In the 1950s, two years after apartheid was instituted in South Africa, the system’s increasingly repressive policies began to pose a direct threat to all people of colour, resulting in mass action arising from the black population to defend their rights to life and freedom. On the 9th of August 1956, more than 20,000 women participated in one of South Africa’s largest protests as they marched to the Union Buildings in the capital, Pretoria, to present a petition against the carrying of passes by women to Prime Minister J.G Strijdom. Passes were identity documents that black people where forced, by law, to carry at all times to allow apartheid security officials to monitor their movements and activities. The government announced that it would start issuing passes to black women from January 1956, which led to the march that was organized by the Federation of South African Women.
Upon the handing over of the petition, the Minister and his staff were not present at the buildings, and the petitions were instead handed over to the secretary of the prime minister. The minister’s unavailability resulted in the catch phrase, spoken in isiZulu “wathint’ abafazi, wathin’ imbokodo,” meaning “you strike a woman, you strike a rock“.
This historic day is now commemorated as Women’s Day in South Africa.
Below is a list of some of the women who led the march that challenged the apartheid system:
Helen Joseph was an anti-apartheid activist who was born in Sussex, England in 1905. Her work in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and as a social worker after she moved to South Africa with her husband dentist Billie Joseph, exposed her to the harsh realities of apartheid South Africa.
She founded the African National Congress’ white ally, the Congress of Democrats (COD), and the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in the 1950S. She was one of the instrumental figures that led the women’s march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria against government pass laws in 1956. She endured a charge of high treason, a police ban and a string of police persecutions and attempted assassinations throughout her political career. Joseph was diagnosed with cancer in 1971, and passed away on Christmas Day in 1992.
One of Johannesburg’s hospitals, the Helen Joseph Hospital, was named in her honour, along with the former Davenport Road in Glenwood, KwaZulu Natal, and a student residence at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape province.
PHOTO CREDIT: Dr. Peter Magubane
Born Nontsikelelo Thethiwe in 1918 in the Transkei region, Albertina Sisulu was an anti-apartheid activist and nurse who joined the ANC Women’s League in 1948 and assumed leadership roles in the League as well as in the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). She was one of the organizers of the women’s march to the Union Buildings in 1956 against the apartheid government’s pass laws, and was also opposed to the use of Bantu education for black students, which was an inferior form of education instituted by the apartheid government for black students.
Sisulu married to fellow political activist Walter Sisulu. They endured years of harassment by the state’s security police. She became the first woman to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act in 1963, which gave police the power to hold suspects in detention for 90 days without charge, when her husband fled during a pending court case. Sisulu was elected co-president of the United Democratic Front in 1983 and led a delegation of UDF leaders to Europe and the USA. She served in the first democratically elected parliament in 1994, and has won numerous humanitarian awards for her work.
An interesting part of her history was that her mother was infected with a bad strain of flu that killed 40 million people worldwide. She survived, and Albertina was born in perfect health. She was given the name Albertina by Christian missionaries who taught at the primary school that she attended. Albertina passed away in 2011 in Johannesburg.
PHOTO CREDIT: digitalcollections.lib.uct.ac.za
Rahima Moosa was a political activist who was born in Strand, Cape Town in October 1922. After completing her high school education, Rahima and her twin sister Fatima worked in a food factory, and it was here that she became politically active after being exposed to the unjust segregationist laws when she elected as shop steward for the Cape Town Food and Canning Workers’ Union. In 1951, she and her husband, fellow activist and treason trialist Dr. Hassen “Ike” Mohamed Moosa, moved to Johannesburg and became involved with the Transvaal Indian Congress and the ANC.
Rahima led the first anti-pass women’s march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in October 1955, and was also part of the team that led the second march to the Union Buildings in August 1956, along with 20,000 other womenwomen. From there, she became a listed person by the police, resulting in her being under surveillance with police were stationed outside her home to monitor her activities. Moosa and her husband remained listed until the unbanning of the ANC in 1990.
Her health began to deteriorate in the 1970s after she suffered a heart attack, and passed away in 1993. Her family continued to be involved in politics, launching an ANC branch in Newclare, Johannesburg. Coronation Hospital in Johannesburg was renamed the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital in her honour.
