WOMEN IN THE APARTHEID
by Fatima Meer (1985)
No significant change has occurred in South Africa in the last decade. Apartheid and racism continue their
tyranny and the South African society is as far away from equality, peace and development as it was in 1975.
In a society where the fundamental criterion for discrimination is race, it is unreal to consider the position of
the one sex in isolation of the other. The enjoyment of the privileges of apartheid by white women differs only
marginally from that of white men: likewise, while black women suffer more than black men from the violations
of their rights, the violations are gross in respect to both. It is this reality that accounts for the very peripheral
impact of feminism on South Africa.
The International Year of Women opened in South Africa with new introspection on the part of black and white
women in their relations with each other and in their commitment to society. Despite the fact that black politics
of the time was heavily underlined by black consciousness, black and white women met and discussed
prospects of working together on some community projects. In Natal, I.W.Y.N. came into existence; other
similar groups emerged in other parts of the country. But the honeymoon was short-lived. The children of
Soweto, straining against inferior education set a new pace, and black women were drawn into the tragedy
that pursued their children. White women could not empathise with black women and most were openly
hostile, blaming the violence that erupted on the children.
In 1976, the police shot and killed schoolchildren, arrested and imprisoned hundreds on allegations of
terrorism, many in solitary confinement. The officials of the Black Women's Federation were imprisoned
without trial and the Federation itself was banned. State repression against the
people's legitimate demands for a greater share in the country's resources continued unabated. Lamtonville in Durban has been in a
ferment of unrest for the last two years due to high rentals. In the Transvaal, the protests of township residents
against high rents, including electricity and transport costs and rising prices in basic commodities resulted in
police shootings and 31 deaths during August 1984. The first legal strike by African mineworkers on the gold
reef was similarly repressed with police fire leaving six dead. Mass funerals follow such killings, the
Government sees them as further threats, police move in, there are the inevitable clashes, more deaths, more
funerals... the cycle of violence continues. The press, already warned against "emotional" reporting, is
blocked out altogether when temporary proclamations bar all whites from entering affected townships.
In August 1984 the Coloured and the Indian population were inflicted with a constitution they rejected. Faced
with a poll so low as to question the legitimacy of the new tricameral parliament the Government was bent on
inflicting on the people, it unleashed a new spate of detentions without trial. Six of the accused succeeded in
avoiding arrest, sought refuge in the British Consulate in Durban and focussed world attention on the lack of
freedom in South Africa.
In South Africa, the United Nations Decade for Women has in fact been a decade of increasing repression,
increasing unemployment and increasing underdevelopment, with 13 per cent of South
Africa's landmass allotted to the African people and carved into homelands. Land allotment per rural family has declined in size,
livestock has diminished, and subsistence from the land has almost disappeared. This affected women
directly, for they remained the last of the rural peasants and despite rural bankruptcy today, they are mainly
responsible for the maintenance of the unemployable, returned to the homelands.
There has been no shrinking in the gap between black and white in wages, education, or in social and welfare
services. Minor reforms, such as extending home ownership to Africans on 99-year leases, licensing some
hotels and theatres to admit all races, or quietening down on arrests of racially mixed couples for immorality,
are quite inconsequential. They represent a response to the concerns of the white public opinion in Europe
and in the Americas, as does in part the new tricameral constitution which was rejected by over 80 per cent of
Indians and Coloureds who qualified for communal votes.
Sport in South Africa continues to be segregated and unequal; players may not share common
accommodations. There were two multiracial golf clubs in the country up to 1983 - now there is only one.
Ninety-nine per cent of South Africa's swimming pools are reserved for whites only. While white children have
all the sporting amenities they could possibly desire, black children have token facilities. In 1984, 49,000
African pupils in Port Elizabeth had only seven rugby fields and one cricket ground; 26,020 white pupils had
84 rugby fields, 35 hockey fields and 176 tennis courts. The government expenditure on sport for white
children is 240 times higher than that for black. Beaches, hospitals and transport continue to be segregated.
