(they remove boulders and cross rivers)
Women in the struggle for human rights
The expression Basus’iimbokodo, bawel’imilambo (they remove boulders and cross rivers) aptly describes the South African struggle for women’s rights over the decades. It reflects the fighting spirit of women ‘imbokodo’ (a boulder/big rock). The ‘removing of boulders’ and ‘crossing of the river’ calls to attention the hazardous nature of women’s journeys both in the past and in the present, and also highlights women’s efforts to clear the path towards freedom for all.
In addition to overcoming white supremacy and colonial and apartheid repression, many women also had to overcome patriarchal oppression in their own communities. Sexism and abuse were – and still are – rife in homes, the workplace, within political organisations and in the negotiation structures established during the transition from apartheid to democracy.
Over the decades, women forged multiple allegiances to overcome these divisions and to cross the river. Others worked independently of formal organisations and structures. Some white women joined the national liberation struggle while most remained preoccupied with battles for improving their own legal and political positions. The transition to democracy offered unprecedented opportunities for women across the board to unite. At different points, women were joined by men in their fight for non-sexism, equality and the emancipation of women.
This timeline plots some key moments in the women’s struggle for human rights from the turn of the century onwards, focusing on the immediate lead-up to the Union of South Africa through to the present. It is primarily focused on political action expressed through formal organisations and institutions.
We acknowledge that there were powerful social, cultural, economic and other movements towards equality that women led during this period, and a rich history of women’s leadership before colonialism that aren’t the subject of this specific timeline. We do not attempt to capture this entire history but rather, we highlight major moments and show a political genealogy towards the current Constitution. Further timelines on the struggle for women’s rights will follow.
Part 1. The Pre-colonial and Union period
Many early women pioneers broke free of the stereotypical roles imposed on them, forged new identities against the odds and led important struggles against oppression. Their names and stories seldom appear in historical records. To name but a few: Krotoa, later named Eva, was an interpreter of Dutch and Portuguese and became a key participant in the trade industry and a negotiator during the frontier wars. Emma Sandile, also known as Princess Emma, was taken away from her family to be educated as a Victorian woman and became a landowner, the first known black woman to hold a land title in South Africa. Nokutela Linderely Mdima (later Dube) was one of the first black women to qualify as a teacher specialising in Music and Home Economics. She became a key activist and with her husband built the Ohlange Institute in Inanda which established the newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal. She co-authored Amagama Abantu (A Zulu Song Book).
Learn more about Nokutela Linderely Mdima here.
Charlotte Maxeke - The first black woman graduate
Charlotte Makgoma Manye (later Maxeke), known affectionately as the mother of black freedom, first entered the public stage when she joined the African Native Choir for a tour to England and North America in 1896. Whilst she was in London, she attended suffragette meetings and heard women like Emmeline Pankhurst speak about the women’s franchise. She was offered a scholarship to study at Wilberforce University in Ohio and studied under the prominent pan-Africanist scholar, WEB Du Bois.
She became the first black South African woman to earn a university degree and assisted many others to study in the USA. On her return to South Africa, she took her first active steps in organised politics when she attended the annual meeting of the SA Native Convention (SANC) or Ingqungqutela in Queenstown. Because women were not invited to become members of the organisation, she was forced to wait outside, causing a great stir.
Charlotte attended the inaugural conference of the South African Native National Conference (SANNC) in 1912. She went on to break many of the stereotypical roles assigned to women at that time and chipped away at the edifice of authoritarianism that was imposed on women. She also spoke to men as well as women about what she was expecting from them:
“We want men to protect the women of their nation, not men who hurt and endanger women when they become aware of their rights.”
-Charlotte Maxeke, in a speech in 1922
"I regard Mrs Maxeke as a pioneer in one of the greatest of human causes, working in extraordinarily difficult circumstances to lead a people, in the face of prejudice, not only against her race but against her sex. I think that what Mrs Maxeke has accomplished should encourage all men, especially those of African descent."
-WEB Du Bois, leading pan-Africanist activist-intellectual praising his former student in a preface of the 1930 book written about her
Learn more about Charotte Maxeke here
Olive Schreiner - Author and activist
Olive Schreiner, daughter of a missionary, wrote her book, Story of an African Farm, at the age of 21 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. It explores the injustice of racism and the oppression of women and it became a sensation in England. When she went back there, she became heavily involved with women suffragettes fighting for votes for women, and in particular got close to Sylvia Pankhurst, a socialist feminist. Schreiner’s book, Women and Labour, showing the connection between women’s struggles and workers’ struggles, became one of the bibles of the women’s movement. On her return to South Africa, she was at first dazzled by Cecil John Rhodes, but after the invasion of what became Rhodesia, she wrote the first great denunciation of Rhodes. When the Union of South Africa was created in 1910, she predicted that it would fail because it did not include the native races. Today, Schreiner is remembered as a foremost South African writer, feminist and social theorist.
“It is delightful to be a woman, but every man thanks the Lord devoutly that he isn’t one.”
-Olive Schreiner in The Story of an African Farm
Learn more about Olive Schreiner here
Petitioning against passes
From the early 1900s, the colonial governments required every African male person over 16 to carry a service book listing their employer and place of residence. The Orange Free State was the first territory in South Africa to implement the pass laws for black women. In 1905, the Orange River Colony Vigilance Association sent petitions and delegations to every level of authority calling for a repeal of women's pass laws.
For a decade, these vigilance associations along with the African Political Organisation (APO) in Cape Town, appealed for the repeal of women’s passes. They were supported by the APO Women’s Guild which was formed under the leadership of Scottish-born Mrs Hellen (‘Nellie’) Abdurahman (née James).
“The Guild’s aim is promoting unity among the Coloured women of British South Africa, and to aid and assist towards the uplifting of the race ... to obtain better and higher education for children, and … to assist and encourage as far as possible the work carried on by the men members of the APO.”
-Extract from a 1910 APO report
Union and resistance
The passing of the South Africa Act 1909 led to the formation of Union of South Africa in 1910. Consequently it became clear that only an act of parliament could change the pass laws.. In 1912, the Native and Coloured Women’s Association (NCWA) was formed under the leadership of Catharina Symmons and Katie Louw. They openly defied the law, marching on the local administration offices, delivering petitions and dumping passes. Participants faced arrest. The NCWA also protested against sexual harassment carried out by police officials who were enforcing pass law regulations.
"A white Superintendent of the location demanded a pass from the girl at her home and failing to produce one was arrested and taken to the charge office. The Superintendent made improper overtures on the way to the girl. The latter resented these overtures, but she was ultimately taken by force and outraged by this man."
-The 1914 petition
Women’s anti-pass delegations
While the newly formed South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which renamed itself the African National Congress (ANC) did not willingly take up the issue passes for black women until 1923 when they passed a resolution against them. Instead, women took up the cause on their own behalf. In 1912, they petitioned the various provincial governments of the Cape and the Free State to repeal existing laws. On their own initiative, they met with the supposedly liberal Henry Burton, Minister of Finance of the Union, to present a 5 000 signature petition against passes. Their arguments referenced equality and demanded an end to sexual abuse by police. Mpilo Walter Benson Rubusana accompanied the women's deputation to present the petition to the Minister. He is one of many men that would support women’s struggles.
Anti-Pass protests in Bloemfontein
The women’s appeals to the authorities fell on deaf ears. Indeed, the women of Bloemfontein found themselves targeted for police action to a much greater extent. In May 1913, women launched a passive resistance campaign in the Waaihoek location in Bloemfontein. Women refused to carry the residential permits imposed by the local authorities as these tightly restricted the everyday lives of women. By June, the resistance had escalated into a full-out clash between women and the police.
