Eloise Quetglas-Peach discusses the journey to freedom for women in South Africa.

The Journey to Freedom for Women in South Africa

“As long as we do not stop women abuse, domestic violence, the rape of children, young and old women, we should know that we are still far from achieving the critical goal of the emancipation of women” ~ President Thabo Mbeki, August 2006

“We have done with pleading, we now demand”


White urban authorities were extremely prejudiced against black women living in towns. These people believed that black women were at the root of a variety of social wrongs and saw them as reckless and disorderly members of society.

“The majority are not only a menace to health but a burden to the community by reason of their filthy, lazy, drunken and immoral habits.”  ~ A Johannesburg sanitary inspector (1928)

These white urban authorities felt it was necessary to control the lives of these black women in order to keep society respected and in order. Therefore, many municipalities put forward lots of different ways to restrict the freedoms of black women. For example, they tried to impose passes on women and permits on lodgers sub-letting rooms in location houses for which the registered tenant was expected to pay a fee. In addition, they banned black women from brewing or selling African beer which was a particularly harsh movement as this was how thousands of women at the time were earning a large enough wage in order to live; therefore by removing this right, lots of women became so poor they couldn’t afford food for themselves or their families which caused a higher level of poverty. Another imposition the municipalities placed on black women was that they closed down squatter camps and informal settlements around the main towns which forced African women to return to rural areas or they had to try and find a home in new townships, where only African men could rent a house.


Imposition of Passes

In 1948, the Afrikaner Nationalist government came to power and they became forced to recognise the reality of the permanently settled African communities in the towns. It was also repeatedly confronted with the growing hostility of African women in towns. Firstly, in order to control these two processes the government introduced passes in 1952 on women, it was known as the Abolition of Passes and Coordination Act. Secondly, they built houses for African urban residents in the townships where only men would legally own a house. As a result, black women became dependent on men in order to prevent becoming homeless. However, the new law only became implemented in 1956 as the government feared probable resistance from female activists.

“The issue of passbooks to African women will impose no restrictions on their existing rights” ~ a statement issued by the Native Affairs Department, December 1955

“Passes mean prison; passes mean broken homes; passes mean suffering and misery for every African family in our country” ~ a call-to-action flyers of the ANCWL and FSAW

“I had no choice. I had to take a pass because I feared a possibility of being killed by the government.” ~ Sophie Serokane



Women in the early 1900s were highly pressured to work in order to provide for the family as men typically left the rural areas to find work in the towns or cities, typically Johannesburg. Therefore, they left their wives at home to earn money, care for their children and look after the house. This made life extremely hard for women, particularly when land became scarce as they became more and more restricted with regards to the amount of land they could farm. To make matters worse, the legal rights of black women became so harsh that the rights to their own property were reduced or completely removed. In 1927, a law was passed that declared that black women were legal minors. This meant they lacked independent rights in the eyes of the law.

Women who lived in the urban areas of South Africa played a fundamental role in the process of urbanisation. What’s more, they contributed to the development and growth of a popular culture in the towns. Women demonstrated an independence and assertiveness in the city which was a huge contrast from the women living in rural areas. Women embraced urban life, unlike many men who had come to the city as migrant labourers, and continued to send money home to their families living on the farms in the rural districts.

Another job opportunity for women was to be a beer brewer which was an illegal process in the urban areas but this was a common solution for women when they couldn’t find a better job. Many women felt they had achieved a large portion of economic independence through this trade. The majority of alcohol was sold and consumed was when shebeans (an informal and unlicensed drinking place in a township) organised huge parties on the weekends. Music and dancing would be at the heart of these parties.

“We have to send our children to school with money from beer selling…” ~ E. Mphahlele, Down Second Avenue

Therefore, when municipalities removed the right of being able to brew and sell beer, it meant that children wouldn’t be able to go to school as the mother couldn’t afford it any longer.

After 1936, women began working in the domestic service which typically involved looking after the children of their white employers and they tended to develop strong bonds with these children. Women in the domestic service were normally lonely and isolated as they never had time to have children of their own as they were always working and usually lived with their mothers in rural areas. In addition, for some single women, the act of offering sexual services in return for money became more common as these women were typically economically vulnerable. However, as prostitutes, some single women managed to find some level of freedom of action which is truly awful as it was the only time in their lives that they could genuinely do something independent as the law was against them having any other rights or freedoms.


Early Resistance by Women

One of the most significant acts of resistance by women was the 1913 anti-pass campaign in Bloemfontein.

The Waaihoek location had been established in 1891 and this was where many African families moved to when they arrived in Bloemfontein. This was known as the Orange Free State where the majority of people were farm labourers and had no land of their own so this was where the first permanent urbanisation grew.

