South African’s National Liberation Movement

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The Women’s Liberation Struggle

As we celebrate the Centenary of the African National Congress since its formation in 1912, we have been looking back and honouring the past presidents of our movement, however we can’t forget the enormous contribution made by the courageous women of struggle and the fight for gender equality which continues even today. The mere fact that all of those past presidents were men indicates the challenges for equality faced by women.

Even within the ANC when the organisation was first established women were not allowed to be members, they had to be satisfied playing a background role, serving tea at meetings instead of actively taking part. This demonstrates the enormous leaps and bound women have made in progressing to where we are today. However it hasn’t been an easy journey.

It is this struggle for equal rights within the greater struggle against Apartheid that makes the contribution of women like Charlotte Maxeke so much more remarkable. But just because women weren’t properly organised a century ago or recognized by the movement does not mean they stood idly by doing nothing about the injustices they faced.

Just a year after the establishment of the Africa National Congress, women began to organise themselves, despite not being allowed to be members of the ANC they held the first protest against the oppressive pass laws in Bloemfontein. This was the real start of the women’s struggle in South Africa and the first protest organised by black women, influenced largely by a young and vibrant Charlotte Maxeke. The women’s struggle largely centred around the pass laws which regulated the independence and freedom of movement of black women, and made them easy targets for victimisation by police and other law enforcement officials. 5000 women signed a petition and handed it over to the Minister of Finance in the then Orange Free State province. It was women in Bloemfontein who started the Orange Free State Native and coloured Women’s Organisation and the beginning of the resistance to pass laws.

The women of this country are known to have an amazing ability to mobilise and unite for common cause, it could be the result of the protective instinct women have for their families that spur them into action when faced with injustice and persecution. This is where the strength of our women in the struggle emanates from the ability to be unified in large numbers. The women of Bloemfontein won this battle and after years of militant persistence, they were excluded from the restrictions imposed on male migrant workers in the 1923 Native (urban areas) Act.

In 1931 the Bantu Women’s League was formed and the same remarkable woman, Charlotte Maxeke, was their first President. She was a visionary, ahead of her time and was no ordinary lady, she was the first black South African women to graduate with a degree and had a passion for tackling the social injustices affecting women. She was also an advocate for social cohesion and got women of other races involved in the fight against unjust laws and the ongoing oppression of women.

Women continued to actively mobilise but it was only after 30 years in 1943 that they were officially allowed being active members of the ANC, and the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) was formed in 1948. But the men of the organisation still saw women as inferior using women mainly for catering and mobilisation. This didn’t deter women and the main issues they focused on were pass laws, the bantu education system and the elimination of beer halls.

It was during the 1950’s were the women’s struggle gained momentum. The National Party government spurred the wroth of women in 1952 when again pass laws were enforced to effect the movement of women in urban areas. Women realised the need to engage and work with women outside of the ANCWL, they formed valuable alliances with women from the trade unions and other political organisations. Out of this the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) was born. The women’s umbrella body type organisation focused largely on women’s issues with the objective of improving the quality of life for women. At FSAW’s founding conference in 1954 the Women’s Charter was drawn up, which is still used as a reference document for gender issues today. The Women’s Charter was an extremely progressive document that demanded equal rights for women and challenged gender stereotypes. This document was presented to Verwoerd’s government by a delegation of women. A major gain for gender equality was when in 1955, when at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, FSAW was given equal participation rights as other male dominated organisations and was integral in drawing up the freedom charter.

56 years ago on 9 August 1956, after months, some say even years of preparation and build up, the women of South Africa, this included blacks, whites, coloureds and Indians, joined forces and marched on the union buildings this was the biggest mobilisation of women in South Africa. Around 20 000 women joined this anti-pass march and this was the point when women decisively began to change the political landscape of the country. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and dedication by some of the great women of the ANCWL, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Dorothy Nyembe, Sophie du Bruyn, Ray Alexander and Rahima Moosa, just to name a few. It was in this year as well that the men in the ANC noted the potential of women in the struggle and Lilian Ngoyi, then President of the ANCWL, became the first women to sit on the ANC NEC, making her not only a leader of women but a leader of the people.

