When the African National Congress (ANC) was formed in 1912, it did not accept women as members. In 1918, the government threatened to reintroduce pass laws for women a these had been relaxed after the success of earlier resistance to passes. In the light of these events, the Bantu Women's League (BWL) was formed in 1918, as a branch of the ANC. It became involved in passive resistance and fought against passes for black women. During this time the Bantu Women's League was under the leadership of Charlotte Maxeke. The ANC only accepted women as members at the Congress's 1943 conference and in 1948, the ANC Women's League was formed. The first official president of the League was Ida Mntwana who was appointed after a brief stint by Madie Hall-Xuma.
The women became active in the Defiance Campaign of 1952 where they played a leading role. In the Eastern Cape 1067 of the 2529 defiers were women, with Florence Matomela at the forefront. The Women's League was then asked by the Congress Alliance to assist in organising the 1955 Congress of the People, where the Freedom Charter was to be adopted. This gave the women an opportunity to lobby for the incorporation of their demands into the charter. In 1955, the issue of passes came forth again as the government announced that it would start issuing reference books from January 1956. A demonstration was held on the 27th of October 1955 and was attended by 2 000 women. On the 9th of August 1956, the women of the league confronted Prime Minister J.G. Strydom, under the auspices of the Federation of South African Women with a petition against pass laws.
The banning of the ANC in 1960 disrupted the activities of the Women's League as central leaders were forced to go underground. Many women leaders fled into exile and those that were left behind could not organise anything as they were banned and restricted. Regional organisers became important as they managed resistance at the ground level. Regional organisations such as the Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW), Natal Organisation of Women (NOW) and United Women's Congress (UWCO) in the Western Cape were formed. The women in exile, under the leadership of Gertrude Shope organised themselves into the ANC Women's Section which mobilised international solidarity. Soon after the unbanning of the ANC and its structures towards the end of 1990, the ANC Women's League lobbied all the women's organisations to set up a coalition. The task of this coalition would be to do research, co-ordinate, and draw up a women's charter, based on the priorities and concerns of women, from all walks of life throughout the country. The National Women's Coalition was launched early in 1991, and started working on the Women's Charter immediately. The charter was completed in 1994 and was handed over to the President in Parliament. The concerns of women presented in the women's charter were incorporated in the new constitution of the country and in the Bill of Rights.
At the first National Conference of the ANC Women's League inside the country that took place in Kimberly in 1991, Gertrude Shope was elected president. At the second conference in Durban in 1993, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was elected president, she was re-elected at the next conference in Rustenburg in 1997 and replaced in the 2003 election by her successor, Nosiviwe Mapise-Nqakula.
The Committee members of the ANCWL at the 50th anniversary celebration
- Getrude Shope (Head of delegation)
- Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile
- Mavivi Myakayaka-Manzini
- Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula
- Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma
- Albertina Sisulu (Head of delegation)
- Sister B. Ncube
- Dorothy Nyembe
- Thandi Modise
- Happy Those
Support Secretariat Staff:
- Thuthukile Mazibuko-Skweyiya
- Lindiwe Phillips-Ramasodi
- Regina Nzo (MaNzo)
- Makhosazana Xaba
- Doris Skhosana
- Maite Mfusi (Maud Mayosi)
- Girlie Pikoli
- Thembi Majola
- Mirriam Makoena
- Eleanor Khanyile
- Frene Ginwala
- Shanti Naidoo
- Olive Ndlovu
Ongoing project in commemoration of the 1956 womens' march against pass laws
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