Two hundred angry women demonstrators, carrying sticks, led by Charlotte Makgoma Manye (later Maxeke), marched into town to see the mayor. When he was eventually cornered, he claimed that his hands were tied. The women promptly tore up their passes and generally provoked the authorities into arresting them. They shouted at the police, “We have done with pleading, we now demand!” Eighty women were arrested.
The writer, Sol Plaatje wrote about the strength and courage of these women when he visited them in the Kroonstad Prison:
“They don't care even if they die in jail. They swear they will cure that madness; they will stop their protest only when the law prevents policemen from stopping and demanding passes from other men's wives.”
-Extract from the newspaper, Tsala ea Batho
In May 1913, black and coloured women launched a passive resistance campaign in the Waaihoek location in Bloemfontein. Women refused to carry the residential permits imposed by the local authorities as these tightly restricted the everyday lives of women.
Transvaal women satyagrahis march
The main mobilisation by Mahatma Gandhi of Indian women in South Africa was over the refusal of the courts to acknowledge Muslim and Hindu marriages as legal marriages, because they were potentially polygamous. Wives were referred to as concubines and their children as illegitimate. As part of the broader passive resistance campaign against unjust laws led by Gandhi, Transvaal women Satyagrahis became actively involved in resistance in 1913. Scores of brave women crossed the Natal-Transvaal border on foot and were arrested and sent to prison in Pietermaritzburg. Many were the wives of men who had been imprisoned during the Satyagraha Campaign and had had to carry the burden of providing for their families while their husbands were detained.
Gandhi saw these women as an important inspiration and said that they were like ‘a lighted match to dry fuel’. Some of the women participating in the march were Mrs Veerammal Naidoo, Mrs N. Pillay, Mrs K Murugasa Pillay, Mrs A Perumal Naidoo, Mrs PK Naidoo, Mrs K. Chinnaswami Pillay, Mrs NS Pillay, Mrs RA Mudalingum, Mrs Bhavani Dayal, Miss Minachi Pillay, Miss Baikum Murugasa Pillay and sixteen year old Valliamma Munusamy Moodaliar. Conditions inside the jail were appalling. Valliamma R Munuswami Mudaliar later died from a fever contracted in prison.
“Armed only with the patriotism of faith, the sacrifices of our mothers and daughters [finding themselves in jail] were particularly severe.”
Part 2. The Interwar Years - 1918 - 1945
‘Pickhandle Mary Fitzgerald’
Mary Fitzgerald was an Irish-born South African political activist, remembered as the first woman trade unionist in the country. In 1911, during Johannesburg’s first major strike by white tram workers, Fitzgerald spoke at a protest meeting while holding a pickhandle that had been dropped by mounted police to break up the strike. The pickhandle became her trademark, earning her the nickname of ‘Pickhandle Mary’. Fitzgerald went on to lead a group of women to sit on the tracks and they were successful in keeping trams from leaving the station. She was involved in many other strikes in Johannesburg leading her ‘pickhandle brigade’ to break up anti-union meetings. She was influential during the miners’ strikes of 1913 and 1914, and during the tumultuous 1922 strike. She also travelled to England to speak at huge labour rallies.
In the first elections for the Johannesburg municipality in 1915, Mary was elected to the city council and served until 1921. She was the first woman to hold public office in the city. She was a role model for other women to become public figures and also set the tone for women’s trade union activism in the years that would follow.
Charlotte Maxeke and the Bantu Women’s League (BWL)
By 1918, women's protests against the pass laws had spread throughout the country. A group of women, led by Charlotte Maxeke, established BWL in response to the threat of the Orange Free State government to reintroduce passes for black women. The BWL’s work included representations to the authorities through delegations, meeting with the prime minister and other officials, and through appearing before commissions of inquiry on the indignities women suffered from carrying the night passes. As a result of these efforts, pass law enforcement for black women in the Free State was relaxed followed by the eventual exclusion of women from pass laws on a national basis in 1923.
The rise of women in trade unions
In the aftermath of the First World War, thousands of women – both African and Afrikaner – were pushed off the land and forced to take up work in the city. Here they faced poor and exploitative working conditions. This era saw a burgeoning of activity in factories across the country. Women joined unions and fought for issues specifically affecting women - such as sexual abuse, low wages and unfair labour demands.
A striking feature of the union movement was that women were mobilised along gender and class lines rather than that of race. Unions gave women a new public platform that obliged men to start treating them as equals - although this often involved resisting the conventional roles imposed by their fellow male unionists. Women also had to fight for their rights to participate in any form of organisation outside of the home. Although women became more active in the union movement, they were still largely absent from the leadership. Exceptions to this were Johanna Cornelius, Emma Mashinini, Lydia Kompe, Maggie Magubane and Ray Alexander Simons.
“They [male organisers] expected me to do things … I got used to resisting, saying, 'I am not here to become a tea girl.’ .... My husband also didn't take anything in the union into account … He expects me to be at home between 5.30 and 6.00 pm. After I became a shop steward, I had many meetings. That made him very unhappy and it made our life very miserable. He couldn't see why I was involved in this … He was scared that I’d land in jail … I think it's time for women to come together and see this thing as a major problem for us. Eventually we must achieve the same rights.”
-Lydia Kompe, Transport and General Workers Union
“... with discussion around democracy and equality within the unions, and the increasing involvement of women … we hope to start changing attitudes.”
-Maggie Magubane, General Secretary of the Sweet Food and Allied Workers Union
Black Administration Act 38 of 1927
This act declared that the Governor-General was the Supreme Chief of all natives. In providing for the control of all African people, it established a separate and inferior system of justice for black Africans. So-called Native Law was interpreted by white Native Commissioners in a way that formalised patriarchy and subjected black women to the control of their fathers and husbands. Women were barred from inheriting estates regardless of their marital relationship or familial ties to the deceased. Instead, the nearest living male relative inherited all the relevant property. Furthermore, African black women were now regarded as minors, irrespective of their age or marital status. As a result, black women had no legal parental rights concerning their children.
White women fight for the vote
Women's suffrage was a persistent issue in white politics between 1892, when a motion calling for a qualified franchise for women was defeated in the Cape House of Assembly, and 1930, the year when Parliament enfranchised all white women over the age of 18. The 4 000 or so members of the national women's suffrage movement - who proclaimed that they would now take their rightful place as equals with men in political life - had failed to forge any sense of sisterhood or commonality. Their movement epitomised white women’s preparedness to fight for the vote for a mere quarter of the women in the country rather than for general suffrage for all women. Indeed, Olive Schreiner, who was once the vice-president of the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League, resigned in 1914 in protest against white women’s endorsement of a racial basis to the franchise campaign. In the end, the white women’s vote had less to do with the efforts of the suffragette movement than with Herzog’s desire to slash the proportion of black voters in relation to white voters in the Cape Colony. In effect the weight of the black vote decreased from 3.1% to 1.4%.
“Compared to the suffrage campaign being waged by Emily Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union in England, the SA campaign was a timid and decorous affair.”
-Cheryl Walker, author and gender activist
A National Council for African Women (NCAW)
This organisation was formed at the All-African Convention to broaden and deepen black women’s political voice. Charlotte Maxeke was elected as president. After Maxeke’s death in 1939, teacher and social worker, Minah Soga, was appointed president. Unlike the ANC, the NCAW created women’s self-help and social activist organisations across the country as a form of political mobilisation.
