60 Iconic Women — The people behind the 1956 Women's March to Pretoria (21-30)

The crowd at the Union Buildings on August 9 1956. About 20 000 women marched to Pretoria to protest against passes for black women. (Photo: Robben Island Mayibuye Archive)

The crowd at the Union Buildings on August 9 1956. About 20 000 women marched to Pretoria to protest against passes for black women. (Photo: Robben Island Mayibuye Archive)

21. Gertrude Shope

(Photo: Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

Gertrude Shope was born in Johannesburg in 1925 but grew up in Zimbabwe, where she studied teaching.  She went on to teach in Natal and Soweto, but left the profession after joining the ANC at the age of 29, as part of the campaign to boycott Bantu Education.

Shope was the chairperson of the Central Western Jabavu Branch of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) from 1958 to 1966, and in the late 1960s she served as the Fedsaw provincial secretary. In 1966 the ANC convinced her to leave South Africa and join her husband Mark in exile.
While in exile, Gertrude and Mark moved around a lot as ANC representatives, living in Botswana, Tanzania, Czechoslovakia, Zambia and Nigeria.

From 1970 to 1971, Shope was secretary to Florence Mophosho, the head of the ANC’s Women’s Section, and together they started publishing Voice of the Women. Shope later became the ANC’s chief representative in Lusaka and in 1981 was promoted to head of the Women’s Section, which she led at the End of the Decade Conference in Nairobi in 1985.

She was also the secretary of the ANC mission to Nigeria — a position she held until 1991 — and she became a member of the national executive committee of the ANC in 1985. From 1991 to 1993, Shope was president of the ANC’s Women’s League. She worked together with Albertina Sisulu in convening the ANC’s Internal Leadership Corps Task Force from 1990-1991, and in 1994 became a Member of Parliament in the Government of National Unity. — Fatima Asmal

22. Gladys Smith

The Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) was officially launched on April 17 1954 in the Trades Hall in Johannesburg.  It constituted the first attempt to establish a national, broad-based women’s organisation.

A national executive Fedsaw committee was formed at this inaugural conference, and Gladys Smith — together with Lilian Ngoyi, Bertha Mkize and Florence Matomela — was elected a vice-president.  Smith was a member of the Cape Housewives League.  When the Women’s International Democratic Federation announced that a World Congress of Mothers would be held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1955, Fedsaw started planning so that its members would be represented at the gathering.

It was decided that Lilian Ngoyi and Dora Tamana would travel as the official representatives of the federation, with Smith accompanying them.  The congress provided a forum for black South African women to express the joys and the sorrows of being a mother in apartheid South Africa, and Smith penned an article entitled “World Conference of Mothers:  Four South African Delegates” in New Age on August 4 1956. — Fatima Asmal

23. Helen Joseph

(Photo: Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

Born Helen Beatrice Fennell in Sussex, England in 1905, she left for India to teach in 1927. She moved to Durban in 1930, where she married Billy Joseph. She volunteered and served as an officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War II.

Changed by the war, Joseph divorced and retrained as a social worker. Working in a coloured area of Cape Town, she saw the privations of family life under apartheid firsthand. She moved to Johannesburg, and started working for the non-racial Garment Workers Union.

A founder member of the Congress of Democrats, the body of white South Africans allied to the ANC, Joseph was approached to support the launching of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) in 1954, including the adoption of the Women’s Charter, and was elected as Fedsaw’s secretary. In 1955, Joseph was one of the leaders chosen to read out the clauses at the adoption of the Freedom Charter by the Congress of the People, held in Kliptown.

Joseph spearheaded numerous protests. In the lead up to the planned Women’s March, she travelled across the country, appealing to women to join the fight against the pass laws. She stopped at every Fedsaw branch, helping to ensure the preparations of black, Indian, coloured and white women alike were on track for attending the march in Pretoria.

