Honour the Women: Excerpts From Hilda Bernstein's "For Their Triumphs, For Their Tears"
Lilian Ngoyi, 1911-1980, Leader in the ANC Women's League
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Makabongwe Amakosikazi - Honour the Women
IV. A History of Struggle
Just as it is not possible to discuss the problems and disabilities of South African women without discussing the problems and disabilities that apartheid inflicts on the whole black population, so also it is not possible to assess the women's political activities and struggles without surveying the general struggle for liberation.
A historian commented in 1980 on political struggle in South Africa:
Women in South Africa, from the turn of the century, have emerged as primary catalysts for protest and challengers of the apartheid regime. With all the disabilities and devastating effects of apartheid on the status of women . . . those most oppressed of the oppressed have never lost sight of the fact that meaningful change for women cannot be forthcoming through reform but only through the total destruction of the apartheid system. Thus the common exploitation and oppression of men and women on the basis of colour has led to a combined fight against the system instead of a battle of women against men for 'women's rights'. While women desire their personal liberation, they see that as part of the total liberation movement. Although there is no doubt that the overt leadership has been dominated by men, the seemingly unacknowledged and informal segment of society controlled by women has been the key to many of the most significant mass movements in modern South African history. It is only in the very recent past that the crucial role played by women in raising basic issues, organising and involving the masses has become more widely recognised.
Women's organisations have always operated within the framework of the political resistance movements, because of the women's clear understanding that the reforms they need are dependent upon a restructuring of the state itself. This is one of the reasons that women's participation and initiatives often disappear subsequently from written history. For while it is easy to see the role of women in the political struggle when their activities are specifically among women - as in the various phases of the struggle against the pass laws - it is not as easy to see the pivotal role that they have played in the general activities of the male - led organisations. In various campaigns referred to here, women were not bystanders, nor reluctant participants dragged along by the militancy of the men, but were an integral part of the whole development of the campaigns. Without their activities, the campaigns could not have taken place.
Cherryl Walker comments on the dearth of material on women as reflecting the subordinate position that women have occupied in society, and also the preoccupation of male historians with political and constitutional rather than social history; as well as the historians' own, often unconscious, bias against women, in itself a product of the very social attitudes that reinforce and perpetuate women's subordination within the larger society. For many historians, women are invisible.
Despite their background of a patriarchal society, African women have never occupied the position of subservience that still exists in some parts of Asia and Africa. Even before the traditional pattern had been shattered, women played a notable part in many anti - colonial struggles.
In the innumerable campaigns run by the national liberation movement, although a significant number of women played increasingly important parts, the leadership as a whole has usually been male - dominated, although certainly no more so than we find in countries where women have a longer tradition of political struggle and much greater opportunities.
Dr Fatima Meer writes that Indian and African women in particular have left indelible marks on the modern movement for liberation. 'Indian women at the beginning of the century virtually made Gandhi, and proved the efficiency of the new liberation dialectic of satyagraha that he introduced.' The Indian resistance movement had remained mainly elitist until the women from two ashrams in Natal and the Transvaal transformed it into a mass movement. In 1912 they defied the anti - Asiatic law, crossed the provincial border from both ends and provoked the miners of Newcastle to lay down their picks and strike. A thousand workers then began the epic march led by Gandhi across the Natal border into the Transvaal. According to Meer, 'The great figure of that struggle was not Gandhi, but the emaciated young Valiamma, who refused to surrender despite her fatal illness following repeated imprisonments. She died in the struggle.'
White women of South Africa, except in small numbers, have not generally associated themselves either with the national liberation struggle or with the powerful women's movements. However, it would be wrong to undervalue the work of white women through organisations like the Black Sash and in fields of academic research, while in the Federation of South African Women (FSAW), the small white membership played a notable role. In the years before the First World War, there were white women suffragettes, inspired by their British sisters, who fought for the right to vote; the right of white women, that is. In those years women, children, lunatics and criminals, together with the majority of black men, were debarred from the vote. White women were not enfranchised until 1930; giving them the vote was partly impelled by the desire to reduce proportionately a small number of black men in the Cape who were entitled to vote.