Some changes have occurred in the statutory position of women in respect to marriage and divorce laws, but
these do not extend to African women. Rape laws and maintenance claims against unmarried fathers
continue to be skewed in favour of men and the vast majority of women avoid laying charges rather than suffer
the humiliation of cross-examination and insinuations of sexual promiscuity. Although the last decade has
been marked by a growing consciousness of the flagrant violations of industrial health in South African
factories, no reforms have been effected.
The law legalising African trade unions was an important event. It has helped substantially in the organisation
of labour. Whereas there were no registered integrated black (African, Coloured and Indian) or non-racial
trade unions up to 1979, in 1982 there were 40. Membership of registered unions rose from 637,480 in 1972
to 1,226,454 in 1982. Total union membership, registered and unregistered, was 1,500,000, representing 15
per cent of the economically active population. However, agricultural and domestic workers, mainly women,
still remain outside the fold of registration. In recent years, the Industrial Court has made judgments against
unfair labour practices. These decisions have been beneficial to workers. But the State clearly protects
employers against workers, whites against blacks, as police handling of even legal strikes demonstrates.
South Africa has experienced considerable economic growth since 1975, and foreign investments,
particularly by firms from the United Kingdom, United States and the Federal Republic of Germany have
increased, but so has unemployment and surplus labour.
The growth of the labour surplus, which began during the 1960s and 1970s steadily continues. Some
economists argue that this surplus has in fact been fostered by economic growth. In particular youth and
women who wait for jobs have been affected. Unemployment is likewise on the incline. It doubled between
1970 and 1977; economists estimate that at present between 10 and 22 per cent of the work force is
unemployed and project that the unemployment will rise to between 19 and 26 per cent in the next decade.
The Government responds to the unemployment by increasing the control over the movement of workers,
particularly women workers, and by more stringent attempts to block urbanisation. The rate of African
urbanisation in South Africa is calculated to be 60 per cent slower than in other developing countries. Arrests
due to pass laws violations increased by 28.3 per cent between 1981 and 1982 and fines paid by Africans so
arrested increased by 45 per cent. A study of the activities of one court alone - Langa Commissioner`s Court
- revealed that only in 1982 it had passed sentences totalling R250,000 in fines or 684 years in imprisonment
on Africans (mainly women) who had attempted to live and work together with their spouses in the Cape
Having substantially destroyed African family life, the State has proceeded to define it out of the South African
system, legally and socially: that is the import of hardening influx control, increasing shortage of township
homes, and persistent raids and arrests of those who strive to lead a family life in improvised shack
settlements outside the homelands.
Foreign investors, faced with a need to square within their own consciences, argue that they are a force for
change and find support for this from liberal economists. Records show, however, that racism, State
oppression and economic deterioration in the reserves have coincided with their entry into the South African
market. The post World War II South African infrastructure which boosted the
country's manufacturing industry was substantially financed by the United Kingdom and the West. It has bloated Afrikanerdom and apartheid
and brought practically no improvement in the conditions of workers who continue to be exploited miserably
whether working in foreign or in local firms. Reform measures, as expressed by special codes, such as the
American "Sullivan Principles", bring insignificant amelioration precisely because they touch an insignificant
sector of the population. Foreign companies are usually capital-intensive, and have the effect of increasing
unemployment among the unskilled and semi-skilled ranks. The educational structure is pointedly geared to
keep Africans under-educated: almost half of the African children leave school within the first three years. In
1983, there were only 72,168 African matriculants (excluding Transkei) and only 9.8 per cent attained
university entrance passes. White matriculants in the same year totalled 56,000 and well over half qualified for
Motherhood, often without adequate financial and emotional support, continues to be a source of great pain
for most South African mothers. The country as a whole has one of the largest infant mortality rates in the
world, 90 per 1,000 live births.