Of the 156 people arrested for high treason against the apartheid state in the 1956 Treason Trial, 19 of them were women. Anyone suspected of having actively participated in the campaign to draw up the Freedom Charter was targeted, including Helen Joseph. She was banned by the government in 1957.

The ANC asked Joseph to work on their welfare committee, formed to aid the increasing number of ANC members in exile. Joseph wrote the account Tomorrow’s Sun of her travels to visit those in living in exile.

In 1962, Joseph was placed under house arrest. She was confined to her home on evenings and weekends, not permitted to leave Norwood in Johannesburg, and her voice was silenced by bans on her writing. She endured this confinement for 10 years.

She was victim to continuous police intimidation, threats and several assassination attempts, including bullets fired through the window of her home, and a bomb wired to her front gate. She was jailed four times, and her banning order was only lifted when she was 80 years old.

After Joseph underwent surgery for cancer, the apartheid government did not renew her house arrest. She continued to speak out against apartheid, addressing student meetings.

Despite her advancing age and government restrictions, her amity and support of those on Robben Island and in the struggle remained true to the end. A close friend to many, she cared for the children of those imprisoned or forced into exile, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Bram Fischer.

Joseph passed away on Christmas Day in 1992, before seeing South Africa’s first democratic election. She was placed to rest at Avalon Cemetery, in Soweto. Shortly before her death, she was awarded the highest honour of the ANC, the Isitwalandwe Medal, for her courage and devotion to South Africa’s liberation struggle. — Romi Reinecke

24. Hetty McLeod

Through their employment in industry women became drawn into trade unions, adding significant momentum to their resistance to gender inequality and social injustice. The influence of the trade unions grew rapidly from the 1920s with women like Ray Alexander, Frances Baard and Bettie du Toit taking the lead and playing significant roles in empowering women’s movements.

Hetty McLeod was a trade unionist, a member of the Cape Factory Workers Committee, and one of the co-sponsors of the inaugural conference of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw or FSAW) in 1954. Although the organisation included some individual members such as McLeod, it mainly comprised affiliated women’s groups, African, Indian, coloured and white political organisations, and trade unions.

Its constitution specified that the objectives of the federation were to bring the women of South Africa closer together to secure full equality of opportunities for all women, regardless of race, colour or creed; to remove social, legal and economic disabilities; and to work for the protection of women and children.

As part of the South African Coloured People’s Organisation, McLeod was elected treasurer of the First National Congress of Women in 1954.

Together with Fedsaw national secretary Ray Alexander, McLeod was banned in April 1954, forcing her to disassociate from the organisation’s activities. — Linda Doke

25. Hilda Bernstein

Activist, organiser, writer and artist, Hilda Bernstein was a unique and unrelenting voice in the struggle to end apartheid. Bernstein, née Schwarz, was born in 1915 to Russian-Jewish parents in London, England. After her father’s death, she quit school and left for South Africa in search of work. At only 18 years old, she was profoundly moved by the inhumane social and economic treatment the majority of people, particularly women, suffered in South Africa.

Bernstein became an executive member of the National Union of Distributive Workers, a member of the South African Labour Party League Youth and the non-racial South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1940. It was there she met and married her partner, fellow SACP member Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, in 1941.

Bernstein served as a councillor for the City of Johannesburg from 1943 to 1946, which was remarkable in a time where anti-communist paranoia among white South Africans was high. She used her position as Hillbrow’s representative to advocate against the squatter slums demarcated for thousands of black South Africans, demanding more and decent housing.

In 1946 Bernstein was charged with sedition for her aiding the African mineworkers’ strike. Her anti-apartheid writing was also appearing regularly in South Africa, Africa and Europe. In 1953, she was “listed” as a communist and banned by ministerial decree from 26 different organisations, meetings, organising activities, writing or being published.

Undeterred, and together with Ray Alexander Simons, a fellow SACP member, she began working on the idea of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw). In 1954, Fedsaw was born. Bernstein’s vision and writing skills helped draft the Women’s Charter, Fedsaw’s manifesto.

