Women in Apartheid Society

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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.

  • Labour

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 peninsula.

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 university entrance.

  • Health

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)

1977 1978
Cholera 0 4,967
Trachoma 12 1,109
Typhoid 2,624 3,913
Tuberculosis 45,298 51,828

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 Transvaal.

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.

  • Welfare

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:

Whites Africans
Monthly per capita grants for foster homes R106 R36
Number of children covered 40, 897 17,164 (3)
Subsidies to day care centres per day, per child 80c 7,5c*
Number of centres 45c 4,(4)
Maintenance grants per month R179 R60
Registered places of care 869 195
State pensions per annum per pension R1,467 R429

(* 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.


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" and "protector".

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 prominent part.

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 confiscated.

  • New Initiatives

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.

  • Women and liberation

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

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