The turbulent 1950s - Women as defiant activists

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The crowd outside the courts “standing by their leaders”. The Treason Trial. 1955. © Bailey's African History Archives

In the 1950s the government's increasingly repressive policies began to pose a direct threat to all people of colour, and there was a surge of mass political action by blacks in defiant response. The 1950s certainly proved to be a turbulent decade. We shall see that women were prominent in virtually all these avenues of protest, but to none were they more committed than the anti-pass campaign.

Women and the anti-pass campaign 1950-1953

The apartheid regime's influx control measures and pass laws were what women feared the most and reacted to most vehemently. Their fears were not unfounded. In 1952 the Native Laws Amendment Act tightened influx control, making it an offence for any African (including women) to be in any urban area for more than 72 hours unless in possession of the necessary documentation. The only women who could live legally in the townships were the wives and unmarried daughters of the African men who were eligible for permanent residence.

In the same year the Natives Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act was passed. In terms of this act the many different documents African men had been required to carry were replaced by a single one - the reference book - which gave details of the holder's identity, employment, place of legal residence, payment of taxes, and, if applicable, permission to be in the urban areas. The act further stipulated that African women, at an unspecified date in the near future, would for the first time be required to carry reference books. Women were enraged by this direct threat to their freedom of movement and their anti-pass campaign, as Walker puts it ‘was one of the most vociferous and effective protest campaigns of any at the time' (1991:125).

Protests started as early as 1950 when rumours of the new legislation were leaked in the press. Meetings and demonstrations were held in a number of centres including Langa, Uitenhage, East London, Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg. In the Durban protests in March 1950, Bertha Mkize of the African National Congress Womens League (ANCWL) was a leading figure, while in Port Elizabeth Florence Matomela (the provincial president of the ANCWL) led a demonstration in which passes were burnt. By 1953 there were still sporadic demonstrations taking place and these accelerated when local officials began to enforce the new pass regulations. Reaction was swift and hostile. On 4 January 1953, hundreds of African men and women assembled in the Langa township outside Cape Town to protest against the new laws. Delivering a fiery speech to the crowd Dora Tamana, a member of the ANC Women's League and later a founding member of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW), declared:

We women will never carry these passes. This is something that touches my heart. I appeal to you young Africans to come forward and fight. These passes make the road even narrower for us. We have seen unemployment, lack of accommodation and families broken because of passes. We have seen it with our men. Who will look after our children when we go to jail for a small technical offence - not having a pass?

The Defiance Campaign is launched and women step forward

Women during the Defiance Campaign 1952. Source: Jurgen Schadeberg.

In June 1952 the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Indian Congress (SAIC) initiated a cooperative initiative known as the Defiance Campaign. Radical tactics of defiance were to be employed to exert pressure on the government. This was in line with the ANC's declared ‘Programme of Action' of 1949. Volunteers from the ANC and SAIC (the Communist Party of South Africa [CPSA] had disbanded in 1950) began to publicly defy discriminatory laws and invite arrest, filling the jails and over-extending the judicial system.

Women were prominent in many of these defiant incidents. Florence Matomela was among 35 activists arrested in Port Elizabeth and Bibi Dawood recruited 800 volunteers in Worcester. Fatima Meer, an Indian woman, was arrested for her role in the unrest and was subsequently banned. Another woman to come to the fore during the Defiance Campaign was Lilian Ngoyi, who later became president of both the ANCWL and FSAW. She had previously kept a very low profile and been involved in church-related organisations, but the Defiance Campaign made her realise that only by adopting a more aggressive and militant approach would the government be fully aware of the commitment of women to the national struggle for freedom. Women's involvement in the Defiance Campaign certainly proved to be an important stimulus in their political development across the board. It not only strengthened the ANCWL but also motivated women to establish the FSAW.