Lillian Ngoyi was a trained nurse and political activist who was born in Pretoria in 1911. Even though she was qualified as a nurse, she worked as a machinist in a clothing factory from 1945 to 1956. She became one of the leading figures of the Garment Workers Union that was formed in 1928 by socialist Solly Sachs. She joined the ANC during the 1950 Defiance Campaign and was arrested for using facilities in a post office that were reserved for white people.
She was elected president of the ANC Women’s League and became one of the elected national vice-presidents of the Federation of South African Women when it was formed in 1954. Ngoyi was one of the organziers of the anti-pass law protests of 1956 to the Union Buildings. She was arrested in December that year along with other leading political activists for high treason, and stood trial until 1961. While the trial was still on, Ngoyi was imprisoned under the 1960 state of emergency and spent much of the prison time in solitary confinement.
From 1962, she was served a string of banning orders and prison time, which eventually suppressed her great political energies and made it difficult for her to earn a living. She succumbed to heart trouble in 1980 at the age of 69.
Helen Suzman was a parliamentarian, human rights activist and the sole representative of the opposition party, the Progressive Party during the apartheid era in South Africa. She was born in Germiston, Johannesburg in 1917 to parents who had immigrated to South Africa from Eastern Europe to escape the persecutions inflicted on Jews by Russia.
She majored in Economics at the University of the Witwatersrand, and in the 1940s, worked as a statistician for the War Supplies Board. She lectured Economic History at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1944 before entering a nomination’s contest for a parliamentary seat in the 1953 election. She won the contest and represented the United Party (UP) in Parliament that year. In 1959, several MP’s including Suzman, broke away from the UP to form the Progressive Party. The party had a liberal policy that extended to all South Africans. She was the only MP that remained in her seat after all other MPs lost their seats in the general election of 1961.
Suzman was known for her outspoken criticism against the National Party’s apartheid policies and her tackling of capital punishment, banning the Communist party, the state of political prisoners on Robben Island, and discrimination especially against black women. She continued her political work after retiring from Parliament in 1989, serving on numerous boards, including the presidency of the South African Institute of Race Relations, and the Independent Electoral Commission that oversaw South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994.
Her work was internationally recognized, earning her nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1978. She also established the Helen Suzman Foundation to promote liberal democracy in South Africa in 1993. She passed away at the age of 91 in January 2009.
Ruth First was a journalist, academic and political activist who was born in Johannesburg in May 1925. She was brought up in a politically conscious home, as her parents were the founding members of the Communist Party of South Africa, now known as the South African Communist Party, in 1921. She matriculated from Jeppe High School for Girls and earned a BA Degree in Social Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand, receiving firsts in sociology, anthropology, economic history and native administration. Her fellow classmates included fellow activist Joe Slovo, former president Nelson Mandela, and the first leader of the Mozambican liberation movement Frelimo Eduardo Mondlane.
First assisted in the founding of the Federation of Progressive Students and served as secretary to the Young Communist League. She was active in the Progressive Youth Council and, for a short while, the Johannesburg branch of the Communist Party of South Africa. She worked as an investigative journalist and editor of a left-wing weekly newspaper ‘The Guardian’, focusing on the labour and social injustices inflicted by the apartheid government and the system of governance. She also assisted in the founding of the South African Congress of Democrats (COD), the White wing of the Congress Alliance, and she took over as editor of ‘Fighting Talk’, a journal supporting the alliance. She was also on the drafting committee of the ANC’s Freedom Charter.
First has published a number of books, including ‘South West Africa’, which remains the most incisive historical documentation of early Namibia, Govan Mbeki’s ‘The Peasant’s Revolt’ (1967) and Oginda Odinga’s ‘Not yet Uhuru’ (for which she was deported to Kenya). She marched alongside Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and 20,000 other women in the anti-pass law women’s march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
She was married to fellow activist Joe Slovo, and she was part of the group of activists that were arrested under the Rivonia Trial that saw Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other activists receive life imprisonment on Robben Island. She endured solitary confinement under the 90-day clause, in terms of the infamous Suppression of Communism Act.
First was killed in in 1982 by a letter bomb that was widely believed to have been the work of state security agencies within South Africa.
PHOTO CREDIT: Eli Weinberg UWC/Robben Island Mayibuye Archives
Charlotte Maxeke was born Charlotte Makgomo Manye in Ramokgopa, Limpopo, in April 1874. She is one of South Africa’s first Black woman graduates after completing a B.Sc degree from Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio. She travelled to the United States as part of her church choir tour, but when the collapsed, she continued with her stay in the country and enrolled at the university where she was taught by Pan-Africanist, W.E.B Du Bois. She met her husband Marshall Maxeke while in the US, and the couple returned to South Africa in 1901.
