History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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The pre-election period - Women in the early 1990s

Members of the ANC and its ally's protest against the state sponsored violence in Natal. Cape Town. 1993. © Omar Badsha

By the time the 1980s drew to a close the revolt against the government, increased international pressure and the regime's counter-revolution of oppression had reduced the country to a state of anarchy. Violence escalated in the 1990-1994 period with more than 700 people dying violently in the first eight months of 1990. The economy was in shreds and there was still no real constitutional reform that would give the blacks any meaningful say in government. FW de Klerk realised that reform had to take place and in the March 1992 referendum, 68,6% of the whites who voted gave him the mandate to bring about changes.

The unbanning of the ANC, PAC and SACP: Negotiations begin

De Klerk promptly announced that several racial laws would be repealed; he then released eight political prisoners. On 2 February 1990 the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) was lifted, and shortly thereafter, because there was no longer any need for a ‘front' organisation, the United Democratic Front (UDF) was disbanded. De Klerk also announced that all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were to be released. On 11 February 1990, a memorable day, a smiling Nelson Mandela left prison after 27 years, a free man at last.

Negotiations were then initiated in May 1990 at Groote Schuur, Cape Town, to be followed by Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) I and II. However, the course of negotiations is not the issue here. What is more relevant is that women activists began to return to South Africa to take up senior political posts and make an active contribution in the progress towards democracy.

Women at the fore again

A number of prominent women began to filter back into South Africa where there was no longer any need to conceal their political commitment. Many of them have since taken leading positions in the ANC government. In 1990, for example, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi returned from exile at request of the South African Communist Party (SACP). She subsequently resumed work as personal assistant to Joe Slovo and Chris Hani. In the same year Lindiwe Sisulu returned and began to work for Dr Jacob Zuma, while Gill Marcus took a post in the ANC Department of Information and Publicity. Indian activists Phyllis Naidoo and Shanthivathie (Shanthie) Naidoo, singer Miriam Makeba and trade unionist Ray Alexander also came home. Patricia De Lille was appointed to a senior PAC post while Baleka Kgositsile was elected as Secretary General of the African National Congress Women's League (ANCWL).

In 1991 Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Gill Marcus were elected to the National Executive Committee of the ANC and Gertrude Shope became the president of the ANCWL. Gill Marcus was subsequently given the important task of training ANC media workers and voter educators prior to the 1994 elections. She also accompanied Nelson Mandela on his election campaign. The year 1992 saw a crucially important development when women participated in the discussions at the CODESA under the auspices of the Women's National Coalition (WNC) and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was chosen to represent women's views as part of the Gender Advisory Committee.

The Women's National Coalition (WNC)

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 Mandela in parliament. The issues of concern to women that were listed in this women's charter were then incorporated in the new constitution and into the Bill of Rights. The Women's National Coalition now focuses on training for parliamentary and local government candidates and community leaders and plays a key role in adult basic education and gender training.

The 1994 election - The first democratic general election in South Africa

On 27 April 1994 South Africans formed long queues at polling stations throughout the country. A spirit of goodwill prevailed and all violence (contrary to expectations) came to a halt. The result was a landslide victory for the ANC: it gained 62, 65% of the votes and proved to be the most popular party, the only party indeed, to have countrywide popular support. In the National Assembly the ANC therefore held 252 of the 400 seats. Nelson Mandela, as the leader of the ANC, became the new president of South Africa.

Last updated : 05-Aug-2013

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