The Women Organize

The women who came to the negotiating table during the 1994 meeting of CODESA stood on the shoulders of many women activists who came before them. In the early 1950s, the ANC Women’s League began to establish a branch structure in townships and to participate actively in ANC campaigns. The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) was also launched at a conference on April 17, 1954, with the intent of promoting women’s rights. Its members included women from all races across the country, and it created a Women’s Charter, setting out basic demands: equal opportunities for women, equal pay, maternity rights and benefits, and the removal of control and racial discrimination.53

On August 9, 1956, as many as 20,000 African, Indian, colored, and white women marched and then demonstrated at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against the extension of the pass laws to African women. It was at this demonstration where they chanted the words: “wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbolodo uzokufa” (“you have touched the women, you have struck a rock”) to mock then Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom.54 Yet despite opposition and protest by the league and FEDSAW, the pass laws, which had been applied only to men, were extended to women in 1959.55

Throughout that period, the apartheid government took the women’s groups and their role in the resistance movement seriously and attempted to eradicate them. From the late 1950s into the 1960s, it continued to detain, ban, imprison, put under house arrest, and force their members into exile.56 As a result, the federation became largely inactive, although it never formally dissolved.

Finally in the mid-1980s, two attempts were made to re-launch FEDSAW. And in November 1989, a FEDSAW Newsletter called on women to unite despite their differences, saying: “The nature ofwomen’s oppression might well differ for different groups of women, but the underlying causes are the same.”57 Unfortunately, however, both attempts failed, and it is still unclear why.

Two theories, however, have emerged. The first is that powerful men in the resistance movement wanted it blocked because they felt threatened by the presence of a strong and independent women’s organization. The second is that it was thwarted because of concerns that it would allow Winnie Mandela, the wife of Nelson Mandela until their divorce in March 1996,58 to build her personal power base at a time when the Stompie Seipei incident was gaining press.59 Winnie was an activist and politician who held several government positions and headed the ANC Women’s League. In 1991, she was tried for the murder of a 14-year-old activist Stompie Seipei, having been accused of ordering his kidnapping and torture. She was convicted of kidnapping and fraud. The failure to reestablish FEDSAW left many women feeling disillusioned and confused.60

The 1980s were also the time when women began debating whether women’s organizations like the ANC Women’s League should be autonomous or remain subsets of organizations under male leadership and control. It was common for many of the women’s organizations to be seen as an extension of, or to strongly affiliated, with other organizations that were led and managed by men. For example, the Natal Organization of Women (NOW) was strongly affiliated with the United Democratic Front (UDF), responsible for massive antiapartheid protest.

Meanwhile, the leadership of ANC did recognize women’s efforts and the specific challenges they faced within the resistance movement. ANC president Oliver Tambo said to an ANC women’s conference in exile in 1981:

The struggle to conquer oppression in our country is the weaker for the traditionalist, conservative and primitive restraints imposed on women by man-dominated structures within our movement, and also because of equally traditionalist attitudes of surrender and submission on the part of women.61

The argument for keeping male control was that, by becoming autonomous, women could potentially be weakening the national struggle against apartheid rule. Those debates, along with women’s active engagement in the resistance movement throughout the 1970s and 1980s, stimulated the emergence of a strong women’s leadership that carried women’s interests in the 1990s.62

As they entered the industrial workforce in greater numbers in the 1980s, South African women also became increasingly involved with trade unions and the labor movement. They were concerned about poor wages, working conditions, sexual harassment, maternity benefits, and the use of strip-searching as a means of controlling theft.63 Yet although women made up the majority of workers in many industries, it was rare for unions to elect women to leadership positions.

In 1988, at the COSATU conference, a divisive debate broke out among women from the different unions about whether they should organize within the COSATU structure or create a new national women’s organization. Ultimately, they drafted a resolution and decided to develop structures both within COSATU to address women’s specific concerns in the workplace, as well as outside of COSATU to unite women in the



Yet, as was the case in political organizations, patriarchal attitudes continued to dominate how and what women did within their unions. The expectation was that, while men would go about changing the world, women would follow traditional gender roles and tend to the children and family—although at times, assisting the men in their quest for change. As a result, many women’s organizations were formed not only to fight the injustices of apartheid but also to give voice to women’s issues and the women’s movement. Such women’s organizations challenged the limitations that men in the movement imposed on them as well as the patriarchal values that ruled their personal lives.65

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