Reported cases of some diseases (2)
Regulations against abortions have been tightened. In 1982, a total of 454 legal abortions were allowed, 324
for white women. As against this, social welfare workers estimated at least 75,000 illegal abortions
performed on black (African, Indian and Coloured) women. The South African Medical Research Council
reported 33,421 incomplete and septic miscarriages in the same year.
Cholera, hypertension and mental illness are on the incline, being particularly concentrated among the African
people, and being highest in the homelands. It is estimated that two and four per cent of the population of
Ciskei and the Transkei respectively have tuberculosis.
Medical personnel and services are particularly inadequate. There is one doctor for every 330 whites, 730
Indians, 1,200 Coloureds and 12,000 Africans. Moreover, there is one nurse for every 14 whites, 549
Coloured, 707 Africans and 745 Indians.
Only 5 per cent of the doctors are practising in rural areas where the incidence of diseases is ten times higher
than in urban areas. A total of 27,205 hospital beds in urban areas are available to whites (18 per cent of the
population), as against 43,935 for Africans, Indians and Coloureds. Average bed occupancy rate for whites is
59 per cent, while for Africans it ranged between 90 and 100 per cent. King Edward Hospital in Durban with
2,000 beds often has 2,600 patients.
Health facilities break down completely with forced removals and forced resettlement. A four-year-old camp in
the Orange Free State with an estimated population of 200,000 to 300,000 had six doctors, one dentist, 38
country health workers, and three health centres.
Malnutrition and related diseases are on the incline. The Bureau of Economic Research in Stellenbosch
estimated in 1983 that 2.9 million children in the country were malnourished. Other agencies reported
dramatic increase in pellagra, and a 200 to 300 per cent increase in kwashiorkor among rural families in the
In relation to national income, South Africa continues to have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the
world. The rate for whites is 13 per 1,000 live births; for Africans it is 80 per 1,000 live births overall, and as
high as 240 per 1,000 live births in some homelands.
Discrimination in welfare grants and services remains unchanged, and in some areas State subsidies and
grants to African institutions have actually declined. Not only are blacks paid less per person than whites, but
the number of persons covered in proportion to the total population is also very much lower. The fact that
welfare is administered by 24 uncoordinated regional and racial boards aggravates discrimination. The
extent of such discrimination is reflected in the following comparisons for 1982-1983:
per capita grants for foster homes
of children covered
to day care centres per day, per child
grants per month
places of care
pensions per annum per pension
(* withdrawn in 1983)
- Non-Governmental Organisations
The Government is very cautious about non-governmental organisations and the Special Branch of the police
keeps a close eye on them. There is constant suspicion that they are fronts for "subversive" activity.
Organisations have to be registered under the Welfare Act to canvass for public funds. Eighteen black
consciousness organisations, many of them engaged in valuable community work, were banned in 1977 and
their assets, estimated at approximately Rl million were confiscated by the Government. This, however, has
not deterred voluntary work and there has been no decline in interest and activity, both by blacks and whites.
It is against this background of repression, non-development, and in many areas almost planned
underdevelopment, that one must view the position of South African women.
SOCIAL AND LEGAL STATUS
South Africa`s women of all races take their positions within the framework of male domination in the family, in
the polity, economy, and society in general. It is difficult to assess which of the component cultures, African,
Indian or European, was the most repressive before the advent of industrialisation.
Coloured and white women share a common cultural system, which appears to be less repressive of women
than the Indian and African ones. Coloured women, however, are not as liberated as white women are in their
relations with men. The difference is largely due to the economic factor. White women attain a very much
higher standard of education and are able to reach out to a far more varied and relaxed life. The "patriarch"
plays his role in moderation and even if overbearing at times, compensates by his effective role as "provider"
Coloured and African women appear generally to experience male domination without its compensating and
complementary services; increasing numbers of Indian women are facing the same problem. Failing to find
adequately paid jobs and therefore unable to fulfil the positive aspects of their patriarchal roles, they lean on
the negative, aggressive part. Women often make equal cash contributions to the household and at times
even greater than men, yet are all too often ignored when it comes to major issues.
