Twentieth century South Africa was an unforgiving, unrighteous and primitive-like society. Cruel, repressive laws casted a non-negotiable boundary around Black, Coloured and Indian people. These laws restricted their movements, opportunities and all round lifestyle. A white minority was in utter control of a vulnerable South Africa, and this control was being maintained in the worst possible way. This method is known as Apartheid. In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party rose to power with their policy of Apartheid and implemented laws that were far more severe and brutal than before. Their laws touched every aspect of social life, including prohibition of marriage between blacks and whites, and the sanctioning of “white-only” jobs. The various races were also forbidden from mixing socially and were forcibly moved to separate living areas. In 1960, the Population Registration Act required that all South Africans be racially classified into one of three categories: white, black, or coloured. Classification into these categories was based on appearance, social acceptance, and descent. A person could not be considered white if one of his or her parents were “non-white.”Determining a person white would not only be based on physical appearance but other things like his/her habits, education, and speech would be taken into account. The Department of Home Affairs was responsible for the classification of the citizenry. Blacks who didn’t co-operate with the race laws were dealt with harshly, and were often beaten or unfairly imprisoned. All blacks were required to carry “pass books” containing fingerprints, a photo, and information concerning access to white areas. In 1951, the Bantu Authorities Act established a basis for ethnic government in African reserves, known as “homelands.” These homelands were independent states to which each African was assigned by the government according to the record of origin. All political rights, including voting, held by an African were restricted to the designated homeland. The aim of homelands was to rid blacks of their South African citizenship and any right of involvement with the South African Parliament. Basically, blacks were aliens in their own country. In 1953, the Bantu Education Act was passed, which meant black school children were given an inferior education. The school curriculum was designed to offer a limited education, because the government wanted black to be manual workers only. Mission and church schools which refused to teach the new Bantu Education syllabus were forced to close down. The result of the new system was that the schools were understaffed and overcrowded, and had fewer resources. This obviously led to a decline in the quality of education. Inevitably, Apartheid sparked significant internal resistance and violence. Anti-Apartheid activists took shape, in aim to restore justice and rid South Africa of racial equality. Those who opposed the Apartheid policy risked being imprisoned, or sometimes worse, even killed. Since the 1950’s, a series of popular uprisings and protests was met with the banning of opposition and imprisoning of anti-Apartheid leaders. As unrest spread and became more effective and militarised, oppressive organisation responded with repression and violence. This fight for freedom characterized the 20th century. Activists not only fought for race, but also gender equality – both in South Africa and the world over. The system of patriarchy and the ‘women’s work’ stereotype had to be broken before women, particularly black women, could achieve equal status as men. Apartheid imposed new restrictions on African women beginning in the 1950s. Many lived in squalor in the former homelands, where malnutrition, illness, and infant mortality were much higher than in urban areas. Other women who followed their husbands into cities or mining areas lived in inadequate, and often illegal, housing near industrial compounds. Women often left their own families to commute long distances to low-wage jobs in the domestic work force in white neighbourhoods. Substantial numbers were temporary workers in agriculture; and a growing number of women joined the burgeoning industrial work force. These living conditions, along with the inferior treatment given towards women in the work sector, were the breeding grounds for their resistance against Apartheid.
The main reason why women’s resistance differed from the men’s, was because women were also focused on gender equality, not just racial equality. Men protested against the whites, whereas women involved all races in their objection to the Apartheid policy. Gender inequality obviously hindered women’s involvement in Apartheid. Black women actually needed the permission and approval of their fathers or husbands in order to step outside the family for practically any reason. The June 1913 anti-pass defiance campaign was probably the first recorded incidence of protest by women against the Union government. The government attempted to get women to carry passes as early as 1913, but due to the massive resistance it was met with, the government only attempted again when the National Party came into power in 1948. In 1952, a large number of women moved into urban areas to seek employment and keep their families together. The National Party saw this as a threat to the Apartheid structure as the women were constructing a permanent urban labour force. The native Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents Act of 1952 was initiated, and was intended to permit only necessary labour for industrial and domestic work into urban areas. This meant that passes were to be extended to women. As soon as this act was announced, the women organised a demonstration. The women in Black Sash performed an all-white protest, and in Pretoria, 2000 African women rallied. Many women were arrested when they burned their passes as it was illegal to destroy it. On the day that passes were distributed in Sanderton in south-eastern Transvaal, 914 women protested to the Mayor, and all of whom were arrested for taking part in an illegal procession. But, by 1960, about 75 percent of adult women in South Africa had accepted the passes. A significant incident sparked a significant organisation to develop which played a massive role in the men’s resistance to Apartheid. Peaceful resistance to government policies reached a peak when both the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) – both