She was a women who can still be looked up to as a role model and an inspiration to continue the women’s liberation movement which is far from over. Despite being a black women, suffering under triple oppression, she was at the forefront of the revolutionary struggle and had thousands of followers in the African National Congress. Ngoyi also understood the importance of gaining international support to oppose the Apartheid regime and travelled extensively to tell of the atrocities being committed at home by the then government. She was also able to convincingly explain the progressive policies of the ANC to an international audience and assisted greatly in the international democratic movement. For her outspoken enthusiasm and defiance of Apartheid Lilian Ngoyi had her fair share of persecution. She was arrested and charged with high treason along with 155 other comrades at the end of 1956 and was subjected to various types of bannings and house arrests, but it never stopped her dedication to the fight for what she believed in.

However even though women had gained some ground among men, they were still, for the most part seen as weak and dependent on men, their traditional role was still seen as being at home, looking after children which hampered their participation in the ANC.

The struggle for gender equality took a back seat to the struggle against the evil apartheid system. Apartheid was never viewed as separate to the issues of women, but surpassed them and women were extremely active in their role in the struggle. The banning of the ANC and the ANCWL in 1960 forced women to work underground to further the struggle. This development seriously hampered the integration of women into the leadership of the ANC. The women’s struggle was consumed by the struggle for the freedom of the South African people. However in 1984 another major gain was achieved through the influence of our women. The ANC accepted the attribute “non-sexist” into its constitution for its vision for a new South Africa. Thus establishing the ANC as a non-sexist organisation and non-sexism itself as a pillar of the ANC. After the unbanning of political organisations the ANCWL was re-launched, once this happened a major concern of the ANCWL was to commit the mother body to the emancipation of women and have this reflected in leadership positions within the ANC and have women treated as equals. Women had faced a triple oppression of race, class and sex. With the dissolution of apartheid it gave women the opportunity to focus on the gender struggle directly. In 1991 women were dealt a major blow when patriarchy within the ANC resulted in the rejection of the ANCWL proposal for a quota system within the ANC NEC. But this sent women back to the drawing board and during the 90’s the focus for women was gaining recognition as equals, a fight that still continues today. After the dawn of democracy and the creation of our constitution and laws, women have made many gains. We have one of the most gender sensitive, liberal constitutions in the world. Women have also been integral in the development of laws that protect the rights of women and children such as the anti-domestic violence act, and laws that pertain to sexual offenses and the protection of children. At the 2007 ANC conference in Polokwane women fought for 50-50 gender parity on all ANC Structures and this time the position of women was adopted by the conference. The conference also agreed to the establishment of a Women’s ministry.

Today we see women sitting in key positions in Government, and a woman is the chairperson of the ANC. Last month we saw a South African women being elected as the first female chair of the African Union Commission. As women we have been on a long and arduous journey to achieve what we have today, and now as women we find ourselves celebrating the centenary of the ANC. It took 35 years before women were accepted as full members of the ANC, and it took 56 years before a female took up a position on the NEC, it took us again 95 years to achieve 50 – 50 gender representation. In the years of the struggle before 1994 women were focused on over coming racial oppression rather than prioritising women, despite women’s own plight they were actively involved in the liberation struggles. We have equal rights written in the constitution protecting women but women continue to be burdened by the triple challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality. Now women face new challenges going forward and the economic transformation of women was a priority highlighted in the gender commission of the ANC policy conference. The enemy is no longer the Apartheid system; the new enemy affecting women is gender-based violence such as rape and domestic violence which plague our society, this is not a women’s issue but something all South Africans need to work together towards in order to emancipate women fully. Despite our progressive laws everyday women still suffer under a patriarchal system where men dominate and believe they are better than women. The past 100 years have seen much progress but the struggle for a truly non-sexist society and gender equality at every sphere of that society continues… Aluta continua…

By Troy Martens

Source Material:
ANC Archives,

“The Womens Struggle for Equality during South Africa’s transition into Democracy.” By Sheila Meintjes – 1998

ANC Policy Conference Gender Commission report – 2012

NB: An edited version of this Piece appeared in the New Age on the 1st August 2012

Troy Martens
ANC Women`s League National Spokesperson
078 120 9880
011 376 1055
[email protected]

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