Women in South African History

South African History Online (SAHO) has over the past four years developed a series of programs to mark the role of women in the struggle for freedom and equality. Our aim is to develop a comprehensive and easily accessible online history and archive on the role played by women in South African history, with a listing of historical and contemporary documents, biographies, organizations, campaigns etc. Another objective of the project is starting a dialogue with academics, archives, universities and workers in the public sector to see how we can collectively build this online monument. This initiative will remind us that we need to look continuously at the legacy of the past – not just to find answers for the future, but also to inspire generations of women to come.

Twentieth century South Africa was a divided society. Harsh, repressive laws limited the movements and opportunities of Black, Coloured and Indian people as an all-white government ensured that privilege was maintained by the white minority.

In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party rose to power with their policy of apartheid and implemented laws that far more rigid and ruthless than before. The various races were forbidden from mixing socially and were forcibly moved to separate living areas.

Those most outraged by the system of discrimination became anti-apartheid activists and in so doing risked imprisonment, torture and exile. Much of the 20th century in South Africa was characterized by this struggle for justice and racial equality. This was compounded by the struggle for gender equality, both in South Africa and the world over. The system of patriarchy and the ‘women’s work’ stereotype had to be broken before women, particularly Black women, could achieve equal status with men.

Women in South Africa played a prominent role in the struggle for equal rights long before any formal women’s organizations came into being.  As early as 1912, in what was probably the first mass passive resistance campaign in our country, Indian women encouraged Black and Indian miners in Newcastle to strike against starvation wages, and in 1913, Black and Coloured women in the Free State protested against having to carry identity passes, which White women were not required to do. 

In 1918, Charlotte Maxeke started the first formal women’s organization (Bantu Women's League) which was created to resist the pass laws. In the 1930s and 1940s there were many instances of mass protests, demonstrations and passive resistance campaigns in which women participated. By 1943, women could join the ANC and by 948, the ANC Women’s League was formed with Ida Mtwana as its first president. 

The women’s struggle became more militant in the 1950s.  Thousands of Black, Coloured and Indian women took part in the Defiance Campaign in 1952, which involved the deliberate contravention of petty apartheid laws. In 1954, the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW or FDSAW) was established, which brought together women from the ANC, the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), trade unions and self-help groups for the first time. A Women’s Charter was drawn up which pledged to bring an end to discriminatory laws.

On 9 August 1956, FEDSAW organized some 20 000 women to march to the seat of government, the Union Buildings in Pretoria to present a petition against the carrying of passes by women to the prime minister, J G Strijdom. This was the famous Women’s March celebrated as Women’s Day on 9 August each year.  The women’s anti-pass campaign, the Women’s Charter and their famous march to Pretoria became benchmarks in the struggle and continued to inspire decades of women until democracy was finally realized in 1994.

Women in South Africa have never constituted a homogenous group.  There were and still are huge discrepancies between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, but at many times in the struggle, women of all races and classes worked together, as can be seen in the formation of the Garment Workers Union in 1928 and FEDSAW in 1954. The bonds among women, the experiences they have in common – of childbirth, child care and other interests, will always unite them.

What is also striking in our history is how many women in the 20th century rose above disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve success in many fields. Others came from privileged backgrounds but chose to join the struggle. The online archive, created in celebration of the 1956 Women’s March, honours some of those women. It seeks to share the many stories of women’s social and political struggles in South Africa and focuses on these in the context of the 20th century.

Ongoing project in commemoration of the 1956 womens' march against pass laws