NOW YOU HAVE TOUCHED THE WOMEN (1)
African Women's Resistance to the Pass Laws in South Africa 1950-1960
by Elizabeth S. Schmidt
The decade of the 1950s was a decade of turmoil in South Africa. In the urban areas, a strong alliance wasbeing forged between racially oppressed groups and sympathetic whites. As a united front against apartheid,
the non-racial Congress Alliance, (2) formed from previously organised racially-based and worker groups,
defied unjust laws and conducted campaigns against forced removals under the Group Areas Act and against
inferior "Bantu" education for African children. The alliance organised bus boycotts, stay-at-homes, and rent
strikes in the African townships. Perhaps the most significant Congress campaign of the decade was the
campaign against the pass laws, and in particular, the extension of reference books to African women. No
other campaign was carried out on such a massive scale or was sustained over as many years. No other
campaign struck at the very root of the apartheid system.
Protest against the pass laws was not an innovation of the 1950s. The African National Congress (ANC) had
been organising opposition to the legislation since its founding in 1912. The significance of the campaigns of
the 1950s lay in the adoption of new strategies for bringing about fundamental change. For the first time,
anti-pass protesters employed techniques of mass action, strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience on a wide
scale, abandoning the appeals, petitions and deputations that had characterised ANC protests for more than
forty years. Efforts at gentle suasion and pleas for patient waiting were cast aside as remnants of a bygone
era. The degree of popular involvement in the anti-pass actions and the level of spontaneous activity in the
rural areas was unparallelled in any other period of South African history. Finally, in the 1950s, the primary
catalysts of the anti-pass protests were not the traditional male leaders, but thousands of African women,
many of whom had never before been involved in political protests or demonstrations.
In the urban areas, the women`s campaigns were primarily organised by the ANC
Women's League and the non-racial Federation of South African Women. In the rural areas, resistance was largely spontaneous.
Although the Government charged that the unrest was due to the work of "outside agitators", the rural women
were, for the most part, acting on their own initiative and according to their own understanding of how the
extension of the pass laws could affect their lives. While women who worked in the urban areas brought home
new tactics, insights and information when they returned to the reserves, they were contributing to a
momentum that had gathered on its own.
The militancy of the women, their level of organisation in the urban areas, and the ease with which they
discarded their expected subordinate role came as a shock to many of the men and even to some of the
women. Although women were deeply involved in all of the Congress campaigns of the 1950s, the leadership
of the Congress organisations was dominated almost exclusively by men. (3)
As the women`s campaigns gathered strength, the ANC National Executive Committee pointedly
acknowledged the role of women in the liberation struggle. It was obvious, from the wording of its statements,
that the importance of women to the struggle had not previously been assumed. In its report to the Annual
Conference of December 17-18, 1955, the ANC National Executive Committee remarked that the ANC
Women's League, which was formed in part to "take up special problems and issues affecting women", was
not "just an auxiliary to the African National Congress, and we know that we cannot win liberation or build a
strong movement without the participation of the women..." (4)
African women played a leading role in the resistance to pass legislation because of the particular way in
which influx control measures, implemented through the pass system, affected their position in society as well
as African family life. On the basis of race, African women suffered the same disabilities as African men.
Because of their sex, however, they carried a double burden. At the bottom of the social and economic
hierarchy, African women were predominantly employed in low-paying, unskilled jobs. Because of the tenuous
nature of their employment - largely in the domestic service and informal sectors - African women were
particularly vulnerable to removal from the urban areas as "idle" Africans or "superfluous appendages". Legal
constraints made it far more difficult for African women than men to acquire urban residency rights,
accommodations in the urban areas, and land in the African reserves. Influx control laws, and by extension the
pass system, were intentionally used by government officials to bar African women from the urban areas and
to confine them to the African reserves.
Life in the reserves was an existence of poverty and hardship for the vast majority of the people. Enforced
landlessness had transformed African men from self-reliant peasants to migrant labourers in the white areas.
Influx control laws meant that their families were forced to stay in the reserves, where the men could visit them
once a year. The burden of raising children under such conditions, which fell almost exclusively on the women,
became increasingly arduous. As the soil lost its fertility and landlessness became more acute, the reserve
economy deteriorated. The women's role as cultivators and providers eroded, and with it,
women's social status. Rather than being major contributors to the families` livelihood, women became increasingly
dependent upon male earnings. However, these earnings were neither large nor secure. In many cases,
money from the "white" areas came sporadically or not at all.
During the period that women were free from pass law restrictions, some had been able to skirt the influx
control regulations and join their husbands in the urban areas. Some found menial jobs which, although
low-paying and insecure, were more lucrative than subsistence farming. These women knew that the
extension of passes to women would increase the effectiveness of the influx control system. No longer would
there be an exit from the reserves, a way for women to earn money to feed their children or to live with their
husbands in the urban areas. As a result, when in 1952 the Government announced that African women would
be forced to
carry passes, the women responded with vehemence. Subjection to pass law controls would
destroy their last remaining hope - their freedom of movement. Unlike African men, the women who resisted
these laws had nothing further to lose. Protesters in the rural areas were not risking the loss of urban
residency rights, houses or jobs. They could afford to be bold where men were apt to be hesitant. The women
could only gain by their militancy.
Resistance to the pass laws was the overwhelming, but not the only issue of the 1950s. African women
became involved in a number of campaigns focussing on issues that affected their ability to care for their
children and to keep their family unit together. They protested the pass laws, "Bantu" education, rent hikes,
bus fare increases, forced removals of African communities, government-owned beer halls that soaked up
their husbands` wages and laws that prevented them from selling home brew, an important source of income
for many women. In the rural areas, women resisted the Government's "betterment" schemes, which included
the mandatory culling of precious livestock, required women to fill and maintain cattle dipping tanks without
pay, and enforced soil conservation measures which dispossessed many families of arable land.
