Women's Anti-Pass Law Campaigns in South Africa

What happened when the SA government tried to force women to carry passes.

Albertina Sisulu

Magnus Manske/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5

The first attempt to make Black women in South Africa carry passes was in 1913 when the Orange Free State introduced a new requirement that women, in addition to existing regulations for Black men, must carry reference documents. The resulting protest, by a multi-racial group of women, many of whom were professionals (a large number of teachers, for example) took the form of passive resistance - a refusal to carry the new passes. Many of these women were supporters of the recently formed South African Native National Congress (which became the African National Congress in 1923, although women were not allowed to become full members until 1943). The protest against passes spread through the Orange Free State, to the extent that when World War I broke out, the authorities agreed to relax the rule.

At the end of World War I, the authorities in the Orange Free State tried to re-instate the requirement, and again opposition built up. The Bantu Women's League (which became the ANC Woman's League in 1948 — a few years after membership of the ANC was opened to women), organized by its first president Charlotte Maxeke, coordinated further passive resistance during late 1918 and early 1919. By 1922 they had achieved success — the South African government agreed that women should not be obliged to carry passes. However, the government still managed to introduce legislation which curtailed the rights of women and the Native (Black) Urban Areas Act No 21 of 1923 extended the existing pass system such that the only Black women allowed to live in urban areas were domestic workers.

In 1930 local municipal attempts in Potchefstroom to regulate women's movement led to further resistance — this was the same year that white women obtained voting rights in South Africa. White women now had a public face and a political voice, of which activists such as Helen Joseph and Helen Suzman took full advantage.

Introduction of Passes for All Blacks

With the Blacks (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act No 67 of 1952 the South African government amended the pass laws, requiring all Black persons over the age of 16 in all provinces to carry a 'reference book' at all times — thereby inforcing influx control of Blacks from the homelands. The new 'reference book', which would now have to be carried by women, required an employer's signature to be renewed each month, authorization to be within particular areas, and certification of tax payments.

During the 1950s women within the Congress Alliance came together to combat the inherent sexism that existed within various anti-Aparthied groups, such as the ANC. Lilian Ngoyi (a trade unionist and political activist), Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, and others formed the Federation of South African Women. The prime focus of the FSAW soon changed, and in 1956, with the cooperation of the ANC's Women's League, they organized a mass demonstration against the new pass laws.

Women's Anti-Pass March on the Union Buildings, Pretoria

On 9 August 1956 over 20,000 women, of all races, marched through the streets of Pretoria to the Union Buildings to hand over a petition to JG Strijdom, South Africa's prime minister, over the introduction of the new pass laws and the Group Areas Act No 41 of 1950. This act enforced different residential areas for different races and led to forced removals of people living in 'wrong' areas. Strijdom had arranged to be elsewhere, and the petition was eventually accepted by his Secretary.

During the march the women sang a freedom song: Wathint' abafazi, Strijdom!

wathint' abafazi,
wathint' imbokodo,
uza kufa!

[When] you strike the women,
you strike a rock,
you will be crushed [you will die]!

Although the 1950s proved to be the height of passive resistance against Apartheid in South Africa, it was largely ignored by the Apartheid government. Further protests against passes (for both men and women) culminated in the Sharpeville Massacre. Pass laws were finally repealed in 1986.

The phrase wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo has come to represent women's courage and strength in South Africa.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Women's Anti-Pass Law Campaigns in South Africa." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/womens-anti-pass-law-campaigns-apartheid-43428. Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, July 29). Women's Anti-Pass Law Campaigns in South Africa. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-anti-pass-law-campaigns-apartheid-43428 Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Women's Anti-Pass Law Campaigns in South Africa." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-anti-pass-law-campaigns-apartheid-43428 (accessed May 30, 2023).