Passive Resistance and the Defiance Campaign
In 1949, following the return of the Nationalist Party in the (whites only) election, the African National Congress (ANC), benefiting from a new dynamism coming from its Youth League, adopted a Programme of Action calling for strikes, civil disobedience and non - co - operation.
Prior to this the South African Indian Congress, under a more radical leadership than in the past, had in 1946 launched a passive resistance campaign against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Representation Act, aimed at limiting land occupation by the Asian community. Over two thousand Indian resisters went to jail for occupying land that was debarred to them. The Passive Resistance Campaign was of major importance for the political advancement of Indians as a whole, and of Indian women in particular.
Six of the 17 people who initiated the campaign were women, four of them from the Transvaal, who crossed the provincial border into Natal without the necessary permits, and were arrested. Although the actual numbers of women who participated in the campaign were not large (an estimated 300 of the 2,000 arrested were women),5 the fact of their participation was carried forward into the campaigns run jointly by the Congress organisations in the 1950s and in their participation in the FSAW. A leading figure was Dr Goonam, one of the only five black women medical practitioners in 1946, of whom four were Indian women.
As a first step in the implementation of the Programme of Action adopted by the ANC in 1949, a one - day stoppage of work was called for May Day,1950. Police fired into crowds of people in the township, killing 18 and wounding 30, including children. The outburst of sorrow and anger that followed the shootings brought together the African National Congress, the Indian Congress and the Communist Party (then about to be declared illegal) in a committee formed to call a national stoppage of work as protest on 26 June 1950. Hundreds of thousands took part in what was primarily a protest against apartheid; schools were empty, shops in the townships and particularly Indian shops in Johannesburg and Durban, were closed. In Port Elizabeth the stoppage was spectacular - all shipping was halted, businesses closed and hotels and garages left without staff. From that time on, 26 June became Freedom Day for South Africa.
The 1950s were turbulent years of political activity. During this whole decade, up to 1960, the emphasis of all the campaign was on peaceful protest, on non - violent methods of struggle. The campaign launched, that of Defiance against Unjust Laws, was a peak in mass action, marked by discipline, humour and determination on the part of the participants. Eight and a half thousand people deliberately courted arrest by defying apartheid regulations and laws, and among those who went to jail was a fair proportion of women. People from all the groups into which apartheid divides the population participated in the campaign.
The liberation movement, now broad - based, having enhanced unity between the different groups, proved itself capable of sophisticated campaigns. It had acquired symbols: a flag, a national anthem, a salute. The women wore a uniform - the black and green blouses that symbolised support for the ANC. The freedom songs composed for each new activity were sung throughout the country.
But each new protest was met by counter - action by the government in the form of new laws that effectively prevented similar protests in the future. Prohibitions and banning orders began to cripple the organisations.
The Congress of the People, Kliptown in June 1955 drew up a Freedom Charter for all South Africans. But it was followed by the arrest of 156 people (16 of them women) on charges of treason (all acquitted after a four - year trial). In 1957 and 1958 there were widespread revolts in many country areas (including those involving the women's anti - pass campaigns described in more detail below). They were met with excessive cruelty, assaults on people and burning of their homes and possessions. On 26 June 1957 there started a campaign of boycott - this, too, became illegal soon afterwards - and the tightening network of new laws and police activity brought ever - increasing repression and brutality.
One of the most horrifying examples of this occurred on 21 March 1960. The Pan - Africanist Congress (PAC), formed in 1959 after a split from the ANC, called a demonstration against the pass laws. At Sharpeville, faced with a large peaceful crowd of protest, the police opened fire. In a bloody scene 69 men and women were killed and more than 180 wounded.
This atrocity was followed by the declaration of a State of Emergency lasting five months. Raids were on a mass scale and hundreds were detained.
The ANC and the PAC were banned. The last legal action taken was the calling of a National Convention by black leaders for May 1961.