Although the disabilities imposed by apartheid laws were onerous for every African, in many ways the burden
fell heaviest on the women. In order to comprehend the forces that propelled these women into action in the
1950s, it is necessary to understand the social and economic context of their resistance. Perhaps the single
most significant factor contributing to their hardship was the deterioration of the economy in the reserves,
where the majority of African women were compelled to live. As a result of this economic decline, an
increasing number of able-bodied men were leaving the reserves as migrant labourers. The outflow of labour
from the reserves and the destruction of the family unit intensified the hardships borne by African women...
In 1952, the same year that African women became subject to strict influx control measures, the Natives
Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act was passed. Under this Act, the numerous
documents African men had been required to carry were replaced by a single document - the reference book
- which contained information concerning identity, employment, place of legal residence, payment of taxes,
and, if applicable, permission to be in the urban areas. The Act further stipulated that African women, at an
unspecified further date, would for the first time be required to carry reference books. In October 1962, the
that all African women would be required to carry reference books as of February 1,
1963. After this date, it would be criminal offence for African women, as well as men, to be caught without a
reference book. Moreover, it would be illegal for anyone to employ an African of either sex who did not
possess a reference book. (5)
The term "pass" was frequently used to describe any document which curtailed an
African's freedom of
movement and was
producible on the demand of police or local authorities. Thus, residency permits, special
entry permits, workseekers' permits, and reference books often fell into the general category of the "pass".
Strictly speaking, permits were the documents issued to workseekers and special cases under the terms of
the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952. Reference books, a government euphemism for the consolidated
pass documents, were issued under the terms of the Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of
Documents) Act, also of 1952. Ultimately, all African women in the towns, cities, "white" rural areas and
reserves were required to carry reference books, while only certain women in the proclaimed areas were
subject to the permit requirements. The issuance of permits in the urban areas began a few years before the
issuance of reference books. African women declared that the permits were simply forerunners of reference
books and treated them with equal contempt.
The Government's first attempts to force women to carry passes and permits had been a major fiasco. In
1913, government officials in the Orange Free State declared that women living in the urban townships would
be required to buy new entry permits each month. In response, the women sent deputations to the
Government, collected thousands of signatures on petitions, and organised massive demonstrations to
protest the permit requirement. Unrest spread throughout the province and hundreds of women were sent to
prison. Civil disobedience and demonstrations continued sporadically for several years. Ultimately the permit
requirement was withdrawn.
No further attempts were made to require permits or passes for African women until the 1950s. Although laws
requiring such documents were enacted in 1952, the Government did not begin issuing permits to women
until 1954 and reference books until 1956. The issuing of permits began in the Western Cape, which the
Government had designated a "Coloured preference area". Within the boundaries established by the
Government, no African workers could be hired unless the Department of Labour determined that Coloured
workers were not available. Foreign Africans were to be removed from the area altogether. No new families
would be allowed to enter, and women and children who did not qualify to remain would be sent back to the
reserves. The entrance of the migrant labourers would henceforth be strictly controlled. Male heads of
households, whose families had been endorsed out or prevented from entering the area, were housed with
migrant workers in single-sex hostels. The availability of family accommodations was so limited that the
number of units built lagged far behind the natural increase in population.
In order to enforce such drastic influx control measures, the Government needed a means of identifying
women who had no legal right to remain in the Western Cape. According to the terms of the Native Laws
Amendment Act, women with Section 10(1)(a), (b), or (c) status were not compelled to carry permits.
Theoretically, only women in the Section 10(1)(d) category - that is, workseekers or women with special
permission to remain in the urban area - were required to possess such documents. In spite of their legal
exemption, women with Section 10(1)(a), (b), and (c) rights were issued permits by local authorities which
claimed that the documents were for their own protection. Any woman who could not prove her (a), (b), or (c)
status was liable to arrest and deportation.
Soon after permits were issued to women in the Western Cape, local officials began to enforce the
regulations throughout the Union. Reaction to the new system was swift and hostile. Even before the Western
Cape was designated a "Coloured preference area", Africans were preparing for the inevitable. On January
4, 1953, hundreds of African men and women assembled in the Langa township outside Cape Town to
protest the impending application of the Native Laws Amendment Act. Delivering a fiery speech to the crowd
Dora Tamana, a member of the ANC Women's League and a founding member of the Federation of South
African Women, declared:
"We, women, will never carry these passes. This is something that touches my heart. I appeal to you
young Africans to come forward and fight. These passes make the road even narrower for us. We have
seen unemployment, lack of accommodation and families broken because of passes. We have seen it
with our men. Who will look after our children when we go to jail for a small technical offence -- not
having a pass?" (6)
The women's campaign had begun. Throughout the Union, preparations were made for the first nonracial
National Conference of Women, to be held in Johannesburg in April 1954.
The Federation of South African Women
Marches on Pretoria in 1955 and 1956
One hundred and forty-six delegates, representing 230,000 women from all parts of South Africa, attended
the first National Conference of Women. (7)
It was at this conference that the Federation of South African Women was formed. Many of the delegates to
the conference were members of the various Congress organisations. Among the African leaders of the
Federation, a large number were trade unionists, primarily from the clothing, textile, and food and canning
industries. Some were teachers and nurses, members of the small African professional class. Since fewer
than one per cent of African working women were engaged in production work in the 1950s, the trade
unionists, like the nurses and teachers, represented but a fraction of all adult African women. The involvement
of the trade unionists proved to be critical, however. They contributed invaluable organisational skills and
mobilising techniques to the women's struggle.
