Basus'iimbokodo, bawel'imilambo
(they remove boulders and cross rivers)

Women in the struggle for human rights

The expression Basus’iimbokodo, bawel’imilambo (they remove boulders and cross rivers) aptly describes the South African struggle for women’s rights over the decades. It reflects the fighting spirit of women ‘imbokodo’ (a boulder/big rock). The ‘removing of boulders’ and ‘crossing of the river’ calls to attention the hazardous nature of women’s journeys both in the past and in the present, and also highlights women’s efforts to clear the path towards freedom for all.

In addition to overcoming white supremacy and colonial and apartheid repression, many women also had to overcome patriarchal oppression in their own communities. Sexism and abuse were – and still are – rife in homes, the workplace, within political organisations and in the negotiation structures established during the transition from apartheid to democracy.  

Over the decades, women forged multiple allegiances to overcome these divisions and to cross the river. Others worked independently of formal organisations and structures. Some white women joined the national liberation struggle while most remained preoccupied with battles for improving their own legal and political positions. The transition to democracy offered unprecedented opportunities for women across the board to unite. At different points, women were joined by men in their fight for non-sexism, equality and the emancipation of women.

This timeline plots some key moments in the women’s struggle for human rights from the turn of the century onwards, focusing on the immediate lead-up to the Union of South Africa through to the present. It is primarily focused on political action expressed through formal organisations and institutions. 

We acknowledge that there were powerful social, cultural, economic and other movements towards equality that women led during this period, and a rich history of women’s leadership before colonialism that aren’t the subject of this specific timeline. We do not attempt to capture this entire history but rather, we highlight major moments and show a political genealogy towards the current Constitution. Further timelines on the struggle for women’s rights will follow.

Part 1. The Pre-colonial and Union period

Nokutela Linderely Mdima. Date unknown.Cherif Keita
Early Pioneers

Many early women pioneers broke free of the stereotypical roles imposed on them, forged new identities against the odds and led important struggles against oppression. Their names and stories seldom appear in historical records. To name but a few: Krotoa, later named Eva, was an interpreter of Dutch and Portuguese and became a key participant in the trade industry and a negotiator during the frontier wars. Emma Sandile, also known as Princess Emma, was taken away from her family to be educated as a Victorian woman and became a landowner, the first known black woman to hold a land title in South Africa. Nokutela Linderely Mdima (later Dube) was one of the first black women to qualify as a teacher specialising in Music and Home Economics. She became a key activist and with her husband built the Ohlange Institute in Inanda which established the newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal. She co-authored Amagama Abantu (A Zulu Song Book).

Learn more about Nokutela Linderely Mdima here.
Nokutela Linderely Mdima. Date unknown.Cherif Keita
Charlotte Makgoma Manye on the cover of a postcard created in about 1890. Bishop William Tecumseh Vernon Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries
1891
Charlotte Maxeke - The first black woman graduate

Charlotte Makgoma Manye (later Maxeke), known affectionately as the mother of black freedom, first entered the public stage when she joined the African Native Choir for a tour to England and North America in 1896. Whilst she was in London, she attended suffragette meetings and heard women like Emmeline Pankhurst speak about the women’s franchise. She was offered a scholarship to study at Wilberforce University in Ohio and studied under the prominent pan-Africanist scholar, WEB Du Bois.

She became the first black South African woman to earn a university degree and assisted many others to study in the USA. On her return to South Africa, she took her first active steps in organised politics when she attended the annual meeting of the SA Native Convention (SANC) or Ingqungqutela in Queenstown. Because women were not invited to become members of the organisation, she was forced to wait outside, causing a great stir.

Charlotte attended the inaugural conference of the South African Native National Conference (SANNC) in 1912. She went on to break many of the stereotypical roles assigned to women at that time and chipped away at the edifice of authoritarianism that was imposed on women. She also spoke to men as well as women about what she was expecting from them:

“We want men to protect the women of their nation, not men who hurt and endanger women when they become aware of their rights.”
-Charlotte Maxeke, in a speech in 1922


"I regard Mrs Maxeke as a pioneer in one of the greatest of human causes, working in extraordinarily difficult circumstances to lead a people, in the face of prejudice, not only against her race but against her sex. I think that what Mrs Maxeke has accomplished should encourage all men, especially those of African descent."
-WEB Du Bois, leading pan-Africanist activist-intellectual praising his former student in a preface of the 1930 book written about her

Learn more about Charotte Maxeke here
Charlotte Makgoma Manye on the cover of a postcard created in about 1890. Bishop William Tecumseh Vernon Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries
Schreiner only admitted to being the author of this book seven years after it was published.
1905
Olive Schreiner - Author and activist

Olive Schreiner, daughter of a missionary, wrote her book, Story of an African Farm, at the age of 21 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. It explores the injustice of racism and the oppression of women and it became a sensation in England. When she went back there, she became heavily involved with women suffragettes fighting for votes for women, and in particular got close to Sylvia Pankhurst, a socialist feminist. Schreiner’s book, Women and Labour, showing the connection between women’s struggles and workers’ struggles, became one of the bibles of the women’s movement. On her return to South Africa, she was at first dazzled by Cecil John Rhodes, but after the invasion of what became Rhodesia, she wrote the first great denunciation of Rhodes. When the Union of South Africa was created in 1910, she predicted that it would fail because it did not include the native races. Today, Schreiner is remembered as a foremost South African writer, feminist and social theorist.

“It is delightful to be a woman, but every man thanks the Lord devoutly that he isn’t one.”
-Olive Schreiner in The Story of an African Farm

Learn more about Olive Schreiner here
Schreiner only admitted to being the author of this book seven years after it was published.
An early photograph of Hellen ‘Nellie’ James and her husband, Abdullah Abdurahman, possibly taken on their wedding day, c. 1894.
An early photograph of Hellen ‘Nellie’ James and her husband, Abdullah Abdurahman, possibly taken on their wedding day, c.1894. Unknown
1900's
Petitioning against passes

From the early 1900s, the colonial governments required every African male person over 16 to carry a service book listing their employer and place of residence. The Orange Free State was the first territory in South Africa to implement the pass laws for black women. In 1905, the Orange River Colony Vigilance Association sent petitions and delegations to every level of authority calling for a repeal of women's pass laws.

For a decade, these vigilance associations along with the African Political Organisation (APO) in Cape Town, appealed for the repeal of women’s passes. They were supported by the APO Women’s Guild which was formed under the leadership of Scottish-born Mrs Hellen (‘Nellie’) Abdurahman (née James).

“The Guild’s aim is promoting unity among the Coloured women of British South Africa, and to aid and assist towards the uplifting of the race ... to obtain better and higher education for children, and … to assist and encourage as far as possible the work carried on by the men members of the APO.”
-Extract from a 1910 APO report

An early photograph of Hellen ‘Nellie’ James and her husband, Abdullah Abdurahman, possibly taken on their wedding day, c. 1894.
An early photograph of Hellen ‘Nellie’ James and her husband, Abdullah Abdurahman, possibly taken on their wedding day, c.1894. Unknown
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A copy of the Native and Coloured Women’s Association 1914 petition. National Archives and Record Services South Africa
1910
Union and resistance

The passing of the South Africa Act 1909 led to the formation of Union of South Africa in 1910. Consequently it became clear that only an act of parliament could change the pass laws.. In 1912, the Native and Coloured Women’s Association (NCWA) was formed under the leadership of Catharina Symmons and Katie Louw. They openly defied the law, marching on the local administration offices, delivering petitions and dumping passes. Participants faced arrest. The NCWA also protested against sexual harassment carried out by police officials who were enforcing pass law regulations.

"A white Superintendent of the location demanded a pass from the girl at her home and failing to produce one was arrested and taken to the charge office. The Superintendent made improper overtures on the way to the girl. The latter resented these overtures, but she was ultimately taken by force and outraged by this man."
-The 1914 petition

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A copy of the Native and Coloured Women’s Association 1914 petition. National Archives and Record Services South Africa
Rev Walter Rubusana, date unknown.
Reverend Walter Rubusana, date unknown. Unknown
1912
Women’s anti-pass delegations

While the newly formed South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which renamed itself the African National Congress (ANC) did not willingly take up the issue passes for black women until 1923 when they passed a resolution against them. Instead, women took up the cause on their own behalf. In 1912, they petitioned the various provincial governments of the Cape and the Free State to repeal existing laws. On their own initiative, they met with the supposedly liberal Henry Burton, Minister of Finance of the Union, to present a 5 000 signature petition against passes. Their arguments referenced equality and demanded an end to sexual abuse by police. Mpilo Walter Benson Rubusana accompanied the women's deputation to present the petition to the Minister. He is one of many men that would support women’s struggles.
Rev Walter Rubusana, date unknown.
Reverend Walter Rubusana, date unknown. Unknown
Black and coloured women protesting against pass laws in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State in 1913. National Museum
1913
Anti-Pass protests in Bloemfontein

The women’s appeals to the authorities fell on deaf ears. Indeed, the women of Bloemfontein found themselves targeted for police action to a much greater extent. In May 1913, women launched a passive resistance campaign in the Waaihoek location in Bloemfontein. Women refused to carry the residential permits imposed by the local authorities as these tightly restricted the everyday lives of women. By June, the resistance had escalated into a full-out clash between women and the police.

Two hundred angry women demonstrators, carrying sticks, led by Charlotte Makgoma Manye (later Maxeke), marched into town to see the mayor. When he was eventually cornered, he claimed that his hands were tied. The women promptly tore up their passes and generally provoked the authorities into arresting them. They shouted at the police, “We have done with pleading, we now demand!” Eighty women were arrested.

The writer, Sol Plaatje wrote about the strength and courage of these women when he visited them in the Kroonstad Prison:

“They don't care even if they die in jail. They swear they will cure that madness; they will stop their protest only when the law prevents policemen from stopping and demanding passes from other men's wives.”
-Extract from the newspaper, Tsala ea Batho

In May 1913, black and coloured women launched a passive resistance campaign in the Waaihoek location in Bloemfontein. Women refused to carry the residential permits imposed by the local authorities as these tightly restricted the everyday lives of women.
Black and coloured women protesting against pass laws in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State in 1913. National Museum
Women outside Central jail in prayer with Alan Paton in remembrance of Miss Valliamma R Munuswami Mudaliar, date unknown. Unknown
1913
Transvaal women satyagrahis march

The main mobilisation by Mahatma Gandhi of Indian women in South Africa was over the refusal of the courts to acknowledge Muslim and Hindu marriages as legal marriages, because they were potentially polygamous. Wives were referred to as concubines and their children as illegitimate. As part of the broader passive resistance campaign against unjust laws led by Gandhi, Transvaal women Satyagrahis became actively involved in resistance in 1913. Scores of brave women crossed the Natal-Transvaal border on foot and were arrested and sent to prison in Pietermaritzburg. Many were the wives of men who had been imprisoned during the Satyagraha Campaign and had had to carry the burden of providing for their families while their husbands were detained.

Gandhi saw these women as an important inspiration and said that they were like ‘a lighted match to dry fuel’. Some of the women participating in the march were Mrs Veerammal Naidoo, Mrs N. Pillay, Mrs K Murugasa Pillay, Mrs A Perumal Naidoo, Mrs PK Naidoo, Mrs K. Chinnaswami Pillay, Mrs NS Pillay, Mrs RA Mudalingum, Mrs Bhavani Dayal, Miss Minachi Pillay, Miss Baikum Murugasa Pillay and sixteen year old Valliamma Munusamy Moodaliar. Conditions inside the jail were appalling. Valliamma R Munuswami Mudaliar later died from a fever contracted in prison.

“Armed only with the patriotism of faith, the sacrifices of our mothers and daughters [finding themselves in jail] were particularly severe.”
-Mahatma Gandhi
Women outside Central jail in prayer with Alan Paton in remembrance of Miss Valliamma R Munuswami Mudaliar, date unknown. Unknown

Part 2. The Interwar Years - 1918 - 1945

Mary Fitzgerald’s election poster for the Johannesburg Municipal Election, 1915. Wikipedia
1911
‘Pickhandle Mary Fitzgerald’

Mary Fitzgerald was an Irish-born South African political activist, remembered as the first woman trade unionist in the country. In 1911, during Johannesburg’s first major strike by white tram workers, Fitzgerald spoke at a protest meeting while holding a pickhandle that had been dropped by mounted police to break up the strike. The pickhandle became her trademark, earning her the nickname of ‘Pickhandle Mary’. Fitzgerald went on to lead a group of women to sit on the tracks and they were successful in keeping trams from leaving the station. She was involved in many other strikes in Johannesburg leading her ‘pickhandle brigade’ to break up anti-union meetings. She was influential during the miners’ strikes of 1913 and 1914, and during the tumultuous 1922 strike. She also travelled to England to speak at huge labour rallies.

In the first elections for the Johannesburg municipality in 1915, Mary was elected to the city council and served until 1921. She was the first woman to hold public office in the city. She was a role model for other women to become public figures and also set the tone for women’s trade union activism in the years that would follow.
Mary Fitzgerald’s election poster for the Johannesburg Municipal Election, 1915. Wikipedia
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Charlotte Maxeke. Historical Papers AB Xuma Collection
1918
Charlotte Maxeke and the Bantu Women’s League (BWL)

By 1918, women's protests against the pass laws had spread throughout the country. A group of women, led by Charlotte Maxeke, established BWL in response to the threat of the Orange Free State government to reintroduce passes for black women. The BWL’s work included representations to the authorities through delegations, meeting with the prime minister and other officials, and through appearing before commissions of inquiry on the indignities women suffered from carrying the night passes. As a result of these efforts, pass law enforcement for black women in the Free State was relaxed followed by the eventual exclusion of women from pass laws on a national basis in 1923.
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Charlotte Maxeke. Historical Papers AB Xuma Collection
Members of the Communist Party of South Africa. Ray Alexander can be seen in the centre surrounded by women activists. Date unknown. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
1920s
The rise of women in trade unions

In the aftermath of the First World War, thousands of women – both African and Afrikaner – were pushed off the land and forced to take up work in the city. Here they faced poor and exploitative working conditions. This era saw a burgeoning of activity in factories across the country. Women joined unions and fought for issues specifically affecting women - such as sexual abuse, low wages and unfair labour demands.

A striking feature of the union movement was that women were mobilised along gender and class lines rather than that of race. Unions gave women a new public platform that obliged men to start treating them as equals - although this often involved resisting the conventional roles imposed by their fellow male unionists. Women also had to fight for their rights to participate in any form of organisation outside of the home. Although women became more active in the union movement, they were still largely absent from the leadership. Exceptions to this were Johanna Cornelius, Emma Mashinini, Lydia Kompe, Maggie Magubane and Ray Alexander Simons.

“They [male organisers] expected me to do things … I got used to resisting, saying, 'I am not here to become a tea girl.’ .... My husband also didn't take anything in the union into account … He expects me to be at home between 5.30 and 6.00 pm. After I became a shop steward, I had many meetings. That made him very unhappy and it made our life very miserable. He couldn't see why I was involved in this … He was scared that I’d land in jail … I think it's time for women to come together and see this thing as a major problem for us. Eventually we must achieve the same rights.”
-Lydia Kompe, Transport and General Workers Union

“... with discussion around democracy and equality within the unions, and the increasing involvement of women … we hope to start changing attitudes.”
-Maggie Magubane, General Secretary of the Sweet Food and Allied Workers Union
Members of the Communist Party of South Africa. Ray Alexander can be seen in the centre surrounded by women activists. Date unknown. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
Front page of Black Administration Act No 38 of 1927.
Front page of Black Administration Act No 38 of 1927. South African Government
1927
Black Administration Act 38 of 1927

This act declared that the Governor-General was the Supreme Chief of all natives. In providing for the control of all African people, it established a separate and inferior system of justice for black Africans. So-called Native Law was interpreted by white Native Commissioners in a way that formalised patriarchy and subjected black women to the control of their fathers and husbands. Women were barred from inheriting estates regardless of their marital relationship or familial ties to the deceased. Instead, the nearest living male relative inherited all the relevant property. Furthermore, African black women were now regarded as minors, irrespective of their age or marital status. As a result, black women had no legal parental rights concerning their children.
Front page of Black Administration Act No 38 of 1927.
Front page of Black Administration Act No 38 of 1927. South African Government
Schreiner angrily scribbled “all women of the Cape colony” on this league pamphlet, 1980. First and Scott
1930
White women fight for the vote

Women's suffrage was a persistent issue in white politics between 1892, when a motion calling for a qualified franchise for women was defeated in the Cape House of Assembly, and 1930, the year when Parliament enfranchised all white women over the age of 18. The 4 000 or so members of the national women's suffrage movement - who proclaimed that they would now take their rightful place as equals with men in political life - had failed to forge any sense of sisterhood or commonality. Their movement epitomised white women’s preparedness to fight for the vote for a mere quarter of the women in the country rather than for general suffrage for all women. Indeed, Olive Schreiner, who was once the vice-president of the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League, resigned in 1914 in protest against white women’s endorsement of a racial basis to the franchise campaign. In the end, the white women’s vote had less to do with the efforts of the suffragette movement than with Herzog’s desire to slash the proportion of black voters in relation to white voters in the Cape Colony. In effect the weight of the black vote decreased from 3.1% to 1.4%.

