History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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Bantu Women’s League

The Bantu Women's League was the first women's organisation in South Africa. It was started in 1918 by one of our earliest women activists, Dr Charlotte Maxeke. One of the issues at stake was the carrying of passes by black women. The pass came to be seen as a symbol of oppression and the Bantu Women's League was created in protest of this. Black men had already been required to carry passes for some time. White men and women did not have to carry passes.

In March 1912, a petition signed by some 5 000 Black and Coloured women in the Free State, was sent to Prime Minister Louis Botha asking for the repeal of the pass laws. There was no response. In 1913 a group of women led by Charlotte Maxeke burned their passes in front of municipal offices, staged protest marches, sang slogans and fought with the police.  Many were arrested in Jagersfontein, Winburg and Bloemfontein. The writer, Sol Plaatjie commented on their strength and courage when he went to see them in the Kroonstad Prison. 'They don't care', he wrote in Tsala ea Batho, even if they die in jail. They swear they will cure that madness; they will stop their protest only when the law prevents policemen from stopping and demanding passes from other men's wives? In 1914, the government relaxed the women's pass laws and their resistance ended in 1914. 

In 1918, the government threatened to re-introduce pass laws for women in the Free State and other areas as well. After the formation of the League, Charlotte Maxeke led a delegation to the Prime Minister?s office, again, protesting the issue of passes, low wages and other grievances.

The issue of passes, for black women in particular, was raised again in subsequent years and was one of the main components of the women's struggle.

Last updated : 11-Aug-2017

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