Traditional African society accepted women as equal producers in the self-subsistent economy. Married
women possessed land and livestock and controlled the products of their labour. Though subordinate to men,
they were no more dependent on them than men were on women. The rights of both were in the final analysis
entrenched in their undeniable claims to family and tribe.
Modern capitalist society, underpinned by materialism, defines rights in terms of accumulated property. The
fact that women have poorer access to property than men places them at an immediate disadvantage.
African women, the bottom of the pile, have the poorest reach in this respect, that reach being further
attenuated by the law which places their property right in the custody of men.
South African law and/or tradition defines a woman as subordinate to a man. This definition reaches its
penultimate excess in the 1891 Bantu Code which until a few years ago was operative throughout the Natal
province. It has now been replaced by the KwaZulu code.
The black working class family, not having the intellectual reach to trace its problems to their roots outside of
itself in society, often locates them within itself, and aggravates the physical ravage with the emotional.
Women blame the men for depriving them of their "rightful" roles as mothers, and the men burdened with their
role as breadwinners, and unable to win the whole loaf, blame their failure on "natural" bad luck and retreat
into the bottle. The rate of alcoholism is very high among Coloured and African men.
- Conflict of Law and Custom
South African law and custom founded on European principles substantially modified African and Indian
definitions of the rights of women. While the general impression prevails that this has improved their status,
the reality is far more complex.
The legal position of African women is finally made all that more complicated because they are positioned
between the two systems, white and African, and it is left to the discretion of the "Bantu Court" to determine
which will be applied in a particular instance.
Up to 1983, all marriages in South Africa, excluding customary unions, were in community of property, unless
preceded by an ante-nuptial contract. This implied that whilst becoming joint owners of the estate,
administration was vested in the husband and the wife`s status was reduced to that of a minor. The new law
accords equal status to the husband and wife but it does not apply to African women.
Islamic law has always protected a woman`s right to property; she moreover retained her identity on marriage
and kept her own name. In South Africa this is subsumed by State law. Muslim women who do not register
their marriage, however, are subject to the local interpretation of the Islamic divorce procedure. It is the
husband`s prerogative to set aside a wife by pronouncing, "I divorce thee", three times. Women in such
cases, as well as in the case of Hindu marriages that are not registered, may sue only for seduction and
expenses incurred for the wedding.
The new law simplifies divorce, but it is still expensive. Since most women are not economically independent
and rely on their husband`s salaries, they are unable to institute and conduct the proceedings themselves.
Moreover, divorce still continues to be regarded as a slur on the woman. Women are far more vulnerable to
emotional and physical deprivation because of the socially cultivated dependence on men that exists in all
South African cultures.
Women, particularly the poorer, under-educated and unskilled ones, are vulnerable to a range of sexual
exploitations, rape being the extreme. In cases of both paternity and rape claims, the law operates to protect
the male, and women undergo humiliating cross-examinations in court and are often required to establish
impossible evidence to succeed.
Polygamy is traditional in both Indian and African societies: South African law recognises only one legal
marriage, and neither the second non-legal marriage nor the children of a non-legal marriage have any legal
status. This creates severe problems for the women who have been taken as second wives when their
husbands cannot cope with additional responsibilities and abandon them.
Unmarried African women are further pauperised through the high incidence of pregnancy. It is rare to find a
teenager who has not borne a child: it is common for school girls to fall pregnant and to have their babies, and
quite uncommon for the fathers to maintain them.