being led by men – organised anti-pass campaigns in March 1960. The PAC plan was that the protestors would march to police stations where they would burn their passes and present themselves for mass arrest. On the 21st of March 1960, thousands of Africans gathered in locations around the country. In Sharpeville, up to 20 000 came to the police station, which created an unforgiving and intense atmosphere. The police opened fire and 69 people were killed and 180 injured. Most of the shot or injured had been shot in the back. The Sharpeville Massacre marked the beginning of an even more repressive era. Both the ANC and PAC were banned. Women led hunger strikes to protest against living conditions in jail while massive arrests were made under new restrictive legislation. The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was an anti-Apartheid activist movement inspired by the Sharpeville Massacre and the banning of the ANC and PAC. The movement represented a social movement for political consciousness. Thenjive Mtintso, a journalist, who was arrested and banned several times and is now in exile, describes what Black Consciousness means: “Black Consciousness says to the black man ‘whatever you have been doing so far, you have been trying to emulate whites. You have lost you value. You have been uprooted. Now go back to your roots and from there you can emerge as a man in your own right. Black Consciousness goes on to black solidarity and black power.” He then discussed that Black Consciousness wasn’t anti-white, but that it did call for new effective strategies. He explained that the whites must work within their own community to resolve and liberate their counterparts, and that blacks will be doing the same in their community. This emphasises the difference between the men’s and women’s role as Black Consciousness focused solely on the black race. Ray Alexandre Simons was born on 12 January 1913 in Latvia. She arrived in South Africa on 6 November 1929, and began to organise Black workers unions. Five days later, after meeting Cissie Gool, she joined the Communist Party of South Africa, aged only 16. In April 1954, together with Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and Florence Mkhize, she helped construct the foundation of the Federation of South African Women, which fought for women’s rights and participated in drafting the pioneering Women’s Charter. According to its constitution, the objectives of the Federation were to bring the women of South Africa together to secure full equality of opportunity for all women, regardless of race, colour or creed; to remove social, legal and economic disabilities; and to work for the protection of women and children. FEDSAW also aimed to establish a broad-based women’s organisation. One of the most successful protests FEDSAW organised took place in 1957, when the Public Utility Transportation Company increased their fare by one penny. The PUTC were responsible for the transportation of some 25,000 Africans each day from the townships of Alexandra, Sophiatown and Lady Shelburne. Africans began a bus boycott by walking up to nine miles each way, some leaving at 3:00 a.m. it took just under three weeks for the boycott mass to grow by 20,000 other Africans. Significantly, the boycott was organised mainly by women, and was in fact led by a women. After much violent deliberation, the government finally implemented the Native Transportation Act No. 52 (1957) which rolled back the fare increase. The creation of FEDSAW marked the start of a period of expansion of the political involvement of women, especially black. Another organization that took to the troubled South African scene was The Black Sash. This organization was particularly significant because it was in fact founded by, in 1955, a small group of white middle-class women who were predominantly English-speaking. It was initially called The Women’s Defence of the Constitution League, but was changed to The Black Sash because the women wore black sashes over one shoulder as they stood to demonstrate against discriminatory legislation. The organisation developed into an avenue for liberal women to protest against government policies by means of marches, convoys, demonstrations and vigils. The organization was initially formed to protest against the Separate Representation of Voters Bill, a plan by the government to strip Coloureds from the common voters’ roll. To show their disapproval they stood silently on pavements outside public buildings in the major cities, wearing their black sashes. These acts of resistance attracted some support but also criticism from the white public. The organization also protested against the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Bill. A Bantustan (black African homeland) was a region assigned to black inhabitants of South Africa. The bill stripped black South Africans of parliamentary representation and legalised forced removals. Initially, membership of the Black Sash was only open to female voters resident in South Africa. In 1963, all women living in South Africa were able to become members of the Black Sash, but nevertheless, it remained mainly a “white” organization. In 1973, 210 delegates representing 41 organisations gathered in Durban to found the Black Women’s Federation (BWF). The BWF was closely related to FEDSAW as it possessed the same objectives, but the difference was that it only allowed black membership because it was based on opposition to the legislation governing blacks. At the conference where the organisation was launched, the women adopted a constitution and resolved to deal with issues relating to housing, education, labour and rural development. Another way in which BWF was different to its predecessor was that it worked in both rural and urban areas. The aim was to teach women to realise their own potential and to increase their awareness and level of education. Literacy, nutrition and health classes developed, and so did small cottage industries. Inevitably, the Government took action, and within a year seven leaders had been detained, and the entire organisation had come to a grinding halt in October 1977. I would like to dedicate my final piece of information to, in my opinion, the most iconic and morally sound person in women’s resistance to the Apartheid State: Helen Suzman. In 1953, Helen won a nomination contest which granted her a seat in Parliament, representing the United Party.