Maxeke founded an African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Africa, and became the organizer of the Women’s Mite Missionary Society in Johannesburg. With her growing interest in education, Maxeke established a school in Evaton, Johannesburg. She and her husband later went on to teach and pursue missionary interests in various places across South Africa, including Thembuland in the Transkei, under King Sabata Dalindyebo.
She was one of the founding members of the ANC Women’s League, and one of the first women to oppose pass laws instituted against black women. She also helped organized the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913, and lead a delegation to Prime Minister Louis Botha to discuss the issue of passes for women.
She continued to make strides in her societal work by setting up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg and becoming the first black woman to become a parole officer for juvenile delinquents. She passed away in 1939, and left a legacy of being the ‘mother of black freedom in South Africa’. The Johannesburg General Hospital was renamed the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.
SOPHIE WILLIAMS-DE BRUYN
Sophia Williams-de Bruyn was born in Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province in 1938. Her work in leadership started while she was completing her high school education, and worked in factories during school vacations to earn pocket money. While at the Van Lane Textile factory, she was asked by fellow factory workers to assist them in disputes with factory bosses as she was educated. She eventually left school to work full time in the factory, and rose to become an executive member of the Textile Workers Union in Port Elizabeth. She worked alongside prominent people (and activists) such as Raymond Mhlaba and Govan Mbeki.
De Bruyn became the founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Union (SACTU), which is the predecessor of the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU). She was appointed as a full-time organiser of the ‘Coloured People’s Congress’ in Johannesburg in 1955.
She was only 18 years old when she marched with Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi and over 20,000 other women from across South Africa in the anti-pass law protest to the Union Buildings in 1956. She completed her education in Lusaka, Zambia in the 1960s while in exile with her husband Henry De Bruyn, and earned her diploma in education. In 1984, she established a project that contributed to the preparation and development of ANC members in exile, and held senior administrative and human resource positions during the political transition period in 1990s that saw Nelson Mandela released from prison to be elected as the country’s first democratically-elected president.
PHOTO CREDIT: 21 ICONS South Africa series – Honoring the legacy of Nelson Mandela
Born in 1910, Florence Matomela was a teacher and political activist from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. She was one of the first women volunteers in the 1952 Defiance Campaign, and spent 6 weeks in prison for civil disobedience, and was later tried with other leaders of the campaign which resulted in her being handed down a 9-month suspended sentence. In the mid-1950s, she became the Cape provincial organizer of the ANC Women’s League and the Vice-President of the Federation of South African Women. She led a demonstration in Port Elizabeth in which passes were burnt as part of the anti-pass law of the apartheid government.
Matomela was banned and restricted to Port Elizabeth in 1962, and was given a 5-year sentence for furthering the aims of the banned ANC. Her health quickly deteriorated while she was in prison as she suffered from diabetes, and was occasionally deprived of much needed medical attention. Soon after her release, she was banned again, and passed away in 1969.
BERTHA GXOWA (MASHABA)
Bertha Gxowa was born Bertha Mashaba in the mining town of Germiston, Johannesburg, in 1934. Her experiences in Germiston, which included black people needing permits to live and move around Thokoza Township where she lived, sparked her interest in politics.
She worked as an office assistant for the South African Clothing Workers’ Union where she collected subscriptions from factories and assisted in wage negotiations, but later joined the first group of Defiance campaigners who went into Krugersdorp where she was arrested and spent over a week in prison for refusing to pay a fine. Her involvement in politics strengthened after she joined the ANC Youth League during the anti-bantu education campaign, but was quickly shifted to focus on women’s issues.
She became one of the founding members of the Federation of South African Women, and worked with fellow member Helen Joseph collecting petitions to be sent to then Prime Minister Strijdom in the anti-pass law march. She was banned in 1960 under the Suppression of Communism Act for 11 years. In 1990, after the unbanning of the ANC, Bertha continued to serve in the ANC as the Women’s League’s National Treasurer and chairperson of the Gauteng province, and started a women’s club in Katlehong Township that was invited to participate in voter education during the 1994 election campaign. She also ran chaired projects for women development as she was committed to women’s rights and freedom.
Gxowa died at the age of 76 in Johannesburg after complications from an operation in 2010.