Interviews with 212 girls in a recent Durban study revealed that damages (not maintenance) was paid in only
14 per cent of the cases and 54 per cent of the fathers blankly refused to bear any responsibility. (5)
As a result, the girls often leave school and look for employment in order to raise their babies, having neither
the training nor confidence for anything else. Some eventually marry and gain some level of stability and
security, but just as many go through a series of short-lived affairs and as many children; most never recover
from the debilitating effects of an early, unmarried motherhood.
Pregnancies of unmarried women were matters of abject disgrace in the traditional African society, imposing
cleansing ceremonies on peer groups, and equal opprobrium on both partners. The close supervision of
relations implied that there was little opportunity for fathers to escape their responsibilities. In the urban
environment, however, African women have been deprived of their traditional protection.
All South African women are grossly disadvantaged by the prevailing law, but black women, and African
women in particular, are the worst sufferers. It has become customary not to sue for maintenance. The State
will make an order for the maintenance of the child if the mother can establish paternity, which is difficult under
existing law: the State, however, can rarely compel the errant father to pay maintenance and looking for him is
an ordeal imposed on the mother.
- Subjugation of African Women
The perpetrators of apartheid have grasped in some insidious way that the foundation of their system finally
rests on the subjugation of the African woman. Her isolation in the reserve where she becomes conditioned to
bearing and raising children and caring for the aged and ill, abandoned by industry and forced back into the
homeland by law, is imperative to the monopolistic accumulation of wealth and power in the white sector. The
only differential in the South African economy that yields the high profits essential to attract capital, foreign and
local, which in turn sustains apartheid, is the uninterrupted flow of cheap labour - South Africa`s black gold, as
one homeland leader puts it. That kind of labour is in the final analysis dependent on the continued
subjugation of women, not only through law, but through the manipulation of traditional attitudes of sexual
dominance and subservience.
Large numbers of African women in Natal continue to be subjected to the 1891 Bantu Code, which makes
them perpetual minors and lifelong wards of men - their fathers, husbands and in the absence of these the
closest surviving male relations, including sons. The women may not marry, continue in employment, defend
nor bring any action in court without their authority. Their male guardians can claim their earnings and control
their property. Upon marriage, the wife`s assets automatically revert to her husband, but she does not acquire
any right over his property. On his death, the family estate, including her contributions to it, automatically goes
to the closest surviving male relative, and she becomes his ward.
African women throughout the country are more severely restricted from entering urban areas than African
men are. Laws dating back to the 1930s made such entering dependent on the qualifications of their
"guardians" - husbands. Wives of men who qualify for urban rights through ten years of continuous service with
one employer or 15 years in one area, as well as their children under l6, may live in locations outside the
homelands provided they have acceptable accommodation. Women never acquire these rights on their own
and are forced to send their children to the homelands.
The result of such stringent controls over the urbanisation of women has meant that there has always been an
imbalance in the male/female ratio in both urban and rural areas - women outstripping men in the reserves
and men outstripping women in the towns. But the imbalance is declining due to the conjugation of economic
and legislative factors. Whereas in 1936 the male/female ratio in urban areas was 3:1, in 1981 46 per cent of
the total African male population as against 43 per cent of the female was residing outside the homelands.
Increased pressure on the land, compounded by the "dumping" of labour tenants and so-called "squatters"
who had lived for generations on white farms as labourers and part-time cultivators, has compounded that
pressure. It is estimated that by 1981, 13 million people had been uprooted by the Nationalist Government in
order to entrench racism.
In Natal, land holdings per family declined from 100 acres in 1846 to between 2 and 5 acres in 1980. Official
estimates consider 3 to 8 hectares, depending on the availability of water, as the minimum requirement for
subsistence. Two sample surveys conducted by the Institute for Black Research in 1973 and 1978
respectively in the KwaZulu area of Nqutu revealed that 25 per cent of the 150 families interviewed in 1973
had no land; that in 1977 the proportion of the landless
had risen to 30 per cent (200 families interviewed).
