This book tells the story of Frances Baard, a black South African woman who was a trade unionist, political activist and a women's leader both in the Eastern Cape and in national campaigns. It covers a period of nearly 80 years, from her birth until the 1980s. This period can be divided into four interlinked and yet different aspects. The first of these covers her childhood, early working life and marriage, and the birth of her children. The second section spans about 15 years, and forms the major portion of the book. It deals with her involvement in the African Food and Canning Workers Union (AFCWU) and the federation of trade unions, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU); with her involvement in the African National Congress (ANC); and with her involvement in the organization of women through the ANC Women's League and the Federation of South African Women (FSAW). Her work in these areas led to harassment and police interference, culminating in a jail sentence for furthering the aims of a banned organisation, and banishment from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria. These experiences are recounted in the third section of the book, while the last section gives a brief survey of her present life and her hopes for the future.
On 31 May 1910, after negotiations between the white Boer Republics and Britain, an act passed in the British Parliament created the Union of South Africa, a self-governed country, as opposed to a colony controlled by a foreign power. At this time there were certain black and coloured adults in the Cape who were entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. In the Act of Union, the non-racial franchise of the Cape was maintained, but voting in the Transvaal, the Free State and Natal was restricted to whites only. Thus the majority of South Africans were still denied full political and citizenship rights in their own country, but now by a minority group living in South Africa, not by a foreign power. The South African Constitution Act of 1910 laid the basis for the racism that has characterized South Africa's political life and favoured the development of capitalism in the country in a specific way. From the moment of Union on, the white government acted to protect the interests of the white voters and so to ensure their continued support. Legalized discrimination against blacks became the order of the day with laws such as the 1913 Land Act, which removed most black people's right to own land; the Native Labour Regulation Act, which made it a criminal offence for an African to refuse to obey an order, or break a contract, effectively removing the right to strike; and the 1926 Mines and Works Act, notorious for entrenching job reservation, which prohibited Africans from being employed in certain skilled jobs.
By 1912 there was a growing black population moving to "the urban areas, seeking waged employment in the white-controlled industries and mines. Although this population was still to a large extent migrant and temporary, there were signs of the development of a more permanent black urban population. It was within this environment that the ANC was formed by a group of liberal, mainly professional, well-educated black men, worried by the racial discrimination that was rising round them. They attempted to negotiate with the white government, to establish a basis of goodwill and understanding, and to win reforms from the government in this way. At this stage, the ANC seems to have had little concern with the daily problems of the black working class.
During the 1940s, as a result of World War II and severe conditions of poverty and hardship in the rural areas, more and more blacks began to move from these areas to the towns and cities. The number of blacks living in and around urban areas and working in industry or mines, or seeking jobs, rose rapidly. These people faced different problems from those facing people in the rural areas. City life carried its own specific set of problems: high food costs, high rent, shortage of housing and transport costs, all made worse by low wages. The trade union movement grew extensively during this period. At the same time a new generation of young leaders, willing to confront the government directly and uncompromisingly, rose to positions of power in the ANC. Their influence led the ANC to adopt a Programme of Action in 1949, which called for the use of boycotts, civil disobedience and strikes against the Nationalist government. The Nationalists had been voted into power in 1948, and the process of white political control and legalized exploitation and oppression of blacks was firmly entrenched. The tactics of the government became more aggressive, and it began to use violence more and more widely to suppress opposition. Resistance followed a similar pattern, and became more militant. The Programme of Action committed the ANC to the idea of mass action, and also called for the building of a non-racial alliance with organizations such as the Natal Indian Congress.
Frances Baard first became involved in trade unions and politics in the late 1940s. As political action increased in the 1950s, so too did Baard's involvement. The Defiance Campaign was the first in a series of campaigns by the ANC that put into action the ideas laid out in the Programme of Action, and involved the people of South Africa in nation-wide organized resistance. There was a huge surge of campaigns, protests and demonstrations during this period, and action from African women was especially strong and militant, particularly in campaigns such as the anti-pass campaign. It is probably fair to say that the mass action by women in 1955 and 1956 showed the ANC the way forward. The 1958 ANC conference opened with a bright red banner, 'Malibongwe Makhosikazi' ('Let the women be praised'). This banner echoed the message of the 1955 ANC National Executive Committee report:
'The women have been active in those major issues that most keenly affect them: Bantu Education, the threat of passes for women, the home, the children and the family. They have administered to us all a lesson on how the people's daily needs can become the kernel of a united protest campaign so that even those not previously active in political affairs, feel compelled to join in.'
