Women in South Africa, since the turn of the century, have emerged as primary catalysts for protests against, and as challengers of, the apartheid regime. With all the disabilities and devastating effects of apartheid on the status of women that have already been described, women have never lost sight of the fact that meaningful change for them cannot come through reform but only through the total destruction of the apartheid system. Thus the common exploitation and oppression of men and women on the basis of colour has led to a combined fight against the system instead of a battle of women against men for "women’s rights."

While women desire their personal liberation, they see that as part of the total liberation movement. Although there is no doubt that the overt leadership has been dominated by men, the seemingly unacknowledged and informal segment of society controlled by women has been the key to many of the most significant mass movements in modern South African history. It is only in the very recent past that the crucial role played by women in raising basic issues, organising and involving the masses has become more widely recognised.

Women in the trade unions

Although women have been involved to some degree in all kinds of organisations in South Africa, from church groups to liberation movements, in many ways it was the trade union movements that became the spawning ground for women organisers and in which women first rose to positions of importance in South Africa. Trade union actions such as strikes also served to politicise some women.

The organising of women began in the 1920s, principally in the laundry, clothing, mattress, furniture and baking industries. While several black national federations were formed and dissolved, the one that endured in spite of the new labour legislation of the 1920s was the Non-European Trade Union Federation, formed in 1928.

During the 1930s, women trade unionists were in the leadership of the opposition towards growing Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid in the unions. Their position was that racial divisions should not split a union. They sought free compulsory education for all races, an end to job reservations by race and training for all races. Women were being both organised and trained to organise and lead.

As the economy developed in the 1930s and 1940s, with the growth of capital accumulation and an increased demand for labour, women rapidly became urbanised to fill this need. These demographic changes, coupled with the crippling labour legislation that would follow the assumption of power by the National Party in 1948, made the 1940s the crest of the period in which women organised other women and black industrial workers.

Efforts to organise Africans were crippled by the National Party`s labour legislation—the Industrial Legislation Commission (1950) enforced apartheid in the trade unions; under the Suppression of Communism Act, 56 trade union activists were banned by 1955; the Industrial Legislation Bill (1956) made job reservations the law. But the women still led strikes, even though strikes by Africans were then illegal.

Historically, the trade union movement helped to inspire women in many other areas, but the main impact was that the unions provided a training ground for women political leaders. Female factory workers learned new methods of organising and were exposed to the principles of non-racial worker solidarity.

Since the founding of the African National Congress (ANC) Bantu Women’s League in 1913, women have been active in other organisations, especially those based in urban areas. Women played an active role in the Campaign of Defiance Against Unjust Laws during which, in 1952, many were arrested. They also helped to organise the Congress of Democrats, a white organisation in alliance with the ANC and the Coloured People`s Congress. However, the lack of a broad-based women’s organisation made the participation of women sporadic. In addition, almost all activity was urban-based, with little or no contact with women in the reserves.

The Federation of South African Women

With these organisational problems magnified by the domination of the National Party and its rapid expansion of apartheid legislation, the time was ripe for the formation of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) in 1954. Its members, said to represent some 230,000 women, were drawn largely from the Congress Alliance, but especially from the ANC’s Women’s League. FSAW had two primary aims: to work for majority rule and end the policy of apartheid; and to build a multiracial women’s organisation that would also work for the rights of, and freedoms for, women.

The creation of the FSAW marked the start of a period of expansion of the political involvement of women, especially black women, as illustrated in the examples that follow.

In December 1954, the FSAW campaigned for a boycott of schools controlled by the Government. The women organised on a house-to-house basis, but when the State announced that all children out of school on a certain date would be expelled, the boycott collapsed.

In January 1957, after a one penny fare increase was announced by the Public Utility Transportation Company, which transported some 25,000 Africans each day from the townships of Alexandra, Sophiatown and Lady Shelburne, Africans began a bus boycott by walking up to nine miles each way, some leaving at 3:00 a.m. Within three weeks, the 25,000 Africans from those towns had been joined in sympathy by 20,000 other Africans. The boycott was organised mainly by women and was led by a woman.

The State responded with mass raids in which 6,606 Africans were arrested and another 7,860 subpoenaed. A rally of 5,000 people in Lady Shelburne was attacked by two police baton charges resulting in 17 Africans being hospitalised. The Government announced legislation that would result in a permanent end to bus services to the African towns. But the Africans continued to resist, and after five months the Native Transportation Amendment Act No. 52 of 1957 rolled back the fare increase.

In 1959, Cato Manor, near Durban, became the site of large-scale protests against the "Bantu authorities" when the municipality attempted to end all illegal liquor stills. Beer brewing had been an important source of income for African women. Under the law, African men had to drink in municipal beer halls.