Amadodakazi – Baradi Ba Africa / Daughters of Africa (DOA)
Cecilia Lillian Tshabalala, the leader of the DOA, explained that this federal union of women’s organisations was formed with three principal goals: "To promote sisterhood, to develop a community of mutual service, and to better society.” By the early 1940s, DOA branches were formed across the then provinces of Natal and the Transvaal. They were a small but influential forum for women’s engagement in nationalist public culture working alongside all-female social welfare organisations such as the NCAW and the Zenzele Clubs. The DOA played a key role in civic struggles such as the Alexandra Bus Boycotts of 1943 for example. Members included prominent women activists such as Nokutela Dube, Joyce Mpama, Bertha Mkhize, Madie Beatrice Hall Xuma and Nokukhanya Bhengu.
Cissie Gool and the National Liberation League (NLL)
Gool was one of South Africa’s greatest political leaders. Born in Cape Town in 1897 to a well-known political family, Gool was determined and independent from a young age. She became the first black woman to receive a degree from the University of Cape Town. Instead of becoming a psychologist, however, she formed the National Liberation League of South Africa (NLL) and committed to end racial inequality. In 1938, she organised a march against the Cape Government to protest against plans to introduce separate areas for white and black people to live in. Gool captivated the crowds with her passionate oratory and her singing in an electrifying soprano.
Whilst president of the NLL, Gool stood for elections to become the Municipal Councillor for District Six. She won and remained Councillor of the area for 13 years. She became known as the ‘Jewel of District Six’ for the significant impact she made on people’s day-to-day lives. She resigned from the Council in protest against the apartheid government’s introduction of the Group Areas Act in 1950. Thereafter, Gool was accused of being a communist, and was banned from all political activity. Gool found other avenues to continue the fight. She studied law and became the first black woman advocate at the Cape Town bar.
The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL)
In 1941, a resolution was passed to revive the women's section of ANC. Two years later, women were given access to formal ANC membership and shortly thereafter, the ANC Women’s League was launched – although the launch date is recorded as 1948 in the ANC archives. Madie Hall Xuma was its first president, followed by Ida Mtwana. The ANCWL was prominent in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and active in fighting against passes, Bantu Education and other social issues. Women’s activism impacted on the male dominated ANC leadership culture. In 1956, Lilian Ngoyi, then Women’s League president, was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee.
Second passive resistance campaign
In 1946, the Natal Indian Congress launched a second passive resistance campaign against the Anti-Indian Land Act. It was led by Drs Naicker and Dadoo. Large numbers of Indian women played an active role. At the end of that campaign, almost 2 000 Indians were imprisoned for defying segregationist laws - 300 were women. Many other women actively supported the campaign by door-to-door fundraising, collecting food and offering childcare support.
Part 3. The fight against Apartheid - 1948
Durban and District Women’s League
Women from the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and the ANC established the Durban and District Women's League with Fatima Meer as President and Bertha Mkhize, then President of the ANCWL, serving as Chair. It was the first organisation with joint Indian and African membership – a union ahead of their parent bodies which still operated in consultation with each other but remained separate. The league actively engaged in the 1952 Campaign of Defiance of Unjust Laws.
On 26 June 1952, the ANC launched the Defiance Campaign against six unjust apartheid laws: the Group Areas Act; the Bantu Authorities Act; the Suppression of Communism Act and the Separate Representation of voters. Women from the ANCWL, the Congress of Democrats, the South African Indian Congress and allied organisations played a key role in the acts of defiance across the country. Over eight thousand people were arrested for participating in this campaign. The campaign ushered in a decade of the participation of both men and women in resisting apartheid.
“The Defiance Campaign was a very big thing. There were six laws in particular that we wanted to get them to stop because they were very bad laws ... Dr Moroka and Walter Sisulu sent a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to take back these acts, but when he said no, then we decided we must go ahead with the Defiance Campaign.”
-Francis Baard, trade unionist, organiser for the ANCWL
17 April 1954
The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and the Women’s Charter
FEDSAW was launched as a multi-racial women's organisation and lobby group to address women’s issues more directly. The thrust for FEDSAW came from working class women who had been organised in the trade union movement, speaking in their own voice as activists on the ground. Its founders were the trade unionists Ray Alexander, Frances Baard and Florence Matomela, leader of the ANCWL in the Eastern Cape.
‘What Women Demand’, colloquially known as the Women’s Charter, was adopted at its launch. It set our goals for the emancipation of women and made two sets of practical demands - firstly, claims for equal legal rights with men and secondly, demands for services and amenities to ‘protect the mother and child’. As a political manifesto, the Charter strongly linked racial and gender struggles, arguing that the women’s struggle was part of a wider struggle for liberation in the struggle for a socialist state. There were limitations to the Charter as the demands failed to challenge the deeply patriarchal attitudes to the role of women in society. The national struggle was still seen as the priority with the struggle for gender rights subordinated to that of race.
Birth of the Black Sash
This organisation of white women was formed in response to a cynical ploy by the apartheid government to remove coloureds from the common voters' roll. It was initially called the Women's Defence of the Constitution League but came to be called the Black Sash because women protestors wore black sashes to indicate that they were in mourning for the National Party’s disregard for the constitution. At first, the organisation organised marches, petitions, overnight vigils and protest meetings and then later opened advice offices to provide information concerning the legal rights of black South Africans. These offices played a critical role in the fight against apartheid and provided an important space for white resistance. The Black Sash stood out in a context where few white women associated themselves with the national liberation struggle or joined the powerful women’s movements.
“The sight of white middle class women, well dressed, well spoken, well behaved - demonstrating against the government enraged many of its supporters … the women were exposed to verbal abuse and threats of violence. Not only were they defying the government, they were defying a set of unwritten rules about seeming and proper conduct for women.”
Cheryl Walker, author and activist
The Sash was reorganised in 1995 as a non-racial humanitarian organisation, working to 'make human rights real for all living in South Africa'.
The Freedom Charter
After a consultative process involving 50 000 volunteers gathering ‘freedom demands’ of people residing in urban and rural areas, the Freedom Charter was adopted at Kliptown in Soweto. This statement of core principles of the Congress Alliance consisted of the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress. Its opening demand, "The People Shall Govern!", was a clarion call throughout the decades.
FEDSAW drafted a document called ‘What Women Demand’ and most of these demands appeared in the final Charter - except for the demand for social amenities in the reserves as this would have endorsed the apartheid division of land in the rural areas. The committee of twelve that drafted the final text included several women such as Ruth First, Hilda Bernstein and Helen Joseph.. Beata Lipman wrote out the original version of the Charter.
Lipasa! Amapasi - anti-pass demonstrations
In 1952, passes were again extended to African women leading to the imprisonment of thousands. Multiple protests erupted across the country. In 1954, 2 000 women 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.
“We women will never carry these passes. I appeal to you young Africans to come forward and fight. These passes make the road even narrower for us. We have seen unemployment, lack of accommodation and families broken because of passes. We have seen it with our men. Who will look after our children when we go to jail for not having a pass?”
-Dora Tamana, at an ANC Women’s League meeting in Langa in 1953
9 August 1956
Women’s March to Pretoria
The anti-pass campaigns culminated in the now famous march of 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The call-to-action flyers of the ANCWL and FEDSAW explained: “Passes mean prison; passes mean broken homes; passes mean suffering and misery for every African family in our country; passes are just another way in which the government makes slaves of the Africans; passes mean hunger and unemployment; passed are an insult ...”