Although the Federation of South African Women included some individual members, it was primarily
composed of affiliated women's groups, African, Indian, "Coloured" and white political organisations, and
trade unions. According to its constitution, the objectives of the Federation were:
"To bring the women of South Africa together to secure full equality of opportunity for all women,
regardless of race, colour or creed; to remove social and legal and economic disabilities; to work for
the protection of the women and children of our land." (8)
The "Women`s Charter", written at the first conference, called for the enfranchisement of men and women of
all races; equality of opportunity in employment; equal pay for equal work; equal rights in relation to property,
marriage and children; and the removal of all laws and customs that denied women such equality. The Charterfurther demanded paid maternity leave, child care for working mothers, and free and compulsory education for
all South African children. (9)
Although the Federation acknowledged that the primary task at hand was the struggle for national liberation, it
warned that the struggle would not be won without the full participation of women. Applying a distorted version
of "tribal" law, which had governed pre-industrial African society, South African courts continued to regard
African women as perpetual minors under the permanent tutelage of their male guardians.
Women's property rights were severely limited and control over their own earnings minimal. The authors of the "Women's
Charter" did not hesitate to deal with these issues. According to the Charter, laws governing African marriage
and property relations had "lagged behind the development of society (and) no longer correspond to the
actual social and economic position of women". As a result, "the law has become an obstacle to the progress
of the women, and therefore, a brake on the whole of society". The blame for "this intolerable condition"
rested in part with "a large section of our menfolk" who refuse "to concede to us women the rights and
privileges which they demand for themselves". The Charter concluded:
"We shall teach the men that they cannot hope to liberate themselves from the evils of
and prejudice as long as they fail to extend to women complete and unqualified equality in law and
practice... freedom cannot be won for any one section or for the people as a whole as long as we
women are kept in bondage."
The demands laid out in the "Women's Charter" were ultimately incorporated into the "Freedom Charter",
adopted by the Congress of the People in Kliptown on June 25-26, 1955.
A major task of the Federation in succeeding years was the organisation of massive protests against the
extension of pass laws to women. Together with the ANC Women`s League, the Federation organised
scores of demonstrations outside Government offices in towns and cities around the country. The first national
protest took place on October 27, 1955, when 2,000 women of all races marched on the Union Buildings in
Pretoria, planning to meet with the
Cabinet ministers responsible for the administration of apartheid laws. The
Minister of Native Affairs, Dr. Verwoerd, under whose jurisdiction the pass laws fell, pointedly refused to
receive a multiracial delegation. (10)
Less than a year later, the Women's League and the Federation of South African Women organised a
second major demonstration - this time focussing exclusively on the pass laws. On August 9, 1956, 20,000
women from all parts of South Africa staged a second march on the Union Buildings. Prime Minister Strijdom,
who had been notified of the women's mission, was not there to receive them. In lieu of a meeting, the women
left bundles of petitions containing more than 100,000 signatures at the Prime
Minister's door. (11)
Outside the Government building, they stood silently for 30 minutes, their hands raised in the Congress
The women concluded their demonstration by singing freedom songs, including a new one composed
especially for the occasion:
Wathint` abafazi, Strijdom!
Wathint` imbokodo uzo kufa!
Now you have touched the women, Strijdom!
You have struck a rock
(You have dislodged a boulder!)
You will be crushed!
African women fought the pass laws as they had fought no other issue. Passes were the symbol of their
deepest oppression. It was through the pass laws that the influx control system was enforced. It was influx
control that turned their husbands into migrant workers and made them into widows in the reserves. Passes
deprived them of the basic right to live with their husbands and to raise their children in a stable family unit.
Throughout the 1950s, an average of 339,255 African men were convicted each year for pass laws violations.
If passes were extended to African women, that figure would more than double. If mothers were arrested as
well as fathers, the women asked, who would care for the children?
The call-to-action flyers of the Women's League and the Federation described in vivid detail the plight of the
African people under the pass laws. A flyer printed in 1957 carried the following challenge: "Who knows better
than any African woman what it means to have a husband who must carry a pass?" The flyer continued:
"Passes mean prison; passes mean broken homes; passes mean suffering and misery for every
African family in our country; passes are just another way in which the Government makes slaves of the
Africans; passes mean hunger and unemployment; passed are an insult..."
The extension of passes to women constituted an "attack on ourselves, our mothers, sisters, children and
families", the flyer concluded, an attack that would be fought with all the
women's strength. (13)
Other documents were written in a similar vein. The petition left with the Prime Minister on August 9, 1956,
described how the pass laws had brought "untold suffering to every African family". Generations of women
had experienced the meaning of the pass laws as they witnessed their husbands become victims of "raids,
arrests, loss of pay, long hours at the pass office, weeks in cells awaiting trial, forced farm labour". They had
seen their men subjected to "punishment and misery - not for a crime, but for the lack of a pass". The
extension of passes to women would mean the further destruction of family life, that children would be "left
uncared for, helpless, and others (would be) torn from babies for failure to produce a pass". The petition
concluded with a warning to the Prime Minister:
"(African women) shall not rest until ALL pass laws and all forms of permits restricting our freedoms
have been abolished. We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of
freedom, justice and security." (14)
Male Reactions to the Women's Campaigns
Few of the men were prepared for the women's militancy. According to Mary Benson, Walter Sisulu, former
Secretary-General of the African National Congress, witnessed the march of 20,000 women on the Union
Buildings in Pretoria. Afterwards, he asked in zest: "How could they dare?" (15)
Moses Mabhida, a leader of the African National Congress and an executive of the South African Congress
of Trade Unions (SACTU), felt that because of traditional male attitudes which perpetuated the subordinate
status of women, "the society didn't expect women to participate in the way they did". (16)
Benson writes that the men were taken aback because women were protesting on a scale and with a spirit
they had not begun to achieve. In her view, the women's militancy and the
men's reticence could be explained by the different circumstances of their lives under the apartheid system. To illustrate her point, Benson quotes
"Men are born into the system, and it is as if it has been a life tradition that they carry passes. We as
women have seen the treatment our men have - when they leave home in the morning you are not sure
they will come back. We are taking it very seriously. If the husband is to be arrested and the mother,
what about the child?" (17)
In spite of their hate for pass regulations and all they connoted, African men had grown used to carrying the
pass documents. For men, passes were just one more aspect of the despised apartheid system. For women,
the carrying of passes imposed a new restriction on their freedom, a freedom that men had never had.
