From: South Africa's Radical Tradition, a documentary history, Volume Two 1943 - 1964, by Allison Drew

Document 22 - Report of the first National Conference of Women held in the Trades Hall, Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 April 1954

Coming from many places, large and small, in different parts of South Africa, nearly 150 women attended the first national Conference of women, held in Johannesburg, to light for women's rights and for full and equal citizenship for all.

The women had responded to an invitation sent to organisations and individuals to attend this Conference. The invitation was the result of the growing needs that women felt for a different type of women's organisation - one that would:

1. embrace all women, irrespective of race, colour or nationality

2. help to strengthen, build, and bring together in joint activity the various women's sections in the liberatory movements, and other women's organisations,

3. participate in the struggles of the working and oppressed peoples for the removal of class and race discrimination, and for full and equal citizen rights,

4. express the needs and aspirations of the housewives, wage-earners, peasants and professional women of South Africa,

5. bring about the emancipation of women from the special disabilities suffered by them under laws, customs and conventions, and strive for a genuine South African democracy based on complete equality and friendship between men and women, and between each section.

While there are in South Africa many different women's organisations - religious, social, or political in character - there was no organisation of women that brought the many sections of women together with these aims. The existence of such women's organisations in other countries, and their co-operation on a world scale through the Women's International Democratic Federation, provided South Africans with inspiration and guidance.

Beginning in 1952, South African women in different towns began discussing the need for and possibilities of such an organisation, and by 1953 it was possible to call the women together at a National Conference.

Speaking in Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, English and Afrikaans, delegates from all parts of the country welcomed the Conference with joyful enthusiasm, many declaring that they had long awaited such an event. With single-minded determination, the delegates resolved to establish the Federation of South African Women.

This report is compiled from the minutes of that Conference, and contains extracts from the speeches, resolutions and the Charter adopted by the Conference.

The Headquarters of the F.S.A.W. is in Cape Town, and all interested in working to for liberation of women in South Africa, should write to the Secretary, P. 0. Box 2706, Cape Town.

OPENING OF THE CONFERENCE - Ray Alexander speaks on the Struggles of Women in S. Africa

Mrs. Ida Mntwana in the Chair called on Ray Alexander to open the Conference.

Ray Alexander said:

On behalf of those women who helped to prepare this Conference, I bid you all welcome from the depths of my heart.

I greet you all, delegates and visitors who made this a great meeting, which will be of historical importance to our country and to our peoples' struggle for freedom.

All of us are here because we want to find solutions to the problems which means so much to women: the winning of equality, democratic rights for women and our men, the right of our children to be brought up in decent homes, schools, and with opportunities for a full life.

Our sisters of Russia, Czechoslovakia, China and other countries have won freedom, independence and happiness. They are enjoying full equality with men in all spheres of economic, political, cultural and social life.

What is the position of the African, Coloured and Indian women of this country? They have no political rights, no right to elect or be elected on the governing bodies of the country.

The Government of our country represents a minority of the people. It is a govern-ment of the Europeans only, and represents the interests of the landowners, mine-owners and factory-owners. To maintain power it makes laws discriminating against the great majority of the people: the African, Indian and Coloured people.

The Pass Laws , the Native Urban Areas Amendment Act with its vicious Section 10, have been responsible for filling up gaols – nine out of ten gaols in South Africa are overcrowded. Farm gaols are built and filled with men whose lives are wasted away to provide cheap labour for the farmers.

The Riotous Assemblies Act, the Suppression of Communism Act, the Criminal laws Amendment Act, the Public Safety Act were introduced with the express aim of destroying the peoples' organisations and killing their desire for freedom in the country of their birth.

By means of a great mass of laws, to which new ones are added every year, the rulers of this country are trying desperately to prevent the advance of the people towards full citizenship. These laws divide them according to race; deny the majority freedom of movement, residence, ownership and education, and seek to keep the people in ignorance, poverty and submission, a source of cheap and unskilled labour.

The people will not become submissive slaves. The reply is to organise, men and women, young and old, in a united fight against unjust laws, and for security, peace, friendship and freedom.

In these struggles our women have played an important part. During the Defiance Campaign, hundreds went to gaol, some of them expectant mothers, some with their babies. Our women have come out on strike against the Coloured Voters' Bill, against the banning orders issued to Trade Union leaders under the Suppression of Communism Act.

These struggles have produced many leaders, have made us feel the need for an organisation to embrace still wider sections of women and make them a great force in the struggle for freedom.

