Now that you have touched the
women you have struck a rock,
you have dislodged a boulder,
you will be crushed!
Song from the 1950s women’s anti-passbook struggle in South Africa.
On October 27, 1955, approximately 2,000 women took part in a demonstration against the White minority regime which had seized power in South Africa.
The women were demonstrating against the passbook laws that the White supremacist regime would begin instituting in January, 1956. Beginning in 1950, the regime had been planning this “more efficient” passbook system which would further restrict the lives of African women.
Restricting the movement of Africans in South Africa was nothing new in 1955. Since the first group of White people arrived in the area, their aim was to steal and occupy the land and use Africans as unpaid labour. They enslaved Africans and after slavery was abolished in 1834, the abuse of Africans and the restriction of their movement continued. The stringent control of Africans by the government of the White settler class made it possible to manipulate Africans into providing cheap labour for White businesses and households.
In 1913, the passing of the “Black Land Act” allocated seven per cent of the land to the African majority and the remainder (93 per cent) was covetously claimed by the White minority. Africans were therefore forced to become migrant labour in their own land.
In 1913, the regime first floated the idea of African women carrying passes in the Orange Free State of South Africa. The women protested and the regime, caught up in the melee of the first European tribal conflict (1914-1918), was not in a position to strictly enforce that law.
At the end of the so-called “Great War” the authorities tried to reinstate the law to a very resistant opposition by African women led by Charlotte Maxeke, first president of the Bantu Women’s League (changed to African National Congress Woman’s League in 1948), who organized and coordinated passive resistance in 1918 and 1919.
In 1922, the regime conceded that African women did not have to carry passes. The victory was not total because country wide legislation was introduced which curtailed the rights of African women.
The “Native Urban Areas Act No. 21 of 1923” restricted the entry of African women into urban areas. The Act only allowed African women who were domestic workers into those areas. The urban areas were designated “White”, reserved for White people where African men in cities or towns were at all times required to carry passbooks, failing which they would be arrested and “deported” to a rural area.
The Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act, Act No. 67 of 1952, required that all Africans older than 16 carry a passbook if they were outside of their restricted seven per cent land space and in a White area. This meant that since the jobs were in White areas every African would need to have a passbook at all times if they were employed.
The pass included a photograph, fingerprints, place of origin, employment record, tax payments and encounters with the police. It was a criminal offence not to have a passbook.
The protests against the pass laws requiring women to carry the passbooks resurfaced with renewed energy in 1952 and continued throughout the 1950s.
The two largest demonstrations in October 1955 and August 1956 were organized by the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) which was founded in 1954. In her book, Women’s Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority (Women in African and the Diaspora), Shireen Hassim writes:
“The FSAW was formed at a meeting attended by the ANC Women’s League, the Communist Party and trade unions. The federation was a non-racial coordinating body to which different groups affiliated. The ANC remained the ultimate source of authority. In 1955 the federation launched an independent militant campaign against the extension of passes to women that would regulate their urban mobility.”
On August 9, 1956, 20,000 women demonstrated against the pass laws, 10 times the number of the October 27, 1955 demonstration. Twenty thousand women stood singing, “Now that you have touched the women you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, you will be crushed!” as four women took signed petitions to the authorities.
Describing the August 9 demonstration in her book, Women in South African History: Basus’iimbokodo, Bawel’imilambo/They Remove Boulders and Cross Rivers, Nomboniso Gasa writes:
“The great crowd of women, 20,000 having secured about 100,000 signatures – women who dared to go where no one had gone before. The sheer size of the march and the spirit of the women – women from different backgrounds and social strata (some had gone without even informing their husbands of where they were going, for fear of being stopped or exposing the men to danger) – make the march larger than life in the collective narrative psyche of feminist activists in South Africa.”
In 1957, several thousand women were arrested for demonstrating against the passbook laws. In post-apartheid South Africa August 9 is designated Women’s Day.
The various demonstrations by the women of South Africa did not in themselves bring an end to the passbook laws. The passbook laws were not repealed until June 1986. It is estimated that over the life of the passbook laws more than 17 million Africans had been arrested for “violation” of the laws.
Throughout the 20th century, African women in South Africa resisted the policies of the White supremacist settler colonizer regime during British and Boer domination. The women-led struggle against the pass laws sparked a mass movement during the 1950s that encouraged later struggles, which eventually brought an end to White domination in South Africa.
In spite of racism, patriarchy and sexism, African women on the continent and in the Diaspora have been involved in every struggle of the race from slavery, to colonization, occupation of their land and everything in between.
During October, which is Women’s History Month in Canada, remember our sheroes: those who are with us and those who have transitioned.
By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)