Women arrived from all corners of South Africa. The march was led by Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Lilian Ngoyi, and Sophie Williams-De Bruyn (only 18 at the time). They carried stacks of petitions to present to the then Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom. Women sang 'Wena Strijdom, wa'thinthabafazi, wathint'imbokotho uzokufa!' ('You Strijdom, you have touched the women, you have struck against rock, you will be crushed.) The women stood in silence for 30 minutes, many with babies on the back, whilst Strydom refused to accept the petitions. The march demonstrated the rise to political prominence of women in the struggle against apartheid and their great courage.
A national conference and a new national president
FEDSAW hosted its national conference the day before the march since many of its members had travelled from different parts of the country to participate. Lilian Masediba Ngoyi - who was the one who had knocked on President Strijdom’s door to present the petition - was elected national president. In her presidential address, she asked the audience why they had “heard of men shaking in their trousers, but who ever heard of a woman shaking in her skirt?” She urged women to continue protesting passes and to reach out to others especially in the rural areas and educate:
“Strijdom! Your government now preaches and practises cruel discrimination. It can pass the most cruel and barbaric laws, it can deport leaders and break homes and families, but it will never stop the women of Africa in their forward march to freedom during our lifetime!”
-Lilian Ngoyi’s warning to Prime Minister Strijdom
All four of the women leaders of the famous 1956 march in Pretoria came from the trade union movement. Lillian Ngoyi was a shop steward in the GWU; Helen Joseph represented the GWU’s medical aid; Sophie Williams was from the Textile Workers Union and Rahima Moosa was from the Food and Canning Workers Union.
Smaller women-led marches against the pass laws continued for the rest of the decade.
5 December 1956
Mass arrests and the Treason Trial
In a mass police swoop in the early hours of the morning, 156 political activists were arrested at dawn and charged with treason. The arrested were imprisoned in the Old Fort prison complex – now Constitutional Hill. Jacqueline (Jackie) Arenstein, Francis Baard, Ayesha Dawood, Lily Diederichs, Sonia Bunting, Ruth First, Bertha Gxowa, Helen Joseph, Florence Matomela, Ida Fiyo Mntwana, Lillian Ngoyi, Debi Singh and Annie Silinga were part of the group of women held in the Women’s Jail in separate sections for white and black prisoners. Ironically, their imprisonment gave them the opportunity to organise in a way that was difficult at the time.
“We didn't know why we were arrested until we went to court and met each other there. Hawu! And then we see there are so many of us! We listened to what the charges were … After a time we were released from prison although the case was still going on.”
-Francis Baard, trade unionist and women’s leader
There was mass action, mainly by women, outside the Drill Hall where the treason trialists first appeared. Women also arranged with local communities to ensure that food was brought to Old Fort prison where the treason trialists were being held.
Eventually the number of accused was whittled down to 31. After the longest Treason Trial in South African history, all were acquitted of treason in 1961. The judges agreed that the state had failed to prove the ANC or the Freedom Charter as communist.
Mass Action in Umkhumbane
After World War II, a large section of Durban’s black population moved to the informal settlement of Umkhumbane on the ridges of Cato Manor. From 1958, the authorities began to implement plans to eradicate Cato Manor and transfer its population to the new township of KwaMashu. The police also started to issue passes to African women and to clamp down on illegal beer-brewing, forcing people to drink in government owned beer halls. Armed with sticks, Dorothy Nyembe led a group of women protestors who attacked the beer halls, chasing out the male customers and destroying the beer. The protest spread rapidly to other Durban beer halls and a successful beer boycott was launched. The police responded violently to the women protestors who bravely challenged them. The men of Umkhumbane responded with anger to the brutal treatment of the women.
“We do not want our husbands to go and spend their money in the Corporation Beerhalls. The Corporation encourages them to do this and we women suffer.”
-Gertrude Kweyana, women’s rights activist
Part 4. The Silent Decade to a Turning Point in the Struggle - 1960 - 1976
21 March 1960
During the Pan Africanist Congress’s (PAC) anti-pass campaign protests in Sharpeville, the police opened fire killing 69 people and injuring hundreds more. World outrage erupted. Ten days later, the government declared a State of Emergency, banning the ANC and the PAC. Tens of thousands of activists throughout the country were detained without trial. The Number Four section of the Old Fort prison (now Constitution Hill) was packed with men prisoners.
A large number of women activists were sent to the Women’s Jail. Some were white women who had been members of the Communist Party. They were particularly militant and were the first group of detainees to go on hunger strike, and black women, with the men in the white section and the black section following. Among the leaders of the hunger strike were Hilda Bernstein and Rica Hodgson.
The General Law Amendment Act
The Act, popularly known as the Sabotage Act, led to further arrests, bannings, imprisonment and exile. The ANC Women’s League moved its operations outside of the country. Although FEDSAW was not banned, prominent leaders such as Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph were detained and then banned under house arrest. Thousands of others faced a similar fate. In the face of the clampdown, women’s organisations inside the country started to crumble.
“No longer could I leave my house after 6. 30 p.m. or at any time during the weekend, or leave the magisterial area of Johannesburg, or be in any black area, or factory, or communicate with any banned or listed person. Nor could any of my friends visit me in my home, or even walk down my garden path, nor could I attend any gatherings, social or political ... I was compelled to report to the Central Johannesburg police station every day between midday and two o'clock.”
-Helen Joseph, leading political activist
One way of escaping these repressive conditions was to go into exile. Hundreds of women left the country including prominent leaders such as Frene Ginwala, Ruth Mompati, Hilda Bernstein, Ruth First, Gertrude Shope and Lauretta Ngcobo. They joined the ANC and PAC-in-exile and continued to fight for liberation. Shireen Hassim writes extensively about the increasing assertion of women's interests within the ANC in exile. She identifies three categories of influence:
“The first relates to internal organisational experiences, and the second to the theoretical debates that flowed from attempts to find a role for women in national liberation. The third influence was ANC women's exposure to, and interaction with, international feminist debates and with women's organisations in post-independence African countries. These influences not only helped re-shape the ANC as a political organisation but also the nature of democracy instituted after the collapse of the apartheid system.”
ANC National Women’s Secretariat appointed
After its banning, the ANC moved underground, and the ANC Women’s League was formally suspended. Ruth Mompati, then based in Morogoro, Tanzania, headed ‘women's affairs’ for the ANC’s External Mission. Following the 1969 Morogoro Conference, women were organised more formally as the Women's Section. The Women's Secretariat, based at the ANC’s headquarters, performed the day-to-day work of the Women’s Section. In 1971, the secretariat was reorganised, with Florence Mophosho as its leader. Magdalene Resha, Edna Mgabaza, Kate Molale, and Theresa Maimane were some of the members. Baleka Kgositsile became the first secretary of the regional women's section of the ANC in Tanzania.
The Rise of Black Consciousness Movement (BCM)
The early 1970s witnessed the formation and inception of the ideology of black consciousness which highlighted the principles of self-reliance, self sufficiency and independent critical thinking. The BC philosophy - with its focus on humanity and human rights - caught the imagination of hundreds of young activists in the struggles for freedom. Mamphela Ramphela, Deborah Mashoba, Thenjiwe Mtinto, Sam Moodley were amongst the many women protagonists in the BCM. They undertook several black community initiatives to improve the lives of black South Africans - such as building schools, self-help projects, literacy programmes, women’s programmes, theatre groups and health clinics - alongside BC leaders such as Steve Biko and Barney Pityana.
Black Women’s Federation (BWF)
One of the organisations which located itself ideologically in the then dominant Black Consciousness Movement was the BWF headed by Fatima Meer in Natal and Winnie Mandela in Transvaal. It brought together 41 organisations of women "in an attempt to address black women's unique experience of oppression." The BWF was active during the Soweto uprising in 1976 but within five months of its formation, most of its leaders were banned or detained. The organisation itself was banned in 1977, after its second conference.