“Compared to the suffrage campaign being waged by Emily Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union in England, the SA campaign was a timid and decorous affair.”
-Cheryl Walker, author and gender activist

Schreiner angrily scribbled “all women of the Cape colony” on this league pamphlet, 1980. First and Scott
1930's
A National Council for African Women (NCAW)

This organisation was formed at the All-African Convention to broaden and deepen black women’s political voice. Charlotte Maxeke was elected as president. After Maxeke’s death in 1939, teacher and social worker, Minah Soga, was appointed president. Unlike the ANC, the NCAW created women’s self-help and social activist organisations across the country as a form of political mobilisation.
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1932
Amadodakazi – Baradi Ba Africa / Daughters of Africa (DOA)

Cecilia Lillian Tshabalala, the leader of the DOA, explained that this federal union of women’s organisations was formed with three principal goals: "To promote sisterhood, to develop a community of mutual service, and to better society.” By the early 1940s, DOA branches were formed across the then provinces of Natal and the Transvaal. They were a small but influential forum for women’s engagement in nationalist public culture working alongside all-female social welfare organisations such as the NCAW and the Zenzele Clubs. The DOA played a key role in civic struggles such as the Alexandra Bus Boycotts of 1943 for example. Members included prominent women activists such as Nokutela Dube, Joyce Mpama, Bertha Mkhize, Madie Beatrice Hall Xuma and Nokukhanya Bhengu.
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Gool’s poster for election as ward council.
Gool’s poster for election as ward council. Manuscripts and Archives, University of Cape Town
1938
Cissie Gool and the National Liberation League (NLL)

Gool was one of South Africa’s greatest political leaders. Born in Cape Town in 1897 to a well-known political family, Gool was determined and independent from a young age. She became the first black woman to receive a degree from the University of Cape Town. Instead of becoming a psychologist, however, she formed the National Liberation League of South Africa (NLL) and committed to end racial inequality. In 1938, she organised a march against the Cape Government to protest against plans to introduce separate areas for white and black people to live in. Gool captivated the crowds with her passionate oratory and her singing in an electrifying soprano.

Whilst president of the NLL, Gool stood for elections to become the Municipal Councillor for District Six. She won and remained Councillor of the area for 13 years. She became known as the ‘Jewel of District Six’ for the significant impact she made on people’s day-to-day lives. She resigned from the Council in protest against the apartheid government’s introduction of the Group Areas Act in 1950. Thereafter, Gool was accused of being a communist, and was banned from all political activity. Gool found other avenues to continue the fight. She studied law and became the first black woman advocate at the Cape Town bar.
Gool’s poster for election as ward council.
Gool’s poster for election as ward council. Manuscripts and Archives, University of Cape Town
Madie Hall Xuma, 1952.
Madie Hall Xuma,1952. Jurgen Schadeberg / Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
1943-1948
The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL)

In 1941, a resolution was passed to revive the women's section of ANC. Two years later, women were given access to formal ANC membership and shortly thereafter, the ANC Women’s League was launched – although the launch date is recorded as 1948 in the ANC archives. Madie Hall Xuma was its first president, followed by Ida Mtwana. The ANCWL was prominent in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and active in fighting against passes, Bantu Education and other social issues. Women’s activism impacted on the male dominated ANC leadership culture. In 1956, Lilian Ngoyi, then Women’s League president, was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee.
Madie Hall Xuma, 1952.
Madie Hall Xuma,1952. Jurgen Schadeberg / Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
A Passive Resistance Campaign meeting at Durban's Red Square. UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
1946
Second passive resistance campaign

In 1946, the Natal Indian Congress launched a second passive resistance campaign against the Anti-Indian Land Act. It was led by Drs Naicker and Dadoo. Large numbers of Indian women played an active role. At the end of that campaign, almost 2 000 Indians were imprisoned for defying segregationist laws - 300 were women. Many other women actively supported the campaign by door-to-door fundraising, collecting food and offering childcare support.
A Passive Resistance Campaign meeting at Durban's Red Square. UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives

Part 3. The fight against Apartheid - 1948

Fatima Meer, date unknown.
Fatima Meer, date unknown. Unknown
1952
Durban and District Women’s League

Women from the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and the ANC established the Durban and District Women's League with Fatima Meer as President and Bertha Mkhize, then President of the ANCWL, serving as Chair. It was the first organisation with joint Indian and African membership – a union ahead of their parent bodies which still operated in consultation with each other but remained separate. The league actively engaged in the 1952 Campaign of Defiance of Unjust Laws.
Fatima Meer, date unknown.
Fatima Meer, date unknown. Unknown
Women protest the implementation of the passes, 22 December 1952. Cape Times
1952
Defiance Campaign

On 26 June 1952, the ANC launched the Defiance Campaign against six unjust apartheid laws: the Group Areas Act; the Bantu Authorities Act; the Suppression of Communism Act and the Separate Representation of voters. Women from the ANCWL, the Congress of Democrats, the South African Indian Congress and allied organisations played a key role in the acts of defiance across the country. Over eight thousand people were arrested for participating in this campaign. The campaign ushered in a decade of the participation of both men and women in resisting apartheid.

“The Defiance Campaign was a very big thing. There were six laws in particular that we wanted to get them to stop because they were very bad laws ... Dr Moroka and Walter Sisulu sent a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to take back these acts, but when he said no, then we decided we must go ahead with the Defiance Campaign.”
-Francis Baard, trade unionist, organiser for the ANCWL
Women protest the implementation of the passes, 22 December 1952. Cape Times
17 April 1954
The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and the Women’s Charter

FEDSAW was launched as a multi-racial women's organisation and lobby group to address women’s issues more directly. The thrust for FEDSAW came from working class women who had been organised in the trade union movement, speaking in their own voice as activists on the ground. Its founders were the trade unionists Ray Alexander, Frances Baard and Florence Matomela, leader of the ANCWL in the Eastern Cape.

‘What Women Demand’, colloquially known as the Women’s Charter, was adopted at its launch. It set our goals for the emancipation of women and made two sets of practical demands - firstly, claims for equal legal rights with men and secondly, demands for services and amenities to ‘protect the mother and child’. As a political manifesto, the Charter strongly linked racial and gender struggles, arguing that the women’s struggle was part of a wider struggle for liberation in the struggle for a socialist state. There were limitations to the Charter as the demands failed to challenge the deeply patriarchal attitudes to the role of women in society. The national struggle was still seen as the priority with the struggle for gender rights subordinated to that of race.
Members of the Black Sash organisation protest against apartheid laws outside Johannesburg City Hall, circa 1955 Jurgen Schadeberg / Getty Images
1955
Birth of the Black Sash

This organisation of white women was formed in response to a cynical ploy by the apartheid government to remove coloureds from the common voters' roll. It was initially called the Women's Defence of the Constitution League but came to be called the Black Sash because women protestors wore black sashes to indicate that they were in mourning for the National Party’s disregard for the constitution. At first, the organisation organised marches, petitions, overnight vigils and protest meetings and then later opened advice offices to provide information concerning the legal rights of black South Africans. These offices played a critical role in the fight against apartheid and provided an important space for white resistance. The Black Sash stood out in a context where few white women associated themselves with the national liberation struggle or joined the powerful women’s movements.

“The sight of white middle class women, well dressed, well spoken, well behaved - demonstrating against the government enraged many of its supporters … the women were exposed to verbal abuse and threats of violence. Not only were they defying the government, they were defying a set of unwritten rules about seeming and proper conduct for women.”
Cheryl Walker, author and activist

The Sash was reorganised in 1995 as a non-racial humanitarian organisation, working to 'make human rights real for all living in South Africa'.
Members of the Black Sash organisation protest against apartheid laws outside Johannesburg City Hall, circa 1955 Jurgen Schadeberg / Getty Images
Some of the delegates on the main platform of the Freedom Charter meeting at Kliptown. From left to right: a delegate from Port Elizabeth, E. P. Moretsele, President of the Transvaal branch of the ANC, Leon Levy, president of the SACTU, Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and unknown. Museum Africa / Africa Media Online
1955
The Freedom Charter

After a consultative process involving 50 000 volunteers gathering ‘freedom demands’ of people residing in urban and rural areas, the Freedom Charter was adopted at Kliptown in Soweto. This statement of core principles of the Congress Alliance consisted of the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress. Its opening demand, "The People Shall Govern!", was a clarion call throughout the decades.

FEDSAW drafted a document called ‘What Women Demand’ and most of these demands appeared in the final Charter - except for the demand for social amenities in the reserves as this would have endorsed the apartheid division of land in the rural areas. The committee of twelve that drafted the final text included several women such as Ruth First, Hilda Bernstein and Helen Joseph.. Beata Lipman wrote out the original version of the Charter.
Some of the delegates on the main platform of the Freedom Charter meeting at Kliptown. From left to right: a delegate from Port Elizabeth, E. P. Moretsele, President of the Transvaal branch of the ANC, Leon Levy, president of the SACTU, Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and unknown. Museum Africa / Africa Media Online
Preparing to march, undated, circa 1955-1956. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
1950's
Lipasa! Amapasi - anti-pass demonstrations

In 1952, passes were again extended to African women leading to the imprisonment of thousands. Multiple protests erupted across the country. In 1954, 2 000 women were arrested in Johannesburg, 4 000 in Pretoria, 1 200 in Germiston, and 350 in Bethlehem. In 1955, 2 000 women marched to the Native Commission's office in Vereeniging.

“We women will never carry these passes. I appeal to you young Africans to come forward and fight. These passes make the road even narrower for us. We have seen unemployment, lack of accommodation and families broken because of passes. We have seen it with our men. Who will look after our children when we go to jail for not having a pass?”
-Dora Tamana, at an ANC Women’s League meeting in Langa in 1953

Preparing to march, undated, circa 1955-1956. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
The 1956 women’s march. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
9 August 1956
Women’s March to Pretoria

The anti-pass campaigns culminated in the now famous march of 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The call-to-action flyers of the ANCWL and FEDSAW explained: “Passes mean prison; passes mean broken homes; passes mean suffering and misery for every African family in our country; passes are just another way in which the government makes slaves of the Africans; passes mean hunger and unemployment; passed are an insult ...”

Women arrived from all corners of South Africa. The march was led by Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Lilian Ngoyi, and Sophie Williams-De Bruyn (only 18 at the time). They carried stacks of petitions to present to the then Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom. Women sang 'Wena Strijdom, wa'thinthabafazi, wathint'imbokotho uzokufa!' ('You Strijdom, you have touched the women, you have struck against rock, you will be crushed.) The women stood in silence for 30 minutes, many with babies on the back, whilst Strydom refused to accept the petitions. The march demonstrated the rise to political prominence of women in the struggle against apartheid and their great courage.
The 1956 women’s march. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
DM2000041002: SAED:POLITICS:WOMEN:MAR1956 - Guts and Granite - Lillian Ngoyi, President ot the ANC's womens League (for the second time), springs to fame as the new tough type of women leader.
Lilian Ngoyi at the time of her second presidency of the ANC Women’s League, 1956. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
A national conference and a new national president

FEDSAW hosted its national conference the day before the march since many of its members had travelled from different parts of the country to participate. Lilian Masediba Ngoyi - who was the one who had knocked on President Strijdom’s door to present the petition - was elected national president. In her presidential address, she asked the audience why they had “heard of men shaking in their trousers, but who ever heard of a woman shaking in her skirt?” She urged women to continue protesting passes and to reach out to others especially in the rural areas and educate:

“Strijdom! Your government now preaches and practises cruel discrimination. It can pass the most cruel and barbaric laws, it can deport leaders and break homes and families, but it will never stop the women of Africa in their forward march to freedom during our lifetime!”
-Lilian Ngoyi’s warning to Prime Minister Strijdom


All four of the women leaders of the famous 1956 march in Pretoria came from the trade union movement. Lillian Ngoyi was a shop steward in the GWU; Helen Joseph represented the GWU’s medical aid; Sophie Williams was from the Textile Workers Union and Rahima Moosa was from the Food and Canning Workers Union.

Smaller women-led marches against the pass laws continued for the rest of the decade.
DM2000041002: SAED:POLITICS:WOMEN:MAR1956 - Guts and Granite - Lillian Ngoyi, President ot the ANC's womens League (for the second time), springs to fame as the new tough type of women leader.
Lilian Ngoyi at the time of her second presidency of the ANC Women’s League, 1956. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
Women demonstrators held placards reading, ‘We stand by our leaders’ in support of the treason trialists, 19 December 1957. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
5 December 1956
Mass arrests and the Treason Trial

In a mass police swoop in the early hours of the morning, 156 political activists were arrested at dawn and charged with treason. The arrested were imprisoned in the Old Fort prison complex – now Constitutional Hill. Jacqueline (Jackie) Arenstein, Francis Baard, Ayesha Dawood, Lily Diederichs, Sonia Bunting, Ruth First, Bertha Gxowa, Helen Joseph, Florence Matomela, Ida Fiyo Mntwana, Lillian Ngoyi, Debi Singh and Annie Silinga were part of the group of women held in the Women’s Jail in separate sections for white and black prisoners. Ironically, their imprisonment gave them the opportunity to organise in a way that was difficult at the time.

“We didn't know why we were arrested until we went to court and met each other there. Hawu! And then we see there are so many of us! We listened to what the charges were … After a time we were released from prison although the case was still going on.”
-Francis Baard, trade unionist and women’s leader

There was mass action, mainly by women, outside the Drill Hall where the treason trialists first appeared. Women also arranged with local communities to ensure that food was brought to Old Fort prison where the treason trialists were being held.

Eventually the number of accused was whittled down to 31. After the longest Treason Trial in South African history, all were acquitted of treason in 1961. The judges agreed that the state had failed to prove the ANC or the Freedom Charter as communist.
Women demonstrators held placards reading, ‘We stand by our leaders’ in support of the treason trialists, 19 December 1957. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
Women protesting in Cato Manor over living conditions, government beer halls and passes for women, October 1959. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online
1959
Mass Action in Umkhumbane

After World War II, a large section of Durban’s black population moved to the informal settlement of Umkhumbane on the ridges of Cato Manor. From 1958, the authorities began to implement plans to eradicate Cato Manor and transfer its population to the new township of KwaMashu. The police also started to issue passes to African women and to clamp down on illegal beer-brewing, forcing people to drink in government owned beer halls. Armed with sticks, Dorothy Nyembe led a group of women protestors who attacked the beer halls, chasing out the male customers and destroying the beer. The protest spread rapidly to other Durban beer halls and a successful beer boycott was launched. The police responded violently to the women protestors who bravely challenged them. The men of Umkhumbane responded with anger to the brutal treatment of the women.

“We do not want our husbands to go and spend their money in the Corporation Beerhalls. The Corporation encourages them to do this and we women suffer.”
-Gertrude Kweyana, women’s rights activist

Women protesting in Cato Manor over living conditions, government beer halls and passes for women, October 1959. Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online

Part 4. The Silent Decade to a Turning Point in the Struggle - 1960 - 1976

21 March 1960
Sharpeville Massacre

During the Pan Africanist Congress’s (PAC) anti-pass campaign protests in Sharpeville, the police opened fire killing 69 people and injuring hundreds more. World outrage erupted. Ten days later, the government declared a State of Emergency, banning the ANC and the PAC. Tens of thousands of activists throughout the country were detained without trial. The Number Four section of the Old Fort prison (now Constitution Hill) was packed with men prisoners.

A large number of women activists were sent to the Women’s Jail. Some were white women who had been members of the Communist Party. They were particularly militant and were the first group of detainees to go on hunger strike, and black women, with the men in the white section and the black section following. Among the leaders of the hunger strike were Hilda Bernstein and Rica Hodgson.
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Helen Joseph. Historical Papers Research Archive
1962
The General Law Amendment Act

The Act, popularly known as the Sabotage Act, led to further arrests, bannings, imprisonment and exile. The ANC Women’s League moved its operations outside of the country. Although FEDSAW was not banned, prominent leaders such as Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph were detained and then banned under house arrest. Thousands of others faced a similar fate. In the face of the clampdown, women’s organisations inside the country started to crumble.

