The Natal Organisation of Women was formed in December 1983 as one of the affiliates of the United Democratic Front (UDF). The UDF was a broad front of organisations formed in 1983 to oppose the nationalist governments tri-cameral parliamentary proposals and became the leading anti apartheid political movement within the country. While the UDF was non-aligned most of its leadership and affiliates were either members of the underground ANC or sympathetic to it. From 1980 women from Durban had been coming together on an annual basis to commemorate August 9th (now National Women's day). The organizers of the August 9th events discussed the need for an ongoing programme that would unite women and deal with women's issues. In December 1983 NOW was formed and it became an affiliate of the UDF. The first president of NOW was Pumzile Mlambo and Hersheela Narsee as secretary. The following year Nozizwe Madlala was elected president and the late Victoria Mxenge was elected as NOW's secretary.
The main aim of NOW was to fight for the upliftment of women and therefore a constitution that would safeguard women's rights was formulated. The development and education of the members became a central issue in the organisation's activities. Women were trained and encouraged to take up leadership positions in various organisations. NOW fought for better housing at rates that were affordable and formed civic structures that included women. In addition to this the women of NOW were concerned with pass laws, the lack of proper maternity benefits and child-care. The establishment of NOW was a major factor in the increased role of women in political and civic organizations and in the establishment of the rights of women in the struggle and all spheres of society. NOW began as a membership based organization, but by the second AGM it had grown beyond Durban and had members throughout Natal. To accommodate the changes the organization established a branch structure and broke up Natal into five regions: Northern Natal, North Coast, South Coast, Greater Durban and the Midlands. The greater Durban branch was the largest and was further divided into sub regions.
With the declaration of the 1986 State of Emergency, and the mass detentions and restrictions on the UDF that followed, NOW activists found themselves filling the leadership vacuum in Natal and spearheaded a number of UDF campaigns that the UDF itself could not carry out. NOW responded to the needs of the victims by providing shelter, food and moral support. They also sent out delegates to various embassies as means of publicising the plight of the victims. From 1985, till the disbanding of the organization in 1990, the organization was primarily concerned with the issue of violence that erupted (often fueled by the security forces) between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and UDF. NOW gave support to women and other victims of the violence, members rallied to the needs of the victims of violence, providing shelter, food, legal and moral support.
Together with the UDF and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) affiliates, NOW also took part in consumer boycotts and bus boycotts. In the cause of the short life of the organisations many NOW members were subject to banning, detentions, assassinated and many were forced into exile. With the unbanning of political organizations in 1990, NOW launched a campaign to prepare for the re-establishment of the ANC and members held workshops to look at the role that women could play in rebuilding the party. After wide ranging consultation NOW decided to disband and its members joined the ANC and the ANC's Women League.
Click here for a recent article by Pregs Govender (NOW Media Officer) on Phozo Zondo (NOW Organizer) and a reflection on the post-apartheid struggle to exercise women's rights.