Part 5. A Turning Point in the Struggle
Student protests and women youth leaders
The Soweto student uprising spread countrywide and changed the face of politics in South Africa. Young girls and women played a central role in organising and leading student protests across the country. Sibongile Mkhabela was one such leader. She was an executive member of the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC) and General Secretary of the South African Student Movement (SASM). Much remains to be told of the uprising. The names of many lesser known people who died, especially women, are often unacknowledged. On 17 June 1976, a young black girl, Hermina Leroke, was shot dead in Diepkloof after she and her peers had seen a helicopter and ran. Her companions and friends witnessed her killing by the police but her story is little told.
“I can still hear the bullets ringing in my ears. Could you imagine the army shooting dead children? … I will write when my nerves have cooled down.”
-Lilian Ngoyi in a letter to Belinda and Donald Woods, 24 June 1976
1970s – 1980s
The Internal Security Amendment Act 79 of 1976 - Bannings, detention, imprisonment and assassinations
State repression escalated rapidly after the student protests. This new act enabled the Minister of Justice to ban and detain without trial anyone suspected of subversion - without there being recourse to the courts - if they were seen to be "expressing views or conveying information the publication of which is calculated to endanger the security of the state or the maintenance of public order."
Thousands of women were arrested and incarcerated. Others were banned. There was no right of appeal against a banning order. Others were banished and some assassinated. For example, in August 1976, Maphela Ramphele was detained under Section 10 of the Terrorism Act, one of the first persons to be detained under this newly promulgated law. In April 1977, Ramphele was issued with banning orders and banished to Tzaneen, Northern Transvaal where she remained until 1984. Many children were now without parents. Many women joined the underground.
The Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill
The jail, built in 1909 as part of the Old Fort prison complex in the middle of Joburg, had held criminal and political black and white prisoners in separate sections for many decades. In 1976, ten prominent women leaders were arrested and held in solitary confinement under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. They included Fatima Meer, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela‚ Jeanie Noel‚ Sbongile Kubheka‚ Sally Motlana‚ Cecilie Palmer‚ Joyce Seroke‚ Vesta Smith‚ Jane Phakathi‚ Deborah Mashoba and Lorraine Tabane. They were cruelly treated, and some were sent to John Vorster Square to be interrogated.
16 May 1977
Banishment of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had been a defiant figure whilst a prisoner in the Women’s Jail, openly defying the rules where possible and fighting for the rights of women prisoners. She walked across the atrium where prisoners were forbidden to step foot. She secured sanitary pads for women prisoners for the first time. After her release, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was banished to the small town of Brandfort in the Free State, initially for four years. She ended up spending nine and a half years in isolation and she was allowed no visitors and sustained continuous harassment by the police. Nevertheless, she became internationally known as the defiant voice of the struggle in South Africa.
The Inkatha Women’s Brigade (IWB)
This brigade emerged against the backdrop of the resurgence of political activity in the country and the establishment of Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesiwe, a new Zulu nationalist organisation based in Natal under the charismatic leadership of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. At the IWB’s inaugural conference in May 1977, Buthelezi called on the women “to understand the gravity of the political situation in South Africa” and said that women “were needed now in a way that they were not needed in the past”. They were asked “to rally their menfolk and their children ... into a disciplined workforce for justice”.
The strengthening of community organisation and trade unions
In the context of economic crisis and an implacable apartheid state, black women began organising at community level. The revival of independent trade unions - with the formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions and CUSA in 1979 - also mobolised working-class women. Some of the new trade union structures were led by fearless and indomitable black and white women leaders, such as June Rose-Nala, Mama Lydia Kompe, Chris Bonner and Jane Barret. Women still remained underrepresented in leadership roles, however.
“I think it's time for women to come together and see this thing [the oppression of women] as a major problem for us. Eventually we must achieve the same rights. And we must think of many ways of doing it … I would like my grandchildren to actually feel free in organisation, at home, everywhere … But the men are still taking the lead. It will take a few years for women to move towards proper leadership in the unions.”
-Lydia Kompe, Transvaal Branch Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union
Late 1976 onwards
Women and the underground
The history of the women in the underground does not start in the 1970s. It was after 1976, however, that there was a resurgence of underground activity. Increasing numbers of women either went into exile and joined the armed wings of the ANC and PAC or formally and informally joined military operations from inside the country.
Despite women being present in the underground in significant numbers - with those in exile living in the same camps as men whilst undergoing the same training (drilling, handling weapons, topography etc.) - their role has been consistently downplayed. Many of their contributions have been understood within the conventional framework of the time, with men being cast as the ‘performers of heroic deeds’ and women being seen as restricted to being ‘mothers and keepers of the home’.
Part 6. The Era of Mass Resistance
Prominent women activists were tortured, brutalised and assassinated by the apartheid state both locally and internationally. In some cases, this triggered widespread condemnation of the state and increased solidarity with anti-apartheid activists.
United Women’s Organisation (UWO)
In the Western Cape, the newly-established UWO was composed of women who were involved in a range of activities from civic organisations, trade unions, to detainees' support committees. It included older activists such as Dorothy Zihlangu, Mildred Lesia, Letitia Malindi and Dora Tamana. The UWO believed in non-racialism evidenced in its acceptance of white members such as Amy Thornton. At the launch conference, Tamana (aged 80 at the time), urged all women to unite and recited her poem ‘I see the Rays of our New South Africa Rising’.
“Times have changed, and circumstances have changed. Our organisation today must grow out of the new circumstances. It must be a child of these times.”
-Helen Joseph, at the launch of the UWO
Women’s organisations flourished
The women’s organisations that emerged in this period became the bedrock of resistance to apartheid. They were the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), the United Women’s Organisation (UWO), the United Women’s Congress, the Port Alfred Women’s Organisation and Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW). Demands for women’s rights shaped the policies of the United Democratic Front (UDF) that was soon to be established and those of the ANC and the PAC. It led to the insertion of ‘non-sexist’ in the language of these movements, a term which was later to become one of the core values of the new democracy.
The United Democratic Front’s (UDF) women’s wings
The UDF drew together over 600 community, student, trade union, women, and church organisations. It became the major oppositional force against apartheid inside the country until the government severely curtailed its activities in 1988. Albertina Sisulu was elected the UDF’s president in absentia. Despite some prominent women leaders, many involved in the UDF structures complained that women had a “second-class status within the organisation”. This sentiment led to the formation of the Women's Congress on 23 April 1987 and included women's organisations affiliated to the UDF. At the first meeting, the delegates drew a list of challenges facing women involved in the UDF. The absence of women in leadership roles and gender discrimination were two such issues. Albertina Sisulu was elected to the national council for the UDF Women's Congress.
‘Year of the Women’
The ANC declared 1984 as the ‘Year of the Women’. Some say that this exposed the ANC's weaknesses in integrating gender equality into the core work of the movement. There was still no unified or a single structure organising women but smaller women’s organisations proliferated at this time. 1986 witnessed the formation of the United Women’s Organisation Congress (UWOC), the PAC’s Women’s Organisation, the Rural Women’s Movement and in 1987, the UDF’s Women’s Congress. FEDSAW was also relaunched in the Western Cape. Women were key participants in many grassroots struggles and demonstrations within South Africa and continued to face harsh state oppression ranging from arrests, detentions, murder and assassinations.