“No longer could I leave my house after 6. 30 p.m. or at any time during the weekend, or leave the magisterial area of Johannesburg, or be in any black area, or factory, or communicate with any banned or listed person. Nor could any of my friends visit me in my home, or even walk down my garden path, nor could I attend any gatherings, social or political ... I was compelled to report to the Central Johannesburg police station every day between midday and two o'clock.”
-Helen Joseph, leading political activist

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Helen Joseph. Historical Papers Research Archive
Frene Ginwala with Julius Nyerere, photographer unknown, date unknown. SAHA
Exile

One way of escaping these repressive conditions was to go into exile. Hundreds of women left the country including prominent leaders such as Frene Ginwala, Ruth Mompati, Hilda Bernstein, Ruth First, Gertrude Shope and Lauretta Ngcobo. They joined the ANC and PAC-in-exile and continued to fight for liberation. Shireen Hassim writes extensively about the increasing assertion of women's interests within the ANC in exile. She identifies three categories of influence:

“The first relates to internal organisational experiences, and the second to the theoretical debates that flowed from attempts to find a role for women in national liberation. The third influence was ANC women's exposure to, and interaction with, international feminist debates and with women's organisations in post-independence African countries. These influences not only helped re-shape the ANC as a political organisation but also the nature of democracy instituted after the collapse of the apartheid system.”
Frene Ginwala with Julius Nyerere, photographer unknown, date unknown. SAHA
Women’s Section badge. International Institute for Social History
1971
ANC National Women’s Secretariat appointed

After its banning, the ANC moved underground, and the ANC Women’s League was formally suspended. Ruth Mompati, then based in Morogoro, Tanzania, headed ‘women's affairs’ for the ANC’s External Mission. Following the 1969 Morogoro Conference, women were organised more formally as the Women's Section. The Women's Secretariat, based at the ANC’s headquarters, performed the day-to-day work of the Women’s Section. In 1971, the secretariat was reorganised, with Florence Mophosho as its leader. Magdalene Resha, Edna Mgabaza, Kate Molale, and Theresa Maimane were some of the members. Baleka Kgositsile became the first secretary of the regional women's section of the ANC in Tanzania.
Women’s Section badge. International Institute for Social History
1970's
The Rise of Black Consciousness Movement (BCM)

The early 1970s witnessed the formation and inception of the ideology of black consciousness which highlighted the principles of self-reliance, self sufficiency and independent critical thinking. The BC philosophy - with its focus on humanity and human rights - caught the imagination of hundreds of young activists in the struggles for freedom. Mamphela Ramphela, Deborah Mashoba, Thenjiwe Mtinto, Sam Moodley were amongst the many women protagonists in the BCM. They undertook several black community initiatives to improve the lives of black South Africans - such as building schools, self-help projects, literacy programmes, women’s programmes, theatre groups and health clinics - alongside BC leaders such as Steve Biko and Barney Pityana.

Virginia Gcabashe and Ellen Khuzwayo carry newly elected President of the BWF, Fatima Meer, while Zubie Seedat and Sally Motlana look on. Photographer unknown
1970s
Black Women’s Federation (BWF)

One of the organisations which located itself ideologically in the then dominant Black Consciousness Movement was the BWF headed by Fatima Meer in Natal and Winnie Mandela in Transvaal. It brought together 41 organisations of women "in an attempt to address black women's unique experience of oppression." The BWF was active during the Soweto uprising in 1976 but within five months of its formation, most of its leaders were banned or detained. The organisation itself was banned in 1977, after its second conference.
Virginia Gcabashe and Ellen Khuzwayo carry newly elected President of the BWF, Fatima Meer, while Zubie Seedat and Sally Motlana look on. Photographer unknown

Part 5. A Turning Point in the Struggle

Students protest against inferior education. Gallo Images / City Press
1976
Student protests and women youth leaders

The Soweto student uprising spread countrywide and changed the face of politics in South Africa. Young girls and women played a central role in organising and leading student protests across the country. Sibongile Mkhabela was one such leader. She was an executive member of the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC) and General Secretary of the South African Student Movement (SASM). Much remains to be told of the uprising. The names of many lesser known people who died, especially women, are often unacknowledged. On 17 June 1976, a young black girl, Hermina Leroke, was shot dead in Diepkloof after she and her peers had seen a helicopter and ran. Her companions and friends witnessed her killing by the police but her story is little told.

“I can still hear the bullets ringing in my ears. Could you imagine the army shooting dead children? … I will write when my nerves have cooled down.”
-Lilian Ngoyi in a letter to Belinda and Donald Woods, 24 June 1976

Students protest against inferior education. Gallo Images / City Press
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Poster showing banning orders. Poster Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
1970s – 1980s
The Internal Security Amendment Act 79 of 1976 - Bannings, detention, imprisonment and assassinations

State repression escalated rapidly after the student protests. This new act enabled the Minister of Justice to ban and detain without trial anyone suspected of subversion - without there being recourse to the courts - if they were seen to be "expressing views or conveying information the publication of which is calculated to endanger the security of the state or the maintenance of public order."

Thousands of women were arrested and incarcerated. Others were banned. There was no right of appeal against a banning order. Others were banished and some assassinated. For example, in August 1976, Maphela Ramphele was detained under Section 10 of the Terrorism Act, one of the first persons to be detained under this newly promulgated law. In April 1977, Ramphele was issued with banning orders and banished to Tzaneen, Northern Transvaal where she remained until 1984. Many children were now without parents. Many women joined the underground.
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Poster showing banning orders. Poster Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
Painting of the interior of Fatima Meer’s prison cell by Fatima Meer.Fatima Meer
The Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill

The jail, built in 1909 as part of the Old Fort prison complex in the middle of Joburg, had held criminal and political black and white prisoners in separate sections for many decades. In 1976, ten prominent women leaders were arrested and held in solitary confinement under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. They included Fatima Meer, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela‚ Jeanie Noel‚ Sbongile Kubheka‚ Sally Motlana‚ Cecilie Palmer‚ Joyce Seroke‚ Vesta Smith‚ Jane Phakathi‚ Deborah Mashoba and Lorraine Tabane. They were cruelly treated, and some were sent to John Vorster Square to be interrogated.
Painting of the interior of Fatima Meer’s prison cell by Fatima Meer.Fatima Meer
Winnie Madikizela-Mandelaat the gate of 8115, where she was banished. Africa Media Online
16 May 1977
Banishment of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had been a defiant figure whilst a prisoner in the Women’s Jail, openly defying the rules where possible and fighting for the rights of women prisoners. She walked across the atrium where prisoners were forbidden to step foot. She secured sanitary pads for women prisoners for the first time. After her release, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was banished to the small town of Brandfort in the Free State, initially for four years. She ended up spending nine and a half years in isolation and she was allowed no visitors and sustained continuous harassment by the police. Nevertheless, she became internationally known as the defiant voice of the struggle in South Africa.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandelaat the gate of 8115, where she was banished. Africa Media Online
1976/7
The Inkatha Women’s Brigade (IWB)

This brigade emerged against the backdrop of the resurgence of political activity in the country and the establishment of Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesiwe, a new Zulu nationalist organisation based in Natal under the charismatic leadership of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. At the IWB’s inaugural conference in May 1977, Buthelezi called on the women “to understand the gravity of the political situation in South Africa” and said that women “were needed now in a way that they were not needed in the past”. They were asked “to rally their menfolk and their children ... into a disciplined workforce for justice”.
Lydia Kompe, ‘trade unionist and not a tea girl’. Lesley Lawson
Late 1970s
The strengthening of community organisation and trade unions

​​In the context of economic crisis and an implacable apartheid state, black women began organising at community level. The revival of independent trade unions - with the formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions and CUSA in 1979 - also mobolised working-class women. Some of the new trade union structures were led by fearless and indomitable black and white women leaders, such as June Rose-Nala, Mama Lydia Kompe, Chris Bonner and Jane Barret. Women still remained underrepresented in leadership roles, however.

“I think it's time for women to come together and see this thing [the oppression of women] as a major problem for us. Eventually we must achieve the same rights. And we must think of many ways of doing it … I would like my grandchildren to actually feel free in organisation, at home, everywhere … But the men are still taking the lead. It will take a few years for women to move towards proper leadership in the unions.”
-Lydia Kompe, Transvaal Branch Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union
Lydia Kompe, ‘trade unionist and not a tea girl’. Lesley Lawson
Dorothy Nyembe
Dorothy Nyembe.
Late 1976 onwards
Women and the underground

The history of the women in the underground does not start in the 1970s. It was after 1976, however, that there was a resurgence of underground activity. Increasing numbers of women either went into exile and joined the armed wings of the ANC and PAC or formally and informally joined military operations from inside the country.

Despite women being present in the underground in significant numbers - with those in exile living in the same camps as men whilst undergoing the same training (drilling, handling weapons, topography etc.) - their role has been consistently downplayed. Many of their contributions have been understood within the conventional framework of the time, with men being cast as the ‘performers of heroic deeds’ and women being seen as restricted to being ‘mothers and keepers of the home’.
Dorothy Nyembe
Dorothy Nyembe.

Part 6. The Era of Mass Resistance

Memorial march for Dulcie September in Paris, undated.Georges Merillon / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
1980s
Assassinations

Prominent women activists were tortured, brutalised and assassinated by the apartheid state both locally and internationally. In some cases, this triggered widespread condemnation of the state and increased solidarity with anti-apartheid activists.
Memorial march for Dulcie September in Paris, undated.Georges Merillon / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Police arrest UWO members, Cape Town, 1985. Rashid Lombard
1981
United Women’s Organisation (UWO)

In the Western Cape, the newly-established UWO was composed of women who were involved in a range of activities from civic organisations, trade unions, to detainees' support committees. It included older activists such as Dorothy Zihlangu, Mildred Lesia, Letitia Malindi and Dora Tamana. The UWO believed in non-racialism evidenced in its acceptance of white members such as Amy Thornton. At the launch conference, Tamana (aged 80 at the time), urged all women to unite and recited her poem ‘I see the Rays of our New South Africa Rising’.

“Times have changed, and circumstances have changed. Our organisation today must grow out of the new circumstances. It must be a child of these times.”
-Helen Joseph, at the launch of the UWO
Police arrest UWO members, Cape Town, 1985. Rashid Lombard
Jazz musician and activist Thandi Klaasen speaks at a United Women's Congress (UWCO) event, Heroes' Day, Langa, circa 1980s. Zubeida Vallie
1981
Women’s organisations flourished

The women’s organisations that emerged in this period became the bedrock of resistance to apartheid. They were the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), the United Women’s Organisation (UWO), the United Women’s Congress, the Port Alfred Women’s Organisation and Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW). Demands for women’s rights shaped the policies of the United Democratic Front (UDF) that was soon to be established and those of the ANC and the PAC. It led to the insertion of ‘non-sexist’ in the language of these movements, a term which was later to become one of the core values of the new democracy.
Jazz musician and activist Thandi Klaasen speaks at a United Women's Congress (UWCO) event, Heroes' Day, Langa, circa 1980s. Zubeida Vallie
Frances Baard, a former president of the ANCWL, salutes the crowd gathered to launch the UDF in Mitchell's Plain, Cape Town, 1983. Paul Weinberg
1983
The United Democratic Front’s (UDF) women’s wings

The UDF drew together over 600 community, student, trade union, women, and church organisations. It became the major oppositional force against apartheid inside the country until the government severely curtailed its activities in 1988. Albertina Sisulu was elected the UDF’s president in absentia. Despite some prominent women leaders, many involved in the UDF structures complained that women had a “second-class status within the organisation”. This sentiment led to the formation of the Women's Congress on 23 April 1987 and included women's organisations affiliated to the UDF. At the first meeting, the delegates drew a list of challenges facing women involved in the UDF. The absence of women in leadership roles and gender discrimination were two such issues. Albertina Sisulu was elected to the national council for the UDF Women's Congress.
Frances Baard, a former president of the ANCWL, salutes the crowd gathered to launch the UDF in Mitchell's Plain, Cape Town, 1983. Paul Weinberg
Circle in the centre with artwork of a man and a woman carrying rifles on their shoulders with caption reading “Mobilisation of women in the struggle”.
Circle in the centre with artwork of a man and a woman carrying rifles on their shoulders with caption reading “Mobilisation of women in the struggle”. DISA
1984
‘Year of the Women’

The ANC declared 1984 as the ‘Year of the Women’. Some say that this exposed the ANC's weaknesses in integrating gender equality into the core work of the movement. There was still no unified or a single structure organising women but smaller women’s organisations proliferated at this time. 1986 witnessed the formation of the United Women’s Organisation Congress (UWOC), the PAC’s Women’s Organisation, the Rural Women’s Movement and in 1987, the UDF’s Women’s Congress. FEDSAW was also relaunched in the Western Cape. Women were key participants in many grassroots struggles and demonstrations within South Africa and continued to face harsh state oppression ranging from arrests, detentions, murder and assassinations.
Circle in the centre with artwork of a man and a woman carrying rifles on their shoulders with caption reading “Mobilisation of women in the struggle”.
Circle in the centre with artwork of a man and a woman carrying rifles on their shoulders with caption reading “Mobilisation of women in the struggle”. DISA
Banner calling for the liberation of women in South Africa, 1985. Pax Magwaza / International Institute for Social History
June 1985
ANC’s National Consultative Conference in Kabwe

It was at this conference that the Women's Section petitioned for a refined Bill of Rights that would explicitly reflect women's demands. The discussion paper that circulated at the conference urged:

"The women's place is in the battlefront of struggle ... our task is to prepare men and women for equality; this means that we must fight against male chauvinism, male domination, we must do away with male domination in the home, village, town, factory, workshop, in politics, economics and religion. In particular, we must fight domination even within our movement. No society is free if women are not free."

ANC president, Oliver Tambo's closing speech at the conference affirmed the need to strengthen women's voice within the organisation, emphasising the need for women to be represented at all levels of the movement, including within the NEC. This was the first of several statements by the ANC leadership which offered political support for women's struggles. Brigitte Mabandla soon became legal advisor to the ANC Legal and Constitutional Affairs Department.
Banner calling for the liberation of women in South Africa, 1985. Pax Magwaza / International Institute for Social History
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Oliver Tambo. ANC Archives University of Fort Hare
July 1985
The United Nations Decade for Women

Close to 1 500 official delegates from 150 countries attended this Nairobi conference. An additional 15 000 women attended a parallel NGO forum, ‘Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women’ to develop plans to promote greater equality. The conference provided an opportunity for the ANC’s Women’s Section, represented by Ruth Mompati, Frene Ginwala, and Gertrude Shope, to meet directly with activists from home and strategise about the strengthening of women's organisations. ANC President Oliver Tambo led the South African delegation.

Early the next year, the PAC's African Women's Organisation was formed in Katlehong. The organisation sees national oppression and sexual oppression as two sides of the same coin and committed itself to fighting male domination and male chauvinism, alongside male comrades.

Under the successive States of Emergency, women were detained in large numbers. In 1986/7, 12% of detainees were women, amounting to more than three thousand women and girls. Women were not excluded from extreme physical torture at the hands of security police because of their gender.
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Oliver Tambo. ANC Archives University of Fort Hare
April 1987
ANC Women’s Section Conference

This conference centred on the continued lack of representation of women in key ANC structures, the need for a much closer relationship between national liberation and women's liberation and the need for affirmative action around gender. These issues were concretised at a second conference held in Angola in September 1987, where it was decided that there would be:

    1. A greater role for women within the ANC and MK;

    2. Closer organisational links between women inside the country and those in exile;

    3. Autonomy for women to articulate their interests and express these through a stronger organisational form.

Frene Ginwala was appointed to head the Women’s Emancipation desk in Lusaka.
Printed version of the Constitutional Guidelines.
Printed version of the Constitutional Guidelines. Albie Sachs Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
1988
In-house seminar on the ANC’s draft Constitutional Guidelines

Women delegates heavily criticised the draft guidelines presented by the ANC’s Constitutional Committee. Whilst the guidelines acknowledged the need for gender equality in the public and private spheres and supported affirmative action as the means to effect equality, this clause was the sole reference to gender equality. The guidelines' provisions emphasised ‘material inequality on the basis of race only’. Other critiques were the failure of the guidelines to fully address legal disabilities faced by women and the lack of emphasis on sexism and the cultural underpinnings of gender oppression.