The period of the late 1950s was characterized by the strength of the women of South Africa. This strength, determination and courage is embodied in Frances Baard, a representative of the living history of the working women of South Africa.
In 1960 the apartheidregime responded to the wave of resistance by murdering 69 unarmed people at a peaceful anti-pass protest. Protest swelled throughout South Africa, and the government declared a State of Emergency, which gave the police, extended powers to imprison and intimidate opponents of government policies. The government banned the ANC including the Women's League and the Youth League, and the Pan-African Congress (PAC).
Thousands of activists were detained during the State of Emergency, and banned, house-arrested and harassed on their release. The police began to use new methods of torture and interrogation on suspected activists. There were many political trials of activists who had continued the work of the ANC through tightly knit underground structures. Along with other leaders, Frances Baard was banned, jailed and finally banished.
In 1961 South Africa became a republic, after a referendum conducted among white voters only. The ANC called for a stay-away in protest against the creation of the white republic, in which the majority of people, the black population, had no political rights. The state refused to meet with the people's leaders, and met the protests with savage violence. The ANC was forced to change its strategy and adopt the armed struggle as part of the path to national liberation. On 16 December 1961, Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation) launched the armed struggle with the first acts of sabotage. The nature of opposition to the apartheidregime had been forced onto a new path.
In the 1970s mass action began again, involving an increasing level of violence and confrontation, and involving all sections of the community, from school children to workers.
The South African government was forced into a position of crisis. Its response was to introduce various minor reforms and to increase the level of violent and political repression against organizations and individuals. In the mid-1980s, mass action reached an unprecedented level1, and in July 1985 the Nationalist government once again declared a State of Emergency. This granted far-reaching powers to the police and the South African Defence Force who had been called in an attempt to crush the uprisings in the black areas.
This State of Emergency, which lasted for eight months, mirrored the State of Emergency in 1960, with the detention of thousands of activists, and the banning of meetings and organizations. But the spirit of resistance was not crushed then, and it will not be crushed now.
Frances Baard has been deeply involved in the struggle for liberation since the 1940s. She is still actively involved. This book does not only tell her story. It tells part of our history. It is a story that needs to be heard. The South African regime would like the leaders, the demands, the sacrifices and the victories that are a powerful part of our history, to be buried and forgotten. But they are alive in our struggle today.
The story, based on hours of interviews and discussions, is told in the words of Frances Baard herself. It is one person's view, the story of a woman deeply and sincerely involved in the daily events of a nation's struggle for freedom. It is a particularly important story because Frances Baard's involvement spans three diverse yet complimentary front's: the trade unions, the ANC and the Federation of South African Women.
The story is told from her perspective as an activist. It does not aim to give a complete political history of South Africa over the past 80 years but, rather, to be a personal account of living and working through an important period of that history. The Nationalist government has attempted to suppress the truth and keep from us the real story of the people's struggle for liberation. I hope that this book goes some way towards filling the gap.
In the nearly 80 years of her life so far, Frances Baard has seen South Africa change in many ways. She has seen leaders, laws and battles come and go. But the central struggle has remained the same, and she is still fighting. I hope you enjoy her story. It is a remarkable record of the struggle for freedom and democracy, a record of the successes and failures, the hopes and expectations of the South African people.
I wish to thank all the people who have contributed to this book and made it possible: Frances Baard for her warmth and co-operation, and for her patience with my endless questions; Helen Joseph for her knowledge and help; Tom Lodge for the loan of an unpublished interview with Frances Baard; Jenny Schreiner for her unwavering' support and advice; Hilary Strathern for the photographs; my family for their financial and emotional support; and all those who encouraged me to keep going.
The struggle continues.
B.S. March 1986
Dear friends of SAHO
South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.
SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.
Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.