We have learned with great satisfaction, and it has inspired us, of the wonderful work done by the Women's International Democratic Federation. It was formed in 1945, to organise and unite all women in defence of their political, economic, legal and social rights, and to ensure social progress for complete equality between men and women in all spheres.

All over the world women in Europe, in India, in the Middle East, in America, Australia, China, Africa, everywhere - have formed Women's organisations affiliated to the W.I.D.F., which now represents 140 000 000 women.

The women of the whole world, on whom falls the responsibility for the welfare of their homes, are growing more and more aware of the need to participate actively in the struggle for peace, national liberation, and friendship of all people, irrespective of race and colour.

In the last 10 years women in many countries have won democratic rights. We are all proud of the fact that Mrs. Pandit is the President of the United Nations, which shows the shallowness of race prejudice in South Africa where Indian, Coloured and African women do not have the right to vote or sit in Parliament. [....]




RESOLVED: That this Conference condemns the immoral and unjust principles contained in:

a) The Natives Resettlement Bill, which seeks to deprive all Africans of freehold rights in urban areas; to remove many thousands from their homes; and to deny to Africans the right to become a permanent part of the urban population;

b) The Native Land & Trust Amendment Bill, the provisions of which would cause misery to thousands of rural Africans, and which seeks to render over a million farm labourers homeless and landless, and to legalise slave labour. This Conference urges the Government to withdraw these infamous Bill, as being in conflict with the basic human rights of all men and women to live freely, to work freely, and to own their own homes.


RESOLVED: That this Conference condemns:

a) The Bantu Education Act as a vicious attack on the development of the African people, which divides and restricts the education which is the right of all people, and thus seeks to depress the African people to a condition of perpetual serfdom.

b) The move by the Government to control the education of half a million children in Mission schools by the forced sale or lease of school buildings against the threat loss of subsidy.


RESOLVED: That this Conference opposes utterly the Separate Representation of Voters Bill, which seeks to deprive the Coloured people of democratic rights, by removing them from the Common Roll and substituting the limited and undemocratic form of representation to which the rights of African people have already been limited. That this Conference urges that the franchise be extended to all men and women over eighteen years of age, irrespective of colour or race.


RESOLVED: That this first National Conference of Women delegates, representing 230 000 women, sends greetings to women throughout the world. We pledge ourselves to work with women everywhere for our rights as women, for protection of all children, for freedom for all human beings, for peace.


RESOLVED: That this Conference condemns the Native Labour Settlement of Disputes Act, and the Industrial Conciliation Bill, as slave labour laws, and undertakes to fight against these Acts.


RESOLVED: That this Conference of 150 delegates, representing 230 000 people, protests against the brutal acts committed against the innocent women and children of Kenya. We demand the withdrawal of troops, and hands off Kenya!59


RESOLVED: This National Conference of Women pledges its support for the Congress of the Peoples. It pledges to work actively to organise women from all walks of life, housewives, domestic workers, factory workers, women from the reserves and on the farms, to ensure that women shall be directly represented at the Congress.



We, the women of South Africa, wives and mothers, working women and housewives. Africans, Indians, European and Coloured, hereby declare our aim of striving for the removal of all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminate against us as women, and that deprive us in any way of our inherent right to the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities that society offers to any one section of the population.


We women do not form a society separate from the men. There is only one society, and it is made up of both women and men. As women we share the problems and anxieties of our men, and join hands with them to remove social evils and obstacles to progress.

Within this common society, however, are laws and practices that discriminate against women. While we struggle against the social evils that affect men and women alike, we are determined to struggle no less purposefully against the things that work to the disadvantage of our sex.


The level of civilisation which any society has reached can be measured by the degree of freedom that its members enjoy. The status of women is a test of civilisation. Measure by that standard, South Africa must be considered low in the scale of civilised nations.


We women share with our menfold the cares and anxieties imposed by poverty and its evils. As wives and mothers, it falls upon us to make small wages stretch a long way. It is we who feel the cries of our children when they are hungry and sick. It is our lot to keep and care for homes that are too small, broken and dirty to be kept clean. We know the burden of looking after children and land when our husbands are away in the mines, on the farms, and in the towns earning our daily bread.

We know what it is to keep family life going in pondokkies and shanties, or in over-crowded one-room apartments. We know the bitterness of children taken to lawless ways, of daughters becoming unmarried mothers whilst still at school, of boys and girls growing up without education, training or jobs at a living wage.


These are evils that need not exist. They exist because the society in which we live is divided into poor and rich, into non-European and European. They exist because there are privileges for the few, discrimination and harsh treatment for the many. We women have stood and will stand shoulder to shoulder with our menfolk in a common struggle against poverty, race and class discrimination, and the evils of the colour-bar.


