The Turbulent 1950s in South Africa — Women as defiant activists

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Women were in the front lines of the struggle against the Apartheid regime in South Africa, as this article from South African History Online explains. This is part of our collection on Marxism and Black Struggle.

Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James (Illustration: Sou Mi)

In the 1950s the government’s increasingly repressive policies began to pose a direct threat to all people of colour, and there was a surge of mass political action by blacks in defiant response. The 1950s certainly proved to be a turbulent decade. We shall see that women were prominent in virtually all these avenues of protest, but to none were they more committed than the anti-pass campaign.

Women and the Anti-Pass Campaign 1950-1953

The apartheid regime’s influx control measures and pass laws were what women feared the most and reacted to most vehemently. Their fears were not unfounded. In 1952 the Native Laws Amendment Act tightened influx control, making it an offence for any African (including women) to be in any urban area for more than 72 hours unless in possession of the necessary documentation. The only women who could live legally in the townships were the wives and unmarried daughters of the African men who were eligible for permanent residence.

In the same year the Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act) was passed. In terms of this act the many different documents African men had been required to carry were replaced by a single one — the reference book — which gave details of the holder’s identity, employment, place of legal residence, payment of taxes, and, if applicable, permission to be in the urban areas. The act further stipulated that African women, at an unspecified date in the near future, would for the first time be required to carry reference books. Women were enraged by this direct threat to their freedom of movement and their anti-pass campaign, as Walker puts it “was one of the most vociferous and effective protest campaigns of any at the time” (1991:125).

Protests started as early as 1950 when rumours of the new legislation were leaked in the press. Meetings and demonstrations were held in a number of centres including Langa, Uitenhage, East London, Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg. In the Durban protests in March 1950, Bertha Mkize of the ANCWL was a leading figure, while in Port Elizabeth Florence Matomela (the provincial president of the ANCWL) led a demonstration in which passes were burnt. By 1953 there were still sporadic demonstrations taking place and these accelerated when local officials began to enforce the new pass regulations. Reaction was swift and hostile. On 4 January 1953, hundreds of African men and women assembled in the Langa township outside Cape Town to protest against the new laws. Delivering a fiery speech to the crowd Dora Tamana, a member of the ANC Women’s League and later a founding member of the Federation of South African Women, declared:

We women will never carry these passes. This is something that touches my heart. 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 a small technical offence — not having a pass?

The Defiance Campaign Is Launched and Women Step Forward

In June 1952 the ANC and SAIC initiated a cooperative initiative known as the Defiance Campaign. Radical tactics of defiance were to be employed to exert pressure on the government. This was in line with the ANC’s declared “Programme of Action” of 1949. Volunteers from the ANC and SAIC (the CPSA had disbanded in 1950) began to publicly defy discriminatory laws and invite arrest, filling the jails and over-extending the judicial system.

Women were prominent in many of these defiant incidents. Florence Matomela was among 35 activists arrested in Port Elizabeth and Bibi Dawood recruited 800 volunteers in Worcester. Fatima Meer, an Indian woman, was arrested for her role in the unrest and was subsequently banned. Another woman to come to the fore during the Defiance Campaign was Lilian Ngoyi, who later became president of both the ANCWL and FSAW. She had previously kept a very low profile and been involved in church-related organisations, but the Defiance Campaign made her realize that only by adopting a more aggressive and militant approach would the government be fully aware of the commitment of women to the national struggle for freedom. Women’s involvement in the Defiance Campaign certainly proved to be an important stimulus in their political development across the board. It not only strengthened the ANCWL but also motivated women to establish the FSAW.

The Federation of South African Women (FSAW or FEDSAW)

Three important female activists were in Port Elizabeth in April 1953 at the time when the Defiance Campaign was underway and there was widespread political unrest in the region. Influx control measures had just been implemented in the region a few months before and had created a storm of protest from the people. The three women were Florence Matomela (eastern Cape president of the ANCWL), Frances Baard, who was a leading local figure in the Food and Canning Worker’s Union (FCWU) and Ray Alexander, the general secretary of the FCWU, who was in Port Elizabeth to attend a trade union conference. The three decided among themselves that the time was right to call women to a meeting to discuss the formation of a national women’s organization. No record was kept of the informal meeting held that same evening, but Ray Alexander later said that it had been attended by about 40 women. Other than Alexander, a Mrs Pillay, a Miss Damons and Gus Coe, most of the women were Africans. Although from various different organizations all the women were committed to the Congress Alliance and the Defiance Campaign that had been initiated the previous year. Ray Alexander pointed out the advantages of an umbrella body that would devise a national strategy to fight against the issues of importance to women: every-day matters such as rising food and transport costs, passes and influx control. The women were enthusiastic in their response and Ray Alexander was asked to pursue the matter further.

Ray Alexander was based in Cape Town so the planning for the initial conference was done there. Hilda Watts (Bernstein), also a communist and an experienced political campaigner, was asked to handle the Johannesburg wing of the committee. Subsequently Johannesburg and Cape Town were to become the main FSAW centres. An energetic, skilled organizer who had been a tireless campaigner for women’s rights since the 1930s, Ray Alexander was the ideal woman for the job. She co-opted a number of influential women country-wide to help her but her individual contribution was enormous. All the major organizations were represented in her “women’s committee” including the ANC Women’s Leaguers, trade unionists, members of the SAIC, of the Transvaal All-Women’s Union and of the Congress of Democrats(COD). The COD had been formed when the CPSA had disbanded in 1950; it thus included many of the ex-Communist Party members.