“Criticism came from amongst the women, and it was a very openly articulated criticism of the committee itself and of the guidelines. So, women started saying, how do we amend the guidelines so that they deal with issues of gender?”
-Nolulamo Gwagwa, Women’s Section

Printed version of the Constitutional Guidelines.
Printed version of the Constitutional Guidelines. Albie Sachs Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
Constitution, Law and the Gender Question presented by Ruth Mompati of the African National Congress with Ivy Motsepe and Brigitte Mabandla.
Constitution, Law and the Gender Question presented by Ruth Mompati of the African National Congress with Ivy Motsepe and Brigitte Mabandla. Albie Sachs Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
1989
Lusaka Seminar: ‘Women, Children and the Family in a Future Constitutional Order’

This six-day seminar, co-ordinated by Zanele Mbeki was organised between the Constitutional Committee of the ANC and the ANC’s Women’s Section to address the issues of gender. According to Bridgitte Mabandla, the Constitutional Committee’s only female member, “the demand for the protection of women’s rights and the promotion of gender equality in a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa was made unequivocally at this meeting.” Frene Ginwala, from the Women’s Section explains how “a number of changes were proposed ... We believe it is necessary to place an obligation on the state to end sexism, in a similar manner to the obligation to end racism. Otherwise, the equal rights accorded to women can be no more than rhetoric.”
Constitution, Law and the Gender Question presented by Ruth Mompati of the African National Congress with Ivy Motsepe and Brigitte Mabandla.
Constitution, Law and the Gender Question presented by Ruth Mompati of the African National Congress with Ivy Motsepe and Brigitte Mabandla. Albie Sachs Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
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Poster advertising the Malibongwe Conference, 18 January 1990. Poster Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
18 January 1990
The Malibongwe Conference in Amsterdam and a UDF-COSATU meeting on the ‘Women’s Question’

The watershed conference, hosted by the ANC Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement, brought together women in exile and local women activists from within South Africa. Leila Patel of FEDTRAW opened the conference by saying, “The question of the emancipation of women is integral to our national democratic struggle … The point of departure is to start with women's needs and their level of understanding of their reality and to move at their pace.”

One of the most important statements at the conference came from Frene Ginwala who said that the ANC “would not be true to its principles and values if it did not address the question of emancipation of women within the ANC, the liberation movement and in post-apartheid South Africa.” She acknowledged the ANC’s failure to properly involve women in the struggle up to that point.
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Poster advertising the Malibongwe Conference, 18 January 1990. Poster Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives

Part 7. 1990 - 1994 - A new dawn

May 1990
ANC National Executive’s statement the ‘Emancipation of Women’

After the unbanning of political organisations in February 1990, the ANC made strides to address women’s issues. One of the NEC’s first official statements committed the ANC to include women's oppression as an integral part of the liberation struggle and promised the fundamental restructuring of the organisation. It stressed that the full achievement of democracy depended on the complete elimination of gender oppression and officially acknowledged the autonomy of women's liberation. This was a turning point in the ANC’s position on women - the first official acceptance of the independent nature of women’s liberation. In the months and years to come, gender activists within the ANC were critical in influencing early policy statements for this ‘government in waiting’.
Ray Alexander Simons, 77-year-old anti-apartheid stalwart, trade unionist and South African Communist Party member is welcomed back to South Africa from exile at a ceremony organised by FEDSAW at Wits University, Johannesburg. Sue Kramer / Africa Media Online
June 1990
Return of exiles and relaunch of the ANCWL

The ANC’s Women's Section returned to the country. Two months later the ANCWL was relaunched as an autonomous organisation. It set out to pressure the ANC internally to increase the number of women in leadership positions, promote gender sensitive policies and rebuild as a national women’s organisation. These were ambitious goals and sometimes former exiles were met with hostility. The ANCWL was criticised for its perceived failure to connect with the network of grassroots women’s organisations that existed in the country.

“When we came into the country, in one way we demobilised these women who had been active in their own right because we had this focus, a serious focus, on rebuilding the ANC.”
-Thenjiwe Mthintso, an MK soldier and SACP member

Ray Alexander Simons, 77-year-old anti-apartheid stalwart, trade unionist and South African Communist Party member is welcomed back to South Africa from exile at a ceremony organised by FEDSAW at Wits University, Johannesburg. Sue Kramer / Africa Media Online
“Speak: ANC Women’s League: South African Women march to freedom.”
“Speak: ANC Women’s League: South African Women march to freedom.” SAHA
April 1991
The ANCWL’s first National Conference “Women in Action”

Over a thousand delegates attended the relaunch of the ANCWL inside the country. Gertrude Shope, former leader of the Women's Section, was appointed as president. Albertina Sisulu was elected as vice president and Baleka Mbete Kgositsile as secretary-general. Immediate tasks included developing programmes to address social and sexual oppression, initiating a charter of women's rights, sealing the ANC's transformation into a movement fully committed to gender equality and reviving the proposal to set up an ANC Commission on Emancipation.
“Speak: ANC Women’s League: South African Women march to freedom.”
“Speak: ANC Women’s League: South African Women march to freedom.” SAHA
Oliver Tambo with Nelson Mandela and Adelaide Tambo looking on at the 48th ANC National Conference held in Durban in July 1991. Sunday Tribune Archives
July 1991
48th ANC Conference in Durban

Over 2 000 delegates attended the conference, the first since the ANC’s unbanning. The Women’s League called for a quota of seats for women on the NEC – initially a demand of 25 percent, later revised to 30 percent. An intense debate ensued and in the end, the majority of delegates voted against the proposal for a quota. The ANCWL had underestimated the conservatism of the broad membership of the ANC, including many women who also voted against the quota.

“The hottest issue on the agenda is not how to win political power but whether there should be a quota for women on the NEC. The Women’s League argues strongly for it ... I am amused and angered to see the most patriarchal speakers, the biggest sexists, declaring: ‘We are non-sexist! We’re a non-sexist organisation.’ In the end the quota proposal is lost …”
-Albie Sachs, then member of the ANC’s Constitutional Committee

Frene Ginwala also critiqued the ANCWL’s lack of strategy: "The ANCWL failed to engage the membership in debate prior to the conference or to promote and project the policies they wanted the conference to adopt. The league functioned simply as an arm of the ANC, mobilising women into the organisation and the current national struggles.”
Oliver Tambo with Nelson Mandela and Adelaide Tambo looking on at the 48th ANC National Conference held in Durban in July 1991. Sunday Tribune Archives
Poster produced by the ANC Women’s League for a cultural event on 11th August 1991. DISA
27 September 1991
Plans for a Women’s National Coalition (WNC) and a Women’s Charter

Despite the divisions wrought by apartheid, the next years were characterised by women uniting across racial and political divides to ensure political inclusion and gender equality in the new constitutional order. The ANCWL initially drove the development of a rights-based women’s movement to confront gender discrimination and barriers to women participating in the negotiation. The League hosted over 40 women’s organisations to discuss the plan for a Women’s Charter so that “in their own voice women define the issues of greatest concern to them … [The Charter} would involve millions of women directly in the process of determining how their rights would be protected in a new constitutional order”. Delegates at the first meeting agreed that because of their many differences, a political coalition based on gender, rather than a single new organisation, was the best route to follow.
Poster produced by the ANC Women’s League for a cultural event on 11th August 1991. DISA
December 1991
The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) - Opportunity and protests

CODESA, the multilateral forum to negotiate South Africa’s transition to democracy, represented an unprecedented opportunity for social movements to fight for their rights in a new constitutional order. Now, more than ever before, women had the opportunity to promote gender issues and highlight women’s claims for equality and inclusion. A Declaration of Intent, one of the first documents to be produced by CODESA, was co-drafted by representatives from different parties. After intense debate, the word ‘non-sexism’ was included in this founding document. Despite the commitment to this principle, none of the political parties included women negotiators on their teams. Of the 400 delegates at CODESA, only 23 were woman. Women were outraged. Protests, pickets and petitions ensued. The combined pressure of the women eventually led to the establishment of a Gender Advisory Committee (GAC) in March 1992 (see below).
Frene Ginwala. Adrian Steirn
February 1992
Commission on the Emancipation of Women

The proposal to establish a Commission on the Emancipation of Women followed from a demand made by ANC women in 1987 and was reiterated in the NEC statement of May 2, 1990. The commission’s proposed role was to tackle internal issues of women's representation in ANC leadership and monitor the extent to which women's interests were reflected in policy making. After its final formation, the commission was headed by Oliver Tambo with Frene Ginwala as his deputy. It set out to examine, promote, and monitor mechanisms for affirmative action within the ANC at all levels, ensuring that “women's experiences and perceptions inform ANC strategy and tactics and its decisions at all levels.” While the commission on its own did not totally succeed in overcoming these limitations, it provided an organisational space for Ginwala and others to advance the feminist agenda in the ANC, separate from the ANC Women's League. It became a base from which Ginwala could participate in, and ultimately lead, the Women's National Coalition.
Frene Ginwala. Adrian Steirn
March 1992
Gender Advisory Committee (GAC)

By March 1992, the agitation at CODESA around the lack of representation of women was being challenged as never before. A diverse group of organisations and individuals, from the principals of several universities to senior women in political parties, bought newspaper advertisements demanding greater participation of women. On 30 March 1992, the GAC was finally established to advise the working groups on the gender implications of the decisions taken at CODESA. It was initially composed of one delegate from each party but later expanded to include an advisor who had speaking rights. It was expected to produce a report, to be debated at CODESA 2, which reflected the consensus of all CODESA parties on gender issues. Escalating violence precipitated the collapse of CODESA just as the GAC was getting off the ground. It was nonetheless an important symbolic victory for the political participation of women.
Celebrating the formation of the Women's National Coalition at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1991.
Celebrating the formation of the Women's National Coalition at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1991. Alf Kumalo Family Trust / Africa Media Online
25 April 1992
Launch of the Women’s National Coalition (WNC)

Agitation to be part of negotiations from such diverse women’s groupings led to the possibility of a new organisation being launched. After many planning meetings and consultations, the Women's National Coalition was launched. It included 70 national organisations and eight regional coalitions.

The WNC’s key objective was to ensure equality for women in the new constitutional dispensation and provide a strategic and organisational vehicle for women activists to articulate claims independently from the ANC and the ANCWL. Overall, the WNC brought together women from diverse class, racial and political backgrounds, and from diverse types of women's organisations including the church, welfare and the health sectors thus emphasising the diversity of women’s interests in the country. In February 1993, COSATU amended its constitution to allow its Women's Forum to affiliate and its members were roundly welcomed into the coalition.

“... the National Party women and the ANCWL sat together and debated the need for a coalition of women's interests was nothing short of a miracle.”
-Sheila Meintjies, Professor of Politics, University of the Witwatersrand

Celebrating the formation of the Women's National Coalition at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1991.
Celebrating the formation of the Women's National Coalition at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1991. Alf Kumalo Family Trust / Africa Media Online
“Operation Big Ears”, Speak, August 1992.
“Operation Big Ears”, Speak, August 1992. DISA
1992
‘Operation Big Ears’ and the Women’s Charter

Whilst representing women at CODESA, the WNC launched a separate charter campaign with two main objectives: 1) to acquire and disseminate information about women’s needs and aspirations and 2) to unify women in formulating and adopting a Charter or other document and entrench effective equality in the Constitution of South Africa. The Coalition identified six primary phases: education and conscientisation; ascertaining the demands of women; processing demands; educational programmes at local, regional and national levels; crystallisation of demands and formulation and adoption of the Charter.

Frene Ginwala, co-convenor of the WNC, argued for broad consultation with women at the grassroots level and instructed members to ‘grow big ears' that reach the farthest corners of our land. Pregs Govender, gender activist and later MP, explained the importance of this strategy:

"Many people suggested that we hire a market research company to survey women's needs ... Those who see our goal as simply drawing up a list of demands in a charter are missing the core of our objective. If women do not get involved and learn to break the culture of silence that binds women across all cultural backgrounds, we will only be further disempowered. Our numbers make us potentially powerful ... The very first step in realising this power is to ensure that women 'own' the campaign ... This campaign is about South African women seizing the opportunity to begin transforming society and their everyday lives."

The political negotiations ultimately moved more quickly than the campaign and neither the Charter nor the research on women’s demands was available to be included in the Interim Constitution.
“Operation Big Ears”, Speak, August 1992.
“Operation Big Ears”, Speak, August 1992. DISA
The Ultimate Boys in Negotiation News No 11, 21 July 1993.
The Ultimate Boys in Negotiation News No 11, 21 July 1993. Albie Sachs Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
April 1993
Multi-Party Negotiating Process (MPNP) and a Monitoring Collective for women

The Women’s National Coalition wanted to ensure that women were not absent from the next round of negotiations at the MPNP or marginalised in a separate body as had happened at CODESA. They wrote an open letter demanding women’s participation at all stages of the process and staged a protest. This call for at least one woman to be included in each political delegation to the Negotiating Council - consisting of two delegates and two advisors - was initially “jeered at” when put forward by Cyril Ramaphosa of the ANC. It was ultimately accepted by the Council, the main decision making body of the MPNP. The battle for inclusion was won.

There remained, however, several problems with the full and equal participation of women. Individual women delegates struggled to raise gender issues in an unsympathetic environment and were themselves often inexperienced. Moreover, women remained under-represented in the seven technical committees which were particularly important in determining the issues on the agenda. Their report paid little or no attention to gender. Informal networks were still dominated by men and there was little room for participation in social organisations.

The MPNP had also deleted the opening line of CODESA’s Declaration of Intent which stated that the process was moving towards a non-sexist and non-racial South Africa. “We fought for its reinstatement … We believe the words reinforce the reasons for the whole process. Our end picture, what we are fighting for, is a non-sexist and non- racist society,” explained Baleka Mbete Kgositsile, ANCWL Secretary-General.
The Ultimate Boys in Negotiation News No 11, 21 July 1993.
The Ultimate Boys in Negotiation News No 11, 21 July 1993. Albie Sachs Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
twr_img88-01
“What do Women Want?” Speak, April 1993. DISA
June 1993
Women’s National Coalition sets out to draft a charter

After many obstacles, the WNC established the Research Supervisory Group to oversee the charter campaign. The committee chaired by Sheila Meintjies, an academic and activist, designed a women-centred plan of action. They convened a National Strategy Workshop in June 1993 with two delegates from each region. Five key themes were identified as the core around which to build a national campaign: women’s legal status; women’s access to land, resources, and water; violence against women; health and work. A well-developed publicity campaign was launched. Individuals, organisations, and mass meetings of women convened by regional affiliates - some with as many as eight hundred participants - submitted demands around each theme.
twr_img88-01
“What do Women Want?” Speak, April 1993. DISA
'God-given' oppression upheld by tradition by Brigitte Mabandla and Amy Biehl.
'God-given' oppression upheld by tradition by Brigitte Mabandla and Amy Biehl. DISA
August 1993
Objections to equality provisions in the Bill of Rights (BoR)

The struggle for women to have their voices heard in the negotiations is exemplified in the dispute over customary law in the BoR. Chief Nonkonyana, a Transkei chief and lawyer, sought the exclusion of customary law from the scope of the BoR. The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA) took up this cause and demanded that the gender equality clause be struck from the draft constitution altogether and argued for the status and power of traditional leaders to be recognised. They requested that a house of traditional leaders be established alongside the legislative assembly and senate. Women's groups and members of the WNC were furious at this assault on equality for women. The WNC prepared a briefing paper which argued that were CONTRALESA to prevail, the ultimate impact would be to establish two states in the new post-apartheid South Africa: “The former will be subject to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and its citizens will resort to the Bill of Rights to challenge discrimination. In the latter, rural communities (and particularly rural women) will be isolated in a traditional state with no resort to the full rights of citizenship. Like the apartheid state, we will be creating two classes of citizens.”