In June 1959, 2,000 women marched to express their grievances. Others entered a beer hall and destroyed the beer. They organised a beer boycott which led to wide-scale uprisings all over Natal. During 1959, an estimated 20,000 women in Natal protested and more than 1,000 were convicted in the courts.

The anti-pass campaign

The courage and determination displayed by South African women

in their refusal to accept the restrictive passes epitomises their over-all participation in the struggle to eradicate apartheid.

The Government attempted to get women to carry passes as early as 1913 but was met with such severe resistance that it did not make the attempt again until the National Party came to power in 1948. By the time the Native Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents Act was enacted in 1952, a large number of women had moved to the urban areas to seek employment and keep their families together. For the National Party, this represented a permanent urban labour force and, therefore, a serious threat to the apartheid structures they were designing. The 1952 Act was intended to permit only the necessary labour for industrial and domestic work into urban areas. Passes were to be extended to women. However, as a result of the earlier campaigns, the Government did not announce until October 1955 that passes would be issued to women beginning in January 1956.

As soon as the announcement was made that they must carry passes,

the women organised a demonstration. The women in Black Sash staged an all-white protest; in Pretoria, 2,000 African women rallied.

Passes were first issued in March 1956 in the Orange Free State in the town of Winburg, where many women were arrested when they burned their passes. At that time, although it was not mandatory to carry a pass, if one had a pass it was illegal to destroy it.

On 9 August 1956, in a protest organised by the FSAW, more than 20,000 women came to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to see the Prime Minister. When he refused to see them, they placed petitions with more than 100,000 signatures in his office.

In Lichtenburg in the western Transvaal, in November 1956, when government officials arrived to register women, more than 1,000 women met them to protest. When the police made a baton charge, the women threw stones in retaliation. The police opened fire and two Africans were killed.

The strategy of the Government was still to issue passes in the villages first. Thus, women in Johannesburg were asked to carry only "permits of identification," which the police began to demand. On 12 May 1957. some 2,000 Africans attended an anti-permit meeting at Sophiatown. They requested an interview with the Mayor and, on 16 May, more than 20,000 met to send off a seven-person deputation from Sophiatown. Six thousand people escorted them to City Hall where they met with the Mayor, who agreed to suspend police action and issue exemption certificates for women.

In Nelspruit in the eastern Transvaal, women attacked the car of the magistrate when he announced that passes would be distributed. When five women were arrested, 300 women marched to demand their release. Police made a baton charge and then opened fire. Four people were hurt. The following day, the women organised a strike. Police fired on crowds again and eight Africans were wounded. When the police conducted extensive raids they arrested 140 people. The women were forced to accept the passes.

On the day that passes were to be distributed in Sanderton in south-eastern Transvaal, all 914 women who went to protest to the Mayor were arrested for taking part in an illegal procession.

But the women were undaunted. In July 1957, in Gopane Village in the Baphurutse Reserve, some women burned their passes. When 35 women were arrested, 233 more volunteered to be arrested. When officials arrived in Motswedi and Braklaagte to register the women, the villages were deserted. In June 1957, at Pietersburg in the northern Transvaal, 2,000 women stoned officials who came to register them. When the officials returned in July, 3,000 women greeted them, again forcing their withdrawal.

In October 1957, officials began to register women in Johannesburg. While many women accepted the passes as impossible to avoid, many thousands protested during the week of 21-28 October 1957. More than 2,000 were arrested.

Although the will to resist the passes had not changed, the reality of Government coercion forced more and more women to accept them. Resistance and demonstrations continued, but by March 1960, 3,020,281 women, or about 75 per cent of the adult women, had accepted the passes. Winnie Mandela, one of the leading South African women who has herself been severely restricted by the regime for almost 17 years, explained why women were forced to accept passes:

"We have to carry passes which we abhor because we cannot have houses without them, we cannot work without them, we are endorsed out of towns without them, we cannot register births without them, we are not even expected to die without them."

In December 1959, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), which was formed in 1959 as a second major African nationalist organisation in South Africa, announced that it would launch "decisive and final positive action" against the pass laws under the slogan "no bail, no defence, no fine". ANC was also planning a major campaign against the passes with varying tactics, to commence on 31 March 1960.

Robert Sobukwe, President of PAC, announced that his organisation`s campaign would begin on 21 March 1960. Members were requested not to bring their passes and to surrender themselves for arrest at the nearest police station. When released from jail, the campaigners would again offer themselves for arrest. PAC members had been instructed to act strictly in a spirit of non-violence. If ordered by the police to disperse, Mr. Sobukwe said, they should do so quietly.