Bernstein was key in organising the historic Women’s March to the Union Buildings on August 9 1956. She was also in the Congress of Democrats after the banning of the SACP, and involved in forming the South African Peace Council in 1956, where she was elected secretary, until it, too, was banned by the apartheid government. She was arrested in the 1960 State of Emergency and detained without being charged.

After her husband Lionel was released on bail during the Rivonia Trial, they decided to escape, evading capture by state police. They crossed the border into Botswana on foot, from where they travelled to London.

In London Bernstein became more involved in the political work of the ANC, focusing on the Women’s Section activities. A brilliant public speaker, she spoke on behalf of the ANC and anti-apartheid movement across Europe and the US. The Bernsteins returned to South Africa to participate in the first democratic elections in 1994.

She supported herself and her four children by working as a freelance journalist, artist and printmaker. She authored many publications and biographies on the struggle against apartheid and its heroes, including Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Lilian Ngoyi.

She was awarded the Order of Luthuli in Silver in 2004, for her “contribution to the attainment of gender equality and a free and democratic society” in South Africa. Bernstein died in 2006 at the age of 91 in Cape Town. — Romi Reinecke

26. Ida Mntwana

During the founding conference of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) in April 1954, Ida Fiyo Mntwana, representing the ANC Women’s Section, Transvaal, delivered a stirring and characteristically fiery address. 

“We know that as women we have many problems which hold us back from taking part fully in the struggle, and it is precisely for that purpose that we have come to break down these problems.  Let us come out as a united force, let us take our place in the struggle for freedom … if we all put our shoulders to the wheel, the time will come when we will be proud of the acts of women.  Let us unite, let us go forward with courage and determination.” 

Mntwana was born in 1903 and worked as a dressmaker. She was the first president of the ANC Women’s League and was elected into the ANC Executive Committee during the 1950s.  She led many mass women’s demonstrations from Western Native Township, and was elected national president of Fedsaw in 1954, a position she held until 1956.

She led many of the women’s anti-pass demonstrations of the 1950s and was instrumental in the organisation of the Congress of the People. Mntwana was also one of the defendants in the 1956 Treason Trial.  She died in 1960. — Fatima Asmal

27. Josie Mpama

Josie Mpama was born Josie Palmer in Potchefstroom in 1903 and grew up in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. She joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in the 1920s, and moved back to Potchefstroom in 1921, where she became involved in location politics.

She married Edwin Mofutsanyana, a leading member of the CPSA and the ANC. The couple lived in an African area, though she classified herself as coloured, and when they moved to this township Palmer adopted the surname “Mpama.”

She was elected secretary of the women’s section of the CPSA and was a leading figure in Potchefstroom in the 1928 campaign against residential permits. In fact, her firsthand account as an organiser of the Potchefstroom anti-pass campaign of 1929-30 helped historians understand why women in this small Transvaal town became so highly politicised.

Mpama remained politically active throughout the 1930s and 1940s, by which time she was a member of the CPSA’s Johannesburg committee, becoming the first black woman to play a significant role in the CPSA. She started working with the National Anti-Pass Council in 1944.

Mpama played a crucial role in the formation of the multi-racial organisation the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) in April 1954. Later, as president of the Transvaal branch of Fedsaw she was served with a banning order, shortly before the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings was due to take place. Mpama was also detained during the State of Emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. She died in 1979.

Decades later, in 2004, the then president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki awarded her the Order of Luthuli in Silver for her meaningful contribution to the struggle for democracy, human rights, nation-building, justice and peace. — Fatima Asmal

28. Katie White

The years 1945 and 1946 were periods of huge discontent over food shortages, particularly in the Cape. Women who were at the forefront of witnessing the effects of food shortages on their families began mobilising other women to protest, which led to the underground formation of the Cape Town Women’s Food Committee (CTWFC) between January and April 1946.  Katie White was one of its founder members. 

