Olive Schreiner

Olive Schreiner.  Wits Historical Papers
Olive Schreiner. Wits Historical Papers

Women’s Rights Activist | Human rights activist | Political commentator

Born: 24 March 1855 Died: 11 December 1920

“We were equals once when we lay new-born babes on our nurse's knees. We will be equal again when they tie up our jaws for the last sleep.”

Who is
Olive Schreiner?

Renowned self-declared feminist, socialist writer, women’s right activist, and social theorist.

and Roles

Author, activist.

Best Known For

Influential works as a feminist writer and anti-war, anti-racist activist.

Life highlights

  • Schreiner had various brief jobs, but eventually turned to writing as a way to stave off depression.
  • In 1883, Schreiner wrote The Story of an African Farm. The book was revolutionary feminist writing for the time and became a best seller in Europe and the United States. The book was written under the pseudonym, Ralph Irons because of prejudice against women authors at the time.
  • Schreiner wrote a number of political works, including Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland in 1897, which attacked British imperialism and racism in South Africa.
  • When the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899, the English burned her house and manuscript and sent her to a concentration camp for several years due to her public support of the Afrikaner cause.
  • In 1907, Schreiner joined the Cape branch of the Women’s Enfranchisement League and became its vice-President. She withdrew her support for the league after she discovered other branches intended to exclude black women.
  • In 1909, Schreiner’s book Closer Union was published, arguing for more rights for black people and all women.
  • In 1911, Schreiner published Woman and Labour, which influenced the women’s emancipation movement in England and the United States.


“If the bird does like its cage, and does like its sugar and will not leave it, why keep the door so very carefully shut?”

“We were equals once when we lay new-born babes on our nurse’s knees. We will be equal again when they tie up our jaws for the last sleep.”

“When I am strong, I will hate everything that has power, and help everything that is weak.”

– Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm


“I claim the privilege of having been a close friend of that great poetess and philanthropist and that most self-effacing woman – Olive Schreiner. She was a friend of the Indians equally with the Natives of South Africa. She knew no distinctions between white and black races. She loved the Indian, the Zulu and the Bantu as her own children … Such precious men and women have also been born and bred in South Africa.”

– Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Indian lawyer, politician and activist

Schreiner was named Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner after her three older brothers who died before she was born: Oliver, Albert and Emile.


Audio Visual

President Mandela gives his State of the Nation address in Parliament. Mandela ends his address with the words, “Let us all get down to work”.

“We must construct that people-centred society of freedom in such a manner that it guarantees the political and the human rights of all our citizens.”– President Mandela, extract from State of the Nation Address, 24 May 1994

President Nelson Mandela announces his cabinet. It includes members of the African National Congress, National Party and Inkatha Freedom Party.

“There was pride in serving in the first democratic government in South Africa, and then the additional pride of serving under the iconic leadership of Nelson Mandela … [He] represented the hopes of not just our country, but of oppressed, marginalised and the poor in the world.”– Jay Naidoo, then Minister of RDP housing
“We place our vision of a new constitutional order for South Africa on the table not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered. We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.”– President Nelson Mandela, 10 May 1994