The Sharpeville Massacre

On the morning of 21 March 1960, thousands of Africans gathered in locations around the country. In Sharpeville, up to 20,000 came to the police station: the atmosphere was tense. Police opened fire; 67 Africans were killed and 186 wounded, including 40 women and 8 children. More than 80 per cent were shot in the back while fleeing.

What has become known as the Sharpeville Massacre marked the beginning of an even more repressive era. A state of emergency was declared. ANC and PAC were both banned. Massive arrests were made under new restrictive legislation, while women led hunger strikes to protest conditions in the jail; it became virtually impossible to organise. A stay-at-home demonstration planned for the last three days of May 1961 did not succeed after the police had arrested upwards of 18,000 Africans in large-scale raids.

Proclamation 268 and Government Notice 1722 of 26 October 1962 made it obligatory for African women to carry passes as of 1 February 1963.

Former ANC President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Luthuli later wrote about the women’s actions:

"Among us Africans, the weight of resistance has been greatly increased in the last few years by the emergence of our women. It may even be true that, had the women hung back, resistance would still have been faltering and uncertain… The demonstration made a great impact, and gave strong impetus… Furthermore, women of all races have had far less hesitation than men in making common cause about things basic to them."

The Black Consciousness Movement

A period of intense repression followed the Sharpeville Massacre and the declaration of the state of emergency. With ANC and PAC banned, the possibilities of African trade union organisation weakened. A period of ostensible political inactivity became inevitable.

On the surface, women turned towards activities to ease the burdens of the deprivations created by apartheid. Thus, the African Self-Help Association, formed in 1964, established numerous day-care centres and children’s feeding programmes.

However, during that time, ANC and PAC began to develop both an underground inside South Africa and operations in exile, and the roots of what has become known as the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) developed inside South Africa. Thenjive Mtintso, a journalist, who was arrested and banned several times and is now in exile, described what Black Consciousness means:

"Black Consciousness says to the black man ‘whatever you have been doing so far, you have been trying to emulate whites. You have lost your values. You have been uprooted. Now go back to your roots and from there you can emerge as a man in your own right. Black Consciousness goes on to black solidarity and black power."

This is not to say that Black Consciousness is anti-white, but it does call for new strategies. Mtintso discussed what this means:

"Whatever we do in this country, be it on the economic, social or political level, it has to be by blacks, for blacks, period. It doesn’t matter how well-meaning white people may be… they can never deliver me from the hands of the Nationalists… whatever they do, they must try to work within their own community and concentrate on liberating their counterparts. I’ll be doing the same thing in the black community."

Helen Joseph, one of the crucial white leaders opposing apartheid for decades, believes that in the present context, whites must be content with a supportive role and accept what some interpret as an apparent rejection of their full participation. She said: "There isn’t the same opportunity now. Don’t forget that the whites that identified themselves with the struggle of the people for justice were very few." Others, such as Winnie Mandela, disagree that whites are rejected as participants in the liberation struggle:

"Black Consciousness means to develop the awareness in people, to develop their pride, and it does not confine itself to blacks only. Black people include all the oppressed peoples of this country whatever the shade of their skin. All those who are prepared to honour what we are fighting for… are included in this concept."

The Black Women’s Federation

In December 1975, 210 delegates representing 41 organisations gathered in Durban to found the Black Women’s Federation (BWF). BWF had similar roots to the Federation of South African Women which, as has been described, was multiracial and very powerful until 1963 when most of the leaders were banned and it ceased to exist as an effective organisation, although it was never dissolved. The 1975 organisation had the same objectives but allowed only black membership because it was based on opposition to the legislation governing blacks.

BWF worked in both urban and rural areas, which its predecessor did not do. It attempted to teach women to realise their own potential and to increase their awareness and level of education. It began literacy, nutrition and health classes. It was starting to establish small cottage industries and was preparing to work in the areas of housing, trade unions, rural development, and the legal disabilities of black women. But the Government acted swiftly to crush BWF. Within a year, seven leaders had been detained, and the entire organisation was banned in October 1977.

Soweto uprisings

The Black Consciousness Movement served to increase the awareness of youth of the hated "Bantu laws." During the June 1976 uprisings in Soweto, African youths put their lives on the line to protest Bantu education, which their parents had been fighting against for more than two decades. At least 600 children were killed by the South African police when they demonstrated in the streets.

