History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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The 1956 women's march crowd. Source: Bailey's African History Archives

Cape Town Women’s Food Committee c.1946 -1953

The period of the Second World War marked important developments in South Africa’s social, political and economic front for Black people. While initially, the war had brought with it optimism that Black communities would be granted increased political rights when the war was over, this faded in the 1940s as Blacks were increasingly excluded from meaningful political participation. As a consequence, existing Black political organisations became more militant in their demands. The launch of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), the activation of the dormant South African Indian Congress (SAIC) and growing militancy among the black workers all pointed to growing political militancy in the 1940s.  Less examined in the historical narrative in the 1940s is the rise of community-based organisations in poor areas. These organisations, while fighting for basic needs, over time began to make political demands. Some of the leading organisations during this period were women’s organisations led by women affiliated to different political formations.

Growth of Community Organisations in the 1940s

One of the forces that galvanised communities particularly during the 1940s was the effect of a depressed economic environment. The latter resulted in a lack of housing as people flocked to towns in search of work. Food shortages, rising food prices and transport fares, all combined, added to community woes. For instance, the Alexander Bus Boycott in 1943 forced the government to shelve the bus fare increase. The James Sofasonke Mpanza squatter movement in Orlando emerged out of these conditions. However, it was the increase in food prices and the shortage of basic commodities that more directly rallied women to launch protest marches, send petitions to the government, and form clubs – including consumer protection clubs. 

In Johannesburg the People’s Food Council was formed, while in Cape Town, the Cape Town Women’s Food Committee (CTWFC) was created. These organisations emerged largely as a response to increasing food prices and erratic food distribution. As political organisations became involved in fighting for the bread and butter issues they also found new recruits. The effects of food shortages which cut across race, class and political affiliation brought together women from across the racial and political divide.

The years 1945 and 1946 were periods of acute discontent over food shortages, particularly in the Cape. Women who were at the forefront of witnessing the effects of food shortages on their families began mobilising other women to protest. Between September 1945 and January 1946 the food crisis was receiving extensive coverage in newspapers such as the Guardian. Women convened meetings which were often charged with anti-government militancy, while others raided abattoirs or warehouses suspected of hoarding food.  In February 1946 the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) led a march of black women to parliament advocating for a food rationing system. What is unclear at this point is the CTWFC’s role in the march as the organisation began receiving coverage in the press from April 1946.

Formation of the Cape Town Women’s Food Committee and its campaigns

What is evident is that the committee was formed underground between January and April 1946, with the ground work being laid in the preceding year. In an interview conducted with the Guardian, an anonymous member of the committee stated that the body was formed by ordinary working women and housewives. The CTWFC grew out of the food queues which formed at food distribution points where government mobile vans distributed food. In order to maintain order and ensure ‘fair’ deals, each queue elected a Queue Committee (QC) which then elected a representative to the General Committee. The latter committee was thus made of representatives of several food queues. Among the founder members were Katie White, Dora Tamana and Hettie McLeod. By April 1946, twelve food queues were represented on the General Committee, which by then had a Chairperson and a Secretary. Perhaps fearing harassment by the state, their names were not given.  By 1947 two women, a Mrs G Anthony was the Chairperson and Hettie McLeod was the Secretary.

Though somewhat in the background, women members of the CPSA and the National Liberation League (NLL) straddled positions between the CTWFC and their respective political organisations. Speakers in the CTWFC meetings and deputations to the government were invited largely from these organisations. By 1947 the CTWFC had grown rapidly and came to represent about 59 queues which were dotted around the Cape Peninsula. The CTWFC grew and represented an estimated 30,000 women from across the Cape Peninsula.

In March 1947, the CTWFC organised a conference which was attended by about 200 members representing food queues, churches, trade unions and the CPSA. In response to the state's threat to withdraw food vans, the committee organised a march to parliament on 1 May 1947. The march drew hundreds of housewives from around the Peninsula, and protestors met at the Grand Parade. A deputation that included Joey Fourie and Sam Kahn, both members of the CPSA, met with Jan Hendrik Hofmeyer, the Minister of Finance. When the minister agreed to meet another deputation, a week later twelve women from the CTWFC and organisations from other parts of the country such as the Durban Housewives’ League, the Sweet Worker’s Union and the Food and Canning Food Worker’s Union met with him. The women handed over a petition signed by 7,000 women demanding that the government retain the food vans and implement a food rationing system. The Minister agreed to retain the vans but he refused to accept the idea of food rationing.

The CTWFC also organised raids on shops suspected of hoarding foodstuffs. Large numbers of women led by CTWFC, who also acted as marshals, descended on shop owners and threatened to invade their storerooms. In May 1946 hundreds of women assembled at the Grand Parade, where they were addressed by Sam Kahn and Cissie Gool. After the meeting, women marched to shops suspected of hoarding rice supplies. The raid was subsequently known as the ‘Rice Raids’.

The Impact of CTWFC and its decline

The CTWFC played an important role in politicising women as grievances about food shortages and others basic needs became intertwined with broader political demands. Moreover, the intersection of the CPSA and NLL activities within the CTWFC brought a political dimension to the movement. As a result, many black women were politicised and came into contact with various national political organisations. Katie White from Harfield Road in Claremont, who worked as a domestic worker, later became a leading figure in the CTWFC although she was not initially politically inclined. After her election to represent her food queue on the General Committee, she rose to become a leader of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in Cape Town in the 1950s. Dora Tamana another leading figure in the struggle, began her political activism in the CTWFC in the 1940s, and then through CPSA she joined the African National Congress (ANC).

Politicisation of the CTWFC was evident in their motto, which stated, ‘Today we fight for food, tomorrow for the vote and for freedom for all.’ Thus, evidently as early as the 1940s, women’s struggles for basic needs were interwoven with the fight for a free and democratic South Africa. As food gradually became available, particularly in the decade after war, the influence of the CTWFC gradually declined. By the early 1950s it was a shadow of what it had been in the 1940s. In 1953, the CTWFC was changed into a Christian Club that sold food hampers at wholesale prices.


References:
• Walker, C, (1991), Women and Resistance in South Africa, (David Phillip Publishers), pp.74-81
• Smith, V.B, Van Heyningen, E & Worden, N, (1999), Cape Town in the Twentieth Century: An Illustrated Social History, (David Phillip Publishers), p.106.

Last updated : 20-Jul-2015

This article was produced for South African History Online on 01-Aug-2012