History of Women's struggle in South Africa

Women, employment and the changing economic scene, 1920s

In the 1920s, with the First World War (1914-1918) over, the pattern of female employment began to change. The war and the protectionist policy of the Pact government under JBM Hertzog (who wanted to help the ‘poor whites' to get back on their feet) both boosted the growth of the manufacturing industry. Women of all racial groups slowly began to gravitate to the towns and were drawn into the labour market. Outside the reserves, economic opportunities opened up for African women too. Instead of struggling in the reserves without their men (most of whom had gone to the towns find employment, or worked on the mines), they could live in a location (where admittedly housing was scarce and conditions were poor) and seek jobs in the nearby towns. In the 1920s there were not yet any restrictions on the mobility or settlement of African women.

The pace of urbanisation and the changing female employment patterns are closely linked. Gender inequalities were, however, very marked. Across the spectrum of the entire labour market, women, whether African, coloured or white, were paid the lowest wages and were given the least skilled jobs. More than 50% of women who were employed outside the reserves in the early 1920s were in domestic service, but other avenues of employment had begun to open up. By 1925, for example, about 12% of women of all racial groups had taken jobs in the industrial sector. This exposure to city life and the bustling economy as we shall see, made women more self-assured and they became more politicised and assertive as well as more prepared to fight for socio-political rights as well as equal rights for women (Walker 1991:14-15).

The clothing industry became an important area of industrial employment for women, as were the food, drink and tobacco industries. Through their employment in industry women became drawn into trade unions, and this too, became a significant motivating factor in women's resistance against gender inequality and social injustice. The influence of the trade unions began to be felt by the 1920s (and the increased rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s), with women such as Ray Alexander, Hetty McLeod, Frances Baard and Bettie du Toit taking the lead and thus empowering the women's movements. Early female activists such as Charlotte Maxeke, the leader of the Bantu Women's League (BWL), also had close links with the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU). The ICU was very influential in channeling African political aspirations in the 1920s, although thereafter it faded from the scene.

In the 1920s women also became involved in the early Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Its radical socialist ideas drew many African supporters in the industrial sector. Prominent women members were Ray Alexander, Mary Wolton and Josie Palmer. However, the CPSA, with its extreme socialism and radical class analysis dictated by the Communist International, fell out with the more enlightened and cautious, consultative approach of the ANC. The CPSA went into decline in the late 1930s, and was later reconstituted (in 1953) as the less extreme South African Communist Party (SACP). The SACP then declared itself willing to co-operate with the ANC and SAIC to bring about political change.

Women and rural activism: The Herschel district in the 1920s

It was not only in the towns that women became more assertive and pro-active. Historian William Beinart has researched the role of African women in rural politics in the Herschel district of the eastern Cape in the 1920s and 1930s (Bozzoli 1987: 324-357). The increasing level of male migrancy in the region had left many of the women in this remote rural area poverty-stricken and unable to feed their families. The women were dissatisfied with their treatment at the hands of the local traders to whom they sold their surplus produce (such as maize, sorghum and wheat) and from whom they purchased their basic commodities. The trading was completely unregulated and according to the women, the traders kept their prices for produce received extremely low; at the same time they raised the prices of the commodities the women had to purchase from them. Bad harvests and drought were followed by years when there were good harvests. To avoid paying higher prices the traders would stockpile produce to see them over the lean years, leaving the African families without any cash to purchase basic necessities. The women felt that the traders were taking unfair advantage of their plight and in 1922, under the leadership of local women such as Mrs Annie Sidyiyo, they decided to launch a total boycott of the trading stores. Similar action took place in the Qumbu district.

In retaliation the traders had the police charge women who forcibly removed goods that anyone tried to purchase from the stores (thus breaking the boycott). However, the arrests and subsequent court appearances merely increased the women's solidarity. In the end it was the traders who agreed to regulate prices.