Sikose Mji, a member of the Black Consciousness Movement, described her participation in the uprisings:

"One morning I decided I also had to participate, I also had a part to play—and I joined the crowd… there had been already lots of killings, and the children were playing in the streets, when suddenly a police van passed, a young seven-year-old child raised his fist and said to the police: ‘POWER’—whereupon the policeman got off the van and aimed at the child and shot at him directly… When the police started to shoot that is when students picked up stones, hit back, and took dust-bin lids to protect themselves…"

Nkosazana Dlamini, the former Vice-President of SASO, discussed in an interview the reaction of parents and their role after the killings:

"Even initially, during the peaceful demonstrations, parents supported the pupils… But what really thrust the parents into action was the brutal police killings. The police had always been ruthless with peaceful demonstrators, but nobody expected the cold-blooded murder of young children. So besides their solidarity with young people they were angered—and their hatred and rejection of the whole system came to the surface. They were completely with the students in their militancy. Even the workers’ strikes were very successful."

Soweto is now a symbolic rallying cry of South African blacks when they discuss resistance.

The women of Crossroads

Just as Soweto has come to symbolise black resistance to "Bantu laws," so Crossroads has come to symbolise resistance to the policy of forced population removals.

Crossroads is a so-called "squatter camp" in the Cape Town area. In 1977, when the Government announced that the camp would be demolished and the 20,000 residents sent to the Transkei, the women organised the Crossroads Women’s Movement. Contrary to the Government’s propaganda that Crossroads is a transient camp, the average length of time that heads of households have lived there is 18.2 years while that for spouses is 11.7 years. Even so, because of the very complicated and restrictive legislation that keeps urban families apart, less than 10 per cent of the spouses are legally in Crossroads. This, of course, serves to increase their vulnerability to the police. It is the women who risk most through harassment and arrest by the police. But it is also the women who have no future outside Crossroads, away from their husbands and families. For them, it is Crossroads or nothing.

The rallying cry of the women has been "we are not moving." In June 1978, more than 200 women demonstrated at the Bantu Affairs Administration Board, where seven women expressed their grievances to the officials. They were all called in by the police 10 days later. The police began sweeping raids, arresting women and children in their homes and when they went to the wells for water. In July, a multiracial crowd of between 4,000 and 5,000 people participated in a two and a half hour service for the preservation of the camp, despite a police warning that the meeting was illegal. The police expanded their raids in September: 800 people were arrested and three were shot, one of whom died. When the first lot of bulldozers arrived, the women sat down. Three people were killed. The women continued to protest. They sought and received international support.

Finally, in December 1978, the Government, by then under massive international pressure, announced that it would not force the residents to leave the Cape Town area.


As in most societies, there is no doubt that the top leadership in organisations in southern Africa opposing apartheid and racism has been held by men. However, especially in South Africa, women have frequently been the ones to raise the primary issues and to organise and involve the people around those issues.

In almost all cases, women were first brought into the struggle when they saw the attempt by the Government to destroy their family structure and with it the basic fabric of their respective societies. Thus, in South Africa, women reacted most vigorously to the introduction of passes in the 1950s and the consequent restrictions on families; to the mass killings of their children two decades later in Soweto; and to the attempt to destroy urban family life as epitomised by Crossroads.

In South Africa, women were very active in trade unions and in women’s federations. Participation in political parties was not meaningful since African voting rights were virtually non-existent. The Black Consciousness Movement was a major activity centre in the 1970s.

That the women have had a significant impact in southern Africa is beyond question. Women have participated in ever-increasing numbers both within their countries and in exile, always at risk to themselves and to the groups they represent. The level of risk is reflected in the severity of government repression against women. In South Africa, one can hardly think of a prominent organiser who has not been detained, banned or imprisoned. By eliminating the leadership, the authorities destroyed the Federation of South African Women. When this tactic did not work with the Black Women’s Federation, it banned the entire group.

In South Africa, the women won the early anti-pass campaign, they achieved a roll-back of bus fares and apparently saved Crossroads. They did not end "Bantu education" and have had to accept passes even though they withstood the final imposition for 11 years. However, in the light of all the odds against them in those major campaigns, it would have to be concluded that, on balance, the women did make an effective contribution to the struggle for liberation.

The women of southern Africa have increasingly attracted the attention and solidarity of women and men internationally. The importance of solidarity has been expressed by Winnie Mandela:

"Over the past fifteen years, when I was confined and restricted. I got my inspiration from the very knowledge… that the struggle is an international struggle for the dignity of man… just that knowledge alone that we belong to a family of man in a society where we have been completely rejected by a minority… this alone sustains you."

Mrs. Mandela also said:

"It is only when all black groups join hands and speak with one voice that we shall be a bargaining force which will decide its own destiny… We know what we want… We are not asking for majority rule; it is our right, we shall have it at any cost. We are aware that the road before us is uphill, but we shall fight to the bitter end for justice…"