The Federation of South African Women (FSAW or FEDSAW)

Three important female activists were in Port Elizabeth in April 1953 at the time when the Defiance Campaign was underway and there was widespread political unrest in the region. Influx control measures had just been implemented in the region a few months before and had created a storm of protest from the people. The three women were Florence Matomela (eastern Cape president of the ANCWL), Frances Baard, who was a leading local figure in the Food and Canning Worker's Union (FCWU) and Ray Alexander, the general secretary of the FCWU, who was in Port Elizabeth to attend a trade union conference. The three decided among themselves that the time was right to call women to a meeting to discuss the formation of a national women's organisation. No record was kept of the informal meeting held that same evening, but Ray Alexander later said that it had been attended by about 40 women. Other than Alexander, a Mrs Pillay, a Miss Damons and Gus Coe, most of the women were Africans. Although from various different organisations all the women were committed to the Congress Alliance and the Defiance Campaign that had been initiated the previous year. Ray Alexander pointed out the advantages of an umbrella body that would devise a national strategy to fight against the issues of importance to women: every-day matters such as rising food and transport costs, passes and influx control. The women were enthusiastic in their response and Ray Alexander was asked to pursue the matter further.

Ray Alexander was based in Cape Town so the planning for the initial conference was done there. Hilda Watts (Bernstein), also a communist and an experienced political campaigner, was asked to handle the Johannesburg wing of the committee. Subsequently Johannesburg and Cape Town were to become the main FSAW centres. An energetic, skilled organiser who had been a tireless campaigner for women's rights since the 1930s, Ray Alexander was the ideal woman for the job. She co-opted a number of influential women country-wide to help her but her individual contribution was enormous. All the major organisations were represented in her ‘women's committee' including the ANC Women's Leaguers, trade unionists, members of the SAIC, of the Transvaal All-Women's Union and of the Congress of Democrats (COD). The COD had been formed when the CPSA had disbanded in 1950; it thus included many of the ex-Communist Party members.

The committee met regularly to plan the coming conference. Other notable women involved were Ida Mtwana (ANC Women's League), Josie Palmer (ex-CPSA and Transvaal All-Women's Union), Helen Joseph (COD), Amina Cachalia and Mrs M Naidoo (SAIC) and three trade unionists: Bettie du Toit, Lucy Mvubelo and Hetty du Preez. Ray Alexander also went to Durban to coordinate plans with women in Natal, where Dr K Goonam, Fatima Meer and Fatima Seedat of the SAIC and Bertha Mkize and Henrietta Ostrich of the ANC, were consulted for their views. Invitations to the inaugural conference of the FSAW were sent out in March 1954, signed by 63 women who supported the aims of the Congress Alliance.

The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW or FSAW) was launched on 17 April 1954 in the Trades Hall in Johannesburg, and was the first attempt to establish a national, broad-based women's organisation. One hundred and forty-six delegates, representing 230,000 women from all parts of South Africa, attended the founding conference and pledged their support for the broadly-based objectives of the Congress Alliance. The specific aims of FSAW were to bring the women of South Africa together to secure full equality of opportunity for all women, regardless of race, colour or creed, as well as to remove their social, legal and economic disabilities.

A draft Women's Charter was presented by Hilda Bernstein, and in complete identification with the national liberation movement as represented by the Congress Alliance, the Women's Charter called for the enfranchisement of men and women of all races; for equality of opportunity in employment; equal pay for equal work; equal rights in relation to property, marriage and children; and the removal of all laws and customs that denied women such equality. It further demanded paid maternity leave, childcare for working mothers, and free and compulsory education for all South African children. These demands were later incorporated into the Freedom Charter that was adopted by the Congress of the People, held in Kliptown near Johannesburg, from 25-26 June 1955.

The administrative groundwork of the newly-established FSAW evolved over the months that followed, but a national executive committee was formed at the inaugural conference in April 1954. Ida Mtwana was elected as national president (she was also the presiding ANCWL president), which indicated the key role the ANC (the senior partner of the Democratic Alliance) was destined to play in the new organisation. Ray Alexander became the national secretary and the vice presidents were Gladys Smith, Lilian Ngoyi, Bertha Mkize and Florence Matomela.