ANC’s National Consultative Conference in Kabwe
It was at this conference that the Women's Section petitioned for a refined Bill of Rights that would explicitly reflect women's demands. The discussion paper that circulated at the conference urged:
"The women's place is in the battlefront of struggle ... our task is to prepare men and women for equality; this means that we must fight against male chauvinism, male domination, we must do away with male domination in the home, village, town, factory, workshop, in politics, economics and religion. In particular, we must fight domination even within our movement. No society is free if women are not free."
ANC president, Oliver Tambo's closing speech at the conference affirmed the need to strengthen women's voice within the organisation, emphasising the need for women to be represented at all levels of the movement, including within the NEC. This was the first of several statements by the ANC leadership which offered political support for women's struggles. Brigitte Mabandla soon became legal advisor to the ANC Legal and Constitutional Affairs Department.
The United Nations Decade for Women
Close to 1 500 official delegates from 150 countries attended this Nairobi conference. An additional 15 000 women attended a parallel NGO forum, ‘Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women’ to develop plans to promote greater equality. The conference provided an opportunity for the ANC’s Women’s Section, represented by Ruth Mompati, Frene Ginwala, and Gertrude Shope, to meet directly with activists from home and strategise about the strengthening of women's organisations. ANC President Oliver Tambo led the South African delegation.
Early the next year, the PAC's African Women's Organisation was formed in Katlehong. The organisation sees national oppression and sexual oppression as two sides of the same coin and committed itself to fighting male domination and male chauvinism, alongside male comrades.
Under the successive States of Emergency, women were detained in large numbers. In 1986/7, 12% of detainees were women, amounting to more than three thousand women and girls. Women were not excluded from extreme physical torture at the hands of security police because of their gender.
ANC Women’s Section Conference
This conference centred on the continued lack of representation of women in key ANC structures, the need for a much closer relationship between national liberation and women's liberation and the need for affirmative action around gender. These issues were concretised at a second conference held in Angola in September 1987, where it was decided that there would be:
- 1. A greater role for women within the ANC and MK;
2. Closer organisational links between women inside the country and those in exile;
3. Autonomy for women to articulate their interests and express these through a stronger organisational form.
In-house seminar on the ANC’s draft Constitutional Guidelines
Women delegates heavily criticised the draft guidelines presented by the ANC’s Constitutional Committee. Whilst the guidelines acknowledged the need for gender equality in the public and private spheres and supported affirmative action as the means to effect equality, this clause was the sole reference to gender equality. The guidelines' provisions emphasised ‘material inequality on the basis of race only’. Other critiques were the failure of the guidelines to fully address legal disabilities faced by women and the lack of emphasis on sexism and the cultural underpinnings of gender oppression.
“Criticism came from amongst the women, and it was a very openly articulated criticism of the committee itself and of the guidelines. So, women started saying, how do we amend the guidelines so that they deal with issues of gender?”
-Nolulamo Gwagwa, Women’s Section
Lusaka Seminar: ‘Women, Children and the Family in a Future Constitutional Order’
This six-day seminar, co-ordinated by Zanele Mbeki was organised between the Constitutional Committee of the ANC and the ANC’s Women’s Section to address the issues of gender. According to Bridgitte Mabandla, the Constitutional Committee’s only female member, “the demand for the protection of women’s rights and the promotion of gender equality in a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa was made unequivocally at this meeting.” Frene Ginwala, from the Women’s Section explains how “a number of changes were proposed ... We believe it is necessary to place an obligation on the state to end sexism, in a similar manner to the obligation to end racism. Otherwise, the equal rights accorded to women can be no more than rhetoric.”
18 January 1990
The Malibongwe Conference in Amsterdam and a UDF-COSATU meeting on the ‘Women’s Question’
The watershed conference, hosted by the ANC Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement, brought together women in exile and local women activists from within South Africa. Leila Patel of FEDTRAW opened the conference by saying, “The question of the emancipation of women is integral to our national democratic struggle … The point of departure is to start with women's needs and their level of understanding of their reality and to move at their pace.”
One of the most important statements at the conference came from Frene Ginwala who said that the ANC “would not be true to its principles and values if it did not address the question of emancipation of women within the ANC, the liberation movement and in post-apartheid South Africa.” She acknowledged the ANC’s failure to properly involve women in the struggle up to that point.
Part 7. 1990 - 1994 - A new dawn
ANC National Executive’s statement the ‘Emancipation of Women’
After the unbanning of political organisations in February 1990, the ANC made strides to address women’s issues. One of the NEC’s first official statements committed the ANC to include women's oppression as an integral part of the liberation struggle and promised the fundamental restructuring of the organisation. It stressed that the full achievement of democracy depended on the complete elimination of gender oppression and officially acknowledged the autonomy of women's liberation. This was a turning point in the ANC’s position on women - the first official acceptance of the independent nature of women’s liberation. In the months and years to come, gender activists within the ANC were critical in influencing early policy statements for this ‘government in waiting’.
Return of exiles and relaunch of the ANCWL
The ANC’s Women's Section returned to the country. Two months later the ANCWL was relaunched as an autonomous organisation. It set out to pressure the ANC internally to increase the number of women in leadership positions, promote gender sensitive policies and rebuild as a national women’s organisation. These were ambitious goals and sometimes former exiles were met with hostility. The ANCWL was criticised for its perceived failure to connect with the network of grassroots women’s organisations that existed in the country.
“When we came into the country, in one way we demobilised these women who had been active in their own right because we had this focus, a serious focus, on rebuilding the ANC.”
-Thenjiwe Mthintso, an MK soldier and SACP member
The ANCWL’s first National Conference “Women in Action”
Over a thousand delegates attended the relaunch of the ANCWL inside the country. Gertrude Shope, former leader of the Women's Section, was appointed as president. Albertina Sisulu was elected as vice president and Baleka Mbete Kgositsile as secretary-general. Immediate tasks included developing programmes to address social and sexual oppression, initiating a charter of women's rights, sealing the ANC's transformation into a movement fully committed to gender equality and reviving the proposal to set up an ANC Commission on Emancipation.
48th ANC Conference in Durban
Over 2 000 delegates attended the conference, the first since the ANC’s unbanning. The Women’s League called for a quota of seats for women on the NEC – initially a demand of 25 percent, later revised to 30 percent. An intense debate ensued and in the end, the majority of delegates voted against the proposal for a quota. The ANCWL had underestimated the conservatism of the broad membership of the ANC, including many women who also voted against the quota.
“The hottest issue on the agenda is not how to win political power but whether there should be a quota for women on the NEC. The Women’s League argues strongly for it ... I am amused and angered to see the most patriarchal speakers, the biggest sexists, declaring: ‘We are non-sexist! We’re a non-sexist organisation.’ In the end the quota proposal is lost …”
-Albie Sachs, then member of the ANC’s Constitutional Committee
Frene Ginwala also critiqued the ANCWL’s lack of strategy: "The ANCWL failed to engage the membership in debate prior to the conference or to promote and project the policies they wanted the conference to adopt. The league functioned simply as an arm of the ANC, mobilising women into the organisation and the current national struggles.”
27 September 1991
Plans for a Women’s National Coalition (WNC) and a Women’s Charter
Despite the divisions wrought by apartheid, the next years were characterised by women uniting across racial and political divides to ensure political inclusion and gender equality in the new constitutional order. The ANCWL initially drove the development of a rights-based women’s movement to confront gender discrimination and barriers to women participating in the negotiation. The League hosted over 40 women’s organisations to discuss the plan for a Women’s Charter so that “in their own voice women define the issues of greatest concern to them … [The Charter} would involve millions of women directly in the process of determining how their rights would be protected in a new constitutional order”. Delegates at the first meeting agreed that because of their many differences, a political coalition based on gender, rather than a single new organisation, was the best route to follow.