Women had more to lose by acquiescing to the new system and more to gain by fighting it.
If the men were slow to recognise the women's contribution, they had staunch supporters of their efforts.
Albert Lutuli, President-General of the African National Congress, paid tribute to the women in August 1956.
"When the women begin to take an active part in the struggle as they are doing now, no power on earth can
stop us from achieving FREEDOM IN OUR LIFETIME", he declared. (18)
In November 1956, the South African Congress of Trade Unions wrote to the Transvaal Provincial Conference
of the Federation of South African Women, strongly supporting the women's actions:
"It is the women of South Africa who have demonstrated to all progressive forces the true meaning of
militancy and organisation and we in the trade union movement are determined to follow your
courageous example." (19)
The National Executive Committee of the African National Congress, after paying tribute to the
women's anti-pass campaigns, criticised the men for not playing a more active role in that struggle:
"The National Executive Committee regrets that men, who are even more affected by the pass laws,
play the role of spectators while women were vigorously campaigning against the system. Men are
called upon to enter this campaign unreservedly. The tendency of regarding this as a
must be forthwith abandoned." (20)
The National Executive Committee also directed the men to be more supportive of the women and their
efforts. It was the duty of the men to:
"...make it possible for women to play their part in the liberation movement by regarding them as equals,
and helping to emancipate them in the home, even relieving them of their many family and household
burdens so that women may be given an opportunity of being politically active. The men in the Congress
movement must fight constantly in every possible way those outmoded customs which make women
inferior and by personal example must demonstrate their belief in the equality of all human beings, of
both sexes." (21)
By 1959, four years after the beginning of the women's campaigns, the men in the African National Congress
had become ardent supporters of the women's efforts. For the Annual Conference of the African National
Congress, held in December of that year, the men made a special banner which read, "Makabongwe
Amakosikazi" - "We thank the ladies". (22)
The Local Campaigns: Women Revolt in the Towns and Cities
Just as they had forty years before, the
women's anti-pass protests of the 1950s began in the Orange Free State. The first actions were taken against the permit system. In June 1952, in the mining town of
Odendaalrus, residents of the location were told that African women who had not registered with the local
authorities would be liable to arrest for violation of the Urban Areas Act. If women could not prove that they
were employed, they could not remain in the Odendaalrus area. The authorities were acting illegally. While
women could be issued residence permits or permits of identification, under the terms of the Urban Areas
Act, only African men were required to register their service contracts or status as workseekers. African
women were exempt from these regulations. (23)
Few of the residents were aware of this fact. When the authorities tried to enforce their decree, rioting broke
out. Stones were thrown. The car of the location superintendent was burned. Police fired into the crowd, killing
one man and critically wounding a woman. Two days later, the location residents went out on strike, most of
them failing to appear for work. Police from eight near-by towns raided the location with sten guns, pistols,
batons and tear gas, rounding up participants in the disturbances. By the end of the week, 71 men and
women had been detained. Forty-four women and three men ultimately stood trial. (24)
By 1954, the issuance of residence permits to African women was taking place in towns and cities throughout
the Union. In February, a crowd of 700 women gathered outside the administration building in the New
Brighton township of Port Elizabeth, demanding that the manager of Native affairs take back all the residence
permits he had issued. When he refused, l00 women burned their permits, declaring that no more New
Brighton women were willing to carry them. (25)
In October 1955, while 2,000 women were marching on Pretoria, 1,000 were protesting in front of the Native
administration building in Durban. In Cape Town, hundreds of women marched through the streets in protest
of the permit regulations. The Minister of Native Affairs, Dr. Verwoerd, chose this moment to announce that
reference books would be issued to African women beginning in January 1956. In response to the
Government's actions, the African National Congress resolved in December 1955 to launch a massive
campaign against the pass laws. The goal of the campaign would be to educate people throughout the
country concerning the implications of the pass system, and in particular, its effect on African women. In a
letter to a provincial official of the African National Congress, Secretary-General Oliver Tambo described the
extent of the African National Congress effort:
"A systematic intensive organisation must be undertaken; house to house, yard to yard, location to
location, factory to factory, in the towns and likewise in the country." (26)
In early 1956, the Government began issuing reference books to women in the remote rural areas,
intentionally shying away from the larger towns and cities where the influence of the African National Congress
was strongest. The authorities focussed on the most vulnerable women - those in the reserves and on the
white farms, and domestic servants isolated in the white urban areas. Only after the majority of African women
had reference books would the Government attack the African National Congress strongholds. The African
National Congress was not blind to the Government's tactics. At the annual Conference of the African
National Congress (Transvaal) in November 1956, President E.P. Moretsele warned that.