Women and the Potchefstroom anti-pass campaign, 1928-1930

In Potchefstroom in 1928 the municipal authorities' demand that women should pay a monthly fee for a lodger's permit was responsible for determined resistance initiated and led by women. Josie Palmer, a young coloured woman who was a local resident and prominent member of the CPSA, took the leading role, and despite the fact that an ANC member, a Mrs Bhola, was also among the main organisers, it is clear that there was considerable Communist Party backing for the initiative. According to Julia Wells there was more militancy, violence and bloodshed than in Bloemfontein (1913) because international communism had influenced the women to join with the men and take the bold step of withdrawing the town's entire black labour force, leading to a situation of near panic among whites. A mass meeting was held in the location on 16 December 1929 and the organisers urged: ‘You have no guns and bombs like your masters but you have your numbers, you have your labour and the power to organise and withhold it'. Violence erupted at the meeting and the police stepped in. Five black people (one of whom later died) were injured in the gunfire as white townspeople squared up against the militant blacks (Wells 1993:73-74). A general strike then followed, continuing until January 1930.

The rising popularity of communism in the Potchefstroom location, where there was ‘dire poverty and neglect' was of great concern to the government and the Department of Native Affairs intervened directly; within a year the town women's demands and the offending legislation was repealed. According to Wells, ‘Pretoria officials recognized that meddling with black women's status endangered public order, not only because of the protests from the women, but also because of the threat of strike action from their working husbands (Wells 1993: 66-67; 73-74).

The role of women in the Natal beer riots in 1929

ICU women members, beer halls and boycotts. 1929. © UNISA

The regulations placed on the brewing of home-made beer in Natal rural districts and small towns in 1928/29 were the backdrop to another hotbed of resistance on the part of African women. Beer-drinking was a popular social practice among Zulu men, while beer-brewing gave women an opportunity to make a small income and thus allow them to assert their independence. As for the government, it realised that by taking over the informal liquor trade it could curb the women's aspirations for financial, social and political empowerment and at the same time set up its own beer-canteens. Control over Africans within the reserves and the townships could thus be strengthened. To top it all, a tidy profit could be made to boost funds and put more restrictions in place.

With the 1928 Liquor Act in place, police raids duly began. The privacy of homes was invaded; houses were wrecked, floors dug up, furniture smashed and liquor confiscated. There were also allegations of sexual harassment by police. Quite apart from the damage to their property, the new regulations hit the women very hard. The production and consumption of utshwala was restricted to municipal canteens. Not only did women lose their income from selling the home-brew, but they also had to watch their husbands using their wages in the canteens, thus making the authorities richer. Moreover, the women were enraged that the canteen sold utshwala to its customers at four to five times its cost price. In her article on the beer protests Helen Bradford explains that the women were determined not to be entirely under financial control of the male workers; they wanted the opportunity to be independent and this, more than anything else, motivated them to protest (Bradford in Bozzoli 1987: 292-323).

They decided to take the matter into their own hands. Backed by the Natal branch of the ICU and joined by some men, they were determined to resist the new regulations, boycott the canteens and force them to close. Bradford claims that the church, and particularly Christianity, was a unifying force among many of the women. One of the main organisers was Ma-Dhlamini who was reputed to be in the forefront of all the demonstrations.

In 1929, beginning in Ladysmith, a rash of resistance began to spreading through Natal, focusing on small towns like Weenen, Glencoe, Howick, Dundee. Women marched into the towns in an overtly militant manner, shouting war chants and brandishing their sticks. They raided the canteens and assaulted the male customers. In Durban on 17 June 1929 chaos erupted with 2 000 whites clashing with 6 000 Africans on 17 June 1929. More than 120 people were injured and eight died in the protracted unrest. Cases were heard by local magistrates and some towns issued beer-brewing permits. Sentences were often suspended and a conciliatory approach was followed although some women received harsh sentences. By and large the municipal canteens and the liquor-brewing regulations apparently remained in place.