The committee met regularly to plan the coming conference. Other notable women involved were Ida Mtwana (ANC Women’s League), Josie Palmer (ex-CPSA and Transvaal All-Women’s Union), Helen Joseph (COD), Amina Cachalia and Mrs M Naidoo (SAIC) and three trade unionists: Bettie du Toit, Lucy Mvubelo and Hetty du Preez. Ray Alexander also went to Durban to coordinate plans with women in Natal, where Dr K Goonam, Fatima Meer and Fatima Seedat of the SAIC and Bertha Mkize and Henrietta Ostrich of the ANC, were consulted for their views. Invitations to the inaugural conference of the FSAW were sent out in March 1954, signed by 63 women who supported the aims of the Congress Alliance.

The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW or FSAW) was launched on 17 April 1954 in the Trades Hall in Johannesburg, and was the first attempt to establish a national, broad-based women’s organisation. One hundred and forty-six delegates, representing 230,000 women from all parts of South Africa, attended the founding conference and pledged their support for the broadly-based objectives of the Congress Alliance. The specific aims of FSAW were to bring the women of South Africa together to secure full equality of opportunity for all women, regardless of race, colour or creed, as well as to remove their social, legal and economic disabilities.

A draft Women’s Charter was presented by Hilda Bernstein, and in complete identification with the national liberation movement as represented by the Congress Alliance, the Women’s Charter called for the enfranchisement of men and women of all races; for equality of opportunity in employment; equal pay for equal work; equal rights in relation to property, marriage and children; and the removal of all laws and customs that denied women such equality. It further demanded paid maternity leave, childcare for working mothers, and free and compulsory education for all South African children. These demands were later incorporated into the Freedom Charter that was adopted by the Congress of the People, held in Kliptown near Johannesburg, from 25-26 June 1955.

The administrative groundwork of the newly-established FSAW evolved over the months that followed, but a national executive committee was formed at the inaugural conference in April 1954. Ida Mtwana was elected as national president (she was also the presiding ANCWL president), which indicated the key role the ANC (the senior partner of the Democratic Alliance) was destined to play in the new organisation. Ray Alexander became the national secretary and the vice presidents were Gladys Smith, Lilian Ngoyi, Bertha Mkize and Florence Matomela.

The women were unanimous in their opinion that the inaugural conference had been an unqualified success. On Hilda Watts’ suggestion men volunteers had been assigned the catering responsibilities for the conference. This was symbolic. As Ida Mtwana put it: “Gone are the days when the place of women was in the kitchen and looking after the children. Today they are marching side by side with men in the road to freedom” (Walker 1991:154).

Women’s Role in the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter

By the time the FSAW had been established in 1954 the Defiance Campaign had fizzled out. This is not to say that it had failed, despite it shortcomings. But the government had weathered the defiance and was introducing yet more of its apartheid measures with persistent vigour. It became clear that the national liberation movement needed to adopt a new initiative. The Congress Alliance began to organise the Congress of the People; once again women were destined to play an important role. This despite the fact that many of the leading women activists in the ANCWL and FSAW including Ray Alexander, were banned and had to cut their ties with the organisation.

In August 1954 the Congress Alliance asked the FSAW to assist in organising the Congress of the People and the women agreed with enthusiasm. They were to help organise local bodies and recruit new grassroots support for the Alliance by holding house meetings and local conferences. This they did with great success in the opening months of 1955. In addition they took on the huge task of arranging accommodation for the more than 2 000 expected delegates. Their input gave the women an opportunity to lobby for the incorporation of some of their demands into the Freedom Charter adopted at the mass meeting.

Walker (1991:183) shows that although the FSAW was closely involved in the planning of the Congress of the People, women only played a limited role in the actual meeting. On 25-26 June 1955 nearly 3 000 delegates gathered at Kliptown. There were 721 women delegates in the official tally of 2 848 – in other words only about a quarter of the delegates at the Congress of the People were women. There were a few women, including Sonia Bunting, who spoke from the floor, but Helen Joseph, who was the FSAW’s Transvaal secretary, was the only female platform speaker. The clause that she proposed on behalf of women, that of the need for “houses, security and comfort”, including free medical treatment for mothers and young children, was in fact subsequently included in the Freedom Charter. Frances Baard, a prominent trade unionist and member of the executive committee of the FSAW, was involved in the compilation of the Freedom Charter.

In September 1955 the protest against the imposition of passes for women became the primary concern for the ANCWL and the FSAW but for black women across the board. This anti-pass campaign peaked with a massive demonstration of “women’s power” in August 1956. After the Pretoria march the campaign continued until the end of the 1950s, with in Zeerust in 1957, Johannesburg in 1958 and Natal in 1959. In 1960, as will be seen, FSAW’s plans were abruptly halted in the wake of the Sharpeville unrest when the government banned the ANC. FSAW had been dealt a severe blow.

In December 1956 several female activists were involved in another high profile incident. In a determined effort to try to curtail the national liberation movement, the government rounded up and arrested 156 leaders of the Congress Alliance. Among those detained were leading women such as Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Annie Silinga and Francis Baard. They were accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and were tried in the infamous Treason Trial that lasted for four and a half years. During this protracted period women of the FSAW and ANCWL helped to organise support for the treason trialists and their families.

Source: South African History Online

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