Women keep protests burning

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Today we celebrate Women’s Day by commemorating the 20 000 women of August 9, 1956.

However, 2013 marks a number of other important anniversaries for South Africa: the first anniversary of the Marikana massacre; 100 years since the first anti-pass march lead by the women of Bothaville and Bloemfontein in 1913; and 100 years since the colonial government passed the Natives Land Act.

The Natives Land Act is perhaps one of the most important pieces of colonial legislation in South Africa, which saw the allocation of 13 percent of land being set aside as “reserves” for “non-whites”.

By the early 20th century, African urbanisation was occurring at a rapid rate. In order to pay the government taxes imposed in the reserves, people generally preferred to work in the towns than at the mines and farms.

The state disliked the movement of African women into towns because it wanted to reserve secretarial and domestic jobs for poor white women. The new Christian morality and conservatism of traditionalists also viewed single women in towns as immoral, signifying the breakdown of “tribal discipline”.

In a less famous narrative, in October 1955 the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) and their allies in the Congress Alliance organised a demonstration that saw 2 000 women march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the government’s new pass laws and the Bantu Administration Act.

The next year, on August 9, 1956, even more angered by continual police brutality and inadequate access to housing, the women organised a 20 000-strong national anti-pass march to Pretoria.

Women from various faiths, political backgrounds and cultures worked together, selling cupcakes, jewellery and other goods to raise transport money for the protest.

South African gender activist and author Nomboniso Gasa has written about the determination of these women, despite the male leaders of the ANC expressing concern and disapproval of women organising and executing such a mass protest.

These women not only called for freedom of movement and women’s emancipation, but the FSAW also called for women to be equal partners in the liberation struggle.

Lilian Ngoyi, one of the women who led the march, expressed this so well by saying, “The husbands speak of democracy, but they do not practise it in the home.”

Accounts of the 1956 anti-pass protest often focus on the central role of FSAW and the ANC Women’s League, following the ANC’s shift in the 1950s to mass defiance campaigns.

However, these accounts seldom admit that the ANC, from its inception, had an urban bias. Many women from rural areas travelled to Pretoria to protest, yet the ANC never directly acknowledged the importance of rural resistance.

While some women already lived in the towns, the Land Act and pass laws affected rural women, preventing them from coming into town from the “reserves”.

When black labour was required in the towns, single-occupation mine housing was designed to keep the family and wives in the “reserves”.

In 1951, when women in Zeemont refused to carry passes, the prime minister and architect of apartheid, Hendrick Verwoerd, threatened to depose their chief. The women protested, preventing this from happening.

Although chiefs were sometimes a source of refuge, as early as 1868 the indirect rule through tribal administration began to frame African women as minors.

This administration modified and institutionalised customary laws which favoured African men as patriarchs and gave white administrators more power by making the chiefs accountable to the state.

Yet, at every point women defied these mechanisms of control or used them to their advantage. Even in 1956, when the government tried to impose stricter restrictions on women’s freedom and cut off the transport going to Pretoria, it only made the women more determined.

One hundred years ago, when the colonial government passed the Natives Land Act, it guaranteed the continuation of the cheap migrant labour system that persists today. Much has changed since then, but the exploitation remains.

This month marks the first anniversary of the Marikana massacre, in which the SA Police Service opened fire, killing 34 protesting miners.

Women living in places like Wonderkop, Marikana are continuing the struggle in a different space and time. The home-space, which is the source of their oppression, is also a space of strength and defiance.

When we examine the history of women’s struggles and defiance in South Africa and elsewhere, they are often organised around livelihood: access to food, housing and health care.

Feminists often construct an idea of women’s resistance which puts the home, the family and the church outside the realm of struggle and emancipation.

Yet these spaces have been where women have found the tools for political expression, and a base from which to organise.

Like so many before them, the women of Marikana cooked, cleaned, cared for and raised money to feed the protesters and their children.

This is not “women’s work”, but it has historically been women who have done this work, which is not waged, not acknowledged and not celebrated.

However, it is this everyday defiance and strength which make these women revolutionaries.

They continue to fight for food, housing, water, roads, protection and justice.

Last Thursday female mine workers from Lonmin joined hands with other women in Wonderkop to march for peace as part of marking Women’s Month.

As civic leader Messina Ouma Makgope rightly said, “It is time to draw a line in the sand and say no more abuse and violence, enough is enough.

“As women we should be defiant in the face of adversity and refuse to be victims.”

Photo Caption: Sophie Williams, Raheema Moosa, Helen Joseph and Lilian Ngoyi lead the 1956 womens march in Pretoria. The writer says the ANC has failed to acknowledge the role of rural women in the Struggle.


Naicker is a freelance journalist completing her Master’s in Politics at Rhodes University.

Article Source: http://www.iol.co.za/dailynews/opinion/women-keep-protests-burning-1.1559996#.UgX5i5IweCk

This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service’s special series on celebrating phenomenal women.