Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan Pallo Jordan on the conclusion of the Parliamentary Debate on the launch of the 50th Anniversary of the Women’s

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08 Mar 2006

Thank you, Madam Chair,
Honourable members,

It is indeed a great pleasure for me to close today’s debate as the previous speakers indicated for some of us today started extremely early, but I think it was well worth it.

Cabinet, on 7 December 2005 tasked the Department of Arts and Culture to lead the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the women’s Anti-Pass March of August 1956. It also approved the establishment of an Inter Ministerial Committee to co-ordinate this year’s celebrations.

Today, 8 March, is International Women’s Day and we unveiled a significant portion of a yearlong programme of which this debate is a part. International Women’s Day was born in the struggle for the rights of women during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The day was inaugurated by the parties and the movements of the left. In Europe it was the Social Democratic Party, the trade unions and the working class women’s suffrage movements that led the way. In the Americas it was the Socialist Party’s national women’s committee who first sounded the clarion call to dedicate one day to the women’s struggle for equality and the franchise. In 1913 the date 8 March was chosen as International Women’s Day after the famous “Bread and Roses strike” by women workers in New England.

Ironically, here in South Africa in 1912, the administrator of the then Orange Free State sought to extend the pass laws to apply to African women. To protest this infringement, in March 1912, the African and Coloured women of the Orange Free State sent a petition to the then Prime Minister Louis Botha, appealing for redress. Like another Prime Minister some 40 years later, Louis Botha did not have the courage to meet the women’s delegation. Instead, the delegation of six women from Bloemfontein was directed to meet the then Minister of Native Affairs, Henry Burton, to whom they handed their petition bearing 5 000 signatures, demanding that Parliament repeal the pass law ordinances of the Orange Free State.

The government’s failure to respond sparked one of the earliest defiance campaigns in this country. Hundreds of women from Jagersfontein, Winburg and Bloemfontein were arrested in the course of that campaign. Chanting slogans and singing, the women confronted the police and even engaged them in pitched battles. Faced with the determined resistance of the African women of the OFS, the administrator finally relented. In 1919 the ordinance was allowed to lapse.

Passes and the pass laws have a long and brutal history in South Africa. The first such laws were introduced and applied to the slaves at the Cape in 1760. In 1809 the British governor of the Cape passed a law that required all Khoikhoi, including women, to live in one place. If a Khoikhoi sought to move between two parts of the Cape, he or she required the government’s permission in the form of a pass. From 1809 onwards, slaves, as well as free people of colour were required to carry a pass here in the Cape Colony.

Passes were not merely instruments to control the movement of people. They were at the hub of a repressive system and labour coercive laws aimed at compelling the African peasants to join the modern labour force, and once so employed to place them at the cruel mercies of their employers. A pass-bearing native, as we were then called, could not change his job without government permission, could not move from one place to another without permission, was not recognised as the employee in terms of the law and consequently could not benefit from any industrial conciliation decisions. While a pass-bearing native could join a trade union if he so wished, no employer was obliged to recognise such unions, let alone to bargain with them. All African men, with the exception of a handful, patronisingly referred to as “exempted natives”, were required to carry a pass and had to produce it for inspection on demand by the police or any other authorised state officials. Carrying a pass symbolised the inferior political and social status of Africans. Like the yellow star the Nazis forced the Jews of occupied Europe to wear, it was the badge of slavery.

After the NP took office, subsequent to the 1948 elections, amongst its priorities was the extension of the pass laws to African women. Moving with deliberate speed, they drafted legislation and in terms of a very cynically named “Natives Abolition of Passes and Consolidation of Documents Act of 1952”, introduced what became known as the “dompas”, the so-called reference book, which was in effect, a personal dossier carrying details of permits to seek work, to work, to reside, tax receipts and a whole range of other details relating to the bearer. In 1955 the then Minister of Native Affairs, the notorious Dr H F Verwoerd, introduced a bill extending this system to African women. It is important to note that the NP Cabinet that piloted that law through parliament, did not contain even one single woman; not that it would have made any difference, but it is important to note nonetheless. Resistance to these measures was almost instant. Lilian Ngoyi, one of the leaders of the recently founded Federation of South African Women, explained the response of the women in these terms:

“Men are born into the system and it is as if it has been a life tradition for them to carry passes. We as women have seen the treatment our men receive. When they leave home in the morning, you are not sure they will come back. We are taking it very seriously. If the husband is to be arrested and the mother, what about the child?”

The militancy displayed by the women surpassed all expectations. In the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal open rebellion and armed incidents took place. In the area that today is called the North West Province, there were also outbreaks of rebellious activity as opposition to the law took root. In the Limpopo Province the resistance to the pass laws merged with the resistance to the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951.