The women were unanimous in their opinion that the inaugural conference had been an unqualified success. On Hilda Watts' suggestion men volunteers had been assigned the catering responsibilities for the conference. This was symbolic. As Ida Mtwana put it: ‘Gone are the days when the place of women was in the kitchen and looking after the children. Today they are marching side by side with men in the road to freedom' ( Walker 1991:154).

Women's role in the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter

The launch of the Freedom Charter. 1956. © The Sowetan

By the time the FSAW had been established in 1954 the Defiance Campaign had fizzled out. This is not to say that it had failed, despite it shortcomings. However, the government had weathered the defiance and was introducing yet more of its apartheid measures with persistent vigour. It became clear that the national liberation movement needed to adopt a new initiative. The Congress Alliance began to organise the Congress of the People; once again women were destined to play an important role. This despite the fact that many of the leading women activists in the ANCWL and FSAW including Ray Alexander, were banned and had to cut their ties with the organisation.

In August 1954 the Congress Alliance asked the FSAW to assist in organising the Congress of the People and the women agreed with enthusiasm. They were to help organise local bodies and recruit new grassroots support for the Alliance by holding house meetings and local conferences. This they did with great success in the opening months of 1955. In addition they took on the huge task of arranging accommodation for the more than 2 000 expected delegates. Their input gave the women an opportunity to lobby for the incorporation of some of their demands into the Freedom Charter adopted at the mass meeting.

Walker (1991:183) shows that although the FSAW was closely involved in the planning of the Congress of the People, women only played a limited role in the actual meeting. On 25-26 June 1955 nearly 3 000 delegates gathered at Kliptown. There were 721 women delegates in the official tally of 2 848 – in other words only about a quarter of the delegates at the Congress of the People were women. There were a few women, including Sonia Bunting, who spoke from the floor, but Helen Joseph, who was the FSAW's Transvaal secretary, was the only female platform speaker. The clause that she proposed on behalf of women, that of the need for ‘houses, security and comfort', including free medical treatment for mothers and young children, was in fact subsequently included in the Freedom Charter. Frances Baard, a prominent trade unionist and member of the executive committee of the FSAW, was involved in the compilation of the Freedom Charter.

In September 1955 the protest against the imposition of passes for women became the primary concern for the ANCWL and the FSAW but for black women across the board. This anti-pass campaign peaked with a massive demonstration of ‘women's power' in August 1956. After the Pretoria march the campaign continued until the end of the 1950s, within Zeerust in 1957, Johannesburg in 1958 and Natal in 1959. In 1960, as will be seen, FSAW's plans were abruptly halted in the wake of the Sharpeville unrest when the government banned the ANC. FSAW had been dealt a severe blow.

In December 1956 several female activists were involved in another high profile incident. In a determined effort to try to curtail the national liberation movement, the government rounded up and arrested 156 leaders of the Congress Alliance. Among those detained were leading women such as Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Annie Silinga and Francis Baard. They were accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and were tried in the infamous Treason Trial that lasted for four and a half years. During this protracted period women of the FSAW and ANCWL helped to organise support for the treason trialists and their families.

The women's 1955 anti-pass campaign

In September 1955 the issue of passes burst into the public eye again when the government announced that it would start issuing reference books to black women from January 1956. Women, now politicised and well-organised into a powerful resistance movement, immediately rose to the challenge. No longer were they merely regarded as mothers, bound to the home; they were independent and assertive adult South Africans. Passes threatened their basic rights of freedom and family life and they were going to resist them with everything they had. They were unequivocal in their message to the government: We shall not rest until ALL pass laws and all forms of permits restricting our freedoms have been abolished. We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice and security.

As Walker puts it, the anti-pass protests by women in the 1950s were a good indication that they had thrown off the shackles of the past. The demonstrations that the women launched were, in her view, ‘probably the most successful and militant of any resistance campaign mounted at that time'. She sees them as the ‘political highpoint of 1956, not only for the women who took part but for the entire Congress Alliance' (Walker 1991).

The Federation of South African Women (FSAW) that had been formed the previous year was beginning to assert itself by 1955. It was by now an accepted organisation within the ambit of the Congress Alliance; regional branches had been set up and mass membership was growing throughout the country. Furthermore, it had links with other major women's organisations including the powerful ANC Women's League (ANCWL). A march to Pretoria to present women's grievances had been mooted in August 1955, and when the pass issue came to the fore in September the scale and urgency of the demonstration increased dramatically.