The imposition of permits by the local authorities greatly restricted women in Waaihoek. Everyone over the age of 16 had to carry this residential permit and it cost them one shilling every month. In 1913, Bloemfontein municipal authorities decided that in order to combat illegal brewing and prostitution, it was necessary for them to impose passes on women.

At this time, the area saw severe drought and great economic depression and so many people began to challenge the newly created white-controlled Union of South Africa. The campaign lasted until early 1914 where women were constantly trying to get their voice heard. For example, they organised polite petitions, met cabinet ministers, tore up their residential permits, marched singing and shouting in the streets of quiet towns, brawled with policemen, campaigned for support through the press and lobbied the all-white parliament. In an act of control from the police, they were whipped with sjamboks, hauled into court as common criminals and imprisoned during the severe winter conditions and many even suffered major health problems.

On the 28th May 1913, a mass of two hundred women decided to carry out a passive resistance stance where they would refuse to carry these residential permits. The march was led by Charlotte Maxeke (a very influential female activist at the time) and she marched the huge crowds of women to town to see the Mayor. After cornering him, they tore up the permits and shouted insults at the police which led to 80 women getting arrested. However they continued to shout: “we have done with pleading; now we demand!”

This campaign ultimately led to the removal of the requirement for permits for women. Therefore, this shows that women had finally succeeded in getting their voices heard. As a result, this event remains highly significant with regards to the journey to freedom for women in South Africa.


Women organise Nationally

The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) was formed in 1943. By 1951, it became highly active and played a leading role in the Defiance Campaign of 1952. Through the 1950s, women’s struggles were closely tied with the broader anti-apartheid struggles, led by the ANC.

The Federation of South African Women (FSAW) was set up in 1954, where their aim was to address women’s issues more directly. This organisation played a key role in creating the Freedom Charter.

The newly formed Black Sash, an organisation of white women, staged a march at the Union Buildings in protest against the proposed amendments to the Constitution. Inspired by this march, the FSAW decided to hold a similar march in order to protest against pass laws.


Freedom at Last!

The struggle for national liberation brought freedom and democracy to South Africa. In the 1990s, the role of women became clearly recognised and their voices were heard and women were rewarded. However, the journey to freedom was not completed yet.

Not long after the unbanning of the ANC, the ANC Women’s League got all the women’s organisations to merge in order to set up a coalition. This coalition would draw up the Women’s Charter which was linked to the new Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

“The state may not unfairly discriminate…against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, martial status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth”. ~ Section 9, the Equality Clause of the Constitution

In the elections of April 1994, the National African Congress called for one third of its candidates to be female. Today, 30% of women hold seats in parliament in South Africa. However, the question still stands as to whether these significant changes in politics have affected the lives of ordinary women living in South Africa.

The Women’s Charter

At the launch of the Federation of South African Women, a special women’s charter was established. This organisation had many aims which would hopefully provoke significant changes within society which would essentially bring freedom and give “expression to the visions and aspirations of South African women”.

Their aims included the right to vote and to be elected to all State bodies without restriction or discrimination, the right to full opportunities for employment with equal pay, equal rights to men regarding property, marriage and children, for the removal of all laws that restrict free movement that prevent or hinder the right of free association and activity in democratic organisations and finally to build and strengthen women’s section in the National Liberatory movements, women’s organisations of trade unions and other organisations.


Fifty years later

Today in South Africa, women find themselves in an ambiguous position as the educated women have managed to take many opportunities regarding jobs and have significantly more freedom freedom. In contrast, poor and uneducated women still struggle. Even though they take advantage of more  state benefits than in the past, they are still faced with extreme violence and abuse in their every day lives.

The many battles that many South African women have to face on a daily basis include the great possibility of infection from HIV and AIDS (in South Africa this affects women more significantly than men). Furthermore, women activists say that rates of rape have increased so much that around every 26 seconds a woman is raped in South Africa. This country has one of the highest rape statistics in the world. Child rape is also a very horrific issue that society is facing today. Finally, violence against women is endemic and includes domestic abuse, sexual assault and harassment.

Eliminating this extreme violence and discrimination against women is paramount as it restricts the ability for the society to develop, it completely goes against the human rights of women and ending this violence will secure a safer and healthier world for future generations. In addition, educational and job opportunities need to be more accessible for women at a greater degree. Realising these goals is a struggle that the South African society must take up as a whole. And one in which women should lead the way.

“As long as we do not stop women abuse, domestic violence, the rape of children, young and old women, we should know that we are still far from achieving the critical goal of the emancipation of women” ~ President Thabo Mbeki, August 2006

Eloise Quetglas-Peach, Year 12.