"Plans are afoot to introduce reference books on the farms and country dorps. The plan of the
Government is perfectly clear. Alarmed by the resistance it is encountering in the cities and being aware
of the weaknesses in the countryside, they have decided to isolate and encircle the areas where
resistance is most effective. At present the passes are being introduced to women in the countryside
and thereafter the cities will be attacked with all viciousness and brutality for which the Nationalists are
It was not until March 1956 that the first reference books were issued. The first recipients were again women
in the Orange Free State, this time in the town of Winburg. In April, hundreds of Winburg women marched to
the magistrate's court and charged that many of those who had taken reference books had been tricked into
accepting them. They proceeded to dump a sack containing 141 reference books on the ground and burned
them. All of the women were arrested. Although it was not yet mandatory for women to carry reference books,
it was illegal to destroy them. (28)
Protests spread throughout the country. Twelve hundred women demonstrated in Germiston, 2,000 in
Johannesburg, 4,000 in Pretoria, and 350 in Bethlehem. (29)
In Durban, a deputation of more than 300 women marched to the Native
Commissioner's office. (30)
Seven hundred Port Elizabeth women deposited more than 4,000 protest forms with the Native
Commissioner - all of which were promptly turned over to the police. (31)
The people of Evaton were in the sixth month of a bus boycott to protest fare increases when the
women's protest began. Rather than break the boycott, 200 women marched seven miles to the Native
Commissioner's office, where they left 10,000 protest forms. (32)
On 9 August, while 20,000 women were descending on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, thousands of women
were demonstrating in other parts of South Africa. In Cradock, 300 women assembled in front of the
magistrate's office while a deputation presented the magistrate with a memorandum. Later in the day, a
meeting of more than 1,000 people was held in the location to protest the pass laws. In Queenstown, women
congregated outside the magistrate's court, while a deputation met with the Native Commissioner. An African
policeman who witnessed the Queenstown demonstration later gave evidence in court. After providing the
particulars of the meeting, Native Detective A. Moxambuza remarked:
"Passes not popular amongst Africans. I myself have a wife and children, and if wife were to face same
dangers of arrest as average African male, I would be most unhappy. I am aware that when first
suggested that African women would carry passes, this caused resentment and heat amongst African
women and their men-folk."
Throughout 1957 and 1958, as supporters of the African National Congress and of the Federation of South
African Women protested in the towns and cities, the rural areas in the western Transvaal were in utter turmoil.
In close proximity to South Africa's major mining and industrial centre, the Witwatersrand, the Lefurutse
reserve of the western Transvaal was a source of migrant labour for South
Africa's industries, farms, and mines. Prior to the extension of reference books to African women, the reserve had been an area without
previous disturbances. By the end of the ordeal, the reserve and surrounding district had become a virtual
military camp. Thousands of refugees had fled the area. Whole villages had been destroyed and deserted.
The people who remained were subjected to nightly terror by police and the "bodyguards" of collaborating
tribal authorities. The disturbances began in March 1957 when the Reference Book Unit came to Zeerust, the
largest town in the Marico District. Only eight women, from an African population of 4,000 bought reference
books. The vast majority refused to purchase the new documents. (33)
The Reference Book Unit moved on to Dinokana, the village of Chief Abraham Moiloa. The Native
Commissioner had presented the chief with an ultimatum -- either he tell his women to accept reference
books or be deposed. (34)
In the years preceding the issuance of reference books, Chief Moiloa had fallen from favour with the South
African Government. He had delayed in signing the Bantu Authorities Act, which parodied tribal Government,
making chiefs and headmen instruments of the white regime, rather than leaders who acted with the consent
of their people. (35)
In 1955, the chief had been requested to persuade the villagers of Braklaagte and Leeuwfontein to abandon
their homes and move to a new location. The area surrounding the two villages had been declared "white",
and the Government was determined to move all "Black spots" within it. Chief Moiloa`s half-hearted efforts at
persuasion had failed completely. (36)
It was rumoured within government circles that the chief actually opposed the removal policy, the Bantu
Authorities Act and the introduction of "Bantu education" for African children. (37)
Although Chief Moiloa informed his people about the reference books, he refused to order the women to buy
them. When the Reference Book Unit arrived, only 76 out of 4,000 Diokana women purchased the books -
less than one in 50. Most of the 76 were school teachers, employees of the Government or wives of men who
had been threatened with dismissal from their jobs if their wives did not cooperate. (38)
Government retribution was swift. Chief Moiloa was summarily deposed and ordered to leave the reserve.
In the towns and cities of the Witwatersrand, the Bafurutse workers heard that trouble was brewing. Within
days, the women had returned home and organised boycotts against a white trader sympathetic to the
Government's efforts and against government schools where teachers had taken out reference books. Out of
1,200 students, less than 150 continued to go to classes. All of the boycotters were expelled and blacklisted.
Their names were circulated by the Native Affairs Department to prevent them from continuing their education
elsewhere. Ultimately, Dinokana's only school was forced to close down permanently. (40)
The following weekend, 150 Bafurutse men arrived from Johannesburg. A meeting was held and a decision
made: all of the reference books were to be destroyed. The women went from door to door, collecting the
documents. On Sunday, the reference books were brought to the public square and burned. Several thousand
people gathered around the blaze, singing as the passes went up in smoke. (41)
That evening, as the men made their way to Zeerust to catch the train back to Johannesburg, they walked into
a police cordon. One hundred men were arrested. To avenge the arrests, the women in the village began to
burn the huts of people loyal to the Government. The loyalists included a school principal, members of a
church whose leader had advocated the acceptance of reference books, policemen and other employees and
beneficiaries of the South African Government. (42)
On Monday, large-scale arrests began. By the end of the week, the jail in Zeerust was full. The unrest that
began in Dinokana quickly spread throughout the reserve. The women of Lekgophung took matters into their
own hands and told their chief to be absent when the Reference Book Unit arrived. Although it was unheard of
for women to give orders to a chief, the chief obeyed them. When the government officials arrived, the women
informed them that they did not want passes. The authorities left without issuing a single reference book. (43)
In the village of Supingstad, the women suddenly discovered that they had urgent business elsewhere. When
the Reference Book Unit appeared, the village was deserted. In Braklaagte and Borakalalo, the books were
refused without ceremony. The Reference Book Unit returned to Motswedi three times without issuing a single
book - in spite of the chief's command that the women cooperate. (44)
Only a handful of books were accepted in Leeuwfontein, where villagers speaking against the books were
In Gopane, the chief applied pressure, and approximately one-third of the women purchased reference books.