The demonstration took place on 27 October 1955, and was a great success. This was despite organisational difficulties – including police intimidation, and the banning of Josie Palmer, one of the main organisers, a week before the date of the gathering. Furthermore, in addition to police action, the government had been as obstructionist as it could. The then Minister of Native Affairs, HF Verwoerd, under whose jurisdiction the pass laws fell, pointedly refused to receive any multiracial delegation. Pretoria City Council refused the women permission to hold the meeting and saw to it that public transport was stalled to make it difficult for the women to get to the Pretoria venue. Private transport had to be arranged and evasive tactics adopted for a multitude of other obstructionist measures launched by the authorities. In the circumstances it was surprising, and very gratifying to the organisers that a crowd of between 1 000 and 2 000 women gathered in the grounds of the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Although the majority were African women, White, Coloured and Indian women also attended. The crowd, most of whom came from the Rand towns, was orderly and dignified throughout the proceedings. They handed their bundles of signed petitions to Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophie Williams, the main organisers, who deposited them at the ministers' office doors. In the aftermath of the demonstration the government tried to downplay its influence by alleging (erroneously) that the meeting had only been successful because the organisation had been in the hands of white women. That black women of the FSAW and ANCWL had in fact played a central role was evident when a few months later Lilian Ngoyi became the first woman to be elected to the national executive of the ANC (Walker 1991).

Preparations for the 1956 Women's March

The success of the October 1955 gathering was highly motivating and buoyed up the women to capitalise on their success. From 1955 onwards, the pass issue became the single, most important focus of their militancy. The ANC, as the major anti-government party identified itself closely with the campaign reiterating that the pass struggle ‘was not one for women alone, but for all African people'. However, at its annual conference in 1955, it did not appear to have a specific strategy in mind. In marked contrast the FSAW immediately set about working on a plan of meetings, demonstrations, and local initiatives. The women, carried along by a mass-following of females countrywide, recognised the authority of the ANC but were not prepared to delay their own preparations.

Meetings held across the country on the anti-pass ticket proved to be remarkably successful, and were attended by huge crowds. Meetings in Free State towns in late 1955 and in Port Elizabeth in January 1956, Johannesburg in March 1956 and those in Durban, East London Cape Town and Germiston all went off well. The mood was militant, with Annie Silinga declaring: ‘we women are prepared to fight these passes until victory is ours' ( Walker 1991:191).

In reply the government threatened reprisals, but when it finally began issuing reference books it did so unobtrusively, starting in white agricultural areas and smaller towns, choosing Winburg in the Free State, where FSAW presence was minimal and the women were not well-informed. Here, on 22 March 1956, they issued 1 429 black women with reference books and met with little reaction. Senior ANC officials were thereupon designated to go to Winburg immediately and Lilian Ngoyi and several men arrived in the town the next week and addressed the women. Inspired by the presence of Ngoyi, who was an excellent orator, the local women defiantly marched into town and publicly burnt their new reference books outside the magistrate's office. The authorities reacted swiftly; the offenders were arrested and charged. Subsequently it was reported that their monthly pensions would not be paid to them unless they could produce their reference books. Again there was a wave of protest from all parts of the country, and anti-pass demonstrations were held in 38 different venues.

The authorities continued to send out their units to issue the hated reference books. It was unwelcome news to the FSAW organisers that the government was persevering and that by September 1956 it had visited 37 small centres and succeeded in issuing 23 000 books. Although none of the major ANC strongholds had been visited and women throughout the country were in militant mood, it was clear that drastic action would have to be taken; and fast. It decided to organise another massive march to Pretoria. This time women would come from all parts of the country, not just the Rand. They vowed that the prime minister, JG Strijdom, would be left in no doubt about how the women felt about having to carry passes.

The organisation of this event was to culminate in the 1956 Women’s March.

Last updated : 08-Aug-2017

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

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