Land holdings of those with land averaged seven acres in 1973 and five in 1978. (6)
While today rural survival is almost wholly dependent on the cash remitted by migrant workers from the cities,
the surveys revealed that approximately 17 per cent of the sample families in 1973 received no cash
remittance and those who did received R15 per month on average to support families averaging six
members. In 1978, average cash remittance had increased to R30 per month, but the cost of living had also
risen proportionately. Sustenance raised through gardening, sale of poultry, eggs and handicrafts had an
average value of R2 per month. Interviews with 200 migrant workers living in single men`s compounds
established that after meeting their own subsistence needs in the cities, they could spare only 20 per cent of
their earnings for families in the homelands.
African women must work and subsidise family incomes to save the family from starvation. Primarily on white
farms, they find work as agricultural labourers or as domestics: 18 per cent and 50 per cent respectively of all
gainfully employed African women in 1982 had that kind of employment.
Economic recession, and mechanisation on the other hand increased unemployment and piled even a
greater burden on the homelands and on the women living there. Women therefore began moving in greater
numbers to the cities in search of work in order to relieve rural distress. When they moved to the cities,
however, and congregated on rented plots, restructuring family life in urban slums, the authorities clamped
down upon them, declaring such settlements illegal and subjecting the women and their families to constant
police raids and heavy fines. And, being "illegal", civic authorities ignored them and provided no amenities.
Night soil and refuse accumulated, rodents scavenged the gulleys between the houses, and the people
became exposed to disease and death. The situation continues today. In the 1940s on the Reef, the anger of
the women burst bounds: they organised resistance and marches, and clashed with the police in numerous
townships. They demanded houses and better living facilities.
A 1908 law prohibiting the domestic brewing of beer, a traditional right of African women, was another issue
which enraged the women. In the urban townships, brewing and selling of beer provided the women with a
source of income and the family savings, since beer bought at the municipal beerhalls was so much more
expensive. Women boycotted the beerhalls and picketed the men. They also demanded that the
municipalities use the profit from the sale of beer for housing and developing other amenities in the
townships. Attacks on beerhalls and demands for reinstituting the right of women to brew beer broke out fairly
consistently throughout the country during the 1940s and 1950s and only subsided after 1960, when the liquor
laws were somewhat relaxed.
Transport was another major issue. Poor and costly transport promoted boycotts in which women played a
All the issues were basic, the response spontaneous, and it was left to the affected people, as continues to be
the case today, to do whatever they could to protest this situation. When outsiders assisted, the gesture was
in the final analysis symbolic. The Manyanos and the African National Congress Women`s League were the
important inspirational elements.
In 1952, passes were extended to African women throughout the country. Up to 1918, when they had been
withdrawn in the face of stringent resistance, they had been applied to African and Coloured women in the
Orange Free State alone. The intention was to contain the women in the reserves, to leave them there to
starve with their dependents, the unemployable young, the sick and the old. There was spontaneous
resistance to the imposition of passes throughout the country and the resistance continued for eight years.
Thousands of women were repeatedly imprisoned. In 1954, 2,000 were arrested in Johannesburg, 4,000 in
Pretoria, 1,200 in Germiston, and 350 in Bethlehem. In 1955, 2,000 women marched to the Native
Commission`s office in Vereeniging.
The African National Congress Women`s League founded in 1943 played the most important role among
women`s organisations in consolidating these issues and in giving them national prominence. The League
set up branches throughout the country and identified its membership through its own distinctive uniform.
- Durban and District Women`s League
Women from the Natal Indian Congress and the African National Congress
joined their forces and established the Durban and District Women`s League in 1952. In doing so, they went ahead of their parent
bodies, the African National Congress and the Natal Indian Congress which operated in consultation but not
as a single body. The League had taken stock of the manipulation of Africans against Indians in 1949, and
saw its prime object as that of restoring mutual confidence. It therefore concentrated its activities in Cato
Manor, the area worst hit during the disturbance. A creche and milk distribution centre was established in a
church hall and League members were bussed out daily to administer and to teach. The League was actively
engaged in the 1952 Campaign of Defiance of Unjust Laws. When passes were introduced for African
women, it organised a vigorous protest movement culminating in a mass march on the Department of Native
Affairs in Pietermaritzburg and the arrest of 600 women, mainly African, but including a significant number of
Indian women and a few white members of the Liberal Party.