The MPNP’s Technical Committee on Fundamental Rights - women again had to fight to be included - drafted a compromise clause. Neither CONTRALESA nor the women delegates supported Clause 32. The former felt like it gave too much away and the ANCWL felt that its own party was compromising women's position, and also compromising the notion of equality. The Rural Women’s Movement and other organisations sent strongly worded letters to the MPNP. The outcome was the removal of the offending compromise clause.
'God-given' oppression upheld by tradition by Brigitte Mabandla and Amy Biehl.
'God-given' oppression upheld by tradition by Brigitte Mabandla and Amy Biehl. DISA
The Interim Constitution.
The Interim Constitution.
November 1993
The Interim Constitution

As the constitutional negotiations were drawing to a close, the parties agreed there was neither sufficient nor general consensus on the issue of the gender equality clause. The negotiators concluded that customary law would not be included in the Bill of Rights. The agreement endorsed a general protection for custom and culture but with a clear understanding that the right to equality would not be compromised by it. Frene Ginwala, who called the decision a “tremendous victory for women”, credited the threat by rural women to boycott the elections as having played a decisive role. On 17 November 1993, the 21 participating parties at the MPNP signed the Interim Constitution. The Interim Constitution included gender equality as the founding principle of the new state (in the Preamble); strong equality protection; and a new body to promote gender equality (the Commission on Gender Equality). Women had again contributed significantly to ensuring these strides.
The Interim Constitution.
The Interim Constitution.
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Poster urging women to vote. SAHA
1994
A quota system to enhance women’s representation

In addition to the equality clause, women activists pressed for the use of a multi-member district electoral system that utilised party-list proportional representation. This was a system that international research had shown was most likely to enhance women’s representation. Shortly thereafter, in another victory for women, remembering the fierce debates at the 1991 Conference, the ANC committed to a quota of at least 3 out of every 10 persons placed on the proportional representations lists should be women. This did not mean separate voting for a block of women but rather insisting if necessary, that the names of women voted for by the branches would be moved up the lists to ensure that at least 30% of the ANC’s Members of Parliament and the Provincial Assemblies would be women. This encouraged women in other parties to fight for positions on their party lists.
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Poster urging women to vote. SAHA
February 1994
The Women's Charter for Effective Equality

The draft of the Women’s Charter was presented to the Women's Convention two months before the first democratic elections. A small team had compiled all the inputs from around the country and had worked against severe time constraints to come up with the draft. Meintjes described the "forty-eight sleepless hours" before the convention:

"We put together all the information and organised it … into twelve areas. The issues came directly out of the research. Where there were differences and contradictions [in the submissions], they all went in ... The draft was fine-tuned at a steering committee meeting and then went to the convention."

The convention debated the charter. The main deliberations were between the DP and the ANC. Key debates were about the understanding of equality, the value of state intervention in the struggle for gender equality, and the extent to which the charter should address inequalities in the private sphere. Drawing on these debates, the charter was then revised by a committee appointed at the conference. The committee, which included some of the original drafters, refined the draft in preparation for its presentation to the new Parliament in June 1994.

Part 8. Writing the Constitution - 1994 - 1996

May 1994
Women at the heart of the new democracy

One of the striking features of South Africa’s first democratically elected Parliament, which doubled up as a Constitutional Assembly to draft South Africa’s final Constitution, was the prominence of women activists. One hundred and seventeen - over 27 percent - of the members were women. When Nelson Mandela was chosen by Parliament to be South Africa’s democratically elected President, he took with him from his old office into his new office two strong feminists Barbara Masakela and Jessie Duarte. The other forceful personality who had helped structure his office had been Frene Ginwala. In his first State of the Nation address, President Nelson Mandela proclaimed:

“It is vitally important that all structures of government, including the President himself, should understand fully that freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.”

The first democratic Parliament was praised for its gender-inclusivity:
see quote on the right

Screenshot 2021-09-05 at 10.53.44
The Women’s Charter for Effective Equality. Unknown
June 1994
The Women’s Charter for effective equality

Although the broader political context had significantly changed after the elections and certain victories for women had been secured, the charter was still deemed to be an important intervention. Activists believed that it would represent a national consensus among women about the minimal demands of the women's movement and guide future legislative and policy interventions. After all, the charter campaign had already made an impact by enshrining gender equality and action in the final Constitution. The original multiple demands of the charter were reduced to help consolidate and speed up the process. The final charter was presented to President Mandela in June 1994.
Screenshot 2021-09-05 at 10.53.44
The Women’s Charter for Effective Equality. Unknown
1996
The final Constitution prohibits gender discrimination

The first democratic Parliament doubled as a Constitutional Assembly (CA). The CA was given just two years to draft the text for the country’s first democratic Constitution. The National Coalition of Women continued to monitor the process. Skilled political activists together with technical experts and advisors and the broad women’s constituency helped to keep gender issues at the centre of the constitution-making process. The role of women in the constitution-making process was a continuation of the role they played in the struggle they waged throughout history.
1996
New legislation and institutions protecting women’s rights

The new government’s embrace of gender equality as a foundational principle of the new democracy, led to policies, programmes and laws that advanced women’s interests. Parliament moved quickly to introduce new legislation within a human rights framework to eradicate gender inequality, create substantive representation for women as well as to protect women in the domestic sphere. Public participation in the law-making process of the Assembly was now actively encouraged and there was a close and cooperative relationship between civil society and Parliament. New laws outlawed rape in marriage, promoted reproductive choices, offered protection from domestic violence for women, illegalised discrimination against women and promoted equal status under customary law.

“The presence within the state of women and men deeply committed to progress on gender equality was central to the achievement of many policies and laws … They retained relationships with women in civil society and were able to work in partnership to advance certain laws and policies … The fact that the Speaker had been a leading gender activist in the early 1990s, assisted these processes.”
- Catherine Albertyn, Professor of Law in ‘Towards Substantive Representation: Women and Politics in South Africa’

Part 9. Making the Constitution a lived reality - 1996 onwards

Against my will is a crime, 2008. Pastel.
Against my will is a crime, 2008. Pastel. Judy Seidman
Taking root in day-to-day life

Despite women’s unprecedented participation in law-making and Parliament, and the newly entrenched human rights institutions and courts, enormous challenges remain for South Africa’s women. While some women have greater access to healthcare and resources, conditions on the ground remain hopelessly inadequate. Poverty is deepening. There are high rates of disease and infection amongst women.
Against my will is a crime, 2008. Pastel.
Against my will is a crime, 2008. Pastel. Judy Seidman
The #totalshutdown marches woke the spirits of 1956, in protest against violence on women. M&G
Violence against women

The safety of women and children remains one of the most enormous challenges to be tackled. The country has one of the highest femicide rates in the world with more than 2 700 women and 1 000 children murdered in a single year. It is estimated that around 51% of women in South Africa have experienced abuse at the hands of their partners.

In August 2018, womens month was marked by countrywide intersectional marches and pickets over violence again women, children and gender non-conforming people. It was organised by WomenProtestSA under the banner #thetotalshutdown. The rallying cry was "My body, not your crime scene" called on men to stop the abuse of women and children. "We have nothing to celebrate on 9 August," said the organisers of #TheTotalShutdown, referring to the annual commemoration of the women's march against apartheid passes.
The #totalshutdown marches woke the spirits of 1956, in protest against violence on women. M&G
South Africa joined the global 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign in 1998. Shamin Chibba
1996 onwards
Victories for women at the Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court has dealt with a number of cases linked to the struggle of women’s rights as human rights. Many cases illustrated the devastation caused by gender–based violence and have exposed inequalities in customary and divorce law. The judgements of the Constitutional Court have contributed to enhancing the dignity of the women who are victims of inequality and of human rights violations.
South Africa joined the global 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign in 1998. Shamin Chibba
Women across the country's nine provinces joined the #TheTotalShutdownMarch to protest the alarming rates of gender-based violence in South Africa. David Harrison / M&G
The Struggle Continues

A formidable task remains in South Africa to ensure that women’s issues are raised and actively dealt with. The struggle for gender equality is currently being waged in both the public and private sphere. The high rates of femicide and rape in the private realm are echoed by violent rhetoric of sexism and patriarchy in the public domain. A new generation of African feminists are forging new paths outside of conventional political organisations. In a recent seminar, writer, activist and WISER Writing Fellow, Sisonke Msimang, was forthright in her critique of the ANC Women’s League:

“I have a huge problem with the ANCWL and the betrayal of the feminist vision that we fought for. Gender-based violence has become a-politicised. My generation of African feminists have taken to ‘direct action’ to politicise the GBV issue as a credible form of a new political grammar.”

The united and diverse actions by women continue today. A spate of new organisations have emerged over the last 20 years. South African women, who have played a leading role in resistance politics since the early 20th century - as evidenced by the example of Charlotte Maxeke and others in this timeline - continue to fight for gender and racial equality. The liberation and safety of women remains a critical issue in our country today.
Women across the country's nine provinces joined the #TheTotalShutdownMarch to protest the alarming rates of gender-based violence in South Africa. David Harrison / M&G

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Charlotte attended the inaugural conference of the South African Native National Conference (SANNC) in 1912. She went on to break many of the stereotypical roles assigned to women at that time and chipped away at the edifice of authoritarianism that was imposed on women. She also spoke to men as well as women about what she was expecting from them:

“We want men to protect the women of their nation, not men who hurt and endanger women when they become aware of their rights.”
-Charlotte Maxeke, in a speech in 1922

Zubeida Jaffer, a gender activist, community journalist and author of a book on Charlotte Makeke entitled, Beauty of the Heart, The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, recounts the reaction of the delegates at the South African Native Convention to having a woman in their midst:

“On that day, she was the only woman present and said she needed clarity on the purpose of the congress and its objectives. She also asked if it was possible to have women forming part of the congress. As a result, a committee was nominated to respond to her. She had firmly placed the matter on the agenda and must have waited eagerly for the outcome. The committee tabled the matter and replied by saying the time was not yet ripe for women to lead delegations let alone take part in civil movements. It further said it was advisable for women to form their own movements as women only.”

Jaffer also writes of how Maxeke displayed a depth of understanding that was ahead of its time by describing oppression as ‘multi-dimensional’ and that there were intersecting points of understanding gender activism.

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Documents

A woman ahead of her time: The Lesseyton moment.

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Women nonetheless continued to organise themselves clandestinely and paid a heavy price for their commitment to the liberation struggle. In 1969, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, for example, was detained and held in solitary confinement for a total of 491 days. ‘Prisoner ‘number 1323/69’ wrote in her diary, later published in a book “491 Days”, that the screams of women being beaten from across the walls would never leave her mind.

In the same year, 1969, Dorothy Nyembe was convicted of harbouring uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) operatives and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment becoming South Africa’s longest-serving woman political prisoner. She endured conditions often worse than those for incarcerated African men. Nyembe, a stand-out figure from what was then called Natal, had previously been imprisoned from 1963-1966 and was then served with a five-year banning order before her long jail sentence. There were international campaigns from women’s movements demanding her release as well as that of Thandi Modise, the two most prominent of the ANC women leaders in jail. 

Several members of the Communist Party were imprisoned in the Barberton Women’s Jail and other prisons from 1963 onwards. From the Bram Fischer trial in 1964, Esther Barsel, Jean Middleton, Sylvia Neame, Molly Doyle, Ann Nicolson and Florence Duncan were all sent to Barberton Women’s Jail. They were later joined by Lesley Schermbrucker, convicted of refusing to testify against Bram Fischer and hiding him in the underground. Stephanie Kemp also joined them after having been convicted of planting bombs on pylons for the African resistance movement and Sheila Weinberg for painting an ANC slogan.  In her 2018 memoir, “Imprisoned: The Experience of a Prisoner Under Apartheid” Sylvia Neame writes how “the aim was to make us feel constantly uncertain of the framework in which we lived, to keep us permanently on the defensive and uncertain, to convince us that we had no rights and would only be granted ‘privileges’… we were in a constant state of psychological stress as a means of breaking us in.”  After being kept standing for 3 days and 3 nights, Sheila Weinberg’s mother, Violet, was convicted for harbouring Bram Fischer and sent to the Women’s Jail in the Old Fort prison.

Helen Joseph walking through the city whilst under house arrest, 1966. Uknown

Phyllis Naidoo is under house arrest in Durban with her three children. Phyllis Naidoo Collection, 1971, Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Phyllis Naidoo was placed under house arrest. For five years she raised three children under these difficult conditions. She could not even take her children to school, because she was prohibited from entering any educational institution. Special branch [police] officers lived on both sides of her apartment and always had her under surveillance:
“There was a special branch [police] fellow … who told the kids, ‘Go into that house and tell us what’s going on.’ And when my kids found out about that, they said, ‘Don’t come to our house. We’ll play in the yard.’”

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The Special Branch kept a very close eye on these activists and followed their every move, arresting and banning them. One of those, Fatima Meer ,was banned for planning a mass rally with Steve Biko. In 1974, Mamphele Ramphela was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for being in possession of banned literature. Sumboornam Pillay – who later became known as Sam Moodley after marrying another activist -Strinivasan Moodley – was another victim of the bannings.

“Political engagements resulted in me being served with a banning order and I was put under house arrest from
1973 to 1978.”
Sam Moodley

Moodley has recently told stories of these women in, Time to Remember: Reflections of Women from the Black Consciousness Movement.

Mamphela Ramphela

Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphela. Unknown

Ramphele was one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) where she met Steve Biko. She worked closely with the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), after it was formed in 1969 under the leadership of Steve Biko. After 1970, she was elected the chairperson of the local SASO branch. Ramphele received her qualification in medicine in 1972. She began her medical internship at Durban’s King Edward VIII Hospital, later transferring to Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth.

In 1974, Ramphele was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for being in possession of banned literature. She was undeterred. In 1975, she founded the Zanempilo Community Health Care Centrein Zinyoka, outside King William’s Town, one of the first primary health care initiatives outside the public sector in South Africa. During this time she was also the manager of the Eastern Cape branch of the Black Community Health Programme. She travelled extensively in the Eastern Cape, organising people to be drawn into community projects. In addition to her medical duties, Ramphele also became the director of the Black Community Programmes (BCP) in the Eastern Cape when Biko was banned.

Reference

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Photographs

Sibongile Mkhabela then and now. Unknown

Explore the archive

Fatima Meer’s 20 paintings were made during her time in Johannesburg’s Women’s Jail, at what is now Constitution Hill. Her artworks were smuggled out of the prison with the help of Madikizela-Mandela and their lawyer. Fatima Meer

Explore the archive

Photographs

Police and soldiers outside 8115 on 16 May 1977, the day Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was taken to Brandfort. In the foreground of the photograph, wearing a light coloured dress, is Winnie’s sister Nonyaniso and on the far left is photographer Peter Magubane. Africa Media Online

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The Brigade grew into the largest women’s grouping in Natal. It was successful in reaching women who were traditionally difficult to mobilise, namely rural women and domestic workers. The IWB played a behind-the-scenes role in Inkatha but was generally a force for conservatism according to Shireen Hassim, in that it, “… did not empower women or in any way equip them with capacity to change social structures which oppress them or even less the men who may keep them subordinate.”

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In reality, the experiences of women were diverse. A number of women report that they earned the respect of men and were treated as equals. Some were involved in dangerous combat work as commanders whilst others were involved in equally important but less visible activities such as planning and reconnaissance missions. Yet other women say they were not taken seriously by their male counterparts or were seen as threats or recounted stories of sexual abuse. MK commander, Chris Hani, is universally recognised as playing a significant role in supporting women’s empowerment and challenging their being confined to certain roles.

“I kept on graduating in terms of responsibilities but the bulk of the time my role was infiltration … I was now infiltrating the country illegally and taking groups of people outside the country … to safe house and to Mozambique for all sorts of different things.”
-Memela Khambule Totsie, Interview with Raymond Suttner, ‘Women in the ANC-led underground’
Women were able to advance to commanding positions in MK because of their courage, determination, skills and political understanding. In this they were supported by the fact that Oliver Tambo, commander in chief of MK, Chris Hani, general commander of MK,  and Joe Slovo, head of special operations, all happened to be married to strong, independent women (Adelaide Tambo, Limpho Hani and Ruth First respectively) and all adopted strong pro-feminist positions inside the ANC. Quoting from his interview (1993) with former platoon commissar Dipuo Mvelase, where she describes how Hani introduced her to feminism, Raymond Suttner observes: The military is a male space par excellence. It is a place that one has come to associate with men barking out commands. It is generally conceived as a space for bravery by men. Hani’s empowering soldiers to speak their minds encouraged women to contest gender inequality in MK …”

Profiles of Women in the ANC underground

As early as the 1920s, women members of the Communist Party (Ray Alexander, for example) went to Russia for underground training in ‘Comintern’ universities. After the banning of the CPSA in 1950 and then the ANC and PAC in 1960, women were involved in underground activities inside and outside of South Africa, especially as trainees in the newly established armed wings of the ANC and PAC – MK and The Azanian People’s Liberation Army (POQO) respectively. By the mid-1960s, the government had smashed all activities.

Ray Alexander was a prominent figure in the trade union movement and a staunch member of the SACP. She joined the communist underground whilst her husband, Jack Simons, refused to do so thus reversing conventional roles at the time.

Dorothy Nyembe was one of the first women convicted for assisting MK soldiers when some of the first MK groups entered the country in 1969. She was imprisoned for fifteen years. The ANC campaigned internationally for her release together with the release of Nelson Mandela. When she came out of prison, she helped set up NOW [Natal Organisation of Women] and ended up in Parliament in 1994.

Thandi Modise, aged 17, slipped over the border into Botswana in 1976, joined the ANC and was transferred to Angola where she received military training at Nova-Katenga and Funda camps. At times there were only 30 women out of a total of 500 trainees. On some occasions she was the only woman in the camp.

