In one of the largest demonstrations staged in South African history, twenty thousand women of all races marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the compulsory carrying of passes by African (black) women. This march was significant for its multi-racial mobilization and the direct challenge it presented to the apartheid government, indicating that women would neither be silenced nor intimidated by unjust laws.
Apartheid was a system of racial segregation enforced by the government of South Africa between 1948 and 1994. Under apartheid, the rights and freedoms of non-white South Africans were curtailed through the enactment of laws and policies affecting movement, education, health care and access to public services, among others. Pass laws were designed to curtail the movement of Africans— men initially. The intended extension of these laws to African women meant that they were to become the direct targets of white power for the first time. Prior to this time, the government had been able to claim that it was keeping African women in the countryside doing subsistence work and procreating, but the reality was that hardship in the rural areas was putting pressure on many African women to migrate to the cities.
In 1951, one-fifth of African women already lived in the cities of South Africa. In 1952, the same year that African women became subject to strict influx control measures, the Natives Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act was passed. Under this act, the numerous documents African men had been required to carry were replaced by a single document, the reference book, which contained information about their identity, employment, place of legal residence, payment of taxes and, if applicable, permission to be in urban areas. The act further stipulated that African women, at an unspecified date, would be required to carry reference books.
This was not the first time that the government had attempted to make African women carry passes. In 1913, government officials in the Orange Free State declared that women living in the urban townships would be required to buy new entry permits each month. In response, the women sent deputations to the government, collected thousands of signatures on petitions and organized massive demonstrations to protest the permit requirement. Unrest spread throughout the province and hundreds of women were sent to prison, and civil disobedience and demonstrations continued sporadically for several years. Ultimately, the permit requirement was withdrawn and no further attempts were made to require permits or passes for African women until the 1950s.
African women fought against the pass system as it was a symbol of one of their deepest oppressions under apartheid. It was through the pass laws that the influx control system was enforced, turning their husbands into migrant workers and isolating the women in the native reserves. Passes deprived African women of their basic right to live with their husbands and raise their children in stable family units.
The response to the new pass law by thousands of African women was unprecedented. Many had never before been involved in political protests or demonstrations. The women’s militancy, level of organization in the urban areas and the ease with which they discarded their expected subordinate role came as a shock to the authorities, many of the men and even some of the women themselves.
In urban areas, the women’s anti-passbook campaigns were primarily organized by the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League and the non-racial Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW or FSAW). FEDSAW was founded in 1954. It was the first attempt to establish a broad-based women’s organization, without any particular political affiliation, though it was supported by some political organizations, clandestine and otherwise: the Communist party (prohibited in 1950) and the ANC (banned in 1960). 146 delegates, representing 230,000 women from all parts of South Africa, attended the founding conference of FEDSAW and pledged their support for the general campaigns of the Congress Alliance.
FEDSAW was composed of affiliated women’s groups, African, Indian, ‘Coloured’ and white political organizations and trade unions. Among the African leaders of the federation, a large number were trade unionists, primarily from the clothing, textile and food and canning industries. Some were teachers and nurses, members of the small African professional class. Since fewer than one per cent of African working women were engaged in production work in the 1950s, the trade unionists, like the nurses and teachers, represented but a fraction of all adult African women. The involvement of the trade unionists proved to be critical, however, as they contributed invaluable organizational skills and mobilizing techniques to the women’s struggle.
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 and legal and economic disabilities; and to work for the protection of women and children. Although the federation acknowledged that the primary task at hand was the struggle for national liberation, it warned that the struggle would not be won without the full participation of women. A charter emerging from FEDSAW also stated that national liberation would not be complete without gender equality.
The federation’s functioning was difficult because increasingly ferocious state repression became a serious obstacle to its directors, to communication across the country and to the its financing. FEDSAW still managed to be active, though, in many arenas, especially in the fight against the application of laws regarding Bantu education and in the fight for restoration of the right to birth control. In 1955, the federation launched plans for a gathering in Pretoria to present women’s claims directly to the central government.
Despite the presence of police, over 1,000 women managed to meet in the capital. The anti-pass campaign now began in earnest. In the first half of 1956, some 50,000 women attended 38 demonstrations in 30 different places—both peaceful presentations of a petition and public burnings of the hated passbooks. Despite arrests, the movement continued to grow in 1956 and 1957, including spreading to the rural areas.
In rural areas, resistance to the pass laws was largely spontaneous. Predictably, the government charged that the unrest there was due to the work of ‘outside agitators’, but 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 would affect their lives. Although women who worked in urban areas brought home new tactics, insights and information when they returned to the reserves, they were simply contributing to a momentum that had gathered on its own there.
Women in the rural areas of Zeeruste (western Transvaal) joined the protest. Mostly wives of absent migrant workers, they had also been required to accept the passbook. Their resistance started peacefully but became violent. The district prisons soon overflowed, and hundreds of refugee women pushed against the borders of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (today Botswana). Although the ANC had been a direct instigator of this resistance, the women revolted for their own reasons also: for the rights of the family; for the traditional authorities and for their husbands, as the administration had made a decision regarding the women without asking their husbands’ opinions. While it could be said that the women’s motives began rather conservatively, the course of events helped to radicalize them.
By the end of 1958 over a million passes had been forced on to African women. That year, the passbook was extended to nurses. Resistance to this imposition was crushed at Pretoria’s hospital in March in Johannesburg, despite the unexpected vigour of a women’s uprising in Sophiatown. Almost 2,000 women were arrested in October, and many were deported. Yet the following year in Natal, the women’s fight against passes continued, first in the areas around Durban, where the authorities took advantage of the uprising to destroy the enormous squatters’ neighbourhood called Cato Manor in June 1959. After a demonstration that brought 50,000 women together, the expulsion of thousands of them to the Bantustans only served to export their spirit of resistance.
Whatever the women’s motives—political, military or, more often, traditional—they began to resist, always non-violently, often openly, with such disconcerting courage that they gradually won men’s respect in a society still ill-prepared to accept women in political roles. Finally, in 1959, Albert Luthuli, the ANC president, officially confirmed that each position in the organization would be open to both men and women and that every nomination or promotion would depend on merit alone, not gender.
It took 12 years for the apartheid government to pass the bill that it had announced as early as 1950. The government had been delayed for three years because of women’s resistance, and the implementation of the law was extended with difficulty over the course of a decade. It was only on 1 February 1963 that the government was able to proclaim that all South African women had to own the pass that they had fought so long against.
This struggle brought South African women, black women in particular, into the political arena. While the protests did not necessarily result in the gains the women had anticipated, they proved a vital, if hard, political apprenticeship. South African women continued in varying degrees to participate in liberation movements to free their country from apartheid, but the anti-passbook campaign is particularly significant for uniting women across races and spaces to take collective action for their rights.
 Schmidt, E. S. (1982). Now you have touched the women: African women’s resistance to the pass laws in South Africa, 1950-1960. Retrieved from http://ipoaa.com/south_african_women_pass_laws.htm
 Schmidt, E. S. (1982). Now you have touched the women.