League representatives were among the founding members of the Federation of South African Women in
1954, and Natal sent a deputation of 156 members to the historic march of 20,000 women on Pretoria in
1956, organised by the Federation of South African Women.
In 1960, the League organised a protest march of the women and children of those detained in Durban during
the state of emergency. Some 60 women with their children were arrested and charged, the charges being
withdrawn after a short spell in prison and an appearance in court. The League organised a weekly vigil
outside the prison to keep the public mind focussed on the inequity of detention without trial. This was the last
of League`s activities. The banning of its secretary in 1954 and the detention of its chairperson in 1960 had
weakened the organising committee, but it was the banning of the African National Congress and of key
members of the Natal Indian Congress that spelt its demise.
- Federation of South African Women
The Federation of South African Women was founded in 1954 in Johannesburg in an environment of seething
discontent and country-wide protests against passes, inadequate housing, high transport costs and inferior
education. A number of regionally-based African women`s organisations had emerged and the African
National Congress Women`s League, considerably strengthened by the Defiance of Unjust Laws campaign,
provided a national unitary base. There was a need, however, to draw in women of all races throughout the
country and the Federation was conceived for this purpose.
The initiative for the establishment of the Federation of South African Women came from the white women of
the Congress of Democrats. It was inspired by the Women`s International Democratic Federation established
at about the same time. Its success was indisputably due to the activities of the African National Congress
Women`s League. If there were ideological differences, they never touched the rank and file. Even the fact
that most members of the organising committee were white and that there was no general white membership
did not produce any tension that was not contained within the structure of the organisation. With the
African National Congress as its mainstay, with support from the women of the Coloured, Indian and white
Congresses and from the Food and Canning Workers` Union, the Federation focussed above all on the
current issue of passes. Its activities, unlike those of the more local and spontaneous groups, were strictly
within the framework of the law. In 1955 it led a protest of 2,000 women to Pretoria, and in 1956 another one
with the participation of 20,000 women. Apart from these two momentous events, and the preparation of a
women`s charter identifying the fundamental demands of South African women for complete equality in colour
and sex, the activities of the Federation were relatively low key, supportive of the Congress Alliance and
protesting against high rents and poor amenities.
The pass issue was particularly an African issue, concerning both men and women. In 1958 the African
National Congress questioned the advisability of protests organised by women only and grew alarmed at the
increased victimisation of African women suffering imprisonment and fines. In 1960, both the African National
Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania took up passes as a national issue. The massacre of
Sharpeville followed, emergency was proclaimed, and the two African organisations, as well as the Congress
of Democrats, were banned. This development led to the end of the Federation.
The arrest of five members of the Federation on a charge of treason in 1956, following the Federation`s
participation in the organisation of the Congress of the People, had already dealt a blow. It held its third and
last conference in Port Elizabeth in 1961.
The weakness of both the Natal League and the Federation was that, organisationally, they were much too
centralised and did not develop sufficient grass-roots responsibility. More serious, however, was the fact that
neither were independent women`s organisations. Both relied on the African National Congress
Women's League, which in turn was a unit of the African National Congress. Apart from other implications this had on
their activities, it was inevitable that both would collapse with the banning of the African National Congress
unless they organised in the underground, which neither did.