The general strike called for 29 May 1961 brought army mobilisation, helicopters and tanks in the townships, and the largest display of naked force brought into play to crush this last, theoretically legal, demonstration against apartheid laws. It was a climax and turning point in political struggle in South Africa. Seven months later the first acts of sabotage took place, with the emergence of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the now illegal ANC.
Indefinite detention without trial, solitary confinement and torture brought in an era of political trials.
IV.2 Women's Resistance
Throughout the long years of resistance women played an important part together with men. In addition they initiated and sustained their own protests against apartheid, demonstrating a strength that overcame their greater insecurity and oppression, and the responsibilities of children and homes that often they had to carry single-handedly.
Because of their comparatively small numbers in industry in the past, black women in general were excluded from the experience in worksolidarity relationships that have often provided a training ground for male political leaders. Domestic servants cannot join together easily to ask for better wages or work conditions; each has to deal individually with a single employer.
Despite the male monopoly of politics, African women burst on the scene in 1913 in a campaign against carrying passes, a struggle that remained a prime objective and proved effective in drawing in mass support.
Although at that time women did not fall within the provisions of the pass laws, local authorities had the power to make by-laws compelling women to obtain permits that in effect were the same as carrying passes - permits that cost them a shilling a month at a time when five pounds a month was an excellent wage.
When petitions and deputations had failed, the women 'threw off their shawls and took the law into their own hands'. In Bloemfontein 600 women marched to the municipal offices and demanded to see the Mayor. When they were told he was out, they deposited a bag containing their passes at the feet of the Deputy Mayor and told him they would buy no more.
Similar demonstrations spread to other towns and many women were arrested and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. If they were given the option of a fine, they all refused to pay, and officials at small country jails were confronted with the problem of a mass of women prisoners for whom they were not equipped.
Singing hymns, 800 women marched from the location to the Town Hall in the Orange Free State town of Winburg, and told the authorities they were tired of making appeals that bore no fruit, and thus they had resolved to carry no more passes. In a tiny Free State country town this mass demonstration of women was a stupendous event and made a striking impression. But the authorities were adamant and continued to arrest women, who had to be carted from one small town to another to find sufficient jail accommodation
The struggle continued for years, and eventually these dauntless women were successful. Passes for women were withdrawn.
The same total capacity for defiance and solidarity was to surface among a new generation of women fighting the pass laws in the 1950s.
The earliest political organisation among African women was the Bantu Women's League, formed in 1913 a year after the founding of the ANC. A pioneering woman, Charlotte Maxeke, founded this League, forerunner of the ANC Women's League that would be established 35 years later. Women in the ANC were auxiliary members only, without voting rights until 1943, when they were admitted as full members. At the same conference, the need for a women's league was acknowledged, but it was 1948 before it was officially inaugurated.
The Women's League took some years to build itself into an effective organisation, and in its earlier years the work was largely the supportive type that has always been the women's role: catering for conferences; providing accommodation; fund - raising.
There were many difficulties in stepping outside these limits, comments Cherryl Walker in her book on the history of women's struggles in South Africa.8 Any form of political organisation against apartheid was difficult. The women's difficulties were compounded by the fact that economically they were more vulnerable, and politically less secure than the men. Patriarchal ideology was deeply entrenched in all strata of society, and both men and women in Congress were conditioned to accept the limitations of the supportive role of the women.
The widening of the scope and the activities of the Women's League came in the 1950s and was a reflection of both the increasing activities and importance of the ANC itself, and also the threat to women of the pass laws.
The organisation that was to play the key role in activating the women against the pass laws was the FSAW (or just 'Womens Fed.') established at a national conference in Johannesburg in 1954. There had been previous attempts to draw women of different groups into one organisation; the Transvaal All - Women's Union was a forerunner of FSAW.
