about 2,000 people, mostly women, had been arrested. About 900 of them were sentenced to a total of 200 years of imprisonment and had fines totalling £10,000 (Naicker, 1959).

Unfortunately, these women were not only sent to prison, but they were viciously attacked. In fact on 3 September before the Natal People’s Conference (a week after Naicker’s other article), the police took vicious actions against the people demonstrating. In an interview conducted by Naicker Mrs. Violet, a witness and victim of police brutality, attested to the fact that the non-violent protest was interrupted by armed forces. She stated that:

Before we could even move off, tear gas bombs were thrown into our midst and in the confusion that ensued the police attacked with drawn batons”¦ I can’t tell you how many women were injured.(Naicker, 1959).

The Natal women were subjected to unfair treatment by the police, but that did not stop them. They truly demonstrated their courage and ability to overcome fear inflicted by the police.

Two weeks following this occasion Naicker explains another situation where women were once again subjected to the unfair treatment of the police. On 15 October 1959, three hundred and sixty women were imprisoned. The women were demanding to see the local native commissioner about their grievances. But before they could, they were charged while praying and reciting the rosary under the vicious provisions of one of the government statutes (Naicker, 1959). In every situation, women were brave enough to participate in vicious non-violent riots regardless of the risk, with the full intention of creating a better life for their families. Their bravery changed the system and it showed the world how powerful women are.

In another instance, two bus-loads of African women were intending to meet with other local woman to discuss their issues. Though they were initially armed with weapons, they disposed of them and proceeded to the meeting place at Edendale, a local Black suburb. Another group of women, who had gathered there for the meeting, had been arrested earlier for being in possession of dangerous weapons. In response to that, they then marched to the police station demanding for the release of the women. The spokesperson of the group talked to the Assistant Native Commissioner and police officials; the women were then released. The entire group then proceeded to meet in the quadrangle at a beerhall. However, these women were then attacked by the police, who had their batons drawn (Naicker, 1959). The men and women retaliated by throwing stones and sticks. Following this event, more conflicts occurred between the police and the local Black women. Naicker’s article, People’s Revult in Natal, emphasizes the fact that the women are not a threat to any individual and are solely attacking the government. Regardless of the women’s attempts to demonstrate their non-violent movements, women were continually met with anger and violence.

The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) recognized the effort of the Natal women. Their demonstrations had a profound impact on SACTU, as the women employed new methods of retaliation. As Luckhardtand Wallsay in Women Play a Leading Role,Despite police beatings, arrests and imprisonments, the spirits of the women in Natal remained high’.The demonstrations following 1959 made tremendous advances in the trade union field; the campaigns encouraged the SACTU to devote greater attention to the organisation of the workers. SACTU even stated in a letter that:

the women of south Africa who have demonstrated to all progressive forces the true meaning of militancy and organisation ad we in the trade union movement are determined to follow your courageous example (Luckhardtand Wall).

In most instances, women played huge roles in their movements. Natal slowly was recognized as a vital area of SACTU organising.

Women are still overlooked by society and especially in history. During that time period, women are considered to have one place in their culture, and people were accustomed to that way of thinking. The women in Natal had a designated role in their culture- to tend to their children and to work on the reserves. But, there was no way that they were willing to accept that. They understood that they were being systemically oppressed and mistreated, and knew that something had to be done. The women in Natal understood that if their hope for a better life were to become true, then they would have to fight for it. While protesters against apartheid are often thought of as male, in Natal in 1959 women led the resistance against apartheid. It was important that the women committed to trying to take a stand and fight against the apartheid system. Since it was not typical for women to initiate movements and riots, they took this opportunity with great pride and determination. The abolishment of the apartheid system in South Africa is in part due to the unfailing movements created by women. Today, there is even an annual Women’s Day that celebrates the success of these women in South Africa.

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