The heroes of the South African women’s struggle

On 19 March 1911, International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated for the first time. It has since been celebrated every year, through wars, social upheaval and enormous change. This year sees the event’s first centenary. Madeleine Barnard celebrates and takes a look at the South African women’s struggle.

In a country like South Africa, with its history of political upheaval and inequalities, women have unique and continuing challenges. But how far have we come in the past century? What can we celebrate, and what still needs work?

South’s Africa’s fight for gender equality for women in the past has been inextricably linked to the fight for racial equality. The heroes of the women’s struggle were also stalwarts of
the political Struggle, and in the process of political change, they also managed to bring about changes for women. Highlights and heroines

In 1905, Charlotte Maxeke becomes the first black woman in the country to earn her Bachelor’s degree. A schoolteacher, Charlotte decides to continue her studies in the United States. On her return to South Africa, she throws herself into the fight for racial and gender equality. In 1918, she founds the Bantu Women’s League of the South African Native National
Congress. In 1935, she is the first president of the national Council for African Women. Other firsts include Cecilia Makiwane, the first black woman to register as a professional nurse,
Mary Malahlela-Xakana, who becomes the first female black doctor in South Africa in 1947, and Patricia Jobodwana, who becomes the youngest black woman to enrol at a university – at Fort Hare, aged 14, for a degree in medicine. In 1936, Zainunnisa ‘Cissie’ Gool founds the National Liberation League, and becomes its first president. She represents District Six in 1938 on the Cape Town City Council, the first coloured woman in on this all-white council, retaining the position until 1951. She is also elected president of the Non-European United Front (NEUF) in 1940. She features prominently in Cape Town’s political landscape for most of her life.

In 1954 Fatima Meer becomes the founder and chief architect of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW).

In 1943, the ANC officially admits women members for the first time. A year later, Adelaide Tambo, wife of Oliver, is elected courier for the organisation. In 1960 she will leave the country to work as a courier for Oliver Tambo in London. She will become one of the most important women of the Struggle in her lifetime. The ANC Women’s League is formed in 1948.
Treason trial defendant Ida Mtwana is its first president. The now legendary Albertina Sisulu joins the league in the same year.

Into the 1950s
In 1949, Fatima Meer establishes the Durban Districts Women’s League. She is the Founder and Chief Architect of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in 1954. It unites women from the ANC,the South African Indian Congress, trade unions and self-help groups, and will be instrumental in women’s fight against the degrading pass book laws of the
National Party. Lillian Ngoyi joins the ANC in 1952 and is arrested in the same year for her involvement in the Defiance Campaign. She is elected president of the ANCWL in 1953. In this year, another Struggle stalwart, Helen Suzman, represents the United Party in Parliament. When the Progressive Party is formed in 1959, Helen is once again its sole representative on
Parliament’s benches. Her lone crusade in a mostly male environment will earn her the respect and love of most South Africans. 1955 and 1956 are busy and important years for women’s activism in South Africa. The Black Sash is formed. Women take part in two historical events – Sonia Bunting is one of the keynote speakers at the Congress of the People in Kliptown and Francis Baard is a member of the committee that produces the draft copy of the Freedom Charter.

The anti-pass campaign
Women were also spearheading the continued fight against the ruling party’s pass book laws for blacks. The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), in a well-organised countrywide drive, links the campaign to other issues such as forced removals and inadequate education. In October 1955 FEDSAW holds its first 2 000-strong march to the Union Buildings to protest passes for women, lead by Ida Mntwana. Less that a year later, on 9 August 1956, 20 000 women march to the Union Buildings, also under the FEDSAW banner and with Lillian Ngoyi as President, to protest against passes for women. This historic date – 9 August – will become National Women’s Day in South Africa and be celebrated for the first time in 1995. Lillian becomes the first woman elected to the ANC National Executive Committee in the same year. For the next two years, the anti-pass law campaign of protests and civil disobedience by women
continued throughout the country, with thousands of women being arrested and detained. In a FEDSAW report, it was actually mentioned that women were becoming impatient for black men to become actively involved in the anti-pass campaign.

A dark time
The early 1960s – notably 1962 – is a dark time for the women of the Struggle. After the ANC is outlawed, many of them are banned and either placed under house arrest or restricted to certain areas. But even under these trying circumstances, Lillian Ngoyi still earns her LLB degree from UCT and is admitted to the Supreme Court of South Africa as Advocate.
In 1963, Miriam Makeba, better known as a singer, speaks at the meeting of the United Nations’ Special Committee Against Apartheid in New York. She will go on to world fame as a Singer and Activist – she is awarded the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize in 1986.



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