The CTWFC played an important role in politicising women because grievances about food shortages and other basic needs were intertwined with broader political demands. White was a domestic worker and not initially politically inclined. However, after becoming a leading figure within the CTWFC, and being elected to represent her food queue on the General Committee, she rose to become a leader of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) in Cape Town in the 1950s.

White delivered a powerful speech entitled “The Cape Municipal Vote” at the second national conference of Fedsaw in 1956.  “The Nationalists do not want to see even one poor coloured woman have even one vote for one snail city council,” she said.  “We are going to fight for the right of every man and woman, irrespective of race or nationality, to be elected to any govern­ment or municipal body. This is one of the aims of the federation, and of the Freedom Charter. Only when we have political power can we build a country safe for our children to live in. The people shall govern.”  — Fatima Asmal

29. Letitia Sibeko

Lindiwe Letitia Hina, better known as Letitia Sibeko, was born in the Eastern Cape in 1930.  Later, as an adult married to Archie Sibeko — a political activist and trade unionist — she moved to Cape Town where she became politically active, joining the ANC, the ANC Women’s League and the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw). 

She was among the women who went to Pretoria in 1956 to protest against passes for women, and joined the underground Communist Party in 1961.  In 1962, she attended Fedsaw’s Cape Town annual conference, and gave a speech denouncing Bantu Education.  In 1963 she was detained, ostensibly because the state wanted information about her husband Archie, who had gone underground. 

She was expelled from the Western Cape under influx control regulations because her husband no longer lived there. Not much is known about her life thereafter; her grandparents raised her four children in the Eastern Cape.  She apparently returned to Cape Town under a different name and ran a shebeen there, then died after falling ill.  Her place of burial is unknown.  – Fatima Asmal

30. Lilian Diedericks

Lilian “Lily” Diedericks was born in 1925 near the railway line in the infamous Red Location, the oldest section of New Brighton township in Port Elizabeth. In 1940, Diedericks and her family, classified as coloured, were forced out of their home by the apartheid government when the area was zoned for blacks only.

Diedericks states she is not educated: “I only passed standard three [grade five], but I make use of what my mother taught me at home”. Her motto remains that you do not make excuses, but “as long as God has given you the strength, the breath, make use of it”.  Her history of activism is a testament to these words.

There was a great deal of underground political work taking place in Port Elizabeth in the 1940s and 1950s. While middle class and professional elites of the ANC led the movement in most cities, there it was working class leaders who took direction in the political space. The South African Communist Party (SACP) had run study groups for workers for decades, raising their political awareness.

A new political grouping was led by younger, working-class activists, both men and women, such as Diedericks and her close friend, Raymond Mhlaba. These new leaders had to be dynamic across the organisational space: overlapping trade union leadership, the work of the Communist Party, and membership of the growing ANC.

In the 1940s and 1950s, certain key trade unions played a critical role in the women’s movement. They had a large base of organised working-class women, often highly politicised, who up until this point had been excluded from most political organisations. They were thus a unique training ground for women leaders, who would lead the inaugural conference of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) in 1954.

After a protest against the mayor of Port Elizabeth in 1956, Diedericks was arrested for treason, along with Frances Baard, Florence Matomela and numerous other women. They were imprisoned at the Fort in Johannesburg, and only acquitted in 1961. Diedericks was also banned by the apartheid government, from 1967 to 1968.

Today in her 90s, Diedericks remains fiercely outspoken in political forums, berating the “entitlement” of some South Africans, who wait for houses and handouts from the government without acknowledging their own power to create change.

Diederick’s leadership role in Port Elizabeth in the 1950s is hailed as unsurpassed in today’s Eastern Cape political landscape by historians such as Janet Cherry. The Lillian Diedericks Municipal building in Port Elizabeth CBD is named after her. One of the few surviving members of Fedsaw behind the 1956 Women’s March, Lilian Diedericks lives in Gelvandale, Port Elizabeth. — Romi Reinecke

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