- Federation of Black Women
In 1972, Natal began organising the women anew on a non-racial political basis with the founding of the
Women's Federation, Natal. There were, however, strong feelings against the inclusion of white women and
when the Federation became national in 1975, it did so as the Federation of Black Women. The national
three-day conference in Durban focussing on the black family drew 300 delegates representing over 100
women`s organisations and groups. Ministries were organised into such key areas as education, franchise,
housing, women`s disabilities, etc. Branches began to be set up in rural areas, and a blueprint for a black
women`s magazine was mapped out. The Federation became actively involved when violence erupted in
Soweto in 1976.
An open air mass rally planned in Durban was stopped by the Government by placing a blanket ban on all
outdoor meetings, a ban which continues to be operative to this day. The President of the Federation was
banned within six months of its founding and then imprisoned without trial, together with five executive
members. The Federation itself was banned following its second conference, and its monies were
United Women's Organisation in the Western Cape and the Natal Organisation of Women in Natal have been
inspired by and trace their roots to the Federation of South African Women. They have been in existence for
the last two or three years and are growing in organisation and membership. As their goals, they identify the
elimination of race and sex discrimination, as well as the organisation of a joint general campaign for full and
equal democratic rights for all in South Africa. United Women's Organisation significantly includes a
"consumer committee", "workers` support committee" and "9 August committee". The Federation, which was
never actually banned, has been revived and if the Government does not come down heavily on the present
black organisations as it is threatening to do, new developments on the
women's front can be expected.
Whereas past political organisations drew membership from older married women, the new initiative is
coming in the main from younger women. Though the focus remains broadly liberatory, there is consciousness
of ideological issues of feminism, class and race. While these have as yet not been significantly articulated,
the chances are that they will give to the new movement the intellectual dimension that the organisations
lacked in the past.
Exploitation is unbridled in a racist society because oppressors can isolate themselves from those they
oppress. In a class society isolation can never be complete. The lines of class distinction are forever mixing
and mingling, and the upper class can never hope to remain uncontaminated by the lower. Moreover, where
the classes share common political rights, the demands of the lower classes for redress and a more equitable
share in the accumulated goods and services cannot be ignored. Consequently, capitalism is modified by
socialism as is the case in the United Kingdom and other European countries.
In South Africa, those in power as a white class have effectively quarantined the blacks into homelands and
group areas. They can therefore tolerate to a very high extent the social aberrations wreaked by economic
deprivation. The fact that blacks have no power whatsoever to influence legislative procedures and obtain
redress for their condition secures that quarantine.
But no quarantine lasts forever. The ghettos today seethe with discontent, resistance is high, and revolution is
a matter of time. The women are a fundamental part of it, because they suffer the consequences of apartheid
in a way men never can. They are trained to care, to bear responsibility and guilt, and when they cannot care,
and cannot be responsible, then the guilt is too overwhelming to be locked within themselves. That guilt
explodes, it is externalised, and placed where it rightly belongs, in the system that suppresses and
oppresses. The liberated women become the driving force for societal liberation.
As long as racism continues and a people, not a particular sex, is the object of oppression, the women will
continue to overlook their own discrimination and dedicate themselves to the liberation of their people.
(1) From "Notes and Documents", No. 4/85, April 1985
(2) The source of these statistics on health is the South African Department of Health and Welfare.
(3) Outside "homelands"
(4) Outside homelands
(5) Craig, A.P. and Richter-Strydom, L. M. "Unplanned pregnancies among urban Zulu schoolgirls" in South
African Medical Journal, Vol. 63, March 1983
(6) Meer and Mlaba, Apartheid, our Picture, Institute for Black Research, 1982
(7) The unemployment increased from 1.25 million in 1960 to 2.25 million in 1977.
(8) Manpower Survey, No. 14-24-04-81
(9) Included in the survey were 452 African, 428 Indian and 108 Coloured women.
(10) Institute for Black Research, Black women in industry 1983.
(11) She was the wife of Dr. A. B. Xuma, President of the African National Congress of South Africa in the
This article reprinted
from the Africa
Policy Information Center
comments and letters to email@example.com