As members of the National Liberatory movements and Trade Unions, in and through our various organisations, we march forward with our men in the struggle for liberation and the defence of the working people. We pledge ourselves to keep high the banner of equality, fraternity and liberty. As women there rests upon us also the burden of removing from our society all the social differences developed in past times between men and women, which have the effect of keeping our sex in a position of inferiority and subordination.


We resolve to struggle for the removal of laws and customs that deny African women the right to own, inherit or alienate property. We resolve to work for a change in the laws of marriage such as are found amongst our African, Malay and Indian people, which have the effect of placing wives in the position of legal subjection to husbands, and giving husbands the power to dispose of wives' property and earnings, and dictate to them in all matters affecting them and their children.

We recognise that women are treated as minors by these marriage and property laws because of ancient and revered traditions and customs which had their origin in the antiquity of the people and no doubt served purposes of great value in bygone times.

There was a time in the African society when every woman reaching marriageable stage was assured of a husband, home, land and security.

Then husbands and wives with their children belonged to families and clans that supplied most of their own material needs and were largely self-sufficient. Men and women were partners in a compact and closely integrated family unit.


Those conditions have gone. The tribal and kinship society to which they belonged has been destroyed as a result of the loss of tribal lands, migration of men away from their tribal home, the growth of towns and industries and the rise of a great body of wage-earners on the farms and in the urban areas, who depend wholly or mainly on wages for a livelihood.

Thousands of African women, like Indian, Coloured and European women, are employed today in factories, homes, shops, offices; on farms and in professions as nurses, teachers and the like. As unmarried women, widows or divorcees they have to fend for themselves, often without the assistance of a male relative. Many of them are responsible not only for their own livelihood but also that of their children.

Large numbers of women today are in fact the sole breadwinners and heads of their families


Nevertheless, the laws and practices derived from an earlier and different state of society are still applied to them. They are responsible for their own person and their children. Yet the law seeks to enforce upon them the status of a minor.

Not only are African, Coloured and Indian women denied political rights, but they are also in many parts of the Union denied the same status as men in such matters as the right to enter into contracts, to own and dispose of property, and to exercise guardianship over their children.


The law has lagged behind the development of society; it no longer corresponds to the actual social and economic position of women. The law has become an obstacle to progress of the women, and therefore a brake on the whole of society.

This intolerable condition would not be allowed to continue were it not for the refusal of a large section of our menfolk to concede to us women the rights and privileges which they demand for themselves.

We shall teach the men that they cannot hope to liberate themselves from the evils of discrimination and prejudice as long as they fail to extend to women complete and unqualified equality in law and in practice. :


We also recognise that large numbers of our womenfolk continue to be bound by traditional practices and conventions, and fail to realise that these have become obsolete and a brake on progress. It is our duty and privilege to enlist all women in our struggle for emancipation and bring to them all realisation of the intimate relationship that exists between their status of inferiority as women and the inferior status to which their people are subjected by discriminatory laws and colour prejudices.

It is our intention to carry out a nation-wide programme of education that will bring home to the men and women of all national groups the realisation that freedom cannot be won for any section or for the people as a whole as long as we women are kept in bondage.


We appeal to all progressive organisations, to members of the great National liberatory movements, to the trade unions and working class organisations, to the churches,

educational and welfare organisations, to all progressive men and women who have the interests of the people at heart, to join with us in this great and noble endeavour.


We declare the following aims:-

This organisation is formed for the purpose of uniting women in common action for the removal of all political, legal, economic and social disabilities. We shall strive for women to obtain:-

1) The right to vote and to be elected to all State bodies, without restriction or discrimination.

2) The right to full opportunities for employment with equal pay and possibilities of promotion in all spheres of work.

3) Equal rights with men in relation to property, marriage and children, and for the removal of all laws and customs that deny women such equal rights.

4) For the development of every child through free compulsory education for all; for the protection of mother and child through maternity homes, welfare clinics, crèches and nursery schools, in countryside and towns; through proper homes for all; and through the provision of water, light, transport, sanitation and other amenities of modem civilisation.

5) For the removal of all laws that restrict free movement, that prevent or hinder the right of free association and activity in democratic organisations, and the right to participate in the work of these organisations.

6) To build and strengthen women's sections in the National liberatory movements, the organisation of women in trade unions, and through the peoples' varied organisations.

7) To co-operate with all other organisations that have similar aims in South Africa as well as throughout the world.

8) To strive for permanent peace throughout the world.