After training she worked in the camps as a political commissar. Modise also received political education, sitting in open classrooms, under trees, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In a camp of four companies, only Modise and one other woman had a senior rank, the rest of the women were rank and file soldiers. When they started training she was made a section commissar. Later, Modise became a commander. According to Modise, it was tough because some of the men did not really want to be commanded by young women.

In 1978 she returned to South Africa to work underground as an MK operative. She was arrested in 1979, while she was four months pregnant. Modise received an eight-year jail sentence which she served at Kroonstad prison and was the first woman in South Africa to be jailed for MK activities. While she was in prison, Modise enrolled for studies and completed her matriculation and a BCom degree in industrial psychology and economics. She was released in 1988. 

Thenjiwe Mtintso, who gave up her university studies in South Africa to join MK, ended up as commander of all the MK combatants who were moved from Angola to Uganda. In the period leading up to the independence of Namibia, she later became deputy secretary-general of the ANC, the first head of the commission for gender equality, an influential member of the jury that selected the winning entry for the design of the Constitutional Court and later ambassador in Cuba, Italy and elsewhere.

Marion Sparg joined MK, went into exile and after working to help produce The Voice of Women, and was then seconded to special ops. She was captured in 1986 and sentenced to 25 years in prison for planting and exploding limpet mines at John Vorster Square police headquarters in Johannesburg and Cambridge police station in East London. She was released in 1991.

Barbara Hogan, was the first woman in South Africa to be convicted of treason. She was detained in 1982 and initially held at the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill.

Trish Hanekom served three years for underground ANC activities. 

Eleanor Kasrils, a member of the first unit of MK in Natal, was captured after having exploded bombs that cut off the electricity supply in the province and damaged a post office at night.With the help of a sympathetic nursing assistant she succeeded in escaping from a psychiatric facility and joined her husband Ronnie in exile. 

Jackie Molefe, Lindiwe Zulu, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Ayanda Dlodlo, Lindiwe Sisulu and Dipuo Mevlase were all commanders of MK and had men following their orders. 

Jansie Lourens Niehaus was convicted of treason and sentenced to four years imprisonment. 

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Ruth First, undated.

Ruth First, undated. Unknown

Ruth First, co-author of the Freedom Charter, journalist and human rights activist and then Director of Research at the Centre for African Studies at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, was killed by a parcel bomb that had been sent to the university on 17 August 1982.

unnamed

Jeannette Schoon. Unknown

In June 1984, a letter bomb was delivered to the Schoon home in Angola by Craig Williamson. Jeannette Schoon opened it and the bomb killed her and her six-year-old daughter Katryn, the youngest person to be murdered.

Victoria Nonyamezelo Mxenge, undated. Unknown

Anti-apartheid activist, UDF activist, lawyer and treasurer of NOW, Victoria Nonyamezelo Mxenge, was assassinated by apartheid agents outside her home near King Williamstown in August 1985.

Dulcie September, 19 August 1985. Pierre Verdy / AFP via Getty Images 

Teacher, anti-apartheid activist and ANC representative in Paris, Dulcie September, was gunned down outside the ANC’s Paris office at 28, Rue des Petites-Écuries on the morning of 28 March 1988. 

Documented political murders of women activists that are less well known in public histories include the killing of Esther Masuku (mother of youth activist); Joyce Modimoeng (activist and wife of MAWU unionist David ); Florence Ribeiro (former detainee and activist) in 1986; Nokonono Kave (SASO, ANC in exile Lusaka) in 1986 or 1987; Tsitsi Chiliza (activist and wife of ANC Chief Representative) and Mildred Msomi (ANC activist) in 1987; Linda Brakvis (UDF activist); Nomsa Nduna in 1988 and Amy Elizabeth Biehl (student) in 1993. 

 After the reopening of proceedings on the death of Ahmed Timol in June 2017,  Thembi Nkadimeng, the mayor of Polokwane, demanded the investigation of the disappearance and presumed death of  her sister, Nokuthula Simelane, who had been taken away by Vlakplaas agents. Other cases are likely to follow.

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DISA

I SEE THE RAYS OF OUR NEW SOUTH AFRICA RISING

“You who have no work, speak.
You who have no homes, speak.
You who have no schools, speak.
You who have to run like chickens
from the vulture, speak.
Let us share our problems so that
we can solve them together.
We must free ourselves*
Men and women must share housework.
Men and women must work together in the home and out in the world.
There are no creches and nursery schools for our children.
There are no homes for the aged.
There is no-one to care for the sick,
Women must unite to fight for these rights.
I opened the road for you.
You must go forward.”

Dora Tamana, April 1981

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Prominent women leaders

Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu were the two major public faces of the struggle during this time, not only because of their relationships to Nelson and Walter, but because of the powerful personal roles that they played. Winnie was noted for her charisma and brilliant projection of the fighting spirit; Albertina  for her collegiality, resilience and personal modesty.

They served as visible links with the revolutionaries of Rivonia, as well as being great leaders of women and men in their own right. They also represented the thousands of women throughout the country who had had to keep the family together after their husbands and children were imprisoned or went abroad to join  MK. In doing this, they were greatly assisted by the International Defence and Aid Fund set up by Canon John Collins with the support of Phyllis Altman  in London. Both were heavily punished by the state, but both kept their heads high throughout.

Annie Silinga was born in 1910 at Nqqamakwe in the Butterworth district of the Transkei. She moved to Langa later and joined the Langa Vigilance Association and the ANC. She started a creche in Langa along with Winnie Seqwana. She took part in the anti-pass laws in the movement’s 1952 Defiance Campaign and was arrested as part of the 1956 treason trial in South Africa. She was part of the core group that formed FEDSAW. Silinga was elected as the president of the Cape Town ANCWL in 1958. She was involved in the formation of the Women’s Front, and was made a patron of the United Democratic Front in 1983. Silinga lived in Langa all her life and died in 1984 without having ever carried a pass.

Learn more about Annie Silinga here

Cheryl Carolus hails from Athlone, Cape Town. She was active in the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) and played an important role in the formation of the UDF. Cheryl Carolus was arrested and detained at John Vorster Square for three weeks in 1986 and then restricted to the Cape magisterial district of Wynberg. In 1989, she played a leading role in the Defiance Campaign. After Mandela’s release, she became deputy secretary-general of the ANC and played an important part in the negotiations for a democratic South Africa. Cheryl Carolus is now a business woman and the Chairperson of the Constitution Hill Trust amongst other things.

Learn more about Cheryl Carolus here.

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Grey and black poster with geometric artwork of a woman for 1984 – Year of the South African Woman. DISA

Poster celebrating the relaunch of FEDSAW. UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye

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“There’s a section in the guidelines that provides for full equality between men and women in public and in private life, and for affirmative action to remedy the inequalities built into our society. So the male members of the Constitutional Committee are all feeling very smug, very liberated, looking forward to praise from the women comrades. Then Ruth (Mompati) stands up to speak on behalf of the women: ‘Comrades,’ she says, ‘I see in the Introduction we speak of 300 years of colonialism and racism. But we say nothing about a millennium of male domination. That theme is not in the text at all. And what about the sexism we encounter in our daily lives today inside the organisation? It’s not just inequality in structures that we are talking about. It’s the culture, the values, the things people just take for granted in their daily life that are keeping us back.’ So we changed the text of the Constitutional Guidelines to speak not only about 300 years of racial domination but of a millennium of male domination. And we denounce sexism in daily life. And again, we liberated men are smiling … Not for long.

Dorothy Driver, a strong feminist literary figure, writes to Frene Ginwala and says: ‘What’s this idea of a separate chapter dealing with rights for women? Aren’t women voters? Aren’t women workers? You don’t want a separate ghetto for women in the Constitution. The whole document must be drafted with gender-sensitive eyes.’ 

So that wipes our smiles away.”

Albie Sachs in Oliver Tambo’s Dream: Four Lectures

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The seminar heard many references to writings by Professor Jack Simons, who was living in exile with his wife Ray Alexander, dealing with the ‘triple oppression of African women’. A high point of the seminar was a paper by Lulu Gwagwa explaining that African feminists strongly supported the rights of African women to live in families, but insisted that families could take many forms and that equality had to exist before, during and after marriage. The seminar culminated in the writing of the NEC statement on the emancipation of women. Thereafter, a number of conferences inside and outside of the country led to a growing set of recommendations on gender in a new constitutional dispensation.

Documents

Constitution, Law and the Gender Question presented by Ruth Mompati of the African National Congress with Ivy Motsepe and Brigitte Mabandla. Albie Sachs Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

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Ruth Mompati closed the conference with a call for unity: “Women from Malibongwe must take home the strong call for unity among women … [and] put words into action.”  

Two weeks after Malibongwe, the UDF hosted a meeting and seminar with UDF-aligned women’s groups and COSATU. Discussion centred on issues and strategies that women in the UDF and union activists had in common. Women called for unity to overcome past divisions.

Delegate at the Malibongwe Conference, Amsterdam, 1990. Joke van der Linden, International Institute for Social History

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There were several civil society conferences from 1990 onwards that focused on gender and democracy: the University of Natal Gender Conference 1990; IDASA/University of Natal conference on National Machinery 1992; Putting women on the Agenda 1992; and the Women’s National Coalition conference on National Machinery 1993.

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Poster for the 48th ANC National Conference, July 1991. DISA

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“Inclusivity was a strategic thing on the part of women in the ANC … Frene [Ginwala] argued that the Constitution would not only be drafted by the ANC without the support of other women. It was very strategic to win over women by putting them in the same structure. It broadened the mass base-by including women who would support feminism but may not support the ANC- and got the support for a progressive women’s agenda.”

-Thenjiwe Mtintso, SACP delegate at CODESA  

At the first meeting, an agreement was reached over the central concerns that united all women, despite vast political differences, namely:

  1. The general nature of gender oppression.
  2. The entrenchment of the elimination of racism and sexism in the new Constitution.
  3. The participation of women in the constitutional negotiations.
  4. The protection of women’s rights in the Constitution beyond the mere declaration of equality between women and men.
  5. The uniting of women’s groups in a campaign for a Women’s Charter and for any other constitutional provisions that ensure women’s equality. 

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Non-sexism written into the first document at CODESA

Albie Sachs was appointed as an ANC representative to the drafting committee for the Declaration of Intent. His mandate from the ANC was that the declaration should state “upfront that South Africa should be a non-racial, non-sexist country.” Sachs reflects on the debates that ensued:

“Colin Eglin of the Democratic Party, who chaired the Committee … was immediately troubled: ‘What’s this ‘non-sexist’ thing?’ he asked. ‘I don’t understand it.’ And he was joined by a representative from the Ciskei and another from the National Party, all three white men. There’s never a good moment to raise the question of non-sexism, it’s always awkward by its nature, and I decide to fight. There were two African men in the group – Mninwa Mahlangu, who is now Ambassador in Washington, supports me – more, I suspect, because he’s against seeing these other white guys trying to force me down than because he feels strongly on the issue. He says: ‘Our mothers and our sisters and our daughters fought hard for freedom. I support Albie.’ And the other African participant supports me as well. Deadlock. Colin, in his gruff and clearly irritated way, says: “Oh, alright then, let’s not waste any more time. We’ll include the word. ‘Non-sexism’ is in! I feel jubilant …. the term ‘non-sexism’ is in the first document to be produced by CODESA.”

Declaration of Intent signed at the opening meeting of CODESA

There was a dearth of women in the negotiating teams across
the political spectrum:

  • The largest number of women delegates at CODESA was found in the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) which sent seven women representatives. Ela Ramgobin was NIC’s delegate. NIC’s Transvaal division appointed Rehana Adam as an advisor. NIC also had another five women on the CODESA subcommittees as decision-making delegates.
  • The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) sent four women delegates – ET Mhentu, Faith Gasa, I Mars and Sue Vos. 
  • The SACP sent three women delegates: Thenjiwe Mtintso, Nozizwe Madlala, and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi.
  • The ANC sent three women delegates: Marion Sparg, Gertrude Shope and Barbara Masekela 
  • The Lebowa and Ciskei governments had one delegate each. 
  • The Democratic Party (DP) appointed one woman advisor, Dene Smuts. 
  • The Solidarity Party (SP) also appointed one woman advisor. 
  • The National Party (NP) appointed Sheila Camerer. 
  • The National People’s Party had one woman delegate. 
None of the other parties had women representing their constituencies.

“[Male delegates] see women as not having any role in matters of state, in politics or public affairs. These are considered the rightful preserve of men.” 
-Frene Ginwala, ANCWL  

Gill Marcus and Nelson Mandela at CODESA. Rodger Bosch / Africa Media Online 

Women voice opposition

Outraged, women regardless of political affiliation protested against their exclusion from the talks.  Sheena Duncan, Black Sash national executive member and Vice- President of the National Council of Churches, called it “disgraceful”. Lindiwe Zulu, a spokesperson for the ANCWL decried the situation for being “typical of our patriarchal society”. 

Thenjiwe Mtintso at the CODESA meeting, 21 December 1991. Jonathan Mitchell / Dreamstime

Women wrote in opposition

In January 1991, Helen Suzman and Thenjiwe Mtintso formally asked the CODESA Management Committee to investigate mechanisms for ensuring that women would be adequately represented in CODESA’s structures. Later that month, a group of prominent women which included Barbara Masekela (ANC), Baleka Mbete Kgositsile (ANCWL), Gill Noero (DP) and Frene Ginwala (ANC), penned a joint letter that was reprinted in a number of major news outlets. 

The letter read in part:

“The relative absence of women at CODESA and among the working groups that began work this week, calls into question the commitment to non-sexism in the Declaration of Intent signed by the participants. The concern expressed by the management committee at the lack of participation by women comes strangely from an all-male group composed of senior leaders of the very organisations that are responsible for the situation, but failing to give consideration to the matter when nominating their own delegations to the various CODESA structures … Do they want us to believe that there is not a single woman among their groups who is capable of speaking in the working groups, or serving on the steering committees? Is the anthem of the ‘new’ South Africa to be sung by an all-male choir?”

ANCWL urged for the Gender Advisory Board to be established

The ANCWL took the lead in protesting women’s exclusion and staged a sit-in at the negotiations. It drafted a submission to CODESA and recommended that a Gender Advisory Committee (GAC) be formed to monitor and advise on the gender implications of the decisions of the Management Committee and the working groups. Baleka Mbete Kgositsile, ANCWL Secretary-General, told Mayibuye:

“An advisory group on gender … will help to ensure that the active involvement of women becomes part of the political culture of our country. Women’s participation in politics and government is a goal we will continue to strive for using all possible methods.”

Another joint letter signed by the Black Sash, the ANCWL, Lawyers for Human Rights, the IFP, and academics from the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Stellenbosch University and the University of South Africa (UNISA) was reprinted in several different newspapers. It also called for CODESA management to ‘take action by introducing a Gender Advisory Committee as part of CODESA’.

Black Sash picketing CODESA II with security standing by, Kempton Park, May 1992. South Photos / Gille de Vlieg

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Mandate and challenges

The GAC met for the first time on 6 April – one month before CODESA 2. In this limited time frame it examined the decisions already taken by the working groups as well as the submissions from women’s organisations and political parties. There were several drawbacks including that the GAC had to agree to principles without examining the full extent of the content of certain decisions; only a handful of delegations were familiar with the broader issues presented to GAC; some representatives did not even bother to attend or made very few appearances; and the proceedings of the GAC did not result in bargaining sessions between contending parties. Furthermore, the GAC had limited influence within the Management Committee and the working groups often did not really understand what the GAC was doing.

Recommendations

The GAC produced a report that recommended that: ‘non-sexism’ be added to all references to non-racism and democracy in agreements; women be included in all National Peace Accord structures; the proposed media commission should include gender conscious persons; women should be encouraged to participate in constitution making and in all future elections; and that a just bill of rights, that specified women’s particular rights, be attached to the constitution. There was no requirement, however, that the GAC’s recommendations be followed.

Reflections

Opinions about the GAC varied widely. Thenjiwe Mtintso of the SACP went so far as to call it a complete failure – “a toothless dog”

Others, like Gill Noero of the DP, believed that the GAC was successful given the considerable constraints it was working under. “The GAC had no opportunity to present its proposals, and it is unfair to criticise the committee as useless and powerless because it had only advisory powers,” she pointed out. 

Although almost all the women in the GAC were also WNC members (see next story beat), “the Coalition was not itself involved in this fight to ensure the representation of women and gender issues in the constitutional talks”. Noero argued the WNC was unable to take up a strong political stance due to the diversity of its membership base. 

Before GAC had time to establish a firm role or develop more robust positions, CODESA broke down.