When the village men came home for the Easter holidays, they were livid. The chief had no right to take action
on an issue of such importance without consulting them. The reference books had to be destroyed.
Immediately, police reinforcements were sent from Pretoria. A mobile column of police armed with automatic
weapons entered the village with orders to arrest some 20 women suspected of burning their reference
books. A crowd of more than 200 women surrounded the suspects and challenged the police to arrest them
all. Two hundred and thirty-three women were arrested, and 400 offered themselves for trial. Mired in
confusion, the case was finally abandoned. (46)
In the white farming district surrounding the reserve, the acceptance of reference books was predetermined.
Unlike workers in the urban areas, farm labourers lacked protective support networks. They could not organise trade unions or form community organisations, uniting in their efforts to protect their rights. They
could not initiate economic boycotts against discriminating or otherwise unfair merchants who, more often
than not, were their own employers. Unlike the more fortunate peasants in the reserves, farm labourers did not
possess the means of production; they had no land, tools or livestock of their own. They were completely at
the mercy of their employers for their economic security and well-being. When reference books were
introduced into the farming area near the Lefurutse reserve, the farmers frequently transported their female
workers to the Reference Book Unit and waited while they purchased the books. In many instances, girls as
young as 12 and 13 were issued reference books, even though they were three and four years under the
minimum age of 16. Their employers then confiscated the books, informing the girls that if they ever left the
farm, they would be hunted down by the police and put in jail. Without knowledge or means to challenge their
employers` actions, these girls were often tied to the land for life. (47)
As time wore on and relatively few women purchased reference books, the authorities increasingly resorted to
coercion. Medical services became restricted in the reserve. Civil marriages could not take place if both
partners could not produce reference books. Married men who attempted to pay their taxes were turned away
if their wives had not purchased reference books. Unless their wives complied with the authorities, these men
were liable to arrest, imprisonment, fines and compulsory farm labour for non-payment of taxes. (48)
Women pensioners who had not purchased reference books were no longer allowed to collect their pensions
in the villages. Instead, they were forced to make the long journey into Zeerust to pick up their payments.
Suddenly, the bus service in Dinokana was discontinued. Villagers who had to travel to Zeerust were
compelled to walk more than 30 miles to Zeerust and back. The Dinokana post office was closed down. No
more telegrams could be sent or money received from relatives working in the cities. (49)
Collaborating chiefs, whose wives were usually among the first to take out reference books, refused to let
women defiers reap their crops. Their land and farm implements were confiscated. (50)
Although it was not yet mandatory for women to carry reference books, those caught without them were
subject to stiff - and illegal - fines. The chiefs claimed that the fines were "for Congress offences - African
National Congress crimes", although many of the villagers did not know what a "Congress offence" or the
African National Congress was. (51)
Women who could not pay the fines fled to the hills, abandoning their homes and leaving their fields and
animals untended. Throughout 1957, the police mobile column moved from village to village, criss-crossing
the Lefurutse reserve. In its wake were mass arrests, night raids, and brutal beatings of those who protested
the issuance of reference books. In terror, the villagers left their houses at night and slept in the bush. The
mobile column became a virtual army of occupation, camping in the villages, commandeering animals for
food and women for domestic service. (52)
In November 1957, the mobile column began to extend its protection to pro-government chiefs - against their
own people. Contingents of "bodyguards" were organised, composed of government sympathisers and
police. Village men were forcibly impressed into their ranks. Once they were associated with the
"bodyguards", these men could not safely return to their villages. Their only hope of protection was to remain
with the para-police units. Communities were thus divided internally, and violence spread. The "bodyguards"
conducted nightly raids, searching for pass-burners, whipping and clubbing the villagers. Women were
severely beaten, their bodies covered with bruises and deep gashes made from the sharpened edges of
strips of tire. (53)
Rather than intimidating the people, the police tactics intensified their anger and will to resist. Women were
brought to the Zeerust jails by the hundreds, singing "Open wide the doors of the prison, Commissioner. The
women of Lafurutse are ready to come in". (54)
In response to harassment by police and government sympathisers, villagers engaged in acts of sabotage
and counter-attack. In Leeuwfontein, 14 to 15 huts were burned and the chief forced into hiding. Many of the
homes belonged to members of the Zion Church women who, together with the chief, had agreed to
participate in the Government's removal scheme. (55)
In December, riots broke out in Witkleigat. For some time, the "bodyguards" had made a practice of meeting
the buses coming into the village and screening the passengers as they descended. They habitually beat
people who had paid fines rather than go to jail and those awaiting trial who were out on bail. The
"bodyguards" also attacked men whose wives had not taken reference books, parents of those who had fled,
and villagers who had helped the families of detainees. (56)
At Christmas time, when the Witkleigat men returned from the cities, they were attacked by the "bodyguards"
as they stepped off the buses. For the first time, the passengers fought back. A crowd gathered and marched
to the home of the pro-Government chief. The chief had fled, leaving his house and car to be burned, his wife
beaten, and his "bodyguards" killed. The mobile column from Pretoria arrived on the scene. Ninety people
were arrested and charged with murder. By the end of the month, the homes of 36 government collaborators
had been burned. Rioting spread to other villages. Large-scale, indiscriminate arrests were made throughout
the reserve. In early January, police shot and killed four Africans in Gopane.