From the beginning, FSAW clearly indicated its double objective of fighting for freedom and liberation for all through the overthrow of apartheid, and of fighting against women's special disabilities. The conference adopted a Charter of Women's Aims, the opening words of which declare: 'our aim of striving for the removal of all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminate against us as women', and went on to declare
We women do not form a society separate from men. There is only one society, and it is made up of both women and men. As women we share the problems and anxieties of our men, and join hands with them to remove social evils and obstacles to progress.
Thirty years on, women who were not born when the Charter was adopted are reprinting it, finding its aims of emancipating women from the special disabilities suffered by them and of removing all social differences which had the effect of keeping women in a position of inferiority and subordination, as apt and relevant as when the Charter was framed. The FSAW embodied both the idea that women have common interests, and also a strong political attitude.
The FSAW not only linked women's demands firmly with the struggle against apartheid laws, but also fought consistently for trade union rights, and against racial divisions in the trade unions. 'We are women, we are workers, and we stand together.' A number of the leading Federation women were trade union activists.
The first President of the FSAW was a leading member of the Women's League of the ANC - Ida Ntwana; and the secretary was Ray Simons. Later Ida Ntwana resigned and Ray Simons was banned. Lilian Ngoyi was elected president, and Helen Joseph secretary.
The Federation provided for women's organised action on a continuing basis; previously, as in bus boycotts and food committees, it was sporadic.
The Federation was central to the tremendous mass movement among women against passes in the subsequent years; and also thrust to the forefront of the political scene women of exceptional gifts and strong personalities, who not only proved themselves in the women's organisations as able speakers and organisers, but at the same time raised the status of all women within the national liberation movement. The history of the Federation is told in Cherryl Walker's book.
In 1955 the then Minister of Native Affairs stated 'African women will be issued with passes as from January 1956'. In fact the law had already been amended in 1950 to enable the regime to introduce passes for women.
Women had reason to fear the carrying of passes, having been forced to witness all their lives the effect of the pass laws on African men: the night raids, being stopped in streets by police vans, searches, jobs lost through arrests, disappearance of men shanghaied to farms, and the prosecutions. It was not even known at the time the degree to which the pass laws would be used to separate family groups and break up homes. But women did know the devastating effect the laws could have on some aspects of their lives. For men, arrest for pass offences could mean loss of job; but for women? They might or might not have a job to lose, but most of them had helpless dependants, often very young babies, who could not be left totally unattended when the mother was whisked off the streets and into jail.
The first big protest against the pass laws organised by the FSAW took place in October 1955 with 2,000 women, mostly African, but including other women, converging in Pretoria, seat of the administration of the Government. The demonstration followed one organised some months before by the Black Sash, white women protesting against pass laws. The black women said, 'The white women did not invite us to their demonstration, but we will invite all women, no matter what race or colour.'
The women's anti - pass movement began to grow. In Durban and Cape Town women marched in their thousands through the streets. The men were amazed at their independence and militancy, but Lilian Ngoyi, one of the leading women, explained:
Men are born into the system and it is as if it has become 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 if they will come back. If the husband is to be arrested, and the mother, what about the child?
The regime began the issue of passes by selecting sections of the women least likely or able to protest: farmers brought lorry - loads of women workers from their farms to get their passes and the women knew what would happen if they refused. Even these country women would sometimes subsequently burn their passes as protests grew all over the country, culminating in a mass demonstration in Pretoria, one year after the first one, on 9 August 1956 - the day that has since been designated 'Women's Day' by the liberation movement in South Africa.
A year before it had been 2,000 women. Now 20,000 women assembled, overcoming tremendous difficulties imposed both by their personal positions and by the authorities, to join the assembly. Despite the most ingenious forms of intimidation the women saved and worked together to raise money to hire trains, buses, cars, to bring them thousands of miles to the capital. All processions in Pretoria were banned that day, so the women walked to Union Buildings to see the Prime Minister in groups of never more than three. All Pretoria was filled with women. This was four years before the national liberation organisations were banned, and thousands of women wore the green and black Congress blouses; Indian women dressed in brilliant saris; Xhosa women in their ochre robes with elaborate headscarves.