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Over the next two years, the WNC grew to over 90 organisations and 13 regional coalitions. Organisations were as diverse as the South African Communist Party, the National Party, the Rural Women’s Movement and the Vroue Landbou Unie. This presented multiple challenges of building a social movement of women and organisations with little in common.

“It was here that ‘equality’ and ‘women’s rights’ proved to be important mobilising devices. In this context, rights constituted an important political resource as they provided a set of broad principles and concepts which allowed it to mobilise without necessarily confronting the differences between them. This was essential to the success of the WNC … both the campaign and the Charter were part of a feminist project to develop a substantive understanding of equality in the Constitution and the law.”
-Catherine Albertyn, Professor of Law at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies

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Opposition parties align

“Operation Big Ears”, the WNC’s main campaign, was a cause of concern for some political groupings. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) members were unsure about its Women’s Brigade’s joining a coalition in which the ANC was dominant.

“[The Women’s Charter] is an issue for all South African women, not just ANC women, although the League will have to spearhead the campaign.” 

-Baleka Mbete Kgositsile, secretary-general ANCWL

Nkosazana Zuma, key facilitator in discussions between the Women’s League and the Women’s Brigade, pointed out that it was important for all organisations in the coalition to feel comfortable with its key campaign. The IFP delayed joining the coalition and refused to attend a march in Durban to launch the new organisation but eventually joined.   Initially, the Democratic Party and the National Party also rejected the idea of a women’s charter. The conservative Afrikaner women’s organisation, Kontak, and the mainly white, liberal Women’s Bureau rejected the political nature of the term. Soon after the coalition was formed, the Democratic Party joined the call for a women’s charter as an addendum to the Constitution, reading the significance of a charter within a rights-based approach to the transition.

The campaign

The Women’s Charter was seen as part of a “rolling campaign,” in which women at all levels of society could articulate their interests. Pregs Govender was appointed project manager for the coalition.

One hundred fieldworkers hosted focus group discussions with women across the country over a period of three months. This process identified issues that women had in common and generated data to develop the charter. The initial mandate of the coalition and for its campaign was twelve months, from April 1992 to April 1993. This time frame was soon revised, and the mandate was extended until June 1994.

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“Guilty Secret in SA” , 28 February 1994 Volume 8 No 1 Democracy in action. DISA

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In July, the MPNP Monitoring Collective was formed by women activists and lawyers to relay discussions at the MPNP to the WNC.

Appointing women delegates

The new quota system for women delegates to the Negotiating Council was harshly critiqued in an article published in Negotiating News. It pointed out that “nepotism is evident in the presence of some women while for the rest, with a few exceptions, women delegates are moved in and out of the Negotiating Council like laundry. A hollow victory for women, is the early verdict on the quota system grudgingly introduced by the Negotiating Council. Far from creating space for the voices of women to be heard in the negotiating process, the measure may simply have shut women up.”

However, the article concluded that it was “an unprecedented victory for South African women, not least because it was the fruit of a multi-party women’s alliance. Had women not been so united, their demand for a voice would have been shuffled off into the wasteland of ‘unsubstantive’ matters, instead of being conceded, however grudgingly.”

 

A hollow victory?

Catherine Albertyn, Professor of Law  and ‘document monitor’ for the MPNP Monitoring Collective, also criticised the MPNP’s stance on gender:

“It was clear that both the Technical Committee and the Ad Hoc Committee were taking little or no account of submissions by women’s organisations. These experts were largely unresponsive to the views of (mostly women) lawyers who disagreed with them. They also used their status as ‘experts’ to dismiss the opposition of the women delegates.”

Leon Wessels was deeply critical not only of the Negotiating Council’s lack of gender sensitivity when appointing technical committees, but also of political parties’ submissions to technical committees.

“The technical committees set up … have failed to advance women’s emancipation in their reports. No attempt was made to balance the presence of men and women in the composition of these technical committees and no attempt was made to include gender rights specialists. Individual political parties do not facilitate the matter. Not one so far has offered a thorough, well researched or comprehensive approach to the legal and social status of women, either in submissions to the technical committees … Even those parties who publicly pronounce non-sexist policies … have failed to adopt a serious approach.”

Nevertheless, inclusion on some of the technical committees was an achievement especially after four women were appointed onto two all-male technical committees. Stella Sigcau of the Transkei Traditional Leaders Association and Corlia Kruger of the Afrikaner Volksunie were elected members of the Planning Committee. ANC delegate, Baleka Mbete Kgositsile, and Martheanne Finnemore of the DP were positioned on the panel of chairpersons. A position on a technical committee did not guarantee that women’s voices were heard. Often they were not.

I did not envisage the tough battle that lay ahead or the barriers that would have to be hurdled if the women were to achieve their aims. Many of us had little formal preparation for the task ahead and took a while to find our feet … Unbelievably, one male delegate would get up and walk out every time the female counterpart spoke … and suffered from the token appointment of some women delegates who were seen as nothing more than window-dressing models.”

-Martheanne Finnemore, Democratic Party delegate

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Documents

The Ultimate Boys in Negotiation News No 11, 21 July 1993. Albie Sachs Collection, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives 

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There had been a blazing internal ANC confrontation between Baleka Mbete Kgositsile and Mavivi Mnyakayaka Manzini, on the one hand, and Chief Nonkonyana, on the other, without agreement being reached.  The compromise proposal was that traditional customary law principles would be recognised subject to being progressively developed to reach equality. Both sides disagreed vehemently. The ANC set a time and place for the two sides to meet with a view to finding agreement. I was one of those present, wondering how the matter could be worked out.  The CONTRALESA people simply didn’t arrive to defend their position. The compromise clause fell away.”

-Albie Sachs, Cape Town, 24 July 2021

Perspectives

We are not directly opposed to the fact that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, but there are basic differences. There is nothing wrong if a traditional leader is brought to court for a criminal offence, because he is not above the law. But there are serious problems if the law says all citizens, including chiefs, kings, and ordinary people, are equal in status. There are also serious problems presented by the clause which says there shall be no discrimination based on race, gender, or creed.

Chief Nonkonyana, Sunday Times interview

ANC delegate Mavivi Myakayaka-Manzini argued that although traditional customs like lobola would continue, there was no reason to constitutionalise the inequality of women. The new constitution will place human rights above everything else. The question of equality in all spheres of life will be supreme. Our struggle is against any form of domination and that includes also domination by men.

Cathi Albertyn and Thuli Madonsela, representing CALS, made two submissions to the technical committee. They noted that it was important that culture, custom and religion should not be used to deny the rights and the question of choice – whether to live under a customary or non-customary system.

After canvassing the opinions of rural women’s groups and hearing near unanimous support for the equality clause, their report concluded: Rural women should be full citizens of South Africa with access to rights.However, they conceded that the positive and non-discriminatory aspects of culture and customary law should also be retained

One of the most vocal supporters of the equality clause was Stella Sigcau, a member of the Transkei Traditional Leaders Association’s delegation and daughter of the paramount chief of Eastern Pondoland. She told the Sunday Nation that Lydia Kompe of the RWM threatened that the rural women would boycott the elections if the Bill of Rights excluded them.

The Rural Women’s Movement sent a statement to the MPNP requesting that Clause 32 be removed in favour of the equality clause which guaranteed that the Bill of Rights would trump customary law.

The implications of the suspension of the Bill of Rights would be disastrous – it would elevate this undermined mass of norms called customary law above the supreme law of the nation, the Constitution.

-Bridgitte Mabandla of the ANC Constitutional Committee

Many women were disappointed at the lack of support from men leaders in the CONTRALESA debacle. 

The handling of the issue by a male dominated political leadership raises serious questions about the commitment of leading political parties to an inclusive democratic tradition.”

-Editors of Negotiation News

The Negotiating Council appointed a committee composed of Chief Justice Pierre Olivier, Professor Charles Dlamini, Cathi Albertyn and Thuli Madonsela of CALS to advise on the CONTRALESA motion to strike the gender clause from the draft constitution.

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  The first democratic Parliament was praised for its gender-inclusivity:

“From being one of the world’s most sexist governments our new Parliament, with its 106-strong contingent of women, has emerged as one of the world’s most progressive. South Africa has moved from 141st place on the list of countries with women in Parliament, to seventh … With a jump from 2.7 per cent to 26.5 per cent, South African women are now better represented than their British and American counterparts.”

-The Sunday Times

Besides nearly a third of all members of Parliament being women, 15 percent of the cabinet ministers were women and 56 percent of the deputy ministers were women. 

These included Dorothy Nyembe, Ruth Mompati, Frene Ginwala, Sister Bernard Ncube, Barbara Hogan and Patricia De Lille.  Frene Ginwala was appointed Speaker of the National Assembly, with Baleka Mbete Kgositsile as her Deputy. Sister Bernard Ncube chaired the committee on Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. Patricia De Lille was elected Chairperson of the Transport Committee and Chief Whip for the PAC.

Women’s significant numerical representation made them well poised to take advantage of the strong constitutional framework to bring about gender equality. Several forums were set up to overcome institutional discrimination against women. 

For example, in 1996, Parliament established a Joint Standing Committee for the Improvement of  the Quality of Life and the Status of Women which went on to monitor and oversee progress in the government’s implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women; another multiparty Parliamentary Women’s Group was formed in 1997 and a  Women’s Empowerment Unit was also set up to empower women in national and provincial legislatures. 

These bodies led to increased levels of confidence and participation of women. Many other prominent women leaders emerged in this period including in civil society organisations and in the business world. These are but a few examples of women parliamentarians and other women leaders in this period.

Profiles

Dr Frene Noshir Ginwala: Speaker of the National Assembly from 1994 to 2004 [ANC]

Frene Ginwala was born on 25 April 1932 and studied law at the University of London in the United Kingdom (UK), where she completed her LLB degree. She returned to South Africa to complete her legal training. As a student she was requested to arrange the escape of senior ANC leaders and to establish an ANC office in exile. In Tanzania, Ginwala established a monthly journal, “Spearhead” and worked as a journalist until she was deported and declared a prohibited immigrant. She returned to the UK and obtained a doctorate (D. Phil.) from Oxford University. 

Ginwala worked in Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and the UK as an ANC official and as journalist and broadcaster in East Africa and Europe. In 1974 Ginwala assisted in establishing the ANC’s Department of Information and Publicity. She also lectured at universities and participated in various United Nations, and other international conferences on SA. From 1987-1988 she was one of 14 international experts invited to advise the Director-General on Unesco’s programme on Peace and Conflict Research. Prior to her return from exile in 1990, Ginwala was head of the ANC’s Political Research Unit. She was also ANC spokesperson in the United Kingdom on issues relating to South Africa. Ginwala helped to set up the Women’s National Coalition, and was later elected national convener of the Coalition. She has held various influential positions in the ANC and other non-political organisations. These include Deputy Head of the Commission for Emancipation of Women (1992 – 1994) as well as Secretariat in Mr Mandela’s Office (1991 – 1994). Ms Ginwala was a member of the ANC Negotiating Team at CODESA and a member of the Technical Committee on the Independent Electoral Commission.

After the 1994 elections Ginwala was elected as a Member of Parliament and was subsequently elected as Speaker of the National Assembly from 1994 until 2004. As Speaker she was instrumental in arranging many significant changes and opening up Parliament. Ms Ginwala served as a member of the Preparatory Committee for the First World Conference of Presiding Officers. She has been a board member of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance as well as the former Chairperson of the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum. She is a former member of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Panel of High-Level Personalities on African Development and served as Commissioner of the International Commission on Human Security. Ms Ginwala has also served on both the ANC’s National Executive Committee and National Working Committee. She has served as Chairperson (SA) of the International Parliamentary Union as well as Chairperson of the Africa section of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

Ginwala has chaired the ANC’s Archives Committee and was Chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal from 2005 – 2009. She also serves as a board member of the Environmental Monitoring Group as well as the Land and Agriculture Policy Centre. She is also a trustee of the Govan Mbeki Fellowship (University of Fort Hare) Multi-Media Trust; and trustee of the Democratic Media Trust. Ms Ginwala received the Order of Luthuli in silver for her contribution to democracy and the upliftment of women in 2004.

Patricia De Lille

Patricia De Lille was born on 17 February 1951 in Beaufort West and matriculated from Hoërskool Bastiaanse. She first worked as a lab technician for Plascon Paints, where she remained for 16 years, obtaining an Industrial Relations Diploma and a Diploma in Paint Technology. During this time, she became actively involved in trade union politics, ultimately working her way up to becoming part of the National Executive Committee of the South African Chemical Workers’ Union (SACWU). She later also became Vice President of the National Council of Trade Unions.

 

De Lille was elected onto the National Executive Committee of the Pan Africanist Movement (PAM), a wing of the PAC, in 1989. With the unbanning of political organisations in 1990, she was appointed as Foreign Secretary and Relief and Aid Secretary of the party. De Lille led the PAC delegation during the CODESA negotiations, and after the first democratic elections, she was appointed as a member of Parliament. She served as the chief whip (1997 – 2003) for the PAC in Parliament and as chairperson of the Transport Committee (1994 – 1999). She also served on several committees including the following: Health; Mineral and Energies; Trade and Industry; Labour; Home Affairs; Housing, RDP; Welfare; Communication; Public Protector; Transport; Abortion & Sterilisation; Internal Arrangements; the Rules Committee and the Code of Ethics. She was also a member of the Report of SA Law Commission on Surrogate Motherhood; Establishment of Commission on Gender Equality; Ad Hoc Committee on Ratification of Convention on the Rights of the Child; Ad hoc Committee on Ratification of Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women; 

 

In 2003, during a floor-crossing window, she became the first South African woman to form a political party of her own by founding and leading the Independent Democrats (ID). On 15 August 2010, the ID merged with the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s official opposition, and de Lille took on dual party membership until her party was fully dissolved in May 2014. De Lille moved to provincial and local government, becoming a Member of the Executive Committee of Social Development for the Western Cape Government. In 2011 De Lille was elected as the 33rd Mayor of Cape Town. She  serves the community in her capacity as member or trustee of various boards of charitable organisations such as the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and was also the Chancellor of the Durban University of Technology between 2004 – 2012.

Ruth Mompati was born in 1925. She joined the ANC in 1954, and was elected to the National Executive Committee (NEC) of its Women’s League. She was involved in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and was a founding member of FEDSAW. She went into exile in 1962, holding office as the secretary and head of the Women’s section of the ANC in Tanzania, where she also underwent military training. She remained a member of the ANC’s NEC from 1966 to 1973. Between 1981 and 1982, she was the chief representative of the ANC in the UK and became part of the delegation that opened talks with the South African government at Groote Schuur in 1990. In 1994, Mompati was elected a Member of Parliament in the National Assembly. She was appointed ambassador to Switzerland from 1996 to 2000 and upon her return became the Mayor of Vryburg (Naledi) in North West province. She died in 2015 at the age of 89.

Thuli Madonsela was born in 1962. She was a member of the Pretoria branch of the ANC and was a member of the United Democratic Front. In the 1980s she worked for trade unions in the public and private sectors. She was a member of the team who drafted the final Constitution. Prior to her appointment as Public Protector, Madonsela served as a full-time member of the South African Law Reform Commission.

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Dr Mamphela Ramphele was born in 1947. She attended the University of Natal where met Steve Biko. Together they became the foremost proponents of the Black Consciousness Movement.  Ramphele was also dedicated to community upliftment, establishing clinics and literacy projects. In 1996, she became the university’s vice chancellor and was the first black person and the first woman to be appointed to such a post in South Africa. In 2000, she became managing director for human development at the World Bank – the highest-ranking African member of the organisation.

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Yvonne Mokgoro was born in Galeshewe near Kimberley and ventured into the legal field after she had spent a night in jail for standing up for a group of men in Galeshewe who were harassed by apartheid-era policemen. She ended up studying law through the University of Bophuthatswana and ivy league Pennsylvania University in the United States. Mokgoro worked in various roles within the legal justice system of the then-Bophuthatswana before assuming an associate professorship in 1992 at the University of Western Cape. She later served as a human-rights specialist researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council. In 1994, she was appointed as one of 11 founding judges of the Constitutional Court.

Reginah Mhaule was a teacher and school principal in Mpumalanga before entering politics. She is the former MEC for Education in Mpumalanga. She is also a member of the National Executive Committee. She was elected as the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation in 2018.