Massive exodus from the villages began. By January 1958, people were leaving by the thousands,
abandoning huts, fields and cattle. They went to the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, to the
Witwatersrand, even to Cape Town, a thousand miles away. In a single week in February, one thousand
refugees fled to Bechuanaland, and more than one thousand left for other parts of South Africa. (58)
Among the involuntary refugees were political "agitators", banished to remote parts of the Union where
frequently they could not speak the local language. In March 1958, the Minister of Native Affairs announced
that African National Congress membership, slogans and salutes were henceforth illegal in certain African
areas, including the Lefurutse reserve. Africans could not enter the reserve without written permission from the
Native Affairs Department. Migrant workers returning from their places of employment were required to take
out permits in order to enter their own "homeland". (59)
The penalty for breaking these regulations was a fine of up to R300 or three years` imprisonment, plus three
years' imprisonment without the option of a fine. A person who raised his hand in a Congress salute could
thus be sentenced to six years in prison. (60)
By 1960, an estimated 3,O2O,28l African women - approximately 75 per cent of the adult female population -
had accepted passes. (61)
Although it was not yet compulsory for women to take out reference books, they were subject to severe
disabilities if they did not have them. Women without reference books could not rent houses in the urban
areas, or they lost those that they had. They could not register the births of their children or be married
according to common law. Without a reference book, women could not receive old age
maintenance grants. They were not issued driver's licences. Teachers and nurses without passes were
dismissed from their jobs. Some women claimed that their rent money was not accepted, and they could not
get licences to sell beer until they had produced a reference book. (62)
In 1958, many employers began to make the possession of reference books a condition of employment, even
though there was no law requiring African women to register their service contracts or to carry reference
The last anti-pass demonstrations took place in March 1960... On April 8, the African National
Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress were banned under the terms of the newly-passed
Unlawful Organisations Act. Already weakened by the arrests of their leaders, the remnants of the
African National Congress and of the Pan Africanist Congress went underground. As outlawed
organisations, they could no longer convene mass meetings and demonstrations. The days of
anti-pass protests were over. On October 26, 1962, the Government announced that all African
women, aged 16 and over, would be required to carry reference books as of February 1, 1963. By
that time, the African National
Congress Women's League had been outlawed, and the Federation of
South African Women had effectively ceased to exist. Much of their leadership had been banned,
banished or imprisoned. The women's anti-pass campaign had lasted for more than a decade.
Protests and demonstrations had shaken towns, cities and villages across the country. Tens of
thousands of women had participated in the
resistance, forcing the Government to delay for eleven
years the mandatory extension of reference books to African women. The women had fought the
pass legislation with unprecedented militancy. They had resisted the implementation of laws which
threatened the very core of their existence - their position in society, their ability to provide for their
children, and their capacity to create for their husbands and children a stable and secure family life.
The women had clung to their last remaining freedom - the freedom of movement - with a tenacity
unparalleled in other struggles. Unlike African men, who had lost this freedom generations before,
the women still hoped to avoid the inevitable. Although they were defeated in their immediate
objectives, the repeal of pass laws affecting women, the women had won a major victory. They had
gained their rightful place in the struggle for national liberation, a place at the forefront, on footing
equal to that of men. They had shown that men could not hope to liberate themselves if women
were relegated to a subordinate status. For without the women, the men did not know the day and
(1) From "Notes and Documents", No. 6/83, March 1983
(2) The earliest alliance was formed between the African National Congress (ANC) and the South AfricanIndian Congress (SAIC), which together organised the Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws in 1952. In
1953, the South African Coloured People's Organisation (SACPO) and the Congress of Democrats (COD)
were founded. The latter was composed primarily of white supporters of the Congress movement. The
nonracial South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) ws founded in March 1955. On June 25 and 26,
1955, these organisations came together in Kliptown for the historic Congress of the People. It was at this
Congress that 2,884 deleqates of all racial groups from all parts of South Africa adopted the "Freedom
(3) In December 1956, Lilian Ngoyi, national president of both the Federation of South African Women and
the African National Congress Women`s League, became the first woman ever to be elected to the National
Executive Committee of the African National Congress.
(4) "Report of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress", African National
Congress Annual Conference of December 17-18, 1955. Document 13(c) contained in Thomas Karis and
Gwendolen M. Carter, eds., From Protest to Challenge, A Documentary History of African Politics in South
Africa, 1882-1964, 4 vols. (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1973), Vol. 3.
(5) Muriel Horrell, ed., Laws Affecting Race Relations in South Africa, 1948-1976, p. 175.
(6) "Strong Protest against New Pass Law", Advance, Cape Town, January 8, 1953
(7) Ken Luckhardt and Brenda Wall, Organize or Starve: the South African Congress of Trade Unions
(London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980), p. 301; "Report of the Second National Conference of the Federation
of South African Women", August 11-12, 1956, reel 19B of the Carter/Karis Collection of South African
Political Materials, housed at the Centre for Research Libraries, Chicago, Illinois.
(8) "Constitution of the Federation of South African Women". Reel 19B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.