Speaking on this morning’s broadcast on SABC2, Mrs Sophie Williams-De Bruyn, who was here earlier today, explained that despite the scepticism of many of the male leaders of the ANC, the women were determined to proceed with their march; organising from city to city, from town to town, from village to village, the women succeeded in galvanising thousands. Working out of a basement in the ANC’s Johannesburg head office, they produced the leaflets, the explanatory pamphlets in a number of African languages and arranged accommodation, food and transport for the thousands of women who were expected at the march.

The massive demonstration of women in Pretoria on 9 August 1956 was the culmination of months of painstaking, unglamorous organisational work. Almost 20 000 women, drawn from all racial groups, managed to reach the Union Buildings in what was one of the biggest mass demonstrations of that decade. An unknown number did not reach Pretoria because their buses were turned back, detained and were otherwise harassed by a government that was deaf to the demands of the ordinary South African. It took three more decades of struggle to have these obnoxious laws struck from our statute books.

The Women’s Charter, adopted by the Federation of South African Women shortly after its inauguration, demanded the full franchise for all South Africans, equality of opportunity, equal pay for equal work, equal rights to property, equality in marriage, the removal of all laws and customs that denied women equality, paid maternity leave for working mothers and free compulsory education for all children. It is a matter of pride that many of the demands in that Charter have been realised in our Constitution. Despite this achievement, there still remain a number of degrading laws affecting specifically African women, which have still not been expunged from our statute books. This year, 2006, government must act to have all such laws removed from our statute books.

Every community in this country derives from powerful, patriarchal traditions and we have witnessed some of the more disturbing aspects of the sort of aggressive masculine behaviour these traditions have engendered at the Johannesburg High Court yesterday and on previous occasions. Whatever the merits of the case against the ANC’s Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, it cannot be acceptable that a woman who has recourse to the law, to protect the integrity of her person, should be subjected to such gross abuse. I want to take this opportunity to call upon those responsible to stop this, and to stop it now!

It was in recognition of the central role women have played in the struggle for freedom that in 1995 the democratic government declared 9th August South Africa’s Women’s Day. It was done as a tribute, not only to the thousands of women who marched on that day in 1956, but also as a tribute to the pioneers of the women’s movement in this country, dating back to 1912, when Mrs Charlotte Maxeke led the way in establishing the ANC Women’s League and encouraging women to become engaged in the struggle for freedom.
It is a tribute to the thousands of women, of all races, who struggled for the enfranchisement of South African women during the 1920s, only to see their struggles betrayed by the pact government of Hertzog that only enfranchised the white women.

It is a tribute to the thousands of stalwarts who were at the forefront of the workingwomen’s struggles during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s that led to formation of powerful unions in later years.
The roll call is far too long for us to recall. I will restrict myself to only a few names: Charlotte Maxeke, that indomitable educationalist and freedom fighter who after graduating from a university in the United States, founded the Wilberforce Institute in Evaton. We recall too the names of Cissy Gool and of her sisters in law, Janub and Amina who were amongst the leaders of the National Liberation League and the Non-European United Front of the 1930s. The names of Ray Alexander Simons, Elizabeth Mafikeng and Elizabeth Abrahams will always be associated with the struggles of women workers. We also remember the names of Mrs Amina Pahad and Mrs Khadijah Christopher, who were amongst the first volunteers to occupy the site of the 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign on Umbilo Road in Durban. We recall too the names of Dora Tamana, Winifred Siqwana, Ida Mntwana, Bertha Mkhize, Florence Matomela and other stalwarts of the 1950s, who led militant women’s formation for the rights of workers and the rights of women. There were also the women, who formed the Black Sash, first to protest against the disenfranchisement of the Coloured voters during the 1950s but who later played an important role in the united front of anti-apartheid forces that developed in the last three decades of apartheid. We recall too that stalwart of liberalism in South Africa - a tradition that is regrettably being sullied in our day - Helen Suzman, whose probing questions helped exposed the crimes of apartheid during the 1970s and 1980s.

There were also the hundreds of women who passed through the prisons of apartheid as detainees and as political prisoners. There are our martyrs, amongst whom we count Ruth First and Dulcie September, who was murdered in Paris and whose murder still remains unexplained even today.

When we cast our eyes around this Chamber today, we can note with great pride the number of women in Parliament, the number of women in the Cabinet and the fact of a woman as the Deputy President of South Africa.
If we have come that far today, it is because we stand on the shoulders of the female giants who preceded us. May we all prove worthy of their commitment and sacrifices.
Thank you.