History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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Apartheid crumbles, Women in the turmoil of the 1980s

The 1980s saw escalating state repression and mass detentions. In a frenzy of desperate reaction, the government declared a series of back-to-back states of emergency from 1985 to 1987. In 1988 a number of organisations including the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) were restricted. In 1984 PW Botha made a desperate effort to make reforms by introducing the tricameral constitution: three parliaments were set up, one each for whites, Coloureds and Indians. However, this was widely rejected by the Coloured and Indian people and seemed doomed to fail from its very inception.

Conflict rose to unprecedented heights and even went beyond black-white unrest, with Inkatha clashing with the ANC/UDF and breaking their ties. Press freedom was restricted; there was turmoil everywhere and South Africa had in effect become a police state. When Botha suffered a stroke in 1989 and FW de Klerk took over it had become abundantly clear that a process of reform had to begin. He released a group of prominent political prisoners, including Walter Sisulu and began to consult with them.

Throughout the 1980s women were again at the forefront of the struggle. Prominent female activists like Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi continued to leave the country and go into exile. In 1980 she joined the ANC in Zimbabwe and worked in political structures under Joe Gqabi. She then enlisted in Umkhonto we Sizwe receiving her training in Angola. Other women who had remained in South Africa began to establish women's organisations again and to align these to the newly-formed UDF, which was widely described as the ‘ANC in disguise'.

The United Women's Congress (UWCO), 1981

As a result of parent's reactions to the 1976 uprisings and their aftermath, ex-Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) members in the Western Cape began organising themselves from as early as 1978 and eventually formed the United Women's Congress (UWCO) in 1981. The organisation took up campaigns such as child care, the bread price and bus fare increases. Other branches dealt with housing campaigns and launched rent boycotts and also defended children against police brutality. In 1986, the United Women's Congress joined forces with the Women's Front, another women's organisation in the Western Cape. UWCO was one of the few organisations that existed at the time, and it spearheaded the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF). In 1986 UWCO began a process of re-establishing the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) by uniting with other women's organisations such as the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW) and the Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW).

The United Democratic Front (UDF), 1983

A UDF Protest sticker

The UDF was launched in Mitchell's Plain near Cape Town in 1983. About 600 delegates from more than 230 organisations and a crowd of about 13 000 people converged on the area. There were delegates representing students, youth, worker, civic, women's, religious, sport and trade union organisations. The gathering was the biggest crowd of anti-apartheid groupings since the mass meetings of the Congress Alliance in the 1950s. The initial aim of the UDF was to oppose the nationalist government's tricameral parliamentary proposals but in a short time it became the leading anti apartheid political movement within the country, with more than 1,5 million supporters. It mobilised nationwide resistance, led a series of boycotts, and became involved in labour issues. While the UDF was non-aligned, most of its leadership and affiliates were either members of the underground ANC or sympathetic to it. With the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 many of the prominent UDF members joined the ANC. Soon afterwards, the UDF was disbanded.

The Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), 1983

Mrs Sisulu (centre) and executive members of the Natal Organisation of Women at the launch of NOW. 1984. © Omar Badsha

The Natal Organisation of Women was formed in December 1983 as one of the affiliates of the UDF. From as early as 1980 women from Durban had been coming together on an annual basis to commemorate August 9th. The organisers of those events discussed the need for an ongoing programme that would unite women and deal with women's issues. In December 1983 NOW was formed. The first president was Pumzile Mlambo (later to become South Africa's first female deputy president) while Hersheela Narsee was secretary. The following year Nozizwe Madlala took over as president and Victoria Mxenge was elected as secretary.

The main aim of NOW was to fight for the upliftment of women and therefore a constitution that would safeguard women's rights was formulated. Women were trained and encouraged to take up leadership positions in various fields. NOW also campaigned for better housing at rates that were affordable, and was concerned with pass laws, the lack of proper maternity benefits and child-care. The establishment of NOW was a major factor in the increased role of women in political and civic organisations and in the establishment of the rights of women in the struggle and all spheres of society.

With the declaration of the 1986 State of Emergency, and the mass detentions and restrictions on the UDF that followed, NOW activists found themselves filling the leadership vacuum in Natal and spearheaded a number of UDF campaigns that the UDF itself could not carry out. It helped the victims by providing shelter, food and moral support. The organisation was disbanded in 1990.

The Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW), 1984

FEDTRAW was formed in December 1984, bringing together close to 200 women from all over the Transvaal (now Gauteng ). The formation of FEDTRAW was based on the same lines as its mother body the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and also in commemoration of Women's Day, August 9th . The women worked together on issues such as high food prices, high rents, conscription of men into the army and inadequate child-care facilities. It also focussed on the plight of rural women. The federation supported the families of detainees and the youth in their fight for democratic Student Representative Councils (SRCs), which could fight against sexual harassment at schools and to popularise the Freedom Charter. The Women's charter was adopted as a working document for FEDTRAW as the demands of women at the time were the same as those made in 1955. Sister Bernard Ncube was elected as first president of the federation, while Albertina Sisulu, Rita Ndzanga, Francis Baard and Maniben Sita were elected as active patrons. Helen Joseph and Winnie Mandela were non-active patrons.

Trade Unions in the 1980s: COSATU, 1985

There was an unprecedented level of resistance in factories and black communities in the 1980s over economic and political issues. In fact it was a period in which the highest level of strikes in South African history was recorded. As large-scale political organisations like the UDF emerged it became necessary to form an umbrella federation of trade unions. After protracted negotiations the Congress of South African Trade Unions COSATU was formed in November 1985. At the time of its establishment it had more than 462 000 members and by 1991 this number had grown to more than 1 258 800. The largest proportion of its members came from the manufacturing and mining sectors. The activities of Cosatu became closely linked to the wider liberation struggle. Women like Emma Mashinini were instrumental in its formation.

The UDF Women's Congress, 1987

The UDF Women's Congress was formed in April 1987. Its aims were to uphold the Freedom Charter and the Women's Charter, both of which were drawn up in the 1950s. The body was formed by all women's organisations, which were United Democratic Front (UDF) affiliates, and it included women's co-operatives, the women's section of youth and civic organisations, unions and church groups. It aimed to teach men and women in the UDF about women's oppression and to increase women's skills. It was against any form of discrimination based on sex and was to be a forum to discuss issues effecting women in all UDF organisations.

Last updated : 11-Aug-2017

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