The political importance of women’s food committees in Cape Town during the 1940s has been emphasised by both Cheryl Walker and Tom Lodge. According to Lodge, through the development of food committees in the Western Cape, protests over subsistence issues and food supply escalated into demands for popular suffrage. The motto of the food committees became ‘Today we fight for food, tomorrow for the vote and then for freedom for all’.
The origins of these committees lay in the crisis over the distribution of food during the Second World War. The Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA, now SACP) was quick to become involved in the campaigns and identified food supply as a political problem. According to CPSA member Hettie September: ‘During the war years, there was a scarcity of rice, all essential foods and the army trucks used to stop in a district and bring food to be sold. It was always chaos – fighting who’s going to get what and we decided to organise’.
In 1943, local women began to form committees as the vans were being sent out by the Department of Social Welfare to distribute basic foodstuffs. By 1946, more politically conscious women had joined these food committees to form the Cape Town’s Women’s Food Committee, an organisation representing over 30 000 women in the Peninsula. Executive members included women such as Dora Tamana, Gladys Smith, and Hettie September, who were active in other political organisations, including the CPSA and the African National Congress (ANC).
From organising the distribution of food, these women went on to tackle black marketeers who were accumulating food and selling it at twice the controlled price. The idea of rice raids imitated a number of successful campaigns in Durban.
According to Sarah Carneson, ‘The women knew the black marketeers who were hoarding the rice. And we went on the rice raids and raided these stalls and shops forcing them to get out their rice and sell it at controlled prices.’ These campaigns were often quite flamboyant. In 1946, for example, Cissie Gool led a march of over 2 000 women to visit merchants in District Six accused of hoarding foodstuffs. When they arrived, they found the shops locked and guarded by police, but Gool reportedly gained access and found 30 bags of rice, which were handed over to the food control authorities.
The Guardian newspaper catalogued the final campaigns of the organisation in 1950, when demonstrations were organised against the shortage of meat and the rising cost of living, and a deputation was sent to the Secretary for Food Supplies and Distribution to discuss the distribution services. Once rationing ended, so did the need for the food queues, but struggles over food continued. Despite the demise of the food committees, Hettie September contends that the political involvement of the major actors in these committees proved long-standing. Capitalising on the committees’ networks, a Guardian Christmas club was established both to aid saving for food and simultaneously extend the CPSA creed. By mid-1953, membership of the club had reached over 7 000.
Women such as Gladys Smith, Dorothy Zihlangu and Katie White went on from the food committees to involvement in the broader political struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Dorothy Zihlangu identifies a successful campaign by women against apartheid in the market at Salt River, Cape Town, as motivating her later involvement in politics:
We blacks were not allowed to go to the white side of the market to buy fresh vegetables. We were told to go to the other side and buy stale vegetables. We had to say something – the government had to let us buy fresh vegetables. So, we asked for our white women friends to buy up as much of the fresh as they could afford and bring it to Langa so we could have our own market there.
However, viewing women in the food campaigns simply as a preface to their calls for national liberation is misleading. While the food committees did politicise many previously isolated women, for others the motivation remained simply domestic. Nevertheless, the committees helped to identify the potential political activism among women on issues directly affecting them.
- Interview with Hettie September by Wolfie Kodesh, 4 November 1992, Oral History of Exile Project, Mayibuye Centre, University of the Western Cape.
- Interview with Fred and Sarah Carneson by James Zug, Oral History of Exile Project, Mayibuye Centre, University of the Western Cape.
- Interview with Blanche La Guma by Helen Scanlon, Cape Town, 12 February 2001.
- Lodge, T. “Black Politics in South Africa since 1945”. (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983).
- Scanlon, H. 2007. “Representation and reality: Portraits of Women’s Lives in the Western Cape 1948-1976”. HSRC Press: Cape Town.
- Schreiner, J. 1986. “Women Working for Their Freedom – F&CWU and AF&CWU and the Women’s Question”. (MA thesis, University of Cape Town).
- Walker, C. 1975. ‘“We First for Food”: Women and the Food Crisis of the 1940s’, Work in Progress 3.