(9) "Our Aims", from the Women's Charter, First National Conference of the Federation of South African
Women, April 17, 1954. Reel 19B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.; "Women Act in Transvaal",
Advance, July 8, 1954.
(10) Helen Joseph, Tomorrow`s Sun, A Smuggled Journal From South Africa (New York: The John Day Co.,
1966), p. 73.
(11) Without reading the petitions, the Prime Minister handed them over to the Security Police. They were
later presented as evidence in the Treason Trial of 1956-61. Mary Benson, South Africa, the Struggle For A
Birthright (Minerva Press, 1969), p. 185; Anthony Sampson, The Treason Cage: The Opposition on Trial in
South Arica (London: Heinemann, 1958), p. 26.
(12) Benson, op. cit., p. 184; Luckhardt and Wall, op. cit., p. 302; Joseph, op. cit., p. 93; United Nations
Department of Public Information, The Plight of Black Women in Apartheid South Africa (New York: United
Nations, 1981), p. 24.
(13) "Repeal the Pass Laws... A Great Demonstration to Parliament" - flyer issued by the Federation of South
African Women and the African National Congress Women's League (Cape Western), June 13, 1957.
Document 24, contained in Karis and Carter, op. cit.
(14) "The Demand of the Women of South Africa for the Withdrawal of Passes for Women and the Repeal of
the Pass Laws". Petition presented to the Prime Minister on August 9, 1956. Reel 19B of the Carter/Karis
Collection, op. cit.
(15) Benson, op. cit., p. 182
(16) Luckhardt and Wall, op. cit., p. 305
(17) Benson, op.cit., p.l83
(18) Karis and Carter, op. cit., p. 74, quoting New Age, Cape Town, August 16, 1956
(19) Luckhardt and Wall, op, cit., p. 306
(20) "Resolution in Support of the Federation of South African Women and the African National Congress
Women's League", National Executive Committee of the African National
Congress. Reel 3B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.
(21) "Report of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress Conference of December
17-18, 1955. Document 13(c), contained in Karis and Carter, op. cit., p. 237
(22) Luckhardt and Wall, op. cit., p. 305.
(23) "Passes for Women Leads to a Riot", The Clarion, Cape Town, June 26, 1952; "Odendaalrus
Municipality Acted Illegally", Ibid., June 31, 1952
(25) "Women Burn Passes", Advance, March 4, 1954
(26) Letter from O. R. Tambo, Secretary-General of the African National Congress, to a Provincial Secretary
of the African National Congress, January 8, 1956. Reel 3B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.
(27) "Presidential Address by E. P. Moretsele", African National Congress Transvaal Annual Conference of
November 3-4, 1956. Document 17 (a), contained in Karis and Carter op. cit.
(28) Karis and Carter, op. cit., p. 74; Benson, op. cit., p. 183; "Protests and Petitions against the Extension of
the Pass Laws to Women and Pass Burning by Women". Reel 7B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.
(29) Benson, op. cit., p. 183& In Durban, a deputation of more than 300 women marched to the Native
Commissioner's office. 30 &"The African National Congress Anti-Pass Campaign". Reel 3B of the
Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.
(30) "The African National Congress Anti-Pass Campaign". Reel 3B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.
(31) "Protests and Petitions..." op. cit.
(32) Benson, op. cit., p. 183; "Protests and Petitions..." op.cit.
(33) Hooper, Charles, Brief Authority (London: Collins, 1960), p. 146; "Chief Told: 'Your Women Accept
Passes or Else' ", The World, April 13, 1957.
(34) "Chief Told..." op.cit.
(35) Hooper, op. cit., p. 149
(36) Ibid., p. 146
(37) Ibid., p. 276
(38) Ibid., pp. 151-52
(39) Ibid., p. 152; "Chief Moiloa Turns Down 'Advice': May be Deported", The World, April 20, 1957.
(40) Hooper, op. cit., p. 157
(41) Ibid., p. 165; "Chief Moiloa Turns Down..." op. cit.
(42) Hooper, op. cit. pp. 166-67
(43) Hooper, op. cit. pp. 166-67
(44) Ibid., pp. 174, 296
(45) Ibid., pp. 176-77
(46) Wall, Mary Ann, The Dominee and the Dom-Pass (Cape Town: Insight, 1961), p. 28
(47) Hooper, op. cit. pp. 177-78
(48)Ibid., pp. 201, 203
(49) Ibid., pp. 204-05
(50) Ibid., p. 176
(51) Ibid., p. 349
(52) Wall, op. cit., p. 53
(53) Ibid., p. 5
(54) Hooper, op. cit., p. 219
(55) Ibid., pp. 317-18
(56) Ibid., p. 308; Wall, op. cit., p. 45.
(57) Hooper, op. cit., pp. 329-31, 335
(58) Ibid., p. 361
(59) Ibid., pp. 374-75; Horrell, A Survey of Race Relations....1957-1958, op. cit., pp. 14-15
(60) Hooper, op. cit., p. 375
(61) United Nations, "The Role of Women in the Struggle..." op. cit., p. 22
(62)Ibid.; "Must Women Carry Passes? We say No!" African National Congress Women's League leaflet.
Reel 3B of the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.; "The Fight against Passes is On!! We Call upon All Men and
Women!!" Flyer for National Anti-Pass Conference (African National Congress), Saturday 30 May. Reel 3B of
the Carter/Karis Collection, op. cit.
(63) Luckhardt and Wall, op. cit., p. 307. In 1959, the Native Labour Regulations Act of 1911 was revised so
that, for the first time, the regulations were applicable to African women as well as men. As of January 9,
1959, no one could legally employ an African man or woman who had not registered with a local or district
labour bureau. Horrell, Laws..." op. cit..
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