Maybe it will be time (soon?) for us to review past times of rebellion and revolutionary disturbance...

Now you have touched the women
You have struck a rock
You have dislodged a boulder
You will be crushed!

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African Women`s Resistance to the Pass Laws in South Africa 1950-1960

by Elizabeth S. Schmidt


The decade of the 1950s was a decade of turmoil in South Africa. In the urban areas, a strong alliance was being forged between racially oppressed groups and sympathetic whites. As a united front against apartheid, the non-racial Congress Alliance, (2) formed from previously organised racially-based and worker groups, defied unjust laws and conducted campaigns against forced removals under the Group Areas Act and against inferior "Bantu" education for African children. The alliance organised bus boycotts, stay-at-homes, and rent strikes in the African townships. Perhaps the most significant Congress campaign of the decade was the campaign against the pass laws, and in particular, the extension of reference books to African women. No other campaign was carried out on such a massive scale or was sustained over as many years. No other campaign struck at the very root of the apartheid system.

Protest against the pass laws was not an innovation of the 1950s. The African National Congress (ANC) had been organising opposition to the legislation since its founding in 1912. The significance of the campaigns of the 1950s lay in the adoption of new strategies for bringing about fundamental change. For the first time, anti-pass protesters employed techniques of mass action, strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience on a wide scale, abandoning the appeals, petitions and deputations that had characterised ANC protests for more than forty years. Efforts at gentle suasion and pleas for patient waiting were cast aside as remnants of a bygone era. The degree of popular involvement in the anti-pass actions and the level of spontaneous activity in the rural areas was unparallelled in any other period of South African history. Finally, in the 1950s, the primary catalysts of the anti-pass protests were not the traditional male leaders, but thousands of African women, many of whom had never before been involved in political protests or demonstrations.

In the urban areas, the women`s campaigns were primarily organised by the ANC Women`s League and the nonracial Federation of South African Women. In the rural areas, resistance was largely spontaneous. Although the Government charged that the unrest was due to the work of "outside agitators", the rural women were, for the most part, acting on their own initiative and according to their own understanding of how the extension of the pass laws could affect their lives. While women who worked in the urban areas brought home new tactics, insights and information when they returned to the reserves, they were contributing to a momentum that had gathered on its own.

The militancy of the women, their level of organisation in the urban areas, and the ease with which they discarded their expected subordinate role came as a shock to many of the men and even to some of the women. Although women were deeply involved in all of the Congress campaigns of the 1950s, the leadership of the Congress organisations was dominated almost exclusively by men. (3)

As the women`s campaigns gathered strength, the ANC National Executive Committee pointedly acknowledged the role of women in the liberation struggle. It was obvious, from the wording of its statements, that the importance of women to the struggle had not previously been assumed. In its report to the Annual Conference of December 17-18, 1955, the ANC National Executive Committee remarked that the ANC Women`s League, which was formed in part to "take up special problems and issues affecting women", was not "just an auxiliary to the African National Congress, and we know that we cannot win liberation or build a strong movement without the participation of the women..." (4)

African women played a leading role in the resistance to pass legislation because of the particular way in which influx control measures, implemented through the pass system, affected their position in society as well as African family life. On the basis of race, African women suffered the same disabilities as African men. Because of their sex, however, they carried a double burden. At the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy, African women were predominantly employed in low-paying, unskilled jobs. Because of the tenuous nature of their employment - largely in the domestic service and informal sectors - African women were particularly vulnerable to removal from the urban areas as "idle" Africans or "superfluous appendages". Legal constraints made it far more difficult for African women than men to acquire urban residency rights, accommodations in the urban areas, and land in the African reserves. Influx control laws, and by extension the pass system, were intentionally used by government officials to bar African women from the urban areas and to confine them to the African reserves.

Life in the reserves was an existence of poverty and hardship for the vast majority of the people. Enforced landlessness had transformed African men from self-reliant peasants to migrant labourers in the white areas. Influx control laws meant that their families were forced to stay in the reserves, where the men could visit them once a year. The burden of raising children under such conditions, which fell almost exclusively on the women, became increasingly arduous. As the soil lost its fertility and landlessness became more acute, the reserve economy deteriorated. The women`s role as cultivators and providers eroded, and with it, women`s social status. Rather than being major contributors to the families` livelihood, women became increasingly dependent upon male earnings. However, these earnings were neither large nor secure. In many cases, money from the "white" areas came sporadically or not at all.

During the period that women were free from pass law restrictions, some had been able to skirt the influx control regulations and join their husbands in the urban areas. Some found menial jobs which, although low-paying and insecure, were more lucrative than subsistence farming. These women knew that the extension of passes to women would increase the effectiveness of the influx control system. No longer would there be an exit from the reserves, a way for women to earn money to feed their children or to live with their husbands in the urban areas. As a result, when in 1952 the Government announced that African women would be forced to carry passes, the women responded with vehemence. Subjection to pass law controls would destroy their last remaining hope - their freedom of movement. Unlike African men, the women who resisted these laws had nothing further to lose. Protesters in the rural areas were not risking the loss of urban residency rights, houses or jobs. They could afford to be bold where men were apt to be hesitant. The women could only gain by their militancy.

Resistance to the pass laws was the overwhelming, but not the only issue of the 1950s. African women became involved in a number of campaigns focussing on issues that affected their ability to care for their children and to keep their family unit together. They protested the pass laws, "Bantu" education, rent hikes, bus fare increases, forced removals of African communities, government-owned beer halls that soaked up their husbands` wages and laws that prevented them from selling home brew, an important source of income for many women. In the rural areas, women resisted the Government`s "betterment" schemes, which included the mandatory culling of precious livestock, required women to fill and maintain cattle dipping tanks without pay, and enforced soil conservation measures which dispossessed many families of arable land.

the rest is here...


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