The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) - Opportunity and protests
CODESA, the multilateral forum to negotiate South Africa’s transition to democracy, represented an unprecedented opportunity for social movements to fight for their rights in a new constitutional order. Now, more than ever before, women had the opportunity to promote gender issues and highlight women’s claims for equality and inclusion. A Declaration of Intent, one of the first documents to be produced by CODESA, was co-drafted by representatives from different parties. After intense debate, the word ‘non-sexism’ was included in this founding document. Despite the commitment to this principle, none of the political parties included women negotiators on their teams. Of the 400 delegates at CODESA, only 23 were woman. Women were outraged. Protests, pickets and petitions ensued. The combined pressure of the women eventually led to the establishment of a Gender Advisory Committee (GAC) in March 1992 (see below).
Commission on the Emancipation of Women
The proposal to establish a Commission on the Emancipation of Women followed from a demand made by ANC women in 1987 and was reiterated in the NEC statement of May 2, 1990. The commission’s proposed role was to tackle internal issues of women's representation in ANC leadership and monitor the extent to which women's interests were reflected in policy making. After its final formation, the commission was headed by Oliver Tambo with Frene Ginwala as his deputy. It set out to examine, promote, and monitor mechanisms for affirmative action within the ANC at all levels, ensuring that “women's experiences and perceptions inform ANC strategy and tactics and its decisions at all levels.” While the commission on its own did not totally succeed in overcoming these limitations, it provided an organisational space for Ginwala and others to advance the feminist agenda in the ANC, separate from the ANC Women's League. It became a base from which Ginwala could participate in, and ultimately lead, the Women's National Coalition.
Gender Advisory Committee (GAC)
By March 1992, the agitation at CODESA around the lack of representation of women was being challenged as never before. A diverse group of organisations and individuals, from the principals of several universities to senior women in political parties, bought newspaper advertisements demanding greater participation of women. On 30 March 1992, the GAC was finally established to advise the working groups on the gender implications of the decisions taken at CODESA. It was initially composed of one delegate from each party but later expanded to include an advisor who had speaking rights. It was expected to produce a report, to be debated at CODESA 2, which reflected the consensus of all CODESA parties on gender issues. Escalating violence precipitated the collapse of CODESA just as the GAC was getting off the ground. It was nonetheless an important symbolic victory for the political participation of women.
25 April 1992
Launch of the Women’s National Coalition (WNC)
Agitation to be part of negotiations from such diverse women’s groupings led to the possibility of a new organisation being launched. After many planning meetings and consultations, the Women's National Coalition was launched. It included 70 national organisations and eight regional coalitions.
The WNC’s key objective was to ensure equality for women in the new constitutional dispensation and provide a strategic and organisational vehicle for women activists to articulate claims independently from the ANC and the ANCWL. Overall, the WNC brought together women from diverse class, racial and political backgrounds, and from diverse types of women's organisations including the church, welfare and the health sectors thus emphasising the diversity of women’s interests in the country. In February 1993, COSATU amended its constitution to allow its Women's Forum to affiliate and its members were roundly welcomed into the coalition.
“... the National Party women and the ANCWL sat together and debated the need for a coalition of women's interests was nothing short of a miracle.”
-Sheila Meintjies, Professor of Politics, University of the Witwatersrand
‘Operation Big Ears’ and the Women’s Charter
Whilst representing women at CODESA, the WNC launched a separate charter campaign with two main objectives: 1) to acquire and disseminate information about women’s needs and aspirations and 2) to unify women in formulating and adopting a Charter or other document and entrench effective equality in the Constitution of South Africa. The Coalition identified six primary phases: education and conscientisation; ascertaining the demands of women; processing demands; educational programmes at local, regional and national levels; crystallisation of demands and formulation and adoption of the Charter.
Frene Ginwala, co-convenor of the WNC, argued for broad consultation with women at the grassroots level and instructed members to ‘grow big ears' that reach the farthest corners of our land. Pregs Govender, gender activist and later MP, explained the importance of this strategy:
"Many people suggested that we hire a market research company to survey women's needs ... Those who see our goal as simply drawing up a list of demands in a charter are missing the core of our objective. If women do not get involved and learn to break the culture of silence that binds women across all cultural backgrounds, we will only be further disempowered. Our numbers make us potentially powerful ... The very first step in realising this power is to ensure that women 'own' the campaign ... This campaign is about South African women seizing the opportunity to begin transforming society and their everyday lives."
The political negotiations ultimately moved more quickly than the campaign and neither the Charter nor the research on women’s demands was available to be included in the Interim Constitution.
Multi-Party Negotiating Process (MPNP) and a Monitoring Collective for women
The Women’s National Coalition wanted to ensure that women were not absent from the next round of negotiations at the MPNP or marginalised in a separate body as had happened at CODESA. They wrote an open letter demanding women’s participation at all stages of the process and staged a protest. This call for at least one woman to be included in each political delegation to the Negotiating Council - consisting of two delegates and two advisors - was initially “jeered at” when put forward by Cyril Ramaphosa of the ANC. It was ultimately accepted by the Council, the main decision making body of the MPNP. The battle for inclusion was won.
There remained, however, several problems with the full and equal participation of women. Individual women delegates struggled to raise gender issues in an unsympathetic environment and were themselves often inexperienced. Moreover, women remained under-represented in the seven technical committees which were particularly important in determining the issues on the agenda. Their report paid little or no attention to gender. Informal networks were still dominated by men and there was little room for participation in social organisations.
The MPNP had also deleted the opening line of CODESA’s Declaration of Intent which stated that the process was moving towards a non-sexist and non-racial South Africa. “We fought for its reinstatement … We believe the words reinforce the reasons for the whole process. Our end picture, what we are fighting for, is a non-sexist and non- racist society,” explained Baleka Mbete Kgositsile, ANCWL Secretary-General.
Women’s National Coalition sets out to draft a charter
After many obstacles, the WNC established the Research Supervisory Group to oversee the charter campaign. The committee chaired by Sheila Meintjies, an academic and activist, designed a women-centred plan of action. They convened a National Strategy Workshop in June 1993 with two delegates from each region. Five key themes were identified as the core around which to build a national campaign: women’s legal status; women’s access to land, resources, and water; violence against women; health and work. A well-developed publicity campaign was launched. Individuals, organisations, and mass meetings of women convened by regional affiliates - some with as many as eight hundred participants - submitted demands around each theme.
Objections to equality provisions in the Bill of Rights (BoR)
The struggle for women to have their voices heard in the negotiations is exemplified in the dispute over customary law in the BoR. Chief Nonkonyana, a Transkei chief and lawyer, sought the exclusion of customary law from the scope of the BoR. The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA) took up this cause and demanded that the gender equality clause be struck from the draft constitution altogether and argued for the status and power of traditional leaders to be recognised. They requested that a house of traditional leaders be established alongside the legislative assembly and senate. Women's groups and members of the WNC were furious at this assault on equality for women. The WNC prepared a briefing paper which argued that were CONTRALESA to prevail, the ultimate impact would be to establish two states in the new post-apartheid South Africa: “The former will be subject to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and its citizens will resort to the Bill of Rights to challenge discrimination. In the latter, rural communities (and particularly rural women) will be isolated in a traditional state with no resort to the full rights of citizenship. Like the apartheid state, we will be creating two classes of citizens.”
