History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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Natal Trade Unionists. 1930s.

Trade unionism blossoms and women become more assertive, 1930s

The early 1930s were difficult years. There was a worldwide depression and South Africa did not escape its effects. Unemployment soared and there was widespread poverty. Although urban dwellers felt the pinch too, it was the families in the rural areas and particularly those in the reserves that suffered the most. African women struggled to feed their families and often the only option was to go into the towns to look for some means of supplementing the family income; often domestic service proved to be the answer. In the 1930s the government made some attempts to stem the flow of African women into the towns, but as women (unlike men) did not yet have to carry compulsory passes, female migration to the towns continued.

Many Afrikaners who were still on the land also began to drift into the towns, creating what was called the ‘poor white' problem. Urbanisation thus received another boost. Afrikaner women, like their African, Indian and Coloured counterparts, began to enter the labour market in increasing numbers, often finding work in the industrial sector. As women and mothers they had to find a way to escape the endless grind of poverty and give their children a better chance in life. In her article on Afrikaner women in the Garment Workers' Union (GWU) Vincent (2000:61) quotes a particularly poignant (translated) piece from an Afrikaans trade union newsletter:

No beard grows upon my cheeks

But in my heart I carry a sword

The battle sword for bread and honour

Against the poverty which pains my mother heart.

Bread and butter issues motivated women to resist in the difficult 1930s. They were primarily concerned with pressing social concerns that affected the entire community: rents, the cost of living, discrimination in the workplace, passes and controls placed on earning a few pennies in the ‘informal' sector. This is why the socialist ideas of the CPSA and the work-oriented trade union movement appealed to women workers across the board. The main movements through which women expressed their growing political awareness in the 1930s were therefore the ANC, the CPSA and the trade union movement. The role of these movements in women's resistance, tenuous in the late 1920s and 1930s, began to escalate in the 1940s and will be discussed in the next section.

Last updated : 01-Aug-2014

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