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Photography

‘The Women’s Charter. The Original SAHA collection, SAHA  

Documents

The Women’s Charter for Effective Equality. Unknown  

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When the final text of the Constitution was sent to the Constitutional Court to certify that it complied with the 34 Principles agreed to in the Interim Constitution, Justice Albie Sachs remembers being elated:

“When the text is eventually forwarded to us at the Court, I see that the terms ‘non-racialism’ and ‘non-sexism’ are there again [after having been removed in the Interim Constitution]. Hallelujah! They are there not because Kader Asmal or Albie Sachs wanted them there; but because women had struggled with great determination for them over a long period of time – both inside and outside the ANC. And another feature of the Constitution, I was pleased to note, is that it did not have a separate clause dealing with rights for women but reflects a manifest gender-awareness right throughout.”

The impact of women’s struggles on the Constitution is reflected in many gender-sensitive ways.  

  • Its language throughout is either gender-inclusive (‘every man and woman’) or gender-neutral (‘every person’).
  • Non-sexism is declared to be a foundational value on a par with non-racialism (Section 1b).
  • The right to equality makes express provision for affirmative action  (Section 9 (2)) and prohibits the state and any person from unfairly discriminating, directly or indirectly, on grounds that include gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, and birth (Sections 9(3) and 9(4)).
  • The right to freedom is  conjoined with security of the person and includes the right to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources, as well as the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right to make decisions concerning reproduction and to security in and control over their body  (Section 12 (1 (c)) and 12(2 (a) and (b)).
  • Freedom of religion, belief and opinion allows for marriages concluded under any tradition subject to the equality provisions of the Constitution  (Section 15 (3) (a) and (b))
  • Freedom of Expression is expressly declared not to extend to a number of listed themes including advocacy of hatred that is based on gender (Section 16(2)(d)). 
  • Social and economic rights are included as judicially enforceable fundamental rights on a par with civil and political rights. These include rights that women had fought particularly hard for, to housing, health care, food, water, social security and education (Sections 26, 27 and 29).
  • Children’s rights, as strongly promoted by the women’s movement, are expressed in comprehensive terms  (Sections 1(a-f (i) (ii), 1(g)(i)(ii), (h) and (i), Section 2 and Section 3). 
  • Cultural, Religious and Linguistic communities. The right of persons not to be denied the right with others to enjoy their culture, practise their religion or use their language and create organs of civil society to do so, is made subject to not being inconsistent with the equality provisions of the Bill of Rights  (Sections 31(1) and (2)).
  • When persons are appointed to the Constitutional Court, the need for the Judiciary to reflect broadly the gender composition of South Africa must be considered (Section 174(2)).
  • The courts must apply customary law where applicable subject to the Constitution, including its equality provisions, and any legislation that specifically deals with customary law. 

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New legislation included:

  • The Domestic Violence Act (Act 116 of 1998), with the aim of curbing domestic violence and giving women access to interdicts against abusive partners.
  • The Maintenance Act (Act 99 of 1998), which women could draw on to force delinquent men to pay maintenance for their children.
  • The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act (Act 120 of 1998) that recognises marriages concluded under customary law.
  • The Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act (Act 92 of 1996) that legalised abortion. It was the first women’s law to specifically address women’s subordination. Women’s rights and women’s health organisations had specifically advanced this law.

In addition, a special court was set up to deal with cases involving sexual offences in order to ensure victims of these offenses are heard, are dealt with in an appropriate and timely manner, and are supported by experts. With the ongoing problem of rape and sexual abuse in South Africa, these specialised courts offer support to victims, and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.

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Just over a year later, the harrowing rape and bludeoning to death of 19-year-old student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, by a post office worker at the local post office in Cape Town, tipped South Africans over the edge. Women poured onto the streets country-wide shouting ‘Am I next?’. The #IamNene ignited a movement. The President was asked to account and to make urgent interventions to stop the violence.

“We have been suffering in silence in our homes, scared and alone and we need to come together. We can’t live like this anymore. We are not free. This is not a free South Africa.”
-Student protester, during a #IamNene 
In his response to the outcries and anger from women across the country, President Ramaphosa made an important statement describing the surge of violence against women as a pandemic:

“As a man, as a husband and as a father, I am appalled by what is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of our country. These women are not just statistics, they have names, they have families and friends.”

Whilst women organisations and activists welcomed these words, they remain frustrated at the lack of real progress in terms of justice and the swift prosecution of cases:

It’s not enough for the president to say that we won’t tolerate violence. We want accountability. The government can’t just be saying that they are taking a strong stance when they are not acting. They need to take action with those words.”
-Ngaa Murombedzi, Women and Men against Child Abuse:


Some of the solutions being proposed are the strengthening of the criminal justice system, providing better care for victims and introducing legal amendments including stiffer bail conditions and minimum sentencing for perpetrators.

#Total Shutdown

The #totalshutdown marches woke the spirits of 1956, in protest against violence on women. M & G

Loyiso V Saliso, founder of Khanyisa Ikamva Projects, explained the roots of #Total Shutdown:


“We were having our discussions about the everyday reports of femicide in our country and we decided this is enough …  We suggested we mobilise to shut the whole country down and get the government’s attention because they are just too silent. We decided that being outraged on social media and having dialogues is not working. If we shut the country down and affect the economy in some way that will grab their attention. It started through a Facebook group. We were doing this before but in our separate capacities so we had to come together and make sure we capture the country’s attention.” 

Loyiso V Saliso, founder of Khanyisa Ikamva Projects, explained the roots of #Total Shutdown:



“To His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa


On 1st of August 2018, womxn (both cisgender and transgender womxn) and gender non-conforming people (GNC) will deliver this memorandum to the government of South Africa.


We, the women of this country are aware that gender based violence against women, non-conforming women and intersectional women has reached levels that are unacceptable and cause untold harm. We are also aware of the complex multi-layered factors that have resulted in South Africa being counted amongst the highest ranking countries with unprecedented levels of gender based violence against womxn (GBVAW). We acknowledge that there have been numerous protests and activities undertaken by many Non-governmental organisations and other interest groups in our society fighting this scourge.


It is evident to us that without a total integrated action by all relevant segments of our society as well as political will, nothing will change to eliminate this scourge.


That is why as women, we have been moved to rise, march and protest to demand an end to gender based violence against womxn today.


This document sets out our list of demands to the state. It’s an initial set of twenty four demands that represent each year that the state has failed to ensure our constitutionally entrenched right to be free from all forms of violence since the establishment of our constitutional democracy. We believe that an integrated approach to fight against the GBVAW scourge, where different arms of government work together, has the ability to ensure better protection for women.


We understand that different arms of government have different powers and functions, it is not the intention of our memorandum to comprehensively set out which entity must do what. Our aim is to demand that the state must do everything within its powers, to enable us to realise our right to be free from violence, whether it emanates from public or private sources.”  

The #TheTotalShutdownMarch strategy and wellness coordinator, Yolanda Mahayle Khontsiwe, explained its memorandum of demands was set out as a list of 24 demands that represent each year that the government has failed to ensure women’s right to be free from all forms of violence since the establishment of democracy. Demands included that the Ministry of Women in the Presidency convenes a national process to review past national action plans to end GBV, and the development of a criteria for appointing individuals who are tasked with leading efforts to end GBV; the establishment of a national, and properly resourced, hotline that will enable survivors to request and receive support services.

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Here are just some of the cases handed down by the Constitutional Court which have further enhanced the constitutional protection of women’s rights.

In Carmichele v. Minister of Safety and Security (2001) the Constitutional Court held that the state is obligated by the Constitution and international law to protect the dignity and security of women. The Constitutional Court held that the police recommendation to release a known violent man back into the community after women had argued against his release – who then attacked a woman following his release – could amount to wrongful conduct giving rise to liability. The case was a breakthrough for victim’s rights and the fight to end violence against women. 

Read the case: http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2001/22.html

In Bhe and others v The Magistrate, Khayelitsha and others (2004) the Constitutional Court found that the African customary law rule of male primogeniture – the rule that allowed only men to inherit was unconstitutional – and held that it discriminated unfairly against women and so-called ‘illegitimate’ children. 

Read the case: http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2004/17.html

Masiya v Director of Public Prosecutions (2007)

In Masiya v Director of Public Prosecutions (2007), the questions before Court were whether to broaden the definition of rape to include anal penetration, which at the time under common law did not constitute rape, and whether the definition of rape should be gender-neutral. The Constitutional Court found no distinction between non-consensual vaginal and anal penetration in that both constitute “a form of violence … equal in intensity and impact. The object of the criminalisation of this act is to protect the dignity, sexual autonomy and privacy of women and young girls as being generally the most vulnerable group.”

Read the case: http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2007/9.html

In Hassam v Jacobs (2009) the Constitutional Court had to decide on the issue of women married in polygynous Muslim marriages not being considered “spouses” in terms of the Intestate Succession Act, and thus could not inherit from their intestate spouses. The Constitutional Court found that the exclusion of women married in polygynous marriages from the Intestate Succession Act infringes on their constitutional rights to equality, religion and culture. 

Read the case: http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2009/19.html

Bothma v Els (2009)

In 2007, Mrs Bothma instituted a private prosecution, charging that 39 years before, when she had been a 13 year old schoolgirl, Mr Els, a wealthy family friend much older than herself, had taken her by car to his farm and raped her. She alleged further that a similar pattern of sexual abuse had continued for more than two years. Mr Els vigorously denied the charge. He applied to the Northern Cape High Court in Kimberley for an order permanently staying the private prosecution. The High Court issued the stay on the basis that Mrs Bothma  should have reported the matter earlier and it was impossible for the man she accused, to have a fair trial. The Constitutional Court, in a  unanimous judgment, overturned the order by a High Court, stating that any prejudice that Mr Els might suffer because of the delay would not have been insurmountable and his right to a fair trial would be protected by the presumption of innocence.

Read the case: http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2009/27.htm

Modjadji Florah Mayelane v Mphephu (2013)

In Modjadji Florah Mayelane v Mphephu (2013) the Constitutional Court had to examine Tsonga customary marriages and determine the extent to which the absence of a first wife’s consent to her husband’s subsequent polygamous marriages affects the validity of the latter marriages. The majority held that Tsonga customary law required that the first wife be informed of her husband’s subsequent customary marriage. The Court also found that Tsonga customary law had to be developed so that it is consistent with the Constitution.

Read the case: http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2013/14.html

Bukelwa Nolizwe Holomisa v Sango Patekile Holomisa and Another (2018)

Bukelwa Nolizwe Holomisa v Sango Patekile Holomisa and Another (2018), the Court found section 7(3) of the Divorce Act, to be unconstitutional as it unfairly discriminated against women married under the Transkei Marriage Act and resulted in unfair distribution of assets between divorcing parties in court.

Read the case: http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2018/40.html

Mahlangu v Minister of Labour (2020)

Ms Maria Mahlangu had been employed as a domestic worker for 22 years when she accidentally drowned in her employer’s pool in the course of performing her duties. Her daughter, Sylvia Mahlangu, approached the Department of Labour to seek compensation for her mother’s death. The Department informed her that she could neither get compensation under Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act 130 of 1993 (COIDA), nor could she get unemployment insurance benefits.

Sylvia approached the courts to have  COIDA declared unconstitutional to the extent that it excluded domestic workers employed in private households from the definition of ‘employee’. She argued that this exclusion infringed the rights of domestic workers not to be unfairly discriminated against in terms of section 9(3) of the Constitution on the basis of race, sex and/or gender and social origin. The exclusion irrationally differentiated between domestic workers employed in private households and other employees covered by COIDA. 

The Constitutional Court found it unreasonable to exclude this category of workers who suffer from intersecting vulnerabilities based on their race, sex, gender and class. The Court found that COIDA should be extended to domestic workers. The judgment has been hailed as a victory and a significant step forward in the affirmation and advancement of the dignity, status and rights of domestic workers who are largely vulnerable black women. 

Read the case https://collections.concourt.org.za/handle/20.500.12144/36637

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Documents

Mikateko Joyce Maluleke and Thuli Madonsela, (2004), Women and the Law in South Africa: Gender Equality Jurisprudence in Landmark Court Decisions, Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, South Africa.

Read more about the first two women judges who sat on the first bench of the Constitutional Court – Yvonne Mokgoro & Kate O’Regan.

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Here are just some of the women’s movements, campaigns and organisation that have emerged over the last 15 years to fight for the rights of women:

The #RememberKhwezi campaign honours ​​Fezeka Ntsukela Kuzwayo. In 2005, Khwezi accused then deputy President Zuma of raping her. She considered Zuma to be a close family friend and a father figure. Khwezi, who was HIV positive and an Aids activist who identified as a lesbian, faced an incredibly gruelling, invasive and traumatic cross-examination during the trial. Zuma infamously said that he had a shower after having sex with Khwezi.

After Zuma was acquitted of this crime, his supporters threatened Khwezi, and burnt down the home of her mother where she lived. The #RememberKhwezi  movement fought for her justice and gained mass support. On 6 August 2016, during the announcement of the municipal election results, President Zuma’s address was disrupted by a group of four activists staging a silent protest. They held placards bearing the words Remember Khwezi. In 2016, Khwezi passed away in exile. Women honoured her by keeping her memory alive, and assuring the injustice of her life was remembered and fought for.

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One in Nine is a feminist organisation that aims at putting an end to gender-based violence. The name comes from the shocking fact that only one in nine rape victims dares to report the abuse. One in Nine works with survivors, activists and organisations to promote a feminist approach to understanding and ending gender-based violence. It supports rape victims and guides them to get the justice they deserve.

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The Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) is an organisation that gives support and advocacy to black lesbian women in South Africa, as well as the wider LGBTQI+ community worldwide. FEW promotes black lesbian women by empowering them and supporting them against hate crimes and abuse.

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Organisations that defend the rights of transgender and gender diverse communities include Gender Dynamix, Be True 2 Me, and TransFeminists. They emphasise that more advocacy is needed for the transgender community.

Gender Dynamix

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Be True 2 Me

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TransFeminists:

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Women in Action South Africa (WIASA), an organisation concerned with addressing various social issues facing women and the youth in different communities around KwaZulu Natal.

The South African Constitution protects the rights of everyone’s own decision on whether they want to have children or not. South Africans have the rights to safe, effective and affordable methods of contraceptives, and may do as they wish with these methods. However, 30% of South African women still don’t know that they have a right to safe, legal reproductive health services, including abortion. The Constitution recognises that the decision to have children is fundamental to a woman’s physical, psychological and social health, and that complete access to reproductive healthcare services must include family planning and contraception advice (guidance in protecting yourself against unwanted pregnancy), termination of pregnancy (legal abortion), and sexual education and counselling programmes and services.

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#FeesMustFall was a student-led protest movement that began in mid-October 2015. It started as a protest to stop increases in student fees as well as to increase government funding of universities. It gained momentum in the months after the #RhodesMustFall movement students at the University of Cape Town demonstrated for the removal of Cecil John Rhodes, a controversial 19th century imperialist whose statue sat prominently on the campus. 

Fallists were not only concerned with university fees but with challenges to the racist and colonial mindset that still dominated university campuses. They aimed to deconstruct institutional racism at South Africa’s universities drawing on decolonial theories centered on Pan-Africanism, Black Consciousness, and Black radical feminism. 

It spawned many more movements, including those dealing with issues of discrimination of the LGBTQIA community and women, which includes transwomen. For example, the #RUReference announced a list of 11 men who were accused of rape on university campuses nationwide. This furthermore inspired others to come forward, protest, host organised events and workshops in order to educate and inform people about the ongoing patriarchal abuse in South Africa.

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Photographs

A woman’s place is in the struggle, silkscreen, Gaborone, 1982. Image based upon a photograph of a SACTU strike in the early 1960s. J.A. Seidman.

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Photographs

Women’s Section badges. International Institute for Social History

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Nokuthela Linderely Mdima (later Dube) was one of the first black women to qualify as a teacher specialising in Music and Home Economics.  She became a key activist and with her husband built the Ohlange Institute in Inanda which established the newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal. She co-authored Amagama Abantu (A Zulu Song Book).

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Helen Joseph walking through the city whilst under house arrest, 1966. Uknown

Helen Joseph walking through the city whilst under house arrest, 1966. Uknown

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Audio Visual

President Mandela gives his State of the Nation address in Parliament. Mandela ends his address with the words, “Let us all get down to work”.

“We must construct that people-centred society of freedom in such a manner that it guarantees the political and the human rights of all our citizens.”– President Mandela, extract from State of the Nation Address, 24 May 1994

President Nelson Mandela announces his cabinet. It includes members of the African National Congress, National Party and Inkatha Freedom Party.

“There was pride in serving in the first democratic government in South Africa, and then the additional pride of serving under the iconic leadership of Nelson Mandela … [He] represented the hopes of not just our country, but of oppressed, marginalised and the poor in the world.”– Jay Naidoo, then Minister of RDP housing
“We place our vision of a new constitutional order for South Africa on the table not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered. We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.”– President Nelson Mandela, 10 May 1994