The MPNP’s Technical Committee on Fundamental Rights - women again had to fight to be included - drafted a compromise clause. Neither CONTRALESA nor the women delegates supported Clause 32. The former felt like it gave too much away and the ANCWL felt that its own party was compromising women's position, and also compromising the notion of equality. The Rural Women’s Movement and other organisations sent strongly worded letters to the MPNP. The outcome was the removal of the offending compromise clause.
The Interim Constitution
As the constitutional negotiations were drawing to a close, the parties agreed there was neither sufficient nor general consensus on the issue of the gender equality clause. The negotiators concluded that customary law would not be included in the Bill of Rights. The agreement endorsed a general protection for custom and culture but with a clear understanding that the right to equality would not be compromised by it. Frene Ginwala, who called the decision a “tremendous victory for women”, credited the threat by rural women to boycott the elections as having played a decisive role. On 17 November 1993, the 21 participating parties at the MPNP signed the Interim Constitution. The Interim Constitution included gender equality as the founding principle of the new state (in the Preamble); strong equality protection; and a new body to promote gender equality (the Commission on Gender Equality). Women had again contributed significantly to ensuring these strides.
A quota system to enhance women’s representation
In addition to the equality clause, women activists pressed for the use of a multi-member district electoral system that utilised party-list proportional representation. This was a system that international research had shown was most likely to enhance women’s representation. Shortly thereafter, in another victory for women, remembering the fierce debates at the 1991 Conference, the ANC committed to a quota of at least 3 out of every 10 persons placed on the proportional representations lists should be women. This did not mean separate voting for a block of women but rather insisting if necessary, that the names of women voted for by the branches would be moved up the lists to ensure that at least 30% of the ANC’s Members of Parliament and the Provincial Assemblies would be women. This encouraged women in other parties to fight for positions on their party lists.
The Women's Charter for Effective Equality
The draft of the Women’s Charter was presented to the Women's Convention two months before the first democratic elections. A small team had compiled all the inputs from around the country and had worked against severe time constraints to come up with the draft. Meintjes described the "forty-eight sleepless hours" before the convention:
"We put together all the information and organised it … into twelve areas. The issues came directly out of the research. Where there were differences and contradictions [in the submissions], they all went in ... The draft was fine-tuned at a steering committee meeting and then went to the convention."
The convention debated the charter. The main deliberations were between the DP and the ANC. Key debates were about the understanding of equality, the value of state intervention in the struggle for gender equality, and the extent to which the charter should address inequalities in the private sphere. Drawing on these debates, the charter was then revised by a committee appointed at the conference. The committee, which included some of the original drafters, refined the draft in preparation for its presentation to the new Parliament in June 1994.
Part 8. Writing the Constitution - 1994 - 1996
Women at the heart of the new democracy
One of the striking features of South Africa’s first democratically elected Parliament, which doubled up as a Constitutional Assembly to draft South Africa’s final Constitution, was the prominence of women activists. One hundred and seventeen - over 27 percent - of the members were women. When Nelson Mandela was chosen by Parliament to be South Africa’s democratically elected President, he took with him from his old office into his new office two strong feminists Barbara Masakela and Jessie Duarte. The other forceful personality who had helped structure his office had been Frene Ginwala. In his first State of the Nation address, President Nelson Mandela proclaimed:
“It is vitally important that all structures of government, including the President himself, should understand fully that freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.”
The first democratic Parliament was praised for its gender-inclusivity:
see quote on the right
The Women’s Charter for effective equality
Although the broader political context had significantly changed after the elections and certain victories for women had been secured, the charter was still deemed to be an important intervention. Activists believed that it would represent a national consensus among women about the minimal demands of the women's movement and guide future legislative and policy interventions. After all, the charter campaign had already made an impact by enshrining gender equality and action in the final Constitution. The original multiple demands of the charter were reduced to help consolidate and speed up the process. The final charter was presented to President Mandela in June 1994.
The final Constitution prohibits gender discrimination
The first democratic Parliament doubled as a Constitutional Assembly (CA). The CA was given just two years to draft the text for the country’s first democratic Constitution. The National Coalition of Women continued to monitor the process. Skilled political activists together with technical experts and advisors and the broad women’s constituency helped to keep gender issues at the centre of the constitution-making process. The role of women in the constitution-making process was a continuation of the role they played in the struggle they waged throughout history.
New legislation and institutions protecting women’s rights
The new government’s embrace of gender equality as a foundational principle of the new democracy, led to policies, programmes and laws that advanced women’s interests. Parliament moved quickly to introduce new legislation within a human rights framework to eradicate gender inequality, create substantive representation for women as well as to protect women in the domestic sphere. Public participation in the law-making process of the Assembly was now actively encouraged and there was a close and cooperative relationship between civil society and Parliament. New laws outlawed rape in marriage, promoted reproductive choices, offered protection from domestic violence for women, illegalised discrimination against women and promoted equal status under customary law.
“The presence within the state of women and men deeply committed to progress on gender equality was central to the achievement of many policies and laws … They retained relationships with women in civil society and were able to work in partnership to advance certain laws and policies … The fact that the Speaker had been a leading gender activist in the early 1990s, assisted these processes.”
- Catherine Albertyn, Professor of Law in ‘Towards Substantive Representation: Women and Politics in South Africa’
Part 9. Making the Constitution a lived reality - 1996 onwards
Taking root in day-to-day life
Despite women’s unprecedented participation in law-making and Parliament, and the newly entrenched human rights institutions and courts, enormous challenges remain for South Africa’s women. While some women have greater access to healthcare and resources, conditions on the ground remain hopelessly inadequate. Poverty is deepening. There are high rates of disease and infection amongst women.
Violence against women
The safety of women and children remains one of the most enormous challenges to be tackled. The country has one of the highest femicide rates in the world with more than 2 700 women and 1 000 children murdered in a single year. It is estimated that around 51% of women in South Africa have experienced abuse at the hands of their partners.
In August 2018, womens month was marked by countrywide intersectional marches and pickets over violence again women, children and gender non-conforming people. It was organised by WomenProtestSA under the banner #thetotalshutdown. The rallying cry was "My body, not your crime scene" called on men to stop the abuse of women and children. "We have nothing to celebrate on 9 August," said the organisers of #TheTotalShutdown, referring to the annual commemoration of the women's march against apartheid passes.
Victories for women at the Constitutional Court
The Constitutional Court has dealt with a number of cases linked to the struggle of women’s rights as human rights. Many cases illustrated the devastation caused by gender–based violence and have exposed inequalities in customary and divorce law. The judgements of the Constitutional Court have contributed to enhancing the dignity of the women who are victims of inequality and of human rights violations.
The Struggle Continues
A formidable task remains in South Africa to ensure that women’s issues are raised and actively dealt with. The struggle for gender equality is currently being waged in both the public and private sphere. The high rates of femicide and rape in the private realm are echoed by violent rhetoric of sexism and patriarchy in the public domain. A new generation of African feminists are forging new paths outside of conventional political organisations. In a recent seminar, writer, activist and WISER Writing Fellow, Sisonke Msimang, was forthright in her critique of the ANC Women’s League:
“I have a huge problem with the ANCWL and the betrayal of the feminist vision that we fought for. Gender-based violence has become a-politicised. My generation of African feminists have taken to ‘direct action’ to politicise the GBV issue as a credible form of a new political grammar.”
The united and diverse actions by women continue today. A spate of new organisations have emerged over the last 20 years. South African women, who have played a leading role in resistance politics since the early 20th century - as evidenced by the example of Charlotte Maxeke and others in this timeline - continue to fight for gender and racial equality. The liberation and safety of women remains a critical issue in our country today.