History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

Related articles

Women in the schizophrenic 1940s - World War II and its aftermath

The 1940s opened with the devastating Second World War in full swing. This decade also marked the gradual transition from a mining and agricultural economy (before the war) to a flourishing industrial economy with the development of many new secondary industries in its aftermath. By this time the reserves were so depleted that they no longer provided a subsistence base for African families; they lived in extreme poverty. Urban blacks in the townships also lived under appalling conditions and Coloured and Indian people fared a little better. Walker (1991:71) quotes 1940 statistics showing that 86, 8% of ‘non-Europeans' in the urban areas were living below the bread line.

Politically, the 1940s were also ‘schizophrenic' (showing different faces). The government and the black opposition moved even further apart. This trend was accentuated by significant shifts in both black and white politics.

Black politicians became increasingly more militant with the formation, within the ANC, of the Congress Youth League (CYL) in 1943.This group of young, more assertive black leaders were destined to revive the ANC (which had fallen into lethargy in the previous decade) and the CYL began to set the tone for a new spirit of resistance. African women were quick to follow this lead and in 1943 began to press for the formation of a women's league within the ANC structures so that they, too, could join the struggle against oppression.

Black trade unions grew rapidly, fuelled by the growing numbers of urban workers. They were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo and a number of major strikes and boycotts were held in the 1940s, notably the strike of African mineworkers in 1946. As we shall see, women workers of all races, now a permanent part of the industrial scene, were not slow to play their part in this climate of unrest. Within the trade unions the names of militant working women such as Frances Baard, Lilian Ngoyi and Bertha Mashaba began to be heard. In fact, the 1940s and 1950s highlight the changing role of African women, and particularly working-class black women, in South Africa's political economy.

District Committee of the Communist Party. Josie Palmer is the first person on the right in the front row. 1945. © Communist Party Publication

In the 1940s the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) also became more assertive and militant, and in cooperation with the ANC and CPSA, took an active part in the growing culture of anti-government resistance.

White politics took a dramatic new turn in 1948. The National Party won the whites-only election in 1948 and began systematically to entrench its control. The segregation policies of previous white governments now hardened into the birth of the apartheid regime and as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s the government began to implement a wide range of oppressive apartheid legislation, including attempts to control the mobility of African women and create a stable urban proletariat. The stage was thus set for popular resistance that was to last until 1994 - resistance in which women played an important part.

Women, the war, and grassroots protests in the 1940s

During the war the cost of living soared and economic hardship increased and women struggled to feed their families. Women in the sprawling squatter camps or informal settlements on the outskirts of the urban areas took on a variety of informal jobs in order to survive. It was clear that in such dire poverty these women were becoming more politicised. Walker (1991:73-76) claims that most political organisation among women took place at community level and she calls these ‘grassroots protests'. In Cape Town Women's Food Committees were formed that had links with the trade unions and the CPSA and demonstrated outside parliament about inadequate food supplies. In Johannesburg, women formed the People's Food Council in 1943 in an effort to improve the distribution of food; among other activities it held a conference on the food situation and organised raids on Fordsburg shopkeepers who were suspected of hoarding food. In 1943 the residents (including many women) of Alexandra Township challenged an increase in the bus fare into Johannesburg and boycotted the buses until the bus company relented.

Women were active in a number of squatter movements in and around the cities. In Cape Town, Dora Tamana, with CPSA cooperation, organised activism in a squatter camp called Blouvlei. Moreover, near Johannesburg, black women applauded and supported James Mpanza's establishment of Shantytown in 1944 in defiance of the regulations against squatting. The Alexandra Women's Council (AWC) was established at about this time too, and became active in issues relating to housing and squatting. Women also organised a march through Johannesburg in 1947 to protest against the housing shortage, a campaign in which Julia Mpanze was prominent.

The restrictions on the home-brewing of beer also roused women into taking action against the authorities. There was unrest in Springs in 1945 when local women, with CPSA backing, organised a boycott of the municipal canteens. This led to police action and many of those who were arrested were women.

The ANC Women's League

Part of the rejuvenation process of the ANC in the 1940s was to build up mass membership and the role of women and their potential as a powerful agent of change was at last recognised. Previously, women had not been accepted as full members but at an ANC conference held in 1943 it was decided that this should change. At the same time the ANC Women's League (ANCWL) was formed as a sub-section of the ANC, with Madie Hall-Xuma as its first president. All female members of the ANC thus became ANCWL members. It was also made clear from its establishment that the national struggle for freedom rather than women's rights would be its focus. The ANC was not prepared to have the ANCWL become part of a general non-racial women's movement; it was to be an exclusively ANC body.

