/ 21 March 2024

Recognise South African women’s contribution to the development of this country

Womens March 1956
The crowd at the Union Buildings on August 9 1956. About 20 000 women marched to Pretoria to protest against passes for black women.

In this month dedicated to women, it is essential to underscore the insufficient recognition accorded to their noteworthy achievements. While the feminist movement has addressed the inequalities and marginalisation experienced by women across familial, societal, economic and political realms, as well as the disproportionate effect of environmental degradation on women, there remains a noticeable dearth of academic discourse on the positive contributions women make to the societies they inhabit. 

Even when such contributions are acknowledged, they are often framed within the context of the exploitation women endure, serving as rallying points for advocating against the entrenched inequalities they face. Instances of this paradigm include the Chipko women in India, the Womin African Alliance in South Africa and the Green Belt Movement in Kenya.

Women in South Africa have long been a formidable force in the pursuit of justice across economic, environmental, social, political and other spheres of life. Throughout their struggle, particularly in its early stages, they had to fight alongside men for democracy and freedom from racial oppression while simultaneously advocating for their own recognition and rights.

Initially, women’s struggle in South Africa revolved around “bread and butter” issues, concerning matters such as housing, food prices, and permits — issues that directly affected women’s ability to adequately care for their families. But the scope of women’s activism has broadened to encompass gender-based violence, gender discrimination, child abuse, environmental degradation, HIV/Aids, unemployment and poverty.

During apartheid numerous restrictions were imposed to hinder the freedom of movement and overall progress of black people. Foremost among these restrictions was the implementation of the pass laws, which originated in the early 1910s, gained traction in the 1930s, and reemerged in the 1950s. Initially enforced solely for black men, it was later extended to include black women.

With the expansion of industries and mining, men began migrating to urban areas in pursuit of job opportunities. In response to the perceived threat of heightened competition between white and black labourers, the pass system was introduced to restrict the influx of black men into urban centres. Women, witnessing the adverse effects of the pass laws on their male counterparts and recognising the disruption it caused to the stability of their families, opposed its extension to include them. They understood that it would exacerbate familial disruption by necessitating prolonged absences from their children.

Three notable women’s anti-pass campaigns stand out in South Africa’s history. The first occurred in 1913 in Bloemfontein, marking one of the earliest instances of women’s resistance. The second campaign took place in 1930 in Potchefstroom, where authorities attempted to enforce the pass laws to coerce women into conforming to the town’s specific neighbourhood requirements. The third campaign unfolded in Johannesburg between 1954 and 1956, culminating in the 1956 march to Pretoria, where about 20 000 women converged to protest against the pass laws.

Women made other significant contributions to the resistance against apartheid-era laws, including the Group Areas Act (1950) and the Population Regulation Act (1950), both of which institutionalised racial segregation and government control over people’s racial classification.

Groups such as the Federation of South African Women , led by prominent figures such as Florence Matomela, Frances Baard and Ray Alexander, as well as the ANC Women’s League, under the leadership of notable figures such as Madie Hall-Xuma, Bertha Mkhize and Florence Matomela, played pivotal roles in this resistance movement.

Even as anti-apartheid activism evolved towards armed struggle, women continued to be active participants. Notably, they accounted for about 20% of the membership in uMkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s armed wing. 

Women played a vital role in shaping the Freedom Charter, particularly through their advocacy for the Women’s Charter. This document called for the enfranchisement of people of all races, regardless of gender, and demanded equality of opportunity in employment, equal pay for equal work, and equal rights concerning property, marriage and children. Additionally, it urged for the abolition of all laws and customs that perpetuated gender-based inequalities.

These principles were later incorporated into the Freedom Charter. Adopted during the Congress of the People held in Kliptown near Johannesburg on 25 and 26 June 1955, the Freedom Charter became a cornerstone of the anti-apartheid movement, embodying the aspirations of a united South Africa committed to equality, justice and freedom for all its citizens.

The significant contribution of women to the demise of apartheid was lauded by Nobel peace prize laureate Albert Luthuli, who remarked: “Among us Africans, the weight of resistance has been greatly increased in the last few years by the emergence of our women. It may even be true that, had the women hung back, resistance would still have been faltering and uncertain … Furthermore, women of all races have had far less hesitation than men in making common cause about things basic to them.”

Additionally, the indispensable role of women in shaping the Constitution was underscored by Mavivi Myakayaka–Manzini in her book Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers. She noted that “Women played a remarkable role in the drafting of the South African Constitution … [It] protects many critical rights for women, including the right to equality; the right to freedom and security of the person (including the right to freedom from violence); the right to make decisions concerning reproduction, and the right to security and control over one’s body.”

In response to the contemporary challenges posed by the detrimental effect of extractive industries on environmental degradation and the resulting socio-economic hardships, women have once again assumed a leading role in confronting these industries. Their efforts are evident in the widespread anti-mining protests organised by women in most provinces of the country.

These women-led protests serve as a powerful expression of grassroots resistance against the adverse effects of extractive practices on local people, the environment and livelihoods. By taking a stand against mining activities, women are asserting their rights to a healthy environment, sustainable development and social justice. Their activism highlights the crucial role that women continue to play in advocating for environmental conservation, community well-being and equitable resource management.

Margaret Molomo, an activist with a decade of experience in combating mining development in her native Limpopo, sheds light on the effect of mining on women: “Fewer women can look for work outside the home because they have to care for relatives who have been sickened by pollution. The mines often hire male workers from other areas who already have experience in the industry. This leads to higher unemployment amongst local men and in turn increases rates of domestic violence, underage sex work and teenage pregnancy.”

Despite the significant historical contributions of women to South Africa’s development they still face limitations on their autonomy to contribute fully to the nation’s needs. Political scientist Hannah Britton highlights a pertinent issue: post-democratisation, women who were once vocal activists find themselves constrained by allegiance to a government that often prioritises patriarchal values. This shift has led to a reduction in their activism for women’s rights. Even in institutions where quotas for female representation exist, women often find themselves marginalised, seen but not heard, contributing to workplace abuses against them.

True freedom for any nation necessitates the freedom of all its people, regardless of gender. Women, who often experience conflicts as both casualties and caretakers, bring invaluable perspectives to issues affecting humanity. It is imperative to grant women the autonomy they require to contribute fully to the development of their nations. Only then can a country truly harness the collective potential and diversity of its population for progress and prosperity.

Emmanuel Anoghena Oboh is a student of philosophy at the University of Johannesburg.