It apparently took some years before the league was fully operational, during which time its activities were confined to the usual ‘women's work’ such as fundraising and catering, functions that were supportive rather than innovative. Provincial congresses were only established after the war in the late 1940s, although there are indications that women participated in discussions about the campaign against passes for men (in the 1940s women did not yet have to carry passes themselves) that were held in 1944. However, in 1949 the CYL introduced its Programme of Action, a new ANC president took over and this spirit of revival filtered through to the women's league. Furthermore, the dynamic Ida Mtwana took over the leadership. Provincial branches of the ANCWL were established, incorporating township women countrywide; working-class women with their trade union background also brought a more assertive and impatient attitude into the ANCWL. In 1950 rumours were also rife that the new government was planning to enforce much tighter control of African women's mobility – in other words to make women, like the men, carry the dreaded passes. This news set off a wave of anger that boosted the ANCWL's profile as a viable resistance organisation. We shall see how the ANCWL expanded in influence and effectiveness in the rising tide of black resistance of the 1950s.

Indian women and passive resistance in the 1940s

Indian Passive Resistance. A mass meeting in Johannesburg. 1946-1948. © The University of Kwazulu Natal documentation centre.

Although Indian women had become involved in Gandhi's passive resistance of 1913 they did not attempt to form any long-term women's organisations or play an overt political role again until the 1940s. The SAIC also experienced a period of relative inactivity until the Second World War. The war itself had a radicalising impact on the SAIC and as had happened in the ANC, more assertive leaders took over from the old guard of the SAIC.

In 1946 the new leadership challenged the harsh, segregationist Asiatic Land Tenure and Representation Act (the so-called Ghetto Act) that was passed by the government. This law established separate areas of land tenure in Natal towns and placed severe restrictions on Indian settlement. It offered Indians a very insignificant form of ‘representation' in appeasement, but this was promptly rejected. The SAIC decided to capitalise on the wave of anger that had arisen in the Indian community and launched a campaign of passive resistance. The campaign had an important impact on Indian women, initiating a new political activism in their ranks. Dr Goonam, a young medical doctor, was the main organiser, and in March 1946 a well-attended meeting of Indian women was held. Goonam, Fatima Meer and Mrs NP Desai were the speakers. The women pledged their support for the initiative and many women volunteered.

Zainab Asvat, a young medical student was one of the women among the group who set up camp on 13 June 1946 on the plot at the corner of Umbilo Road and Gale Street. They proposed to live there in tents until such time as they were arrested. There were eighteen resisters, six of whom were women: Zainab Asvat, Zohra Bhayat, Amina Pahad, Zubeida Patel of Johannesburg and Mrs Lakshmi Govender and Mrs Veeramah Pather of Durban. Dr GM Naicker, President of the NIC and MD Naidoo, Secretary of the NIC, were the leaders of the group.

On the night of Sunday, 16 June, white hooligans overran the camp. After this attack, the leaders asked the women to leave the camp but they refused to go. At a subsequent meeting Zainab Asvat made a fiery speech in which she denounced the violence, denounced discriminatory laws, affirmed the resisters' commitment and appealed to the people to remain calm but to take note of the circumstances. Zainab was arrested and released later the same night. Her courage and determination were inspirational and several women joined in the campaign. Other Indian women who took a leading role were Mrs Veeramah Pather, Miss Khatija Mayet, Dr K. Goonam and Miss Zohra Meer. In July 1946, Zainab again led a batch of resisters, was arrested, sent to prison for three months. Zainab, Mrs PK Naidoo and Miss Suriakala Patel, were later elected to the Transvaal Indian Congress Committee.

Goonam deputised on several occasions while senior NIC men were overseas, and later became the vice-president. These prominent Indian women also made contact with women in the CPSA and the ANC and were drawn into women's issues like the anti-pass campaign. Amina Cachalia, sister of Zainap Asvat, and Fatima Meer became particularly prominent in the 1950s when women across the race spectrum united under the banner of